BORDEAUX, France — The drumbeat for a great vintage has been mastered here in Bordeaux, and sometimes the Bordelaise even get it right.
But after the first day of tasting wines from the 2016 vintage at the annual En Primeur event for the wine press, hosted by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, the jury is still out in my estimation. To be sure, there are many exceptional wines, though anyone would be hard-pressed after the first day to make the case that 2016 stacks up alongside such legendary vintages as the 2010, 2005 or 1982.
First up were the dry whites and suave reds of Pessac-Leognan and Graves, regions situated just south of the city limits on the Left Bank of the Gironde River. My notes do not include the perennial stars Chateau Haut-Brion and Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion because they don't participate in the En Primeur press tastings — no great loss considering those two wines have become trophies for the rich and famous, so expensive that mere mortals seldom purchase them.
The 2016 growing season in Bordeaux got off to a rocky start with a very wet spring. That turned out to be a blessing, however, that helped the vines survive an unusually warm, dry summer and fall. Optimism reigned following a harvest under ideal conditions.
I was disappointed in some of the wines, especially the whites. The best Bordeaux blanc is a remarkably complex blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon that can improve with age over at least a couple of decades. Too many of the 2016 whites at En Primeur lacked the complexity and depth I expect from a great Bordeaux vintage.
That said, a number of stellar whites were produced in 2016, but that high quality doesn't seem to be across the board. I've rated the wines using a four-point spread because at this stage the wines are unfinished and the assessment is based upon my personal experience tasting Bordeaux samples from the barrel over the past 20 years. The wines can and will change a bit between now and the time they are bottled.
My top five whites, all from Pessac-Leognan, were led by Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte (rating 93-96) and Chateau Pape Clement (rated 93-96), followed in order by Domaine de Chevalier (rated 92-95), Chateau Carbonnieux (rated 90-93) and Chateau La Louviere (rated 90-93).
The reds, in my view, were much more consistent across the board and will do more to cement the reputation of the vintage than the whites. They are classic in the sense that they're built to last, with firm tannins that will contribute to longevity and ample fruit to outlast the tannins.
The clear standouts for me were Smith Haut-Lafitte (95-98) and Domaine de Chevalier (94-97), both remarkably complete for barrel samples. The mantle of greatness fits these two wines against any comparison of other great vintages in Bordeaux. Both are suave and sophisticated even at this stage of development, which is about six months in barrel.
What's unusual is that both chateaux are more renowned for their whites than their reds but as of late, Smith Haut-Lafitte has been ringing up big numbers with its reds, and Domaine de Chevalier is never far behind.
Just behind the top two are Chateau Latour Martillac (92-95), Chateau Carbonnieux (91-94), Chateau La Louviere (91-94) and Chateau Pape Clement (91-94). What all of these exceptional reds have in common is excellent concentrating, layered complexity, beautiful structure and high-quality tannins. Each one has long-term cellar potential of up to at least 20 years, and likely beyond.
Worth noting is that all of my top whites and reds from this tasting were produced in the Pessac-Leognan district, which split away from Graves a few decades back. Graves has always enjoyed more cachet and higher prices, largely because of Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion, but that perception could well change if Pessac-Leognan's quality-minded producers continue on this roll.
Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.