A votre sante! A Bastille Day tribute to En Primeurs in Bordeaux

 Photo courtesy of Harper's Wine

Photo courtesy of Harper's Wine

All the Swirl's dear friend Devon Magee, and now fiance of our own Alex Fondren (full disclosure) is a Wine Specialist at JJ Buckley Fine Wines.  Each spring he travels to Bordeaux and in honor of Bastille Day today we share his report on the 2016 En Primeurs experience, and the notion of vintage in general. 


The Bordeaux marketing machine was in full flex for “En Primeurs” the first week of April, when the fine wine world descends on the Bordeaux chateaux to taste the previous vintage’s unfinished, baby wine – the 2016 Bordeaux.

The vintage qualifier “vintage of the century” had already been used up (twice, in fact), in the last decade to describe back-to-back “extraordinary” vintages, 2009 and 2010. Yet in a wine region that averages at least two vintages of the century per decade, and without a strong contender for this title since 2010, the Bordelaise marketing machine needed to brainstorm a new umbrella description for 2016, a vintage that is certainly superlative, and the best here since 2010.

 Devon Magee

Devon Magee

Thus was born the “miracle vintage,” an apt description, believe it or not, for 2016, the “vintage of the opposites” – the more accurate description that wouldn’t sell nearly as much wine.

In the first 3 months of 2016, Bordeaux received 900 millimeters of rain; the annual average here is 980 millimeters. And it kept raining all the way through June, when the Bordelaise must have started to convene in the war room to whip up the “2013 Campaign to Forget 2.0,” modeled after the abominable 2013 vintage that everyone in the trade has successfully forgotten.

But mid-June, the rain miraculously stopped, and flowering, the first really key step towards a successful, quality vintage, went off without a hitch. And then it just didn’t rain. Throughout the entire growing season, Bordeaux saw sunny, yet generally cool, weather, until September 15, when the drought-stressed vines received a miraculous light shower of rain, followed by more dry weather through harvest over the six weeks.

The dry summer literally stunted vine and grape development; the September shower later alleviated this and allowed the grapes to finish maturation abnormally late (most of the big Chateaux picked somewhere in the middle of October).

This set up a long growing season, yet one without the consistently hot weather that plagued 2009 and 2010 with overly ripe, evolved fruit (in the case of the former) and high alcohol and tannins (in the case of the latter) – the building blocks to more Parker 100-pointers than any other previous vintages.

 Photo courtesy of Buckitdream

Photo courtesy of Buckitdream

Bordeaux produces the most wine of any wine region in France, yet, for better and for worse, you tend to only focus on tasting the biggest Chateaux (literally) on the Left Bank – the top few dozen Classified Growths – and the most expensive Right Bank wines, during En Primeurs.

The goal of course is to find your wine of the day, of the appellation, of the Left Bank, and of the vintage; the ever-evolving conversation fodder that will propel you through the week of Chateaux tastings, lunches, and dinners.

If you’re a Bordeaux lover, it’s like a Picasso aficionado picking through the Museu Picasso to find his favorite priceless piece – you might prefer the simple “Femme” sketch over his cubist masterpiece, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” yet you appreciate both for their sheer quality.

This is the conundrum in 2016, because, believe it or not, the miraculous vintage reflects in some pretty miraculous wines. The fruit stays in the red fruit wedge of the tasting wheel – think of the cranberry, strawberry, raspberry, cassis progression. The tannins and acidity are remarkably high, as you would expect from a cooler growing season, yet the extended, dry growing season allowed the tannins to ripen and round fully, imbuing the wines with serious internal structure without the immediately mouth-numbing side effects of young, aggressively-shaped tannins.

 Photo courtesy of Decanter

Photo courtesy of Decanter

The acidity is also much higher than normal (and certainly higher than 2009 and 2010) which helps offset the mouth-filling perception of the tannins, and even tastes tart and citric. But don’t worry, the Bordelaise have more amenable words for this, too, like “fresh” and “tense.” And trust me, when you’re tasting 6-month old Cabernet and Merlot all day, whether it be tart of fresh or both, acidity is certainly welcome.

My biased favorite was the 2016 Lynch Bages, maybe because I’ve always admired and enjoyed the adamantly classic style of this Pauillac producer even as most of its neighbors modernize towards softer, approachable, and very un-Pauillac wines. The ’16 edition is nearly 80% Cabernet, and is at once so strongly built from top to bottom, inside and out (it actually has the highest tannins ever recorded here), that it will remain upright and intact for decades; while the heady red fruit is so exotically perfumed to seduce you inside time and time again.

It’s no wonder that the Bordelaise talking heads could not come up with a vintage or vintages to compare to 2016, so let’s add one more selling point to these wines – they are incomparable. It is rare indeed to find wines so evenly ripe, yet so dense, so fresh, and so well balanced, from anywhere; and like a precociously talented kid (Leo in Growing Pains, for example?!), you can’t help but get excited for what they will bring to the table as they grow up.