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Bordeaux Vintage 2016: Part Two- Weather

Posted: Monday, 22 May 2017 12:15


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Bordeaux Vintage 2016: Part Two- Weather

May 22: The 2016 vintage in Bordeaux has been ‘fine’ and in some cases ‘great’- both in terms of quantity and quantity with wines having excellent structure, writes our Bordeaux expert John Salvi MW, who analyses weather condition in this part and believe 4.5 out of 5 conditions for a great wine as defined by the late Denis Dubourdieu have been met

Three perceptive comments by great winemakers:

Wine is the reflection of the degree of refinement of a civilisation- Denis Dubourdieu

I never curse the rain – the poor little sister of the sun- Christian Bobin.

Each grape variety plays its part as a soloist, but melts into one orchestra- PichonLalande

An iron fist in a velvet glove- John Salvi MW




Max. °C

Min. °C

Month Average

Mm. Rain

Hours Sunshine

November 2015






December 2015






January 2016






February 2016






March 2016






April 2016






May 2016






June 2016






July 2016






August 2016






September 2016






October 2016






November 2016






December 2016








Weather, together with the soil, the climate and the hand of man makes and shapes the wine and its structure each and every year.  I will therefore first look at the weather from the beginning of the winter 2015 through to the end of the 2016 vintage, before looking at the structure of the 2016 vintage that resulted.  Let us understand why the 2016 vintage turned out the way it did.

It is fair to say that it was a chaotic year.  Many have described it as a “year of contrasts”, which is a very accurate description.  The serenity that growers felt at picking time was very far from the way the felt at various times during the growing season.  This year, however, unlike last year, nearly everybody agreed about things.  Despite this, whatever I write, somebody will say how wrong it is.  Let it be clearly understood therefore that these are my own opinions and conclusions and I stand by them.


Before continuing, at this stage, because what follows is his- I must pay tribute to Denis Dubourdieu, who died of terminal cancer not long after giving his report on the 2015 vintage.  A truly great man!  He was sick when he gave his analysis at Château d’Yquem during the En Primeurs and died shortly thereafter.  His 5 criteria required for making great wine have now become law in Bordeaux and I restate them here as the yardstick for measuring the intrinsic quality of the 2016 vintage.  3 of these criteria must be met to make good wine, 4 for very good wine and all 5 for great wine. How did 2016 measure up?

1. An early and rapid flowering and a good fecundation assuring a sufficient yield and the hope of a homogenous ripening.

2. Sufficient hydric stress at fruit-set to limit the growth of the young berries and determine their future tannic content.

3. Cessation of vegetative growth of the vine before colour change, imposed by limited hydric stress and therefore allowing all the goodness from the root to flow into the grapes and not unproductive growth.

4. Complete maturity of the grapes (sugar content among other factors) assured by the optimum functioning of the canopy (leaves) up to harvest time without further vegetative growth (point 3).

5. Good weather during vintage without dilution or rot, allowing full maturity of all grapes including late ripening varieties.


BORDEAUX UNIVERSITY OF OENOLOGY “A sunny September and October, a great Indian Summer, almost without rain, allowed perfect maturation and a serene vintage”.

DOMAINE DE CHEVALIER “Beau vin sérieux, habillé de gourmandise”.  Untranslatable!


If one wanted to sum up the weather in 12 words one might say:

Mild, wet Winter

Cool, humid Spring

Hot, dry Summer

Magnificent Indian Summer

WINTER 2015-16 (December, January, February) (Rain 397mm: Sun 273.6 hours)

The professional Technical Report was made this year, in place of Denis Dubourdieu, by Professor Laurence Geny and Doctor Axel Marchal from the Institut des Sciences de la Vigne et du Vin de l’Unité de Recherche of Bordeaux Universityof Oenology, who have very kindly allowed me to use it as a base for my report and to quote as I wish.

They state that it was an incredibly wet and mild winter and a cool, wet Spring (see table), very mild from November 2015 – February 2016.  Our weather station states that it was the warmest winter ever recorded.  Frosts were rare (6 in total, the hardest being -3.9°C in February and NO sub-zero days), but those in March precluded the risk of a precocious bud-burst.  The rain was good news as it helped to fill the water table, which would prove vital this year when we underwent the very hot, dry spell July-August.  None the less that -3.9°C frost helped to clean up the bugs and beasties in the vineyards and was very welcome.  December was dry with 12.5mm, but January had 233.8mm, February had 151.3 and March had 110.2mm.  Total 507.7mm.  Huge, as the 100-year average annual rainfall here is just 1100mm.  The average temperature over the winter months was a full 2°C above average

MARCH (rain 110.2mm: sun 145.4 hours. 507.7mm of rain since the beginning of the year).  Note that total rainfall here in Bordeaux was 984mm in 2013, 1027mm in 2014, 702mm in 2015 and 900mm in 2016.

The cooler temperatures this month, together with the water in the soil, slowed the over-precocious and over-rapid awakening.  The first buds burst, homogeneously, during last week March, just one week earlier than average (24/03), earlier than 2010 and 2015.  There was a generous potential on the vine.  The very first signs of awakening vegetation had already been seen at end February, at the stage the French describe as “dans le coton”, with fears of extreme precocity, but from 20/02 more normal temperatures arrived.  Overall March was fresh.  Spring came in with the Vernal Equinox at 16.15UTC on March 20th.

APRIL (rain 59.8mm: sun 161.7 hours)

We could have done without the frost, which arrived after the budburst, on 29th, particularly in Sauternes, but which was mild enough thankfully not to do any real damage.  Château Climens (biodynamic) treated the vines with valerian (Valeriana officinalis) to promote the development of the laterals as it has warming properties.  It was very wet and would continue to be so until June.  March and April saw vicious attacks of mildew and oidium, which had to be vigorously treated, but cool weather helped check its spread somewhat.  Château Margaux reports a 5% loss.  It was a serious worry.  Temperatures went up and down like a yo-yo, which did nothing to help regular growth after bud-burst.

MAY (rain 92.6mm: sun 189.7 hours)

May continued to slow down the vegetation development that was still in advance and caused a slower phenological development than usual.  Overall, the first half was warm and the second half unstable and stormy.  In some places, fortunately not many, some hail did quite serious damage.  Due to the up and down conditions, by the end of the month development was again normal and level with 2014.  Importantly, the first flowers appeared during the last 3 days of the month and any advance on normal had been lost.  It was wet and stormy, but generously sunny overall.

JUNE (rain 74.5mm: sun 179.9 hours)

After the very wet winter and relatively rainy Spring growers had been worried about the flowering.  Some vines, on clay or on cold soils, had developed very little canopy.  Coulure (shatter) could well be expected.  As mentioned above, the first flowers were seen end May under rain (17.6mm on 28th), but fortunately a very fine spell set in, with just one rainy day on 6th, until 12th June.  Mid-flowering was around 6th - 8th June, 8 days later than average due to the uneven Spring.  Château Latour is the one property that talks about contamination and mildew at flowering time and seems to have been more or less alone in this respect.  Shatter (coulure) was thus avoided for most vineyards and there was a generous fruit set and a rapid and homogeneous flowering.  Only later flowering vines were somewhat upset by another wet spell from 12th, which caused a little millerandage. 

Fruit-set was around 19th and was relatively homogeneous and the number of pips was above average, indicating good fecundity.  Thus, a quick and even flowering.  The wet spell lasted until 17th.  Château Latour said January to June was the wettest for 20 years and July to October the driest for 16 years.January to June had 722.2mm of rain.  The entire scene changed exactly when Summer arrived with its Solstice at 06.24UTCon June 21st.  After the excessive wet came hot and dry.  It reached 33.4°C on 22nd.  Château Léoville Las Cases says it was the driest Summer since 1900 with an 80-day drought.  The very hot late June weather caused rapid growth and by end month the grapes were pea-sized.  All mildew or rot was completely dried out.  From 19th June to end August just 25.4mm of rain fell.

THE FIRST TWO CRITERIA, “An early and rapid flowering and a good fecundation assuring a sufficient yield and the hope of a homogenous ripening.

Sufficient hydric stress at fruit-set to limit the growth of the young berries and determine their future tannic content” WERE FULFILLED FOR MOST VINEYARDS, WITH VERY LITTLE COULURE OR MILLERANDAGE AND EXCELLENT HOMOGENEITY.

JULY (rain 12.7mm: sun273.1 hours)

The wonderful, hot weather of end June continued throughout July and August without excessive or damaging heat.  Several days of great heat mid-month allowed the vegetal aromas to degrade favourably, but without any shut-down, thanks to the relatively high water table.  As can be seen there was almost no rain.  After the great heat, reaching 38.5°C on 18th, temperatures returned to summer normal and sunshine was most generous.  Thanks to the earlier rains hydric stress was virtually avoided during vegetation development, which explains the large size of the berries in some vineyards.  Bunch closure (fermeture de la grappe) was around 20th July.  By the end of the month, except on gravel soils, there was still too much water in the soil for vegetation to stop.  Colour change started, but started slowly BECAUSE the vegetative growth had not stopped.

AUGUST (rain 11.3mm: Sun 312.9 hours)

 By the end of the first week colour change was significant.  Now, at last, came a certain amount of hydric stress.  At mid colour change conditions favoured well-constructed berry walls or skins, which in turn helped the accumulation of the phenolic compounds.  They also accelerated the last stages of colour change.  It was a splendid month with 30% more sun than average and 5°C above average temperature.  However, and this is very important, night temperatures were normal or even a little below average and this enormous day to night variation not only helped the colour change, but more vitally both helped develop aromas and kept acidities up.  A few berries burst, but not in significant quantities.

The hydric stress was sufficient to upset some young vines, very high yielding vines or vines with shallow roots.  Here there was a certain amount of damage.  During the very hot days (37.4°C on 27th) some leaves and even grapes were burned (échaudage), especially if the canopy had been overde-leafed.  Everybody feared shut-down, but overall it did not happen.  Things looked splendid.

THE THIRD CRITERIA, “Cessation of vegetative growth of the vine before colour change, imposed by limited hydric stress and therefore allowing all the goodness from the root to flow into the grapes and not unproductive growth” WAS VIRTUALLY FULFILLED. GROWTH STOPPAGE WAS A TOUCH LATER THAN OPTIMUM DUE TO WATER IN THE SOIL, BUT NOT ENOUGH TO HINDER PERFECT MATURITY.

SEPTEMBER (65.1mm: Sun 220.9 hours)

Great heat, intense heat.  1st – 13th was the hottest September period since 1950 (36.1°C on 12th, 37°C in Sauternes).  Canicular! Fears of shut-down were intense.  NOW comes the SAVIOUR of the 2016 vintage.  RAIN!  It arrived from the south on 13th with an enormous 41.2mm and more until 16th.   Then the sun returned with the fine, dry weather until the last day of the month.  The rain restarted the maturing process and later ripening varieties (Petit Verdot) were able to profit fully.  September was once again decisive in the success of the vintage.  Another heavy dose of rain on 30th did no harm and was splendid for botrytis in the sweet wines.  In spite of all this, somehow, maturation was slower than usual. The earliest Merlots were harvested from 3rd week of September, but most from beginning October.  Dry  Sauvignon from 1st September and Semillon a little later.

OCTOBER (rain 11.2mm: sun 165.7 hours)

Sunny and fine and almost bone dry, indeed the driest since 1950, the grapes were able to reach optimum maturity in perfect health under ideal conditions.  No trace of rot or mildew spoiled their perfection.  Growers enjoyed a “serene vintage” and it was a very long and protracted one.  Château Margaux says its longest ever from 23rd September until 18th October.  The first spots of rot arrived from 18th, but almost everybody finished at the latest by 20th.  As in September, those cool nights helped flavours and aromas and kept acidities at optimum levels as well as allowing an exceptional accumulation of phenolic compounds.  These attributes were helped by the longer vegetation period allowed by the water reserves in the soil.  Everybody was happy as they discovered a rare bonus – both fine quality and generous yields!  Cabernet and Petit Verdot were harvested this month up until around 20th.  Pichon Comtesse de Lalande wonderfully describes the Petit Verdot as being “wild and impetuous”. Again, despite the great summer, it was not an early vintage.

THE FOURTH CRITERIA, “Complete maturity of the grapes (sugar content among other factors) assured by the optimum functioning of the canopy (leaves) up to harvest time without further vegetative growth (point 3)” WAS PERFECT FOR LATER RIPENING VARIETIES.  SEPTEMBER RAIN, FOLLOWED BY A DRY, WARM, SUNNY OCTOBER WITHOUT EXCESSIVE HEAT, ALLOWED COMPLETE MATURITY AND PERFECTED THE CABERNETS AND PETIT VERDOTS.

THE FIFTH CRITERIA, “Good weather during vintage without dilution or rot, allowing full maturity of all grapes including late ripening varieties” RESULTED IN A PERFECT VINTAGE WITH CONDITIONS PERFECTLY FULFILLED.

4.5, if not 5, of the five criteria for great wine were perfectly fulfilled in 2016


Léoville Poyferré did not hold back.  They describe their 2016 vintage as, “Sumptuous fruitiness, unctuous, balanced, dense, long, seductive and elegant”.  That just about says it all! Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande is racier with, “a powerful, moving, fleshy piece of work”.  Domaine de Chevalier says, “vin sérieux habillé de gourmandise” - (serious wine gastronomically dressed – almost impossible to translate!)and “aristocratic austerity without arrogance, the aristocracy of nature”.  These quotes were irresistible.


The vintage stated from 1st September, one week later than in 2015.  Grapes were in perfect health with no trace of rot or mildew.  The sugar content increased rapidly and was sufficient early, but the aromatic potential of the fruit was slower and arrived at the very end of the maturation period.  The mid-September rains did no harm and many had already finished picking.  As a bonus, quantities were excellent and for Sauvignon greater than for many years.  Acidities were in some wines a touch low, but the sugar/acidity balance was good and promises fine wine, particularly on calcareous, clay-calcareous and gravel/clay soils, which are best at preserving acidity.  Here is perhaps in some wines their weakest point.  Average acidity around 5.6 grams/litre.  Ph correct and aromatic wines with fine lemon freshness.  Semillon were perhaps best with body and richness without heaviness.


Botrytis arrived late as was obvious from the summer into September weather conditions.  Some started picking with only “passerillé” (raisined) grapes.  The mid-September rain kick-started the botrytis.  Concentration of botrytis helped by fine weather, dew and morning mists.  The second “tri” was the main one under perfect conditions.  Chaptalisation was forbidden this year but was permitted in 2015, although not used.  Most properties did 3 “tris”.  It was essential not to de-leaf too much or later ripening grapes did not profit as much as they should have done.  Very generous fertilisation of the flowers meant high yields with large bunches of good sized berries.  Botrytis was very pure and very rich with candied fruit overtones.  Unwanted types of rot were notably absent.  No Penicillium (the one found in blue cheese), no Bouïroc (the local name for grey or acid rot) and no Aspergillus Niger (a new and unpleasant rot that discolours the grapes and leaves a black powder).  The end-September rain reinforced botrytis development.  The 21°-22° level of sugar, optimum for fine sweet wines, was easily obtained and often exceeded.  Yields were wonderfully high and in some cases records and the wines had power while retaining airiness.


I think this entire article, while pointing out carefully the weak spots, shows that in 2016 we really do have some very fine wine in the cellars.  “Great” is a word that I use with caution and a word that is bandied about far too often without real justification.  I think we may have a few this year and from both the weather and the structure the red wines will age well and for many years.  The dry white wines are excellent when picked with optimum acidities and the sweet, botrytized wines are - yes, wait for it - “great”!

John Salvi Master of Wine

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