Against the Odds - 2016 Burgundy

27 March 2018
Author: Jeannie Cho Lee


When I visited Burgundy at the end of 2016 to taste the 2015 vintage in barrel, the vignerons I met with looked exhausted. Despite the fabulous 2015 vintage wines we were tasting, it was clear that they could not shake the recent vivid images of the harvest they had just brought in. Normally the talk revolves around the vintage being tasted, in this case the 2015, but conversation quickly drifted towards the recent stream of traumatic events in 2016: the devastating frost in April, followed by unprecedented rampant mildew throughout the spring and early summer and then to top it off, hail in some regions like Chablis.


2016 is a vintage that cannot be compared with others because of the extremes in climatic conditions and the decimation of yields across the entire region of Burgundy. Since 2010, yields were nowhere near the healthy 2009 levels and for the past 6 years, there has been a scarcity of wine that has caused both price increases and shortages at a time when demand and interest in Burgundy was growing, especially in parts of Asia.


In 2016, an early budbreak made the buds vulnerable given the mild weather and wet spring. By spring, Domaine de la Romanee-Conti (DRC) counted 35 cycles of mildew outbreak with the normal being a few or none (as in 2015). Treatments were in the double digits for most growers and at Domaine Parent, where organic and biodynamic viticulture is practiced, the vineyard was treated 13 times in 2016.


The most widely reported and much discussed calamity of the year occurred on the evening of the 26th of April and the morning of the 27th. On the evening of the 26th, temperatures fell to -4 degrees Celsius, then in the morning of the 27th, the sun’s strong rays penetrated through the ice surrounding the newly formed buds and scorched them with the ice acting like a magnifying glass. Overnight, entire vineyards were devastated. Although the frost is being compared with the tragic one in 1981, the difference was in the haphazard way that the recent frost behaved: In 1981, it was mostly the lower lying vines that were struck, in 2016, many grand cru and premier cru vineyards traditionally spared from frost were destroyed.


Anne Parent of Domaine Parent explains, “BIVB tried to find a pinpoint or come up with some generalizations about the effect of the vintage – whether it [the frost] affected mostly young or old vines or certain parts of the hillside or grand cru versus village wines. But they found nothing. There was no logic to this frost. A grand cru vineyard was as vulnerable as a village or Bourgogne level. We lost 90% of generic Bourgogne and also 90% Beaune premier cru vineyards, which were mid slope. 2016 is our smallest crop since 1975.” This type of devastation was echoed throughout Burgundy. Arnaud Mortet of Domaine Mortet said he lost 60-80% depending on the vineyard. At Domaine Gouge and at Domaine George Comte de Vogue the loss was 70%. The worst hit regions were Chambolle-Musigny, Marsannay, Meursault and Chassagne-Montrachet. The appellations where the frost damage was mixed include: Gevrey-Chambertin, Vosne-Romanee, Pommard, Volnay, Corton and Puligny-Montrachet. The least affected areas were Morey-Saint-Denis and Fixin.


At DRC, many grand crus were devastated including Montrachet, Batard-Montrachet, Echezeaux and Grand-Echezeaux. At Domaine Rousseau, two-thirds of Chambertin grand cru grapes were lost to frost. Domaine Tremblay lost 90% of the crop from their Chambolle-Musigny vineyard. There is so little Montrachet grand cru that six domaines came together to make just two barrels of Montrachet. The domains include: Comtes Lafon, Leflaive, de la Romanée-Conti, Lamy-Pillot, Guy Amiot and Fleurot Larose.


While the frost received all the attention, what was less discussed but just as traumatic to the quality and quantity of the 2016 vintage was the rampant mildew. According to Cyrielle Rousseau of Domaine Rousseau, “the mildew attack in 2016 throughout the year, but especially in June and July, was spectacular!” Cecile Tremblay of Domaine Tremblay agrees, “I have never seen such constant mildew attack in my wine life; I didn’t even know it was possible! The 2016 vintage was really really tough – it was mentally and physically hard. I was out there in the vineyards all the time since treatment by machines were not always possible.” At DRC, the fight against mildew lasted until mid July “without any break (on weekends if necessary).”


Much has been written about the 2016 vintage in Burgundy since the beginning of this year when the wines began circulating in the market. The one overwhelming sentiment by winegrowers, journalists, buyers and consumers has been of surprise. The winegrowers seem just as surprised as the writers who came to visit at the end of 2017 with their battle-scarred memories of the vintage that made them work harder than any other recent vintage to salvage what nature had not taken away.


When I returned to Burgundy in January 2018 to taste the 2016s in barrel just before bottling, the feelings about the vintage had changed completely. Romain Taupenot of Domaine Taupenot-Merme said he was very happy with how the wines were evolving in barrel, “It was a constant battle [against mildew] but with such low yields from the frost and mildew, the ripeness in the grapes came quickly and easily.” At Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, the grapes that arrived from the vineyards were “perfectly healthy” according to Bertrand de Villaine. At DRC, “2016 is a year of extremes that cannot be compared to any other one…[a year] that took us from the perspective of a total defeat in Spring to a victory that ranks 2016 among the most perfect vintages of these last years.”


What many of the 2016 wines revealed in the glass was more about the effort and work to salvage what little was on the vines rather than the difficulties of the vintage. In short, the wines from the top producers are delicious. It is difficult to compare this vintage with others since it is impossible to generalize about a vintage that affected each grower and each vineyard differently, what one can say is that it is a vintage where the hand and effort of the grower is most evident – in the wine’s purity and ability to express its terroir. As always, Burgundy is about following the grower rather than the vintage or the appellation but in 2016, this is truer than ever.


Fortunately, the prices from the 2016s are not higher than the 2015s, which were widely acclaimed and of a different style altogether. I like the 2016s very much because of their vibrancy, clarity and detailed flavors. These are not big wines and they lack the plump, friendliness of the 2015s, but over the long terms, this is a vintage I would like to follow because the top wines have longevity. The biggest challenge will be in getting an allocation of these rare beauties. As the local wine body, BIVB, declared, “Every grape counts.”