1996 Bordeaux — Left Bank Edges Out Right in a Solid Year
In 1996, Bordeaux had its best year since 1990 (though it was not as uniformly excellent across all regions). The stage was set with a mild winter, followed by warm weather in March and April. May cooled down a bit, but June was hot, and flowering was short and slightly uneven. In July, the weather started out cool and damp, but improved and warmed up as the month progressed. August was mostly warm and dry, and the ripening cycle progressed well. The generally healthy condition of the grapes was critical when significant rainfall arrived at the end of August. In some cases, as in the northern Medoc, where less rain fell, the water was beneficial and gave the vines the energy they needed to make the push into the harvest. In the Right Bank, which received more rain, the timing was less helpful, especially for Merlot, which was much closer to harvest. In that case, the rain deprived the grapes of the needed hang-time to reach optimum ripeness.
The weather pattern that settled in after the rain was superb. Warm, sunny days and breezy conditions helped to dry the vineyards, prevent rot, and concentrate the berries. Harvest in the Right Bank began with Merlot on September 16th, followed by Cabernet Franc towards the end of the month, and was completed in early October. The extra hang-time for Cabernet Franc allowed it to outperform Merlot, which, despite the balmy September, could not escape the dilution caused by the August rains. There are certainly some successful wines from the Right Bank, notably those with higher proportions of Cabernet Franc, but it is generally much less consistent than the Left.
On the other side of the Garonne, the harvest for Cabernet Sauvignon started at the end of September and lasted until the middle of October. Conditions were excellent throughout. The longer hang-times and beautiful weather during harvest allowed Cabernet to ripen slowly and evenly, maintaining good acidities with thick skins, deep color, and excellent concentration. The resulting wines from Pauillac and Saint Estephe are solid, classically structured beauties that capture the essence of the concentrated grapes. The best of them will age for decades.