Through the Other Side: Burgundy 2016 in Bottle


Among the countless growing season reports I have authored over the years, I have never stumbled across one as complex and at times irrational as the Côte d’Or in 2016. After visiting dozens of winemakers and gleaning perspectives on how the late spring frost affected their vines and their vineyard managers’ remedial strategies, I concluded that 2016 was a puzzle that would be fascinating, frustrating and futile to solve. The idiosyncratic growing season saw some appellations decimated by frost while others were left unscathed and wondering what all the fuss was about. It was even impossible to draw conclusions about how a particular climat performed, since frost scarred one row of vines and spared the next, sometimes without rhyme or reason. Winemakers deliberated over using second-generation fruit, predicating an array of picking dates and attendant blending decisions. Some familiar labels vanished; others were forced to shack up with fellow cuvées in the vat to make geographically nameless Premier Crus. For others it was business as usual. If you did escape the frost damage, then there was potential to create a stunning 2016 red that matched or surpassed the previous vintage.

My strategy for assessing Burgundy in bottle has been based around the two-week Burgfest blind tasting held every May and September at the secluded Hameau du Barberon, just above Savigny-lès-Beaune. Personally, I think that the usual practice of concurrently sampling the previous vintage diverts attention away from tasting the wines in barrel. Furthermore, I find it a less opportune moment to examine nascent wines that can pull down their shutters as the winter cold seeps into cellars. In contrast, the timing of Burgfest means that these sensitive wines have enjoyed a few months to settle in bottle. Factor in the unique opportunity to appraise them blind, and this represents one of my most important and challenging tastings of the year. Unfortunately, I missed the white 2016s because I was undergoing open-heart surgery that week - probably the best excuse I will ever offer for non-attendance of a tasting. Fortunately, the second part of the event allowed me just enough recovery time, and so the red tasting marked my return to traveling after nine months away. It was good to get back to the proverbial coalface.

This tasting included around 260 wines, and for this report I have augmented it with notes from a handful of producer showings of bottled 2016s in autumn 2018, plus a useful tasting in London in May 2019, one of the last before my operation, organized by UK importer Domaine Direct. The latter event included many generic Burgundy and Village Crus traditionally excluded at Burgfest, plus a handful of whites. Minuscule yields and empty cellars meant that re-tasting the 2016s was never going to be easy because producers had nary a bottle to spare. This tranche of 350-plus tasting notes is a useful start, and I will keep coming back to re-taste whenever I can.

Wandering through the vineyards in early September, I spent a couple of hours photographing bunches. You can see how they are small and a little misshapen, though these Les Amoureuses ended up making wine that is easy to fall in love with.

The Growing Season

My original summary of the 2016 growing season made War and Peace read like a wafer-thin novella, so here I will focus on the main points of this topsy-turvy vintage.

Frost on April 26 and 27 was one of the most traumatic events of several that have recently besmirched the region. Unlike the following year, winemakers were not fully prepared as the mercury fell to between –2° and –6° Celsius. Exacerbating the damage was the “burning” of the nascent buds by morning sunlight refracted through the ice. According to the BIVB, around 23% of vineyards suffered in excess of 70% damage, 16,000 hectares experiencing a 30% crop depletion. As a general rule, vineyards exposed to cold air descending down the small valleys or combes were most acutely affected, among them Chambolle-Musigny, Gevrey-Chambertin, Savigny-lès-Beaune, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet. Normally the heavier cold air means that the lower contours, i.e., generic Burgundy and Village Crus, suffer more damage than those at higher elevations. However, in 2016 the most prestigious Grand Crus fell victim, including Montrachet, Chambertin and Musigny. Several factors further complicated matters: the location of morning cloud cover that, for example, protected Santenay but not adjacent Chassagne; the orientation and steepness of vineyards; the type of pruning (see J-F Mugnier below); and even proximity to heat-retaining vineyard walls. As already mentioned, the shortfall in potential crop forced growers to consider using second-generation fruit and risk varying ripeness levels at harvest. The difficulties did not stop there. Following this episode there was a spell of such heavy rain that for many growers, mildew pressure caused a greater loss than frost.

In June the weather did a volte-face and became settled, warm and dry. Perversely, this meant that some vines suffered hydric stress; how ironic after the early-season deluge. Come harvest, I witnessed vines with thick green canopies and measly numbers of small clusters, in some cases so tiny that growers decided they were not worth picking at all (though most did, if only to keep their chins up and not feel completely defeated). The whites were generally picked from September 15 and the reds from September 20 to 22 in unexpected good sanitary conditions despite showers on September 5 and 17–18. 

Winemakers now faced the challenge of vinifying small batches of fruit that barely filled the vat. (At Louis Jadot, 20 vats lay empty after the harvest had been delivered.) First, they had to be careful in pressing because the usual force employed in a normal vintage was spread over a diminished area of fruit. Many opted to fill vats by co-fermenting climats habitually vinified and bottled separately, or deselected parcels to make one-off cuvées. Some supplemented the shortfall in volume by adding more stems into the vat, although they had to be cautious, since unlike the previous year, some of the stems were not fully lignified. They also needed to exercise restraint in the use of SO2 because of the mildew pressure early in the season – a topic that I will return to later.

The Wines

While the spring frosts dominated conversation during my barrel tastings in 2017, they were barely mentioned at Burgfest. Such a potentially catastrophic event is headline news when wines are being appraised from barrel (in this case, January 2018). Three years on from that trauma, it remains a crucial factor but no longer occupies the forefront of minds. What matters now is quality in the wine glass. The hidden identity of each wine at Burgfest prevented tasters from being subliminally swayed by prior knowledge of the challenges the vineyard or winemaker faced that year. Throughout the entire four-day tasting, not once were “frost” or “second-generation fruit” mentioned. That is partly because depleted production meant the affected wines were not submitted to the tasting, and partly because Burgfest focuses on the upper end of the hierarchy, predominantly what are considered to be top growers, few of which supplemented their shortfall with second-generation fruit. I mention all of this because on reflection, this report may give a slanted view of the vintage, where an expanded purview would reveal the ups and downs that I found when I originally tasted 2,000-odd wines from barrel.

Having missed the 2016 whites, I offer a crumb of compensation in the form of a dozen or so tasting notes reaped from the tasting in London. When I expressed to one Burgfest participant my regret at not being able to attend the white section in May, he responded by telling me that I did not miss much. That said, the handful of whites in this report suggest that they should not be dismissed, particularly the impressive Saint-Aubins courtesy of Domaine Marc Colin.

Generally, the reds live up to their billing. At best, they are highly perfumed with ripe tannins, expressive, vivacious, harmonious and surprisingly approachable. They come with a sense of triumph over adversity. Despite everything that malicious Mother Nature threw at the vineyards, at their peak the finished wines shrug off the stürm und drang that surrounded their birth and are occasionally breathtaking in bottle. While they do not possess the structure of 2005 or 2010, at times they remind me of a more opulent take on the underrated 2014s. I understand that this might seem like a Pyrrhic victory in terms of the bottom line, some domaines having come desperately close to bankruptcy after a series of small harvests. Thankfully, vignerons have since caught a break with a couple of abundant growing seasons.

Let me break things down geographically, since that is how the actual tasting was approached.

Appellation by Appellation

In the Côte de Beaune, we obviously focused on Pommard and Volnay. Pommard was a mixed bag, as you would expect given the challenges it faced during the growing season, but still produced some excellent wines. Domaine Thierry Violot-Guillemard deeply impressed with their offering from Les Rugiens; similarly, their Beaune Clos des Mouches outperformed some of the more famous producers’ wines in that flight. Look out for them. I also found the Pommard Clos des Epenots from Château de Meursault boxing clever with a very pure and elegant expression from that vineyard and matching the equally fantastic Clos des Epeneaux from Domaine Comte Armand, where winemaker Paul Zanetti seems to have settled nicely. I should mention an excellent Les Pezerolles from Domaine A-F Gros, a producer that I will be returning to later when I broach the Côtes de Nuits.

In Volnay I found the same mixture of results, perhaps more inconsistent compared to some appellations farther north. Yet Frédéric Lafarge undeniably produced an utterly sublime Volnay from his vines in Clos des Chênes. Rightly revered as one of the greatest expressions of Volnay, it shone like a beacon in its flight. I also thoroughly enjoyed the Les Taillepieds from Domaine François Buffet. In fact, this producer’s four wines from various appellations all showed pretty well, winemaker Marc-Oliver Buffet having taken over from his father François to steer the domaine in a very positive direction. With some choice parcels to its name, this estate is one I will be keeping my eye on in the future.

I found the wines from the appellation of Beaune a little inconsistent, which is a shame, because that is where some of the best value-for-money Burgundy currently emanates from. As you move up the Corton hill, there are a number of excellent wines, including a fine Corton-Grancey from Louis Latour, a producer that I have found disappointing in recent vintages. It’s nice to give this important name a pat on the back. I also found much to admire in Michel Mallard’s Corton Renardes. When not overseeing the wines at Domaine d’Eugénie in Vosne-Romanée, Mallard produces a consistent portfolio from around his winery in Ladoix. Prices have crept up recently but the wines are still worth looking out for. However, there were also showings that reminded me how frustrating this famous forest-crowned hill can be. Bonneau du Martray’s Le Corton came across excessively sweet on the finish, and David Croix’s normally reliable Corton les Grèves failed to replicate its impressive performance out of barrel.

An appellation that performed extremely well is Nuits Saint-Georges, in particular in the north toward Vosne-Romanée, such as in Les St-Georges, Les Vaucrains and Aux Cras. Highlights include an impressive Nuits St-Georges Les St-Georges from Thibault Liger-Belair, a wine that will not harm their ongoing campaign for promotion. Thibault’s cousin at Comte Liger-Belair oversaw a fabulous Aux Cras, albeit a wine that will require a few years to fully subsume the oak, while Christophe Perrot-Minot orchestrated a wonderful Les Damodes. If one producer deserves a gold medal, it is Domaine Robert Chevillon, where Denis and Bertrand frères have crafted exceptional wines from several Premier Crus in recent years. Both their Les St-Georges and Les Vaucrains punch well above their weight and challenge many a Grand Cru from more revered appellations. Factor in price and these wines are sorely tempting. Toward the south of the appellation, the wines become more inconsistent and at times vexing. Mugnier’s reliable Clos de la Marechale tripped over its shoelaces and worryingly oxidized in the glass. Some of the cuvées from Domaine de l’Arlot did not transfer their promise in barrel into the final wine, though their two labels from Vosne-Romanée showed much better.

Benjamin Leroux oversaw a fabulous Clos Saint-Denis in 2016.

Compared to other appellations, Morey-Saint-Denis had it easy; it was virtually untouched by the frost, and growers enjoyed an almost perfect growing season and some of the most generous yields. Ironically, it was less represented in terms of submitted bottles, including Clos de Tart, though Vinous readers will find my review in bottle in a previous article. To be honest, the Premier Crus did not make the expected impact. Open your wallet much wider to trade up to the Grand Crus and you find a clutch of stunning 2016s from Clos St-Denis and Clos de la Roche. Check out Domaine Arlaud’s Clos St-Denis, which is unerringly pixelated and effortlessly balanced, or alternatively Stéphane Magnien’s own take on this Grand Cru, slightly confit in style and sumptuous on the finish. Benjamin Leroux conjured a spellbinding Clos St-Denis that came within a whisker of being the wine of the entire tasting. I cannot remember one of Leroux’s wines achieving such ethereal heights. Laurent Lignier’s Clos de la Roche fulfilled the promise it showed from barrel, tasted twice both at the domaine and at Burgfest. Dujac’s Clos de la Roche had closed down and felt a tad occluded by the oak; it simply requires several years to meld together. The showing of the Clos de la Roche from Domaine Chantal Remy pleasantly surprised me. Their wines have been a little inconsistent in recent vintages, with perplexing showings from barrel, but this is extremely promising.

Next door in Chambolle-Musigny, the frost had the gall to touch Musigny. Remarkably, Frédéric Mugnier came through it all and oversaw a sensational wine, my pick of three tasted. When I initially sampled his 2016s in his cellar, we entered into a detailed discussion about his Musigny’s difficult birth and what he was planning to do. Writing this report, I asked him to refresh my memory of the details and his subsequent decision in terms of blending. “You may remember there were three barrels of young vines, pruned as Cordon de Royat, which suffered limited damage from frost, and three barrels of older vines, pruned as Guyot, that were very badly hit,” he told me via email. “The former, regardless of the age of the vines, was tasting much denser and had a greater length than the latter. The final blend of Musigny includes all three barrels of the young vines plus one of the old ones, in order to bring a touch of freshness. The two remaining barrels were blended with the Chambolle premier cru Les Plantes and the few grapes from Combe d’Orveau to form the Chambolle-Musigny Trente-Deux, so called after the number of vintages that Frédéric has made.”

Bonnes-Mares performed extremely well, including splendid examples from Hudelot-Baillet and Bruno Clair. Christophe Roumier’s Bonnes-Mares was more backward, which might be why I was more conservative with my score. In fact, Roumier’s Les Amoureuses might even surpass his Bonnes-Mares, though these days he has strong competition from a revitalized Domaine Robert Groffier. Sadly, the bottle of Les Amoureuses from Mugnier at Burgfest was afflicted by malodorous eggy aromas, though my tasting note from the domaine back in November 2018 reflects a bottle that showed far better and, one hopes, is more representative. I have included both notes, if only to remind readers that Burgundy is never predictable.

Moving north, Gevrey-Chambertin is fecund with notable wines. Among the Premier Crus, the flight of Cazetiers stood out thanks to outstanding examples from Bruno Clair, Henri Magnien and Christian Sérafin. The latter is a producer whose wines I have a love/hate relationship with. In some ways, their use of 100% new oak across practically their entire range is an anachronism, harking back to the Nineties vogue for wines with a thick lacquer of new wood. They remain faithful to that modus operandi, and tasting through their wines at the domaine in November 2018, I couldn’t help feeling that the oak subjugates the fruit and erases the nuances of the respective vineyards. Three or four samples at Burgfest indicated that in recent months the oak has become better integrated, and while I retain strong reservations about the use of 100% new oak apropos of their entry-level wines, there is no denying that on strong Premier Crus such as Cazetiers, it works much better, even if it makes long-term cellaring mandatory.

The flight of Musigny and Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses was intermittently spectacular.

As usual, we tasted the full complement of Clos Saint-Jacques. It’s always easy to spot Sylvie Esmonin’s rendition by its deep opaque color alone. For me, Armand Rousseau’s interpretation demonstrated the most flair and complexity, although to be honest there is no weak link, even if this quintet translates the approach of the winemaker at this early stage. They will mature into formidable wines, although they are not leaps and bounds above the finest from Cazetiers. There were five flights of Grand Crus. The flight of Latricières/Mazis-Chambertins was particularly impressive, especially the 2016 Latricières-Chambertin from Rossignol-Trapet, which was one of the strongest performers of the appellation, as was the Mazis-Chambertin from Faiveley.

This year, there were more examples from Clos-de-Bèze than from Chambertin, so comparisons are a little unfair. At the top, not too surprisingly, Rousseau’s Chambertin arguably justified the astronomical sums currently paid for their wines, although prices have softened in recent months. Personally, I would be just as happy with the outstanding Chambertin from Domaine J-L Trapet and – perhaps the dark horse of the tasting – a superb Chambertin from Domaine Camille-Giroud, going great guns after the departure of David Croix. In Clos-de-Bèze, I particularly liked Groffier’s 2016. Nicolas Groffier is taking the domaine to ever-greater heights, thankfully now with far less new oak and less of the extraction that marred the wines before.

Turning our attention to Vosne-Romanée, there were half a dozen flights of Premier Cru to sample before broaching the Grand Crus. I will get the elephant out of the room first. Without fail, in a comprehensive blind tasting like this, one producer’s wines will leave you scratching your head; on this occasion, step forward Domaine Jean Grivot. Maybe my palate was malfunctioning at the time, but the Vosne-Romanée Les Beaux Monts felt disjointed and chewy, continuing a series of perplexing showings from their Clos de Vougeot and Nuits Saint-Georges Les Roncière. It could be that I was just catching them at a difficult stage. Thankfully, the Echézeaux was one of the better examples and the Richebourg was everything you could wish for. But there you go - that’s blind tasting for you. And these were not the only wines that did not show as expected. A couple from Domaine Comte du Liger-Belair may be enduring an awkward phase in bottle; the Les Suchots were extremely reduced and slightly bitter on the finish; the Clos de Vougeot showed some attenuation toward the finish; and the Echézeaux was bizarrely Grenache-like on the nose, with a slightly muddled finish. Fortunately, both the Domaine’s Nuits Saint-Georges from Clos des Grandes Vignes and Aux Cras were top-drawer, likewise the Vosne-Romanée Aux Reignots, while the La Romanée exuded panache and class even at a king’s ransom for the privilege.

While some of my favorite producers left me and other attendees questioning their judgment, less familiar names served as pertinent reminders that you don’t have to pay through the nose to find great Burgundy. Consider the vivacious, persistent Les Suchots from Jean-Marc Millot, or the quite brilliant En Orveau from the resurgent Château de Marsannay, now under the ownership of the Halley family, who also acquired Château de Meursault. I should also point out the Aux Brûlées from Domaine d’Eugénie. Their wines will always be compared to those of Philippe Engel, whose untimely passing led to acquisition by François Pinault and the inception of d’Eugénie. Current winemaker Michel Mallard has gradually been stamping his own identity on the wines, and this Aux Brûlées, raised with 60% whole-bunch fruit, testifies to Mallard’s remark that he “touched something” when we tasted it together from barrel. Maybe that “something” is the greatness.

With respect to the Grand Crus, the two Echézeaux flights are usually a mixed bag, and the 2016s’ exposure to frost damage further bifurcates quality. My pick would be from Cécile Tremblay, whose parcel was 50% damaged by frost, particularly the Cordon de Royat vines (interestingly, the opposite way around from Frédéric Mugnier). At the top of the pyramid, I adore the Romanée-Saint-Vivant from both Follin-Arbelet and J-J Confuron, neither of which I originally tasted from barrel. Three Richebourg 2016s were poured. Yet again, Domaine A-F Gros proved that they are no longer the also-rans of this Grand Cru, delivering substance and complexity but with an edginess that remains vivid through the veneer of new oak. If you want to splurge on a Richebourg, this probably represents the best value.

The famous quintet. Grands Crus in the minds of many cognoscenti.

The Curious Incident of Oxidation/Reduction

Having conducted large-scale tastings for 20 years, I have noticed how the problem of TCA has thankfully receded in recent years. That is not to say that it has been eradicated; it continues to blight many bottles. But it is not as endemic as a decade ago, when 10% or more wines smelled of damp cardboard and tasted even worse. Producers woke up to the fact that irrespective of reputation, they can longer afford to ignore TCA (see Stephen Tanzer’s recent article on Domaine Leflaive). There were only two or three instances among the 240 bottles tasted, though one can argue that this figure is two or three too many, not least because this is expensive fermented grape juice. Nowadays more and more growers are replacing natural cork with Diam closures, the likes of Dominique Lafon and Domaine Leflaive eroding the stigma that they are indicative of inferior wine. To this end, in my notes I have mentioned whether an alternative closure was used, since that can be a factor in buying decisions. Diam 30 appears to be the most popular closure. As one attendee quipped, what is the point of using Diam 5 or 10 when they are more permeable to oxygen? I suppose if your wine is destined for early consumption, there is no harm in using 5 or 10 and you might argue that Diam 30 could potentially slow down the maturation in bottle too much. We will only know in 20 or 30 years, when we crack these bottles open and wonder what happened to the secondary aromas and flavors. At least their use dispels fear of TCA.

When conducting a large-scale tasting like this, it is easy to see general trends, and one of those is an increasing incidence of oxidation/reduction, sometimes both in the same bottle. Fortunately, the latter was often due to a temporary reduced state of the wine, and free sulfur compounds were remedied with adequate aeration. There were only a couple of bottles that seemed fixed with volatile sulfur compounds or sulfides; they seemed to afflict some of Frédéric Mugnier’s wines, including his bottle of Les Amoureuses, which showed much better when I tasted it at the domaine in November last year.

What can this be attributed to? I had my own ideas, and these are expanded via fascinating insights from a Burgundy winemaker and a wine professional with more thorough scientific grounding than myself.

First, it is difficult to pinpoint a single direct cause. We can look to the rainfall and mildew pressure earlier in the season, which might lead winemakers to spray more sulfur on their vines. Along with the effects of reduced yields, it is possible that any residual sulfur within the musts could have been metabolized by yeasts during alcohol fermentation. Factor in the move toward organic/biodynamic viticulture, which requires that vineyard managers resort to sulfur or copper instead of chemical fungicides to combat mildew or oïdium, and we have a credible explanation. Incidentally, I did consider whether the early-season rain caused nitrogen deficiency in the soils and thus stressed, nitrogen-starved yeasts. Although this was apparently a concern in 2018, my winemaking source told me that the levels of yeast-assimilable nitrogen, known as “YAN,” were generally fine in 2016. Another possible issue is that a majority of Burgundy winemakers use native ambient yeasts for alcoholic fermentation. Perhaps some domaines simply had bad luck, in that their yeast strains tended to manifest more reduction that combined to create hydrogen sulfide. Indeed, in my experience I find more reduction in Burgundy than in Bordeaux, which tends to use more selected yeasts, but that is pure speculation on my part.

Apropos of oxidation, one cause of this could be the trend of using less SO2 during the winemaking process. How often do I hear the phrase “I only add sulfur [dioxide] after malolactic” these days? In 2016 the fruit was generally clean and pH levels were low, encouraging winemakers to reduce SO2 more than they might otherwise have done. This would mean that later  on, during barrel maturation and bottling, some wines might have found themselves with insufficient protection if exposed to oxygen. Could this result in problems down the line, when a consumer opens a bottle?

Or could oxidation be the result of winemakers converting to alternative closures like Diam and not adjusting the level of sulfur they were accustomed to under natural cork? Dominique Lafon is one winemaker who needed a bit of trial and error before finding the amount of SO2 suitable for his wines under Diam. While some domaines work with professional bottling specialists, many still use their own staff to operate small-scale bottling lines. I remember Marie-Christine Teillaud, co-owner at Domaine Mugneret-Gibourg and a trained scientist, emphasizing how bottling is the overlooked critical part of winemaking, and how easy it is to make a mistake here and ruin the hard work that preceded it. That thought is something I always consider.

The reasons for reduction/oxidation are surely a combination of all these factors, to varying degrees, depending upon the domaine. It does seem to be a topic that is discussed less than expected given the number of incidences that crop up in large tasting such as this. Maybe it is overshadowed by the cause célèbre that is premature oxidation. However, it is something that should not be ignored, not least because it might explain the occasional disconnect between impressive wines in barrel that disappoint in bottle.

The Market

The clamor for blue-chip Burgundy domaines and the acutely limited supply has pushed prices into the stratosphere. The severe depletion of the 2016 vintage by frost and mildew meant that the wines were difficult to procure when released and remain scarce now. The top Burgundy wines are now only affordable to those with extremely deep pockets. That said, there is a limit to everything... even Burgundy. Merchants have reported a softening of prices even at Grand Cru levels since around March 2019, in that the most coveted are no longer snapped up irrespective of price tag. There are a couple of reasons for this. Even millionaires think carefully when a case of wine can cost £40,000 to £50,000. The current instability of the world is also beginning to affect markets. Burgundy-lovers are less inclined to splash the cash when the future is so unpredictable; as I write this, the US government has just slapped a 25% tariff on imported wine under 14% alcohol from France. We wait to see how the 2018s will be received.

Final Thoughts

Life always throws a lot at you; what matters is that you never give up. That applies to my determination that Burgfest would mark my return to the frontline of tasting, and equally to winemakers who by June 2016 must have started losing hope of ever producing any wine after the devastating late spring frost and omnipresent mildew. Somehow, most producers made it to the harvest “finish line,” and though yields were drastically reduced, the latter half of the growing season compensated in the form of excellent and at times sensational wines. Personally, I would be looking at appellations such as Nuits Saint-Georges or less coveted domaines, because if Burgfest proves anything, it is that the gap in quality between the blue chips and the rest is much smaller than indicated by differences in market price.

Burgundy is the most unpredictable of wines; you can never accurately predict how a bottle will show until you crack it open. At Burgfest there were moments akin to watching as a great actor fluffed their lines on stage and their lesser-known understudy snatched the limelight. This unique opportunity to assess the wines single-blind is more important now than ever, since objectivity is too often compromised by price, rarity or reputation. That is why next year I will be attending both white and red legs of the 2017s. And at least in that vintage there are decent quantities of Burgundy to go around.

(My thanks to the Burgfest team for organizing this annual tasting and to the growers who submit their wines. Thanks also to my learned friends for the additional information and insight into reduction and oxidation issues.)

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