Expectations were very low as we headed out to Bordeaux last week for the 2021 primeurs week. We returned with a positive feeling that the wines are better than expected. The negativity in the press was understandable when considering the extreme challenges faced, but advances in wine-making techniques and the push towards more delicate, elegant wines has delivered some remarkable results.
That said this is no great vintage. 2021 is the most heterogeneous vintage we have tasted en primeur, there are many wines which will receive much acclaim, and there will be equally many that will be best avoided.
The General Wine Quality
In 2021 winemaking was of momentous importance and more so than ever before. This vintage may well have been a disaster 20 years ago, but today due to advancements in technology, knowhow and the absence Robert Parker’s preferred stylistic influence, we have a vintage that has produced wines of low alcohols, classic PH’s and cohesive balance.
The very best red wines are distinctively aromatic, elegant, vibrant and silky, offering an ethereal tension, precision and harmony. Those that were less successful are under ripe and hollow at the core, possessing spikey tannins.
The white wines are superb. Fleshy, ripe, exuberant and striking. Definitely worth seeking out.
The 2021 Bordeaux wines are certainly wines to drink and enjoy young but are wonderfully balanced, so will keep perfectly well, and some will be very long lived. This is perhaps the antithesis of the 2018 vintage, definitely more on the elegant side, even with Burgundian attributes. I don’t think we would say that it favoured one individual grape variety but certainly Cabernet Sauvignon benefitted most from the clement weather late September and into October, with many Chateau selecting their highest ever proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon. Ducru Beaucaillou for example opting for 98%, with the resulting wine sensational.
As already conceded this is outside of the great vintage bracket and no commune would be able to claim that title. However some estates are fine for their prospective properties, in particular those that trimmed their crop selection with great determination, with a view to produce as fine a wine as possible. A few examples that struck us would be Phelan Segur, Duhart Milion, GPL, Lynch Bages, Pichon Lalande, Saint Pierre, Leoville Poyferre, Ducru Beaucaillou, Rauzan Segla, Malescot St Exupery, Margaux, Haut Brion, Figeac, Canon, La Dominique, Pavie, Pavie Macquin, Valandraud, Clinet, VCC, La Conseillante…
We are not alone in applauding the quality, here are some quotes worth noting:
“At Cheval we love it. Stylistically, we much prefer the 2021 to the 2020, for example, even though we cannot rank 2021 as a great vintage.” Pierre Olivier Clouet, Cheval Blanc
“2021 is very aromatic, floral and flavoursome; and above all it has really good texture. Tannins and alcohol are in the background. You get a real sensation of silky smoothness along with fresh, juicy fruit.”
“Perhaps if this was the 1990s, we’d be talking about this as a great vintage!” Marielle Cazaux Ch. La Conseillante
“Merlots are great, but Cabernets are great too.”
“2021 represents a classic style of Ch Montrose.” Romain Bellone, Commercial Manager, Ch. Montrose
“The 2021 vintage is a lovely surprise at Ch Margaux” Thomas Burke, Commercial Relations Manager, Ch. Margaux:
“2021 produced some of the most beautiful Cabernets ever seen at Figeac” Alexa Boulton, Communications & Exports Director, Ch. Figeac
“2021 climate is back to Bordeaux.”
“2021 is a wine of balance, tension and great fragrance.”
“The Cabernet sauvignon from the younger vines is the cherry on the cake, giving this lovely perfume and spice flavour.”
“2021 will drink wonderfully after 7-8 years in bottle.” Guillaume Thienpont, Vieux Chateau Certan
Factors Affecting Wine Quality
2021 presented winegrowers with a multitude of challenges. Devastating frosts hit the region in early April, when the growing cycle was well underway. The result was extensive losses for many, Pichon-Lalande’s vineyards for example yielded just 14 hectolitres per hectare, a far cry away from the average 45 hectolitres per hectare. However, for some of Bordeaux’s most illustrious terroirs this was less of an issue. Florent Genty, Directeur Commerical, Leoville Lascases informed us that “it never freezes at Leoville Lascases, in the Clos de Leoville, due to the proximity of the water (Gironde)”, while Guillaume Thienpont of Vieux Chateau Certan explained “the Pomerol plateau protected us from the frost.”
Wet and over clouded weather followed and persisted until the summer, impacting the flowering period in certain areas and resulting in an increased risk of fungal disease, such as downy mildew. This had a discriminate effect on certain properties attacking the earlier ripening Merlots, resulting in further crop loss and increased work in the vineyard as daily monitoring of the grapes became even more essential.
The final challenge and perhaps the most crucial one came at the end of September, when deciding exactly when to harvest. Persistent, gentle rain and the threat of forecasted heavier rain prompted certain winegrowers to harvest prematurely, however fortune favours the brave and as Frederic Faye of Ch. Figeac explained, “the key to quality in 2021 was the willingness to gamble. Ignoring the short-term weather forecasts and waiting in the hope that the Cabernet would reach full ripeness.”
The Role of the Wine Maker
As always but particularly in 2021, the precision required in the extraction process was paramount. In general phenolic ripeness came ahead of sugar ripeness, and with many recording record IPT’s, a gentle extraction was key to preserve a balance between acidity, fruit and tannin. Those that brought under ripe grapes to the winery in a bid to combat lower yields, produced dilute juice and to counteract this could easily over extract, resulting in edgy and unbalanced wines.
“We used the technique of Infusion extraction during the winemaking process. No pigeage or remontage. Extraction is like making a cup of tea, we do nothing apart from check temperature and time and let the wine speak for itself.” Guillaume Pouthier, Winemaker, Ch. Les Carmes Haut Brion.
Some Chateau also felt the need to chaptalize in a bid to boost alcohol levels slightly, in order to add body and texture to their wine. This is a practice which had almost disappeared amongst Bordeaux Grand Crus Chateaux as a result of global warming. There was also an increased use of saignée, a method of bleeding the clear run juice away from the cuvee to improve concentration.
“We felt the need to saignée 10-12%, and gentle extraction was crucial” Thomas Burke, Commercial Relations Manager, Ch. Margaux
With reduced back vintage volumes lying with the Bordeaux negoce and a much reduced volume in terms of production in 2021 it is unlikely that the Bordeaux properties will reduce by very much. However, a very unsettled Europe may help a little and we will hope for between 5-10% reductions.
As regards demand, there has been a lot of wine sold into the market with five of the last 6 vintage claiming greatness. However 2021 is a welcome stylistic change from recent warmer vintages. These are wines that will certainly compliment drinkers cellars, quite a few we would have no hesitation in buying not necessarily because they will have better price/quality ratios than other wines from that particular property, but because they will offer something significantly different and very enjoyable. This is a vintage which will be agreeable to many wine merchants as tastes have changed (hence the craze for Burgundy), but the question is will the broader view of the ‘journos’ be moved by the best wines sufficiently to dole out some very high scores? Certainly the Bordeaux cognoscenti have upgraded their view of the vintage in recent months, let’s hope this is a good omen.
Will & Callum Gardener