2+2=5: Bordeaux 2021 In Bottle 


Left Bank: Saint-Estèphe | Pauillac | Saint-Julien | Margaux | Moulis and Listrac | Pessac-Léognan and Graves | Left Bank Satellites | Sauternes

Right Bank: Pomerol | Saint-Émilion | Right Bank Satellites

Question: 2+2=?

Vinous readers’ hands shoot up in the air…


But what if the answer was five? Demonstrate all you want that this is mathematically impossible. Playing devil’s advocate, I reply in my best Orwellian voice: “Too bad. We have entered the realm of irrational mathematics. The rules and logic drummed into your malleable cerebral membranes at school no longer apply!” I don’t give any reasoning. To prove my case, you watch me place two eggs in an empty eggbox, then another two. When you glance inside the box, just like that, you count five eggs.

I stopped to snap this photo looking towards Le Pin on June 17, 2021 as dark skies gathered overhead, the settled spell breaking down. The clouds sum up the mood of some winemakers at the time.

You see, as time goes by—and it goes by at a rapid pace as you get older—I am coming to the conclusion that wine flirts with a similar kind of irrationality. In a rational world, we would examine the growing season and then add the caliber of winemaking to arrive at a number that denotes the quality of the wine. Simple. In reality, it doesn’t work that way. You know that already. Firstly, wine is a fickle and mutable beverage whose intrinsic qualities are perceived differently from person to person. Then, there are extraneous forces undermining objectivity, the stature of the critic dependent on their ability to hermetically seal off their judgment from influences. Likewise, it would be so much easier if warm and clement vintages with rain at optimal moments manifested superior wines vis-à-vis cold and wet seasons without exception. That serves as a convenient rule of thumb, but alas, it is not a given. Off-vintages can bestow wines that give immense pleasure and can sometimes seem…irrational. Like 2+2=5.

This brings me to the 2021 Bordeaux vintage because, on paper, a cursory glance at the troubled growing season would make any rational person dismiss its wines. “What a load of rubbish,” someone opined to me in Bordeaux. “It was impossible to make a good wine in 2021.” He assumed that the litany of woes that beset winemakers could lead to only one result in the glass, that any bon mots ascribed to the vintage was puffery, which admittedly the Bordelais are prone toward.

My advice to the skeptic?

Don’t write the headline before tasting the wines.

I put the growing season to one side during the assessment so that I could ascertain the quality of the wine. In vino veritas. The truth lies in the wine (unless Rudy is in the same room). This was of paramount importance in revisiting the maligned 2021 vintage in bottle. For sure, I am duty-bound to mete criticism and dish out dismal scores where merited. I forewarn that there’s barely anything over 95 points. On the other hand, don’t fool yourself into thinking that the 2021 vintage is incapable of giving sensory and intellectual pleasure because, in coming years, expecting bottles to be served blind makes you regret pouring scorn.

Fruit being rigorously sorted at the reception of Lynch-Bages.

The Growing Season

For a very detailed account of the 2021 growing season, I advise you to read my en primeur report. As usual, I will summarize the vintage’s salient points so that there is some context when describing the wines. After a warm and wet winter, budding was actually a week later than the previous year. Temperatures fell in March before shooting up to 25°C on April 1 and 2, only to plummet down to -5°C on April 7 and 8. Nowhere and nobody escaped this dreaded black frost, where cold air descended en masse, rendering wax burners or wind fans futile. There was another frost episode on May 2 and 3, followed by persistent showers that allowed rot to run riot amongst the now-weakened vines.

When I visited in June, a brief window during the pandemic, I witnessed the one period of clement conditions that allowed flowering to pass successfully, albeit a fortnight later than average. Some coulure affected the Merlot. June witnessed violent storms that caused sporadic localized flooding, though the amount depends on location: 200mm in Saint-Estèphe and 150mm in Saint-Julien. The resulting humidity led to the rapid spread of mildew that was difficult to treat since tractors could not be driven in the muddy vineyards. Bunch development was uneven, and a cooler July meant that underripe bunches could not catch up; ergo, veraison was the latest in 20 years, with grapes containing high levels of malic acid. There was also 10% to 15% less sunshine than usual—some 250 hours less luminosity than average at Petrus, for example. Finally, temperatures began rising from August 10, offering some respite, and as harvest approached, another problem had to be confronted: a lack of manpower. I saw for myself a number of posters around the Médoc beseeching pickers to contact even famous estates, some people understandably reluctant to congregate as COVID-19 prevailed.

Picking was around two weeks later than usual. September saw anticyclones traverse the region, and when I stayed in Bordeaux that month, I distinctly remember the overcast skies. Though temperatures were quite warm, that meant châteaux could at least pick later without worrying too much about rain in October, with dire predictions for storms on October 2 and 3 proving to be a false alarm. Early October was quite sunny, giving later-ripening varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon a nudge toward phenolic ripeness.

The Wines

To reiterate my comment after reviewing the 2021 Bordeaux from barrel, your appreciation of the vintage will depend upon where you drink on the Bordeaux hierarchy. The apex of that pyramid accommodates delicious, charming, characterful, terroir-expressive wines; the kind presumed extinct as global warming takes effect. These are made by producers with the financial means to persevere in the vineyard throughout the demanding growing season, applying draconian selection at winery reception via large teams of sorters and optical or densiometric machines.

Indeed, I remember standing on the gantry above Lynch-Bages’s capacious, aircraft-hangar-like reception with Jean-Charles Cazes and his late father, Jean-Michel, surveying machines and workers sorting the fruit in tandem. The top châteaux are at liberty to deselect as many barrels as deemed necessary into second or third wines or sell fruit off for bulk in order to elevate and safeguard the quality of their Grand Vin. Few did that to the same extent, even 20 years ago, and it makes a fundamental difference. Thus, you cannot compare 2021 with off-vintages like 1977, 1992 or arguably even 2013. 

Moving away from the famous names, the shortcomings of 2021 become unavoidable. I found a number of underripe, rot-afflicted, sometimes dilute wines that often prompted the question: Who’s going to like drinking these? What’s their raison d’être? I don’t want to dwell on these ‘casualties of war’, though I maintain that a critic’s role is to highlight what to avoid as well as what to pursue, lest you present a filtered, rose-tinted-spectacle portrait of a vintage.

At primeur I wrote: There are no thrilling wines that set the pulse racing or have “future legend” written over them. Not a single sample entertained the possibility of an in-bottle score within sight of perfection. It’s not that kind of vintage. That certainly played out in bottle. There’s no bona fide superstar, although if I had to pick one over-achiever, it would probably be Les Carmes Haut-Brion. It’s just a brilliant 2021 that halts you in your tracks. Furthermore, as I said before, the absence of what I term “snow-capped peaks of quality” doesn’t preclude wines that I would happily drink, notwithstanding that they contain virtues that are denied by warmer growing seasons. In particular, I would point to lower alcohol levels in contrast to 2019 and 2020 and higher acidity levels that render fresh, perhaps easier-to-drink wines that I suspect may have longer staying power than some assume. Whether the 2021s will evolve into profound wines with complex secondary aromas and flavors is another question, but personally, I am intrigued to see how they will develop in bottle.  

There is a cluster of very strong-performing wines on the Left Bank that merit attention and possess the substance to repay cellaring. They are not blessed with the unerring complexity or structure of great vintages, yet perhaps their lighter chassis allows terroir to show through, particularly those estates that relish the classicism that the stürm und drang of the 2021 season gifted as some kind of minor recompense. The Right Bank matches the Left Bank, particularly the usual names on the Pomerol plateau (especially those with Cabernet Franc that benefitted from the agreeable late-season weather), and likewise those in Saint-Émilion on free-draining limestone soils. Do not underestimate the likes of l’Eglise-Clinet or Cheval Blanc. Further afield, take a look at some of the wines from Fronsac that I think performed well.

Also, I recommend taking a close look at the dry whites that were less impacted by the troublesome season than the reds. In Pessac-Léognan and the Graves, the whites have more to offer than their red counterparts— the best full of freshness and vitality. The Sauternes snatched victory from the hands of defeat. For sure, quantities are pathetically low, which means an awful lot of effort was invested into an awfully diminished quantity. Yet what survived the obstacle course is worth investigating, and at best, as I suggested out of barrel, they could well be the longest-lived wines of the vintage.

I will let the tasting notes do the talking. In the meantime, I wanted to single out a dozen less well-known properties that, against the odds, produced 2021s worth seeking out. The region is struggling as uneconomical vineyards are pulled up and turned over to more profitable agricultural products, yet Bordeaux can still deliver quality and affordable prices better than almost any other region. This should be highlighted:

2021 Badette (Saint-Émilion)

2021 Barreyres (Haut-Médoc)

2021 Beauvillage (Médoc)

2021 Clos Manou (Médoc)

2021 Dalem (Fronsac)

2021 Deyrem Valentin (Margaux)

2021 Haut Maurac (Médoc)

2021 La Garde (Pessac-Léognan)

2021 Les Cruzelles (Lalande-de-Pomerol)

2021 Petit Gravet Ainé (Saint-Émilion)

2022 Rahoul Blanc (Pessac-Léognan)

2021 Ripeau (Saint-Émilion)

Constance and Noëmie Durantou at l’Eglise-Clinet.

Final Thoughts

The one takeaway from the countless hours I spent researching my Bordeaux Vintage Guide book is that there is not a perfect relationship between growing season and the resulting quality of wine. For certain, it underlines quality. However, writing this conclusion less than 24 hours after a blind-poured 1973 La Fleur-Pétrus convinced a table of experienced palates that it came from a great vintage, the truth is that wine is “reassuringly unpredictable.”

But we ought not to be surprised.

Wine is a living entity. It doesn’t obey rules. Coupled with the more exacting tactics, particularly amongst its quality-driven producers irrespective of level on the hierarchy, the 2021 vintage is one to approach with caution but also to approach with an open-minded attitude—Enticingly Fallible, to quote the title of my own en primeur report.

Two thousand twenty-one was not the catastrophe some predicted. Sure, there are many potholes to avoid, and I am sure some châteaux will blanch at some of my less-than-glowing reviews. But much of the time, that is unavoidable since all winemakers lie at the mercy of the weather, and in 2021, it made conditions as difficult as possible—but not completely insurmountable. Moreover, the 2021 vintage adds another color to the frequent warm hues of recent vintages, an alternative that will please those seeking less alcoholic, perhaps earlier-drinking wines.


With reference to George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, I am not asserting that the 2021 vintage is worth looking at because I am a supposed voice of authority, and you must take my word for it.

Go taste for yourselves.

Just keep an open mind.

Irrationality can taste good.

© 2024, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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