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Enticingly Fallible: Bordeaux 2021 En Primeur

BY NEAL MARTIN | MAY 12, 2022

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

It hasn’t been a good few weeks. A text sent from a sun-lounger in Malibu from the perpetually-absent proprietor made it clear that promotion in the forthcoming reclassification was expected. The château manager responded by pulling out all the stops to impress authorities. Alas, breath-taking overhead shots of the new winery came down in flames, literally, when their drone plummeted into their century-old Cabernet Franc. Later, the extortionate product placement fee to feature in “Sex In The City III” in order to “embrace female oenophiles” resulted in their bottle being misused for a scene that made the proprietor choke on his popcorn. Marketing reassured him that it might in fact appeal to the INAO committee - depending their broad-mindedness. 

Add to all this malarkey, the 2021 season was barely out of its starting blocks when it commenced trending for all the wrong reasons. The manager examines a photo of his vineyard at night, the lattice of burning wax candles warding away frost in April.

“At least we reacted and avoided frost damage,” he tells the estate’s temporary vineyard manager, his predecessor having quit after accepting a less stressful role laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel.

“Umm. We actually did lose a large swathe of vines,” he sheepishly replies. “We could find only one candle. We lit it anyway and Photoshopped the image to make it look like hundreds. Look carefully. Every single flame is identical. Social media went mad for it.”

He stares back in disbelief. He needs a positive in a season of negatives.

“Well, all that horsetail and yarrow preparation sprayed during a gibbous moon, not to mention carrying our portable Steiner shrine aloft through the vines, stopped rot after May’s downpours and…”

“Mildew was actually more rampant than that unmentionable scene in Sex In The City III. Our biodynamic shaman misread the instructions and sprayed during a waxing moon. Consequently, all treatments were useless, so bad that even the mildew was effected by rot.”

“But there was 2021’s hot and dry summer…wasn’t there?”

“Not until September. Then we couldn’t find anyone to pick. In the end, we hired five-year olds from the local kindergarten and pretended to play a game to see who could pick the most bunches. Their little feet reduced soil compaction so that’s something to consider for the future, not to mention that we saved money by paying them in sweets boiled from leftover chaptalisation sugar.”

“So, we have some wine then.”

“Yes,” he answers and ceremoniously places a half-bottle on his desk.

“A-ha. A sample for me to try…”

“Err…no. That’s it. We produced 375mm.”

“One bottle? Is that all? I’ve got half-a-dozen coaches packed with en primeur critics arriving next week.”

“Better than nothing. The rest of the bottles will be sold as NFTs. This bottle is reserved for Neal Martin to try en primeur.”

“Oh, back in town is he?”

“Apparently. First time doing primeur here instead of his back garden since 2018. Here, take a read of his report…”

Growing Season

I witnessed much of the tumultuous season first-hand during my time spent in Bordeaux throughout the year, from flowering under clear blue skies to watching the first sorties in the vineyard at harvest. Let’s go back to the beginning of the year and analyse the minutiae of this complex and turbulent growing season that confronted vineyard managers with a succession of crucial decisions that underline the variegated quality of the 2021 vintage.

The year began with spells of very cold and rainy weather interspersed by benign periods, such that the average temperatures look deceiving normal. February was the third warmest in half-a-century. There were also heavy downpours, almost twice the amount in 2018/2019 (450mm from December to March), doubtlessly welcomed by winemakers assuming global warming is a permanent fixture. March was fresh with some frost, drier than usual. These conditions led to the first buds spotted amongst the vines around 22 March, about one week later than the precocious 2020 vintage. 

The beginning of April witnessed the first unexpected event, an omen for the incipient season, as the mercury shot up to almost 25°C on 1 and 2 April. Temperatures then ominously tumbled to -5°C on the nights of 7 and 8 April. At Grand-Puy-Lacoste, it fell from sunny 30°C to a rainy 10°C within 24 hours. Yet the impact was less severe than other French wine regions. It was most acute in the Graves, Sauternes and parts of the Right Bank, though not a single appellation escaped frost. The extent of damage varying between châteaux. It is important to identify the frost as “gelée noir” or “black frost” whereby cold air descends as one massive block, coldness is everywhere. This, as Bruno Borie explained at Ducru-Beaucaillou, renders countermeasures such as wax candles and wind-fans far less effective, since you simply blow cold away to be replaced by more cold air (although there is some benefit as inter-molecular friction increases temperatures slightly.) Lilian Barton-Sartorius mentioned that the first night was indeed a black frost, whereas the second was a less pernicious white frost.

This photo was taken at Domaine de Chevalier on 14 June during fruit set.

Following that episode, vine growth eventually accelerated in mid-April, then slowed towards the end of the month when damaged vines reacted to the frost producing contre-bourgeons, secondary buds. April was also remarkably dry, just 24mm rain compared to a 1981-2010 average of 78mm.

If winemakers thought April was dramatic, then May threw everything at the vineyard. Late spring frosts on 2 and 3 May inflicted further damage. Pauillac struggled to reach a bone-chilling 1.6°C on the morning of the latter. Temperatures rapidly recovered, reaching 25°C, but accompanied by persistent showers, 116mm recorded that month compared to a 1981-2010 average of 80mm – a perfect environment for rot to run riot, particularly amongst vines weakened by the earlier frost. Vineyard managers had to pre-empt rot by spraying their vines at every available dry window of opportunity. Sprays are preventative, not remedial. Consequently if you miss a window then you struggle to get on top of the spread and alas rot does not conveniently spread Monday-to-Friday. Winemakers rued how they sacrificed their weekends, albeit to a wine writer that sacrifices almost every weekend, so apologies for my lack of empathy. Eric Boissenot commented how muddy conditions made it difficult to manoeuvre tractors through the vines, further impeding timeliness.

June witnessed another meteorological volte-face. During my stay in the region that month, it was t-shirt and shorts weather, wall-to-wall sunshine coinciding with successful flowering from the end of May, mi-floraison on 10 June compared to 26 May in 2020, two weeks later than average. Speaking to numerous winemakers at the time, I remember their cautious optimism. However, this warm spell was deceptive. At Petrus, Olivier Berrouet explained how flowering was poor, Merlot was affected by coulure. Asking how that occurred, given the clement conditions at the time, Berrouet ran to his office and printed off a telling graph of daily rainfall during flowering and, smack bang, at mi-fleuraison. The day after, there was 16mm and 11mm of rain. This localised rainfall added another layer of complexity to 2021, where some châteaux suffered disturbed fruit set and coulure, while others did not.

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

Hopes of a settled season were shattered on the morning I departed Bordeaux to drive east to Mâconnais. Setting off under sunny skies, it felt uncomfortably humid. Within 30 minutes those skies blackened. Bordeaux was struck by a series of violent storms that affected most regions across France, deluges localised, sporadic and at times, “biblical”. According to winemaker Gavin Quinny’s annual report, Bordeaux received 184mm of rainfall compared to a 10-year average of 86mm. Precipitation levels varied between appellations. For example, Graves received the equivalent of two months’ precipitation during this stormy period. Figures show that the 17 and 18 June saw 37mm and 41mm of rain respectively, though those figures vary according to locality. Christian Seely explained how there was 50mm more rainfall at Pichon-Baron, in the south of the Pauillac appellation, vis-à-vis at Pibran in the north. I pulled out precise rainfall figures from estates’ growing season reports from around Bordeaux so that you can see the differences…

(from north to south)

Cos d’Estournel - Pauillac – 200mm

Pontet-Canet - Pauillac – 129mm

Léoville Las-Cases - Pauillac – 150mm

La Lagune – Haut-Médoc – 197mm

Cheval Blanc – Saint-Émilion – 166mm

Smith Haut Lafitte - Pauillac – 200mm

There was yet another side-order of hailstorms. These downpours fomented a warm and humid environment, ideal for mildew to spread rapidly, ergo no relief for already exhausted vineyard teams. Bunch development was uneven, some closing, others barely formed, complicating the vineyard husbandry and potentially the harvest, lest the rest of the growth cycle provided conditions to even out the variegated ripeness. Maybe it would be one of those turnabout seasons rescued by an idyllic second half? 

Not in 2021. From 3 July temperatures fell away, and the warmth necessary to induce more even ripeness never came, despite a brief warm spell between 17 and 23 July. Average maximum temperature for the month was 25.7°C, more than a degree less than median. After the earlier upheavals, it needed to be hotter. Sporadic showers, particularly during a damp spell between 11 and 13 July kept mildew pressure high. Growth cycles were delayed by languishing temperatures so that berries began to change colour only in the first week of August. It was the complete opposite of the previous three years marked by dry and hot conditions, the so-called “canicule”. The average maximum temperature was 25.9°C instead of a 1981-2010 mean of 27.1°C. Mi-véraison was 11 August, the latest in two decades as vines directed their energy toward foliage rather than ripening bunches. In addition, malic acid levels remained persistently high. Terroir seems to be an important factor in terms of how véraison was spun-out. Jean-Charles Cazes reported that at Lynch-Bages it lasted from mid-August to early-September depending on the parcel. This resulted in a very short time between the grapes changing colour and picking. Just to add another hurdle into the mix, one under-reported I might add, was the infestation of Cicadellidae or leafhoppers. Guillaume Pouthier, one of the few that admitted the problem, pointed out how these pests can dry foliage, thereby further reducing photosynthesis.

Inspecting vineyards in Pauillac, many bunches looked as if they had been through the wars. This was taken on 28 September during harvest.

In tandem, there was 10% to 15% less sunshine than usual, the lowest amount of Growing Degree Days since 2013. Most châteaux either downplayed or entirely ignored this deficit. Let’s be clear about this: photosynthesis is the light energy to convert water and CO2 into energy-rich organic compounds, sugar, and oxygen. Again, Berrouet was one of the few to admit the consequences of this deficit, some 250 hours of luminosity less than average at Petrus, the prime reason why he picked three weeks later than in 2020. You can remedy a lot of deficiencies in the vineyard these days…sunlight is not one of them. Thankfully, the mercury finally began rising from 10 August and berries could finally start to ripen and accumulate sugar. After many traumatic weeks, this was the first glimmer of hope. One curious phenomenon is that some of the younger vines suffered more stress than older vines, ergo, produced equal if not superior fruit. As Pierre-Olivier Clouet explained at Cheval Blanc, that is because the moisture lay deeper in the soils and is accessible by older vines with deeper root systems, but not by younger vines that consequently suffered more stress.

The end of the tunnel was in sight. Time to rally teams of pickers to harvest what had survived. One small snag. There was a shortage of pickers. You rarely read about this in vintage summaries, but think how vital that is. Sipping an espresso in Pauillac as harvest was underway, I spotted a poster from a well-known nearby estate headlined “Recherche des vendangeurs”, beseeching anyone to help with the incipient harvest. Proximity to Bordeaux city is a factor, pickers are more inclined to sign on in nearby appellations such as Pessac-Léognan or perhaps Margaux, than an hour’s commute up to Pauillac or Saint-Estèphe. It is a problem that seems to get worse each year, not only in Bordeaux, and I’ll pass over some of the social problems that can occur, drunkenness, drug-taking and occasional fights etc. 

The first pickers went out into the vines around 28 August, a fortnight later than in 2020, to harvest the first fruit for dry Sauternes, those in the Graves went in around mid-September. The high malic levels/lower pH were beneficial for the Sauvignon Blanc. We had now reached September. Surely there would be some kind of relief after a season that had left vineyard teams fatigued and occasionally at the end of their tether.

No. 

Three anticyclones traversed the region, leading to overcast skies and brief rainy spells (8-9, 17-19 and 24 September totalling 71mm at Lafite Rothschild). This came with a mass of warm air resulting in one of the three warmest Septembers since 2000 – an average maximum of 25.6°C compared to a 1981-2010 average of 24.0°C. Yet, it was sunshine that the bunches really required. The Merlots, often picked at this time, sluggishly accreted sugar whilst acid levels remained stubbornly high. Most of the Merlot was picked from the third week of September until the first week in October. Touring various châteaux that period, I distinctly remember the lack of sunshine. Though, the general mood was upbeat, perhaps a relief that they were reaching the end of a stressful year without the pressure to pick early before sugar levels turn their wines into Vintage Port. In 2021, winemakers could pick at leisure - there were no time constraints. One feature of the Merlot is the weight of berries that averaged 176 grams per 100 berries compared to 151 grams and 127grams respectively in 2020 and 2019, which meant that musts risked dilution.

But it was not over yet. Unlike recent years, the month of October came into play. Whereas in 2020 the fruit was in the vat by this time, October would be critical in terms of later-ripening grape varieties: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and not forgetting Petit Verdot, which contributes higher percentages in some blends. It was warmer than usual, 20.3°C compared to 19.4°C with much less rainfall, just 32mm compared to a 1981-2010 average of 93mm. It was particularly sunny…at last! The month saw 207 hours of sunshine compared to a 1981-2010 average of 147 hours – just what those aforementioned varieties needed to nudge them towards phenolic maturity. Here, it is interesting to look at the analysis of the berries. Cabernet Sauvignon by 27 September contained 205g/L residual sugar on average compared to 235, 233 and 230 in 2020, 2019 and 2018 respectively, less than in 2013 at 215g/L. Figures for Merlot are likewise lower in 2021 than previous years. 

One fly in the ointment was the forecast for heavy rain on the weekend of 2 and 3 October. Winemakers had to make a decision, whether to expedite the picking and sacrifice that needed extra ripeness on offer or pray that the forecasts were wrong. Prayers were answered: the weather forecast was wrong; the sky was overcast, but the rain took a detour north in Cognac. Those that gambled were rewarded by a few extra warm and dry days that underlies some of the most successful 2021s.

Readings for malic acid levels are quite startling at 4.0g/L compared to 2.8g/L in 2018 and again, the berries are heavier than usual, albeit to a lesser degree than Merlot, 138 grams per 100 berries compared to 99 grams and 105 grams in the previous two years. During these final days, vineyard teams were at liberty to practice bespoke harvests, often picking à la Sauternes with multiple passes through the vineyard so that the same parcel was broached in piecemeal fashion, another underlying factor of success, even though few estates can do that due to a lack of pickers or money. 

This photograph was taken from the upper level at Lynch-Bages and gives you a good idea of the logistical exercise in bringing in the harvest. The large reception area enables sorting tables to be lined up and avoid any queues. You can also see the stainless-steel “Cuvons” that hoist the fruit gently across the huge winery and into the vats.

Sauternes Growing Season

The Sauternais endured many a sleepless night in 2021. Nothing new there. After early budding, frosts on 7 and 8 April machine-gunned the vines whilst still in their starting blocks. Driving through Barsac back in June, the area that bore the brunt of devastation, the vines were a sorry sight, some parcels with nary a bunch. Wet conditions in May and June disrupted flowering and prompted outbreaks of mildew. July and August were notably cool and overcast. The silver lining is that it helped lock in acidity, though lack of rainfall conspired to inhibit botrytis formation at the beginning of September. By now you understand why some winemakers must have felt like throwing in the towel. However, all was not lost. Mid-September rains ignited botrytis formation, and early October witnessed foggy mornings and bright sunny daytimes. Fruit that had survived was found perfectly ripe. Some châteaux conducted a first trie around 31 September or 1 October, though this was limited in volume. A small burst of heat and rain on 3 October predicated a second trie from around 9 to 16 October, which formed the heart of the 2021 Sauternes. There was a third and final trie from around 27 to 30 October at the end of the month, although this again was limited in volume and quality.

The first bunches arriving at the new winery at Figeac. Frédéric Faye was serene when I dropped in at this crucial moment. The man is unflappable!

Winemaking

Faced with an entirely different nature of fruit compared to the previous three years winemakers had to rethink their approach to vinification. The Merlots were often larger in size, with less concentration, less alcohol albeit often with similar IPT/tannin levels. Thankfully, the warm and dry conditions in the weeks preceding the harvest meant that bunches were in healthy condition, which meant there was little rot to weed out. However, sorting was necessary to parse out the unripe berries since the growing season induced variegated fruit maturity levels. When touring reception areas during harvest, I witnessed fully-manned sorting tables, often working alongside optical and densiometric sorting machines. Those that had conducted leaf-plucking and green harvests during the summer were rewarded with more uniform ripeness levels.

Winemakers’ first challenge was to pre-plan exactly how to fill their vats since yields were low. This advantaged those furnished with smaller vessels, affording them more flexibility. Estates such as Léoville Barton and Figeac were able to use their new configuration of vats for the first time. In terms of alcoholic fermentation, most continue the trend of gentler ferments at lower temperatures than a decade ago, the watchword of “infusion” rather than “extraction”. Cuvaison periods were either normal or slightly curtailed, partly through fear of extracting any vegetal compounds. Christian Seely at Pichon-Baron was one of few to admit that they found that pips were unripe. Wineries equipped with troconic-shaped tanks, such as Ducru-Beaucaillou and Haut-Bailly, found that these naturally enhanced the maceration of the skins without forcing the must through pump-overs. Many châteaux in the higher ranks limited the amount of remontage. As I tasted through those on the lower rungs, I found that some had tried to compensate for the dilute Merlot by forcing extraction, often resulting in hard tannins and hollow finishes. Unlike in Burgundy, the malolactic fermentation was done at the same time and whilst most reported it was normal, Aymeric de Gironde at Troplong Mondot told me that it was slow and this made blending tricky.

Another method of increasing concentration is bleeding the tanks, or saignée (draining off a proportion of the juice in order to enhance the skin-to-juice ratio.) It’s one of those practices that, for some reason, winemakers feel uncomfortable admitting. In 2021, it was so widespread that most winemakers freely acknowledged if they had. Some are vehemently against the practice, arguing that bleeding risks concentrating the bad elements of the must. Alternatively, châteaux could use the pressed wine to enhance concentration. In 2021, this was an important factor, not least because nowadays the quality of pressed wine is vastly improved via selection and handling. You will find figures in individual producer profiles, but for example, Montrose added 12% and Lafite-Rothschild 15%. I suspect this was a practice used more on the Right Bank where there are more Merlot-dominated blends, Clos-Fourtet, for example, at 20%. Of course, you can also use reverse osmosis machines. Since whenever you mention them, winemakers respond as if they have never heard of them, it is difficult to calculate how many wheeled them out. 

In terms of élevage, the trend toward using less new oak continues, rather seems to have plateaued at what is deemed the optimal percentage (though I wonder if some with lower yields might have used a higher percentage than intended?) Many perform more reductive maturation using less racking, partly because they want to use less SO2 to keep the wine protected. One or two reported that they might shorten the length of barrel maturation, though that decision can be taken in the months to come. 

Guillaume Pouthier at Les Carmes Haut-Brion, striking an individual path using Cabernet Franc, whole bunch addition and amphorae. All irrelevant if the wine does not taste fantastic – thankfully it does.)

How The Wines Were Tasted

Spring saw a return to tasting barrel samples in Bordeaux. In theory, my evaluation began back in September when I tasted some unfermented juice in tank during harvest and again in early March. This was mere groundwork for three-weeks of tasting where I visited more châteaux than ever before, as well as tasting with consultants, négociants and organisational bodies. As usual, many samples were tasted on multiple occasions.

The weather was initially benign and then downright miserable the second week of my visits. The best tasting conditions fell during official UGC week that saw sunny warm weather, which neatly coincided with several large wrap-up tastings. This year, the tastings shifted from March to the end of April, an additional one-month in barrel that benefitted this vintage in particular, affording wines more breathing space between January’s blending and en primeur week. Whilst nearly all final blends are made on the Left Bank, it should be noted that this is not necessarily the case on the Right Bank, so consider this when perusing blends and alcohol levels since they might alter, whilst pressed wines might be added later during élevage.

More châteaux than ever demanded in person presentations, several withdrawing samples from UGC tastings, which meant that at times I spent more time driving than tasting. That said, I understand why they wanted to recount the 2021 season face-to-face and explain decisions taken during the season. Facts and figures do not tell the entire story. It demanded time to reflect on the mass of information, stitch together consensus and question contradictory statements. Too many journalists prejudge a vintage before tasting the wines, headlines prewritten to grab attention, and 2021 was no different in that respect.

On reflection, 2021 was one of the most difficult to assess since my first primeur back in 1997. Perversely, that made it the most fulfilling. It is a primeur that demanded experience. It is an exercise in analysing the components of unfinished wines and extrapolating that sensory information and data to estimate the quality of the finished product and beyond. To do that, you need to have tasted the unfinished/finished wines, preferably sighted and blind, to understand how they evolve, subject to the growing season and winemaking practices, to work out what you get right and more importantly, what you get wrong. Primeur is just the first part of a triangulation exercise in ascertaining quality, the drawback being that wines are released when only the first assessment is done. As such, in this vintage I considered challenging years of the past such as 1999, 2002, 2007, 2011 and 2017, seasons with unignorable shortcomings, yet studded with gems, reminders that it is possible to transcend the limitations of a vintage unless the season is completely unsalvageable, like 2013.

The first time I had been back to Pontet Canet at en primeur, it was a pleasure to catch up with Justine Tesseron and winemaker Mathieu Bessonnet.

The Wines

Everyone, from proprietors to vineyard labourers, endured a stressful season, one that took the most equanimous man or woman to the brink (except Frédéric Faye). From the depths of despair in early August, as the first fruit entered winery receptions, nobody was certain whether the recent spell of clement weather had been sufficient to compensate for manifold early-season setbacks. Even by the beginning of 2022 post-blending, many châteaux vexed how their wines showed, and only from mid-March were there inklings that some 2021s are better than predicted. It encouraged the Bordelais to begin talking up the wines leading up to en primeur, partly fuelled by the emotion stirred up by a topsy-turvy season and in some cases, getting a bit carried away. My job is to be sympathetic to their plight, but put emotion aside and appraise samples objectively, conjecture where 2021 will ultimately be judged amongst the panoply of recent vintages.

The calibre of 2021 depends on your purview. Does it encompass the entirety of Bordeaux or just the elite producers intending to release their wines onto the Place de Bordeaux in coming weeks?

Depending on which you choose, you arrive at different conclusions. 

The headline is that 2021 marks a welcome return to a classic style of Bordeaux in terms of lower ripeness levels and less alcohol. On two or three occasions, someone told me that I must surely love this vintage, tailor-made for the so-called “European palate”. This is a facile way of looking at things. It ignores the fact that hotter growing seasons vary in quality just as cooler ones do. It’s not black and white. Whilst I admire many of the finest 2021s that transcend expectations, I cannot overlook or downplay their shortcomings. Whilst I admire the style of 2021s, a similar season without frost, endemic rot, rainfall and a cool/overcast summer would have yielded a 2021-plus, as no doubt winemakers will be at pains to tell you when that happens. On occasion when winemakers generously, though perchance, unwisely juxtaposed their 2021 with a 2019 or 2016, it merely confirmed that it does not rank with the greats and often exposed what lacked.

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. On the other hand, plenty stand as testament to the effort and skill of winemakers and vineyard teams, a handful achieving remarkable levels of quality given the challenges faced, impossible levels just a few years ago. There are wines that will offer drinking pleasure and wines whose evolution in bottle will be fascinating to monitor. It’s a frustrating and complex growing season with the potential to become, at least at its best, the most intellectually-stimulating to drink despite the absence of undisputable masterpieces. The 2021 vintage is enticingly fallible in nature.

This is not a vintage where geographic generalisations are possible. You had to treat each château as a separate entity because the result could be vastly different from its peers. It’s neither a Right nor Left Bank vintage as even some winemakers insisted, nor is it possible to single out an appellation as above any other. Therefore, instead of my usual breakdown of each appellation, I will take the constituent parts of a wine and discuss those in turn.

Colour – I have never scored a wine according to colour. I merely observe it to see if they might be a fault. However, if we determine colour as either red or white, let’s be clear that 2021 offers a bevy of outstanding dry whites. In Pessac-Léognan/Graves, when an estate produced both, I often favoured their white over their red counterpart. It is a category often overlooked by consumers, but in 2021, I would look at them carefully and not just at the top of the hierarchy, but at more modest addresses, which should offer great value-for-money. 

Aromas – At their best, the aromatics possess ethereal pure blackberry and blueberry fruit with floral scents, quite often violet or iris. The finest convey a sense of terroir and mineralité, perhaps more so than the super-ripe vintages of late. The best Left Bank wines capture the essence of Cabernet Sauvignon with attractive cedar, mint and tobacco aromas that complement the fruit, likewise those on the Right Bank with Cabernet Franc (and occasionally Cabernet Sauvignon) also gained a sense of dimension. Petit Verdot often heightens the floral nature of the 2021 aromatics, though you have to be careful because it is an aromatically potent variety and anything over 10% of the blend you have to be careful that it does not overpower the terroir or other varieties. 

At their worst, I found rather monotone, often tertiary scents indicating a lack of fruit concentration. The Merlot sometimes dilutes bouquets when teams rushed into the vines before the forecasted rains on 2 and 3 October and picked phenolically unripe fruit. Generally, you might argue that Merlot was weak in the Médoc. However, Thomas Duroux at Palmer pointed out, it depends on where your Merlot is planted, since in the Médoc, it has historically been relegated to less propitious sites. Perhaps remarkably, given the season, there is a low percentage of wines with underripe green traits since the warm weather at the end of the season burned off pyrazines. Yet, the vintage is blemished by some where the vegetal notes are patently obvious and off-putting. Rot would often rear its ugly head with malodourous metallic, stale scents that I suspect will be permanently in situ. 

Father and son, the Mitjaviles at Tertre-Rôteboeuf, one of the most successful Saint-Émilions in 2021.

Palate Fruit Profile – Châteaux whose teams laboured in the vineyard, especially those that resurrected the almost forgotten practices of leaf-removal and green harvest, benefitted from more intense fruit, both on the nose and palate. Plenty of blackberry and dark cherry fruit, though I found less red fruit character than might have been expected given the cooler growing season.

Balance – Bordeaux winemakers are skilled technicians when it comes to making sure their wines are balanced. Even if a wine is simple, it can still represent an attractive proposition if balanced. Indeed, it serves a vital role in satiating the thirst for those seeking simpler Claret. Not everyone wishes to cellar wine for decades and philosophize over them, not everyone has the means to shell out for a Grand Cru Classé. Balance varies between château, so I can only advise reading the tasting notes. 

Ripeness – The 2021s are markedly different to the previous three vintages with palpably less opulent, extravagant levels of ripeness. That is something that personally I welcome – I don’t want prune-like, fig-like notes in my “sexy” Bordeaux. Bordeaux should never be “sexy” but can be “sensual” – there’s a difference. For reasons already stated, there are many examples were ripeness was not achieved because of the cool summer months coupled with an expedited picking, the Merlot suffering dilution. However, one important factor is that the growing season had naturally decreased bunches, so that come the warm sunny weather in September and October, the energy was focused on far less quantity of fruit. Many winemakers mentioned that without this, it would never have been possible to reach such levels of ripeness or concentration. The most successful wines are those that de-leafed and green harvested in the summer, gambling on a continuing of inclement conditions. It is a risk that paid dividends come harvest.

Alcohol – Lower alcohol levels are one of the major headlines in 2021, not least because many assumed that with global warming they were a thing of the past. Most alcohol levels are around 12.8% to 13.3%, often more than a degree less than in 2019 or 2020, which makes a significant difference if consuming more than a tasting measure. We should put the levels in historical context because I recall the outcry and predictions of doom when similar levels were reached with the 2000 vintage. So 2021 is a far cry from the 11.5% to 12.0% levels of yesteryear. A majority of estates chaptalized in order to lift levels firmly into the 13% zone, sometimes in order to extend the alcoholic fermentation. There are cases where there are markedly differing levels between adjacent châteaux, for example L’Evangile (14.5%) and La Conseillante (13.3%). That comes down to differences not only in picking dates, but also vineyard husbandry and blend composition.

Acidity – As you might expect, the 2021s contain higher acidity levels than the previous vintages, and in the best, most balanced wines, it adds freshness and perhaps longevity. Mouton-Rothschild, Léoville Las-Cases and Rauzan-Ségla all contain a pH of 3.7, so it is pretty uniform across the Left Bank. They are marginally lower on the Right Bank, often between 3.60 and 3.65. Perhaps my one area of concern derives from some of the Saint-Émilion wines on the limestone. The naturally low pH levels that advantaged those properties in warm growing seasons threatened to handicap them when bunches are already endowed natural acidity. In terms of overall balance, I found that those on gravel soils such as Figeac and Vieux Château Certan, just seemed to have more harmony. Thankfully, there are very few sharp, angular or shrill wines that I am sure there would have been a few years ago, testifying improvements in vineyard management and vinification. 

Tannins – One quirk of the 2021 vintage is that whilst ripeness levels are not at the level of recent vintages, IPT levels were comparable to recent years, which posed a challenge to winemakers. IPT was 90 at Lynch-Bages, 77 at Léoville Las-Cases. Winemakers could push the maceration hard to compensate for the lack of concentration, but that risked extracting undesirable coarse tannins and under-ripeness. The best 2021s actually accept the limitations of the growing season and don’t try to mimic recent vintages – resulting in some really quite wonderful wines. Contrast these with those that attempted to manipulate the raw materials into something with greater power and density and more often than not, they resulted in wines whose lack of fruit exposed the harsh tannins, “doughnut” wines without a middle, dry finishes temporarily filled by wood tannins that will ultimately dry out.

Corinne Mentzelopoulos and Alexis Leven-Mentzelopoulos on the steps of Château Margaux.

Complexity – Whilst there are some potentially complex 2021s in the making, they are fewer in number than previous vintages. There were few that stopped you in your tracks due to the profundity.

Why is that? The best wines were able to reach full maturity in the end?

I attribute this to the pattern of ripening that was crammed into the final weeks before picking. That has many benefits that means that the general level is much higher than say, 2013. However, true complexity comes from a steady and even, incremental ripening when vines remain on that liminal point of being stressed but without contemplating shutting-down. Had summer seen higher temperatures and crucially, more sunshine hours, then the 2021 would have been imbued with much more complexity. Go compare a 2021 with a 2016 in years to come to see the difference.

Length – Perhaps one shortcoming of the 2021 vintage is that the growing season did not bestow wines with exceptionally long finishes. To be honest, when the wines are balanced and fresh, it is not a major issue, though on many occasions they conveyed a sense of abruptness on finishes. 

Production/Volume – This is going to be a small vintage, volumes driven down naturally (frost and rot) and by winemakers’ intervention (green harvesting and rigorous selection in the vineyard and at reception). Latest figures report 3.77 million hectolitres compared to 4.4 million in 2020, though it is still more than the frost-affected 2017. According to Gavin Quinney’s report, the highest average yield was in Saint-Estèphe at 40.7hL/ha, the lowest amongst Saint-Émilion Grand Crus at 27.5hL/ha. The growing season killed off some labels on the Right Bank such as the Vauthier’s Simard and de Fonbel, Jonathan Maltus’s Le Carré and Les Astéries. However, some châteaux managed to crop over 40hL/ha where they escaped frost and rot. In Sauternes, volume tumbled by 57%, averaging just 3.5hL/ha, a horrendously low level even by their standards. Many châteaux produced nothing, including Climens where Bérénice Lurton lost three of the last four harvests. Remember, low yields are almost seen as a badge of honour amongst the top château, but for estates that sell their wine for a handful of Euros, the same paltry yields can be financially ruinous.

Longevity – This is the tricky one, the great unknown. Many vintages have been written off at birth and go on to defy predictions, that last for many years. Even the best 2021s lack substance and grip, yet they possess the acidity and balance to suggest they may well reward patience. The question is, how they will repay those that might cellar them for the long-term? One thing for sure is that it will be fascinating to watch evolve them in bottle vis-à-vis ripe vintages such as 2019 or 2020. Many are bestowed “drinkability”, a banal but important term, since buyers seeking early-drinking Bordeaux will be attracted to the vintage, particularly restaurant and supermarket buyers. However, they will have to pick carefully because there are many 2021s that failed to reach full ripeness, their dry, herbaceous and coarse finishes consigning them to short lives with only a modicum of drinking pleasure.

Noëmie and Constance Durantou oversaw a superb set of wines at l’Eglise-Clinet that follow in the path of their late father’s style. As usual, don’t ignore their fantastic value-for-money labels from Lalande de Pomerol and Castillon.

Under-the-Radar Gems

I confess that at one point I did consider limiting my primeur report solely to châteaux that release their wines from May to June. What is the point reviewing an unfinished wine that will not be released onto the market in the near future? But this would give a skewed representation of the vintage, notwithstanding that many smaller wines are hunted by large-scale distributors seeking Bordeaux at a particular price-point. These are deals that are done directly with properties outside the Place. It goes without saying that 2021 is a minefield at the lower rungs, however, as always, there are definitely wines where I sat back with a smile on my face and silently said to myself: “Good for you.” Here are some that I have picked out… 

· Charmail – Haut-Médoc

· Château du Retout - Médoc

· Dalem - Fronsac 

· La Grande Clotte Blanc – Bordeaux Blanc

· Mont-Pérat Blanc – Bordeaux Blanc

· Reignac Blanc – Bordeaux Supérieur

· Veyry – Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux

Sauternes: The Survivors Flourish!

Sauternes winemakers are redefining the word “beleaguered”. With such a miniscule crop and conspicuous missing names, I wondered whether my annual schlep down to the appellation was worth it? It definitely was. Yields are tiny but generally excellent in quality: pure and poised with ample botrytis, beautiful Sauternes that should age wonderfully in bottle. Perhaps, 2021 is one year when you should reward yourself with a couple of cases of botrytis-affected magic given the small quantities. The best will doubtlessly outlive nearly all their dry red counterparts. In addition, on this occasion I tasted a range of dry white Sauternes, which under current legislation must be labelled as Bordeaux Blanc – a source of contention within the region. These are keenly priced and, following a vertical tasting of Clos des Lune at Domaine de Chevalier, it was clear that they can mature in bottle.

The Market

I asked many proprietors about the prospects for price decreases, logical given that even they admitted that quality was below that of recent vintages. My enquiry prompted one or two to squirm awkwardly. It became clear that most will resist a decrease in price and will try to keep them as close or equal to 2020 prices. Their defence is that over the past couple of years négociants have reported strong sales, the withdrawal of 25% import tariffs boosting demand in the United States, no stock left in négociants’ warehouses, lower volumes in 2021, rising costs of production and so on and on. Another underlying reason is the byzantine system of ownership between numerous family or corporate. Shareholders who expect a decent return, often pressurize the person running the estate to meet their financial expectations irrespective of what Mother Nature threw at them over previous months. It does not matter about market sentiment or the glaringly obvious fact that consumers can find physically-available vintages from merchants are the global competition that Bordeaux now faces. The entire system, whether it is courtiers making sure their 2% cut is taken from the largest number possible, to withholding stock, to squeeze prices upwards to ensuring that your price matches or beats your rival, conspires to keep prices high. The person that pays for that is you. 

Then again, you can say “No, thank you” and indeed, speaking to several merchants attending en primeur, they were there to test the water and shake hands rather than planning to blow a large wad of cash on 2021s. Privately, many intend to cherry-pick those with whom they have a long relationship, those keenly-priced and/or with high scores.

You can look at it another way. Compared to the astronomical prices being paid for that other French region beginning with the second letter of the alphabet (not Bandol), Bordeaux can represent a bargain. Even in a difficult vintage like 2021, they mass-produce quality wines that sell for a few Euros is what keeps people coming back. Also, who knows when another so-called “classic” vintage will be on the market? If 2018-2020 is the new normal, another 2021 might not appear for a few years. Personally, I think there will, but in any case, it will be intriguing to see how Europe and the United States react to however châteaux-owners decide to position this vintage.

Final Thoughts

“Numbers are useless,” quipped Baptiste Guinaudeau during my visit. I don’t agree, but it is true that scores cannot tell the story of a vintage. They are an effective means of communicating appreciation to another person. Removed from the original article, their importance is magnified, wines distilled into numerical compounds. That’s just the way things are. Truth is that there has never been a vintage where context, prose and background information are essential for understanding. As such, they might be misinterpreted as a lukewarm reaction to the 2021s, especially at a time when there appears to be no cure for score inflation.

On the contrary, there are many aspects of the vintage that I admire. When the hoopla simmers down and euphemisms are packed away for another year, when winemakers have the next vintage to promote, there will be a sober judgement of a vintage where Bordeaux did its best when the odds were against it. Often during visits, I listened attentively to pre-prepared scripts designed to cast the season in the most positive light. Yet, little probing was needed to hear more objective judgements, essentially that whilst there is a clutch of splendid wines, the vintage as a whole is not close to the calibre of 2010, 2016 or 2019. A swathe of wines don’t pass muster in 2021, either because of the treacherous growing season or inadvisable remedial actions in the winery. Conversely, it is bejewelled with wines that will offer immense pleasure and could only transcend limitations thanks to talent, hard work and a bit of luck, not least escaping that October deluge. 

The 2021 is an antidote to the run of hot vintages and for that it should be welcomed, its shortcomings and fallibility perhaps part of its charm and intrigue. Some of my favourite wines did not quite reach the level expected, and they will come back strongly in future vintages. As the saying goes, you can’t win ‘em all. But there is no harm in trying.

© 2022, 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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