With Bordeaux En Primeur 2021 looming large on the horizon we are now gearing up for another exciting campaign in May & June. We’ll be heading out to La Place for En Primeur Week at the end of April as we're expecting there to be some good Bordeaux wines this vintage, but selection is going to be especially important given the challenges of the growing season. Speaking of which, as a sneak peek before we publish our Bordeaux vintage report in full, here is the low-down on the Bordeaux 2021 Growing Season!
Bordeaux 2021 Growing Season
From November to February, Bordeaux experienced a mild winter whilst the vines were dormant, bringing bud break early in March. All was as it should be until April approached, when temperatures dropped so much that frost swept through both banks of the river Garonne. On the night of 7th April, temperatures went as low as -9 °C and three evenings in April were recorded below -4°C. This was a serious cause for concern, so much so that €1bn in government aid was pledged to assist struggling producers in protecting their vineyards across France. Many Chateaux positioned close to the river made a lucky escape, and Chateau Montrose’s Romain Bellone told us that their vineyards experienced zero frost (phew!). Those less fortunate were prepared to fight the frost with Valerian Decotion (a plant root) and candles. The aftermath left many with small yields - reportedly 25-35% less than the average.
Rainfall during spring and early summer increased the mildew pressure and for many there was a ten-day mildew attack which kept vignerons up all night protecting their crop. It was a year to be innovative - Corali de Boüard of Chateau Angélus introduced new technology that measures air in the vines and humidity in the soil, warning winemakers of mildew a week in advance. Other producers turned to organic solutions such as a blend of copper, horsetail, nettle, wicker and comfrey to treat their land. For those grapes that evaded the treatments, those expensive sorting tables really came in handy! It is common now for even petit chateaux to have invested in optical sorting tables – the last decade has made it all the more clear that global warming will come with its own set of challenges and that vignerons must be prepared. This means lower production yes, but mostly that only the best grapes have been chosen. Producers are both navigating difficult years and managing to increase their quality.
After the wet spring and cooler-than-average June and July, Bordeaux was then blessed with some late summer sunshine in August and September, which particularly benefited the Merlot. Cabernet Sauvignon ripened slowly, preserving acidity and balance. The saving grace of the warmer weather gave the vines ample time to recover from the rain, whilst vignerons carefully managed the canopy to support véraison (grape ripening). This was a much later harvest than 2020, 2019, or indeed 2018, with picking starting in September and continuing through into October, as was so often the case in Bordeaux. Nature was not fair or even, but producers worked day and night to evade the pressures of the weather and by harvest time their tenacity, skill and creativity brought some delightful results.
Romain Bellone of Chateau Montrose suggests 2021 has the freshness and tannin structure of 2014 with the aromatic profile of 2017. Romain is very happy with the wine and given that the chateau’s 2014 was the wine of the vintage and superior to the 2015, Montrose should definitely be one to note in 2021. 2017 also experienced destructive frosts and plenty of rain, yet James Suckling declares it “an especially memorable vintage” and Neal Martin having tasted the wines again in 2020 found that “the reds maintain the classicism and linearity that they displayed from barrel" and was “pleased to find that many have retained – or in some cases enhanced – their freshness now that they are in bottle”.
Similarly, 2014 struggled with rainfall but managed to produce some excellent wines that for Galloni "point to a vintage characterized by elegance and freshness as opposed to power”. Neal Martin agrees, enthusing that the 2014s are “generally mid-weight wines with expressive aromatics, medium-bodied structures and finessed, silky tannins”. Meanwhile for Lisa Perrotti-Brown, “many of the 2017s possess bags of perfume, freshness and vivacity. We have not seen this caliber of medium-bodied, bright, cheery, delicately styled Bordeaux wines in some time—maybe since 2001 ... I wholeheartedly believe a good number of the 2017s are worth crossing the road for.”
Significantly, cooler vintages such as 2021 give us leaner, more expressive wines that show greater transparency to their terroirs than those from hot vintages. Jean-Pierre Mourges, Managing Director of JP Maltus, whose stable of boutique St Emilion Grand Crus includes Le Dome, told us “I am very content with the 2021s at this stage, they have good colour, plenty of freshness and there is no hole [nothing lacking] in the mid-palate”.
Closing thoughts on Bordeaux 2021
In less forgiving vintages like 2021 it’s our duty to separate the wheat from the chaff and uncover those wines that deserve a place in your cellar, and those don't quite cut the mustard! Nathan, James & Nick are all excited about going out to La Place to taste across the Left and Right Bank, so we will have much more to report on the wines in due course. Suffice it to say that those growers we’ve spoken to are surprised and rather pleased with the quality of the wine they produced. Yields sadly have taken a real hit due to the April frost, and early reports indicate this is the shortest vintage since 1977. As such if you are interested in En Primeur this year it’s worth letting us know ASAP as there may be a waiting list on the top wines!