Bordeaux 2021 En Primeur: Vintage Report

"The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph”, Thomas Paine

Few proverbs could better capture the mood when the team went out in late April for Bordeaux 2021 En Primeur. The vintage hurled everything at the Bordelais – from April frosts, hail, and mildew to unpredictable weather patterns – and vignerons and technical teams spent more time outdoors working round the clock to protect the vines during this vintage than in any other. “The region’s best producers, however, have taken all these challenges in their stride” declares William Kelley, whilst for The Drinks Business’ Colin Hay, 2021 “is a very strong (if not exceptional) Bordeaux vintage born in the context of extreme climatic adversity. It has produced what I regard to be a series of truly exceptional wines in every one of the leading appellations”. There are some utterly superb wines in 2021, “better than anyone could have dared to hope” for Kelley, and to derive this level of quality from such a challenging vintage is an astonishing achievement that would have been impossible even just a decade ago. Bravo indeed!

As always, Bordeaux Primeur Week it is a truly fascinating and full-on experience, travelling between estates from early morning to late evening, brushing shoulders with the wine critics and producers, with opportunities to try well over a hundred of the more prestigious wines at an early stage of their evolution. Following a two-year hiatus due to Covid, we were welcomed royally by all and had sumptuous meals with the teams at Angelus, Mouton Rothschild and Jonathan Maltus. The quality of these wines was simply superb.

Chateau Teyssier
Chateau Teyssier

That is not to say that this is a 2016, with near-perfect quality across the board. There are some who did not get it right, but mostly these wines are delicious and will provide so much drinking pleasure. There are more than a few which were simply incredible and will stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the best examples ever made at respective chateaux we are sure. In summary, whilst there will likely be fewer 100-pointers than in recent years, you will easily find many worthy wines to add to your cellar, each of which will give huge drinking pleasure over decades to come.

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 innovative 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 clearer that global warming will come with its own set of challenges and that vignerons must be prepared. This means lower production but also much higher quality. Producers are both navigating difficult years and managing to increase their quality.

Vineyards at Chateau Latour
Vineyards at Chateau Latour

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 Merlot. Cabernet Sauvignon ripened slowly, preserving acidity and balance. The redeeming quality 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. As always we highly recommend checking out Gavin Quinney’s article for the full report on the growing season.

The Wines

Within the context of the challenging growing season, the resultant wines are a staggering achievement. Jean-Basile Roland of Rauzan Segla, Canon and Berliquet told us amusingly that "the quality that our teams have been able to reach is tremendous. For us, it has that very special taste of the victory decided in the extra-time of an exhausting game, played on a muddy pitch". That sentiment of triumph over adversity rings true throughout Bordeaux, and there is a growing sense that 2021 is a special vintage for the chateaux.

Quite unlike any of the preceding trio solar vintages, some early comparisons with 2014 and 2017 have been mooted, but Damien Barton-Sartorius of Leoville & Langoa suggested closer "similarities with 96" (on the Left Bank), the best vintage of the decade (notwithstanding 1990), characterised by "low alcohol, ripe and fine tannins, beautiful black fruits expression, medium acidity". We have also heard comparisons in terms of elegance, focus and fruit profile to 1996, 2001 and 2014. William Kelley certainly believes the 1990s are the spiritual ancestor of these wines, declaring “the balance and style of a vintage of the 1990s, but benefiting from all the agronomic progress and technical savoir faire of the present, the best 2021 reds are better than anyone could have dared to hope.” Wine Guru James meanwhile muses that “if you’ve ever had a great bottle from yester-year – one of my all-time favourites is 1996 Montrose – you are in for a real treat with 2021”.

This is a fascinating vintage unlike any other we’ve tasted. Far from the more powerful styles of five of the past six years, these wines showed a stylish renaissance of fresh vibrant fruit, elegant integrated tannins and a feeling of precision over power. Georgie Hindle at Decanter ”personally love[s] the no frills, no make-up aspect to the wines. There’s really no hiding behind sunshine and alcohol this year, meaning for those who were either blessed with more favourable weather conditions, grapes and terroir that coped better, or a vinification process that was more easily managed, their wines will definitely find fans.” They will mostly be drinking earlier than recent vintages, yet with huge promise for cellaring and William Kelley suggests “anyone who enjoys the great benchmark Bordeaux wines of the 1980s and 1990s should seriously reflect on what the 2021s may have to offer in 10 to 15 years’ time”.

There were a few very distinct flavour profiles this year which have not been seen in the Medoc for some time! 2021 brings a delicious crunchy fruit character, with the whole spectrum from red to black and blue fruits. Many of the wines have a mineral streak at their core and a florality that has been almost non-existent in the recent warmer vintages. The tannins were exceptionally fine, some were even silky, and except for one or two wines in the whole trip, perfectly ripe. The wines we tasted were generally at 12-13.5% alcohol, for many a very welcome change from recent solar years. Significantly, cooler vintages such as 2021 give us leaner, more expressive wines that show greater transparency to their terroirs than those from hot vintages.

We tasted superb wines from both banks of the Gironde, and whilst there are some suggestions that this is a “Cabernet-favoured” vintage on the Left Bank, we were bowled over by Jonathan Maltus’ range of Saint Emilion. From Teyssier through to Le Dôme, the wines were quite superb and it’s no wonder that Jean-Pierre Mourges, Managing Director of JP Maltus, gleefully expressed his “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”. Other highlights include Canon, Figeac and La Conseillante, all up there with the greats of the vintage! On the Left Bank meanwhile we were blown away by Pauillac powerhouses such as Pichon Lalande & Pontet Canet, whilst Montrose, & Palmer are both in contention for wine of the vintage.

Rauzan Segla
Chateau Rauzan Segla

Thus rather than a Left or Right Bank vintage, 2021 was very much in the hands of the winemaker (or “farmer’s vintage” as Kelley puts it!), where instinct and decision-making rather than erratic nature led to wonderful wines. On the left bank Cabernet Sauvignon was much easier to work with and proportions are at their highest ever for many wines. Merlot was successful where the picking was right, and Cabernet Franc added complexity throughout and led to some superb right bank wines.

Let’s not forget about the whites either. The quality here is more consistent than the reds, and Jancis Robinson proclaims that “in general the dry whites are brilliantly crisp, aromatic and well defined with quite enough fruit, while the sweet whites are some of the best ever, albeit most of them produced in catastrophically tiny quantities”. Haut Brion & La Mission produced sensational whites, among the “finest set of dry whites since 2017” for William Kelley. Meanwhile Georgie Hindle reports “The whites are excellent and maybe more consistent across the board with ample freshness, drive and clarity on the palate as well as an astounding aromatic complexity”. Sauternes has managed the tragic feat of producing some of the all-time greatest sweet whites in the history of Bordeaux, yet in some of the smallest quantities we’ve ever seen. If you can find some sweet whites, we highly recommend piling in!

Closing Thoughts & Top Picks

Hats off to the Bordelais. However, selection is going to be especially important due to the challenges of the growing season, and we will be offering a judicious and carefully filtered selection of chateaux to ensure you only buy the best. We also have a couple of virtual wine tastings planned later in May – sampling comparable vintages from some of our favourite chateaux – to enable you to get a better handle on the potential development of 2021. The wines are likely to come flying out the gates from the second week of May, so if you would like to get in on the action and ensure first pick of the most sought-after allocations, please do register interest, and complete a Wish List!

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Of those wines we tasted, the stand-outs include:

• La Mission Haut Brion Blanc

• Pichon-Longueville Comtesse Lalande

• Palmer

• Pontet Canet

• La Conseillante

• Figeac

• Haut Brion

• Montrose

• Ducru Beaucaillou

Likely Value Picks

• Grand Puy Lacoste

• Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc

• Teyssier

• Batailley

• Lafon Rochet

• Fugue du Nenin

• Beaumont

• La Tour de By

• Le Dame de Montrose