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June 14, 2022updated 02 Nov 2022 11:52am

Bordeaux 2021 en primeur review: Neo-classic

By Simon Field MW

After a run of warm years, 2021 Bordeaux was initially typecast as a “challenging” vintage, but it is perhaps better summarized as heterogeneous, says Simon Field MW, with pockets of excellence among the elegant reds and some outstanding white and (though tiny in number) sweet wines, and with a “classical” cooler-vintage character throughout that inevitably invites comparisons to a time before the effects of global warming took hold. 

Preface

Merci Michael!A hard act to follow… yes, indeed, a very hard act to follow.  This was my first thought when Neil Beckett announced Michael Schuster’s retirement from en primeur service and offered me the baton.

I have been lucky enough to contribute to this title from the outset (2003) and equally lucky to be able to follow Michael’s magisterial Bordeaux reports in every one of the intervening years.

My buying job at Berry Bros meant that I was never far from the scent of fine Bordeaux; indeed, I recall in my very first week at BBR (in 1998) the joys of a blind comparison between two bottles of 1961 Château Palmer, one bottled at the estate and the other at Berry’s Warehouse in Hampshire. What is bred-in-the-bone, and all that.

I have learned a great deal from Michael over the years, most of it focusing on his meticulous approach to tasting—so important with all wines, but even more so when attempting to analyze young red Bordeaux from a barrel.

Attention to detail is key, the willingness, over and over again, to ensure that one has covered all the components of a wine; and it is only when such a forensic analysis has been completed that the nuances may appear, when the comparison between different years will assume relevance, and when a more subjective voice will be allowed quarter.

The causal sequence is impossible to underestimate; here Michael was and is the master. Only from the most precise and painstaking analysis does the entitlement of judgment flow; and judgment has to be entirely personal, calling upon only itself and its past encounters to assume the over-arching point of view. Positively Mozartian.

So, merci then, Michael. My gratitude has a broad base, and I am fully aware that the kindness offered to me, and the time spared by some of the most significant actors on Bordeaux’s crowded stage this year, have been a result of the good will that you have engendered over the years. A

more playful nostalgia on the part of the Bordelais manifested itself with repeated regret that your magnificent Jaguar, driven across France for the occasion each year, might no longer be adorning their châteaux forecourts every spring.

A prosaic voiture de location isn’t quite the same. Not quite the same at all! If one cannot have Mozart, one will have to make do with the perhaps more playful and earthy Haydn. Let’s see.

Bordeaux 2021: Contemporary classicism

And so, to 2021, and quite a tricky place to start, it seems. Bylines such as “the new classicism,” “a technical classic,” or, as favored by Château Palmer, “the contemporary classic,” share a word and an idea; the concept of a dignified return to “the good old days,” before global warming and before the advent of technological advances, especially in the winery, which have served to banish the concept of a poor vintage.

There are only degrees of good these days, it seems. “New classicism,” a deliberate oxymoron, is probably unhelpful; however, one does not admire a pre-Raphaelite painting or a neoclassical façade because one feels literally transported to a halcyon era. It is a tilted cap from the present to the past, nothing more—and so with 2021 Bordeaux.

That was then and this is now.

It is probably wise to mention at the outset, however, that while things get ever more precise and, for want of a better word, “technical” in the winery itself, in the vineyards we almost see the reverse phenomenon, as nature in her purest guise is embraced and nurtured.

Time and time again I encountered vignerons who had just achieved or were about to achieve organic accreditation, many advancing to the more rigorous biodynamic certification.

For this increasing band of brothers 2021 posed some very knotted challenges; to apply the term “technical classicism” would mean very little. The vintage was challenging, it was unpredictable, and it was exhausting. A difficult year, in short.

And maybe it was all the more difficult because the cool weather was “unexpected,” especially after the heat and dust of its three immediate forebears. At every step of the vintage, described by Jean-Hubert Delon as “quasi-mythologique,” decisions were needed, even more than usual, or so it seemed.

Often decisions had to be made at speed in the face of imminent frost, rain, or mildew, decisions that may now reverberate less with the benefit of analytical hindsight, but that were exceptionally difficult to make in the heat (or lack of heat) of the moment.

The Météo Office, for example, announced an 80 percent chance of heavy rain for most of the first week of October, enough surely to make even the most sanguine of vignerons dispatch his pickers.

As a parenthesis it should be noted how logistically difficult such things are to manage, especially post-pandemic and when it comes to identifying a workforce to pick the fruit.

The reality of the situation is that only the prestigious estates can afford to stagger harvests over an extended period, and for that matter only they will have the resources to endure the consequences of parsimonious yields.

This article deals with such estates, the properties at the top of the wine chain. We should not forget, however, the large number of less well-known domaines, the foundations upon which great Bordeaux has been built. Even for the top-rung estates, the so-called locomotives, matters were far from easy, and throughout the season it was a case of decisions, decisions, and more decisions… with the ever-present danger of a potential domino effect following an early error.

Pierre-Olivier Clouet, the technical director at Cheval Blanc, compares the vintage to 2004, 2008, and 2014: “After six warm years on the trot, the last three especially, in 2021 we had to get used to a different dynamic, a dynamic where the key interface is between tannin and acid. Alcohol levels were significantly lower.”

Over the river at Château Durfort-Vivens in Margaux, the owner Gonzague Lurton lists all the recent vintages that he would describe as “solaire”: 2005, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019, and 2020… little wonder, then , that 2021 came as something of a shock, with sunshine most definitely at a premium.

But he is very happy with the result, comparing his wine (97% Cabernet Sauvignon) with his highly successful 1986: “Il faut s’adapter,” he shrugs. To adapt and, of course, to work very hard indeed.

Véronique Saunders at Haut-Bailly summarizes eloquently: “Three things were needed in a vintage such as 2021; an excellent terroir, the savoir faire to pay homage to such a terroir, and the tenacity of a dedicated team to work very hard in both the vineyard and the winery.”

Omri Ram at Lafleur is very pithy when he sums up the growing season in three words: “Lack of sleep.”

The human factor is always key, of course, all the more so in 2021, and especially in the vines, with extra effort required to combat the frost, far more spraying than usual to defeat the mildew, then deleafing and green harvests as appropriate later in the cycle, and crucially, at the end, extensive sorting.

The biometric sorting machine comes into its own in a heterogeneous year such as 2021; we can see the polychrome grapes, as can the machine, but it goes a step further to assess their density and reject those grapes that do not contain sufficient sugar. There were rather a lot of these in 2021.

An overview of the challenges follows, and then a little more analysis of the seasonal calendar.

The growing season

2021 was a protracted growing season, with a relatively warm winter promoting an early bud-break and, by way of legacy for a troubled and rather dull season, much of it endured under skies of a battle-ship gray, a harvest that was generally later than usual.

The adverb is used pointedly because there was very little homogeneity of any kind in 2021.

“The only thing we knew is that we knew nothing,” so says Nicolas Glumineau at Pichon Lalande, channeling his inner Socrates.

The problems encountered in the season included severe frost, excessive rain, mildew, coulure, millerandage, lack of sunshine in summer, lack of water stress thereafter, a very fragmented véraison, and unpredictable (and sometimes unpredicted) weather in the run-up to harvest, with the concomitant danger of further botrytis.

Quite a litany of apparent disaster… its woes, however, somewhat unevenly spread geographically.

The word “heterogeneous” comes up again and again. But it would be just as unreasonable to describe 2021 as a disaster as it would to herald it as a triumph.

The vintage was by turns fascinating and frustrating, with vigilance required at every single staging post.

A key detail that may, however, add perspective is that in 2021 there was only marginally more rainfall (6 percent more) and marginally less sunshine (3 percent) than the average for the previous ten years. It was just that the rainfall was prolonged at an infelicitous time for the vines and, conversely, the sun did not shine just when it was needed most! 

Winter

Weather patterns of late seem to favor warmer winters, and 2021 was no exception. The rainfall was marginally above average in the two coldest months (165mm [6.5 inches] higher in December and January) but overall a touch lower.

The temperatures rose relatively quickly from mid-February, allowing work in the vineyards to proceed apace and to ensure that everything was prepared for the new growing cycle.

The budbreak was fairly uniform, too, generally between March 12 and 22 for the Merlot, and a week later for the Cabernet Sauvignon; early, but not drastically so… or so one would have thought. So far, so good.

Spring 

Spring was tricky, for several reasons. Omri Ram at Lafleur describes “several seasons in one season.”

The frost was widespread, at its most virulent on April 7 and 8. Properties closer to the Gironde Estuary (Beychevelle, Cos d’Estournel, and d’Issan, to give examples from three communes) were relatively untouched, as were those on (slightly) higher ground, the plateaus of St-Emilion and Margaux, for example.

One did not have to be all that far from the flowing water, however, to be struck. Pessac, Sauternes, and parts of St-Emilion were very badly hit, but they were far from the only ones.

Yields suffered accordingly. Jean Jacques Bonnie at Malartic Lagravière and Daisy Sichel at d’Angludet were badly affected, for example, their vines benefiting from neither proximity to water nor altitude.

Alexandre Thienpont at Vieux Château Certan describes the frost as “disastrous”; his crop was decimated, perhaps in the most literal sense of the word.

Not that far away, however, Aymeric de Gironde of Troplong Mondot, located just a little higher up in St-Emilion, advises that his vineyards were not touched at all.

Preventative measures were of mixed efficacy; sometimes burning candles and hay bales just doesn’t work. In Barsac, which suffered badly, even worse than Sauternes, Philippe Baly at Château Coutet remembers that neither the elemental forces of fire nor wind were of any use; sprinklers were the only answer.

Expensive again. At Smith Haut Lafitte, a combination of traditional (paraffin candles) and, in one sense, less traditional methodology (velarium and nettle treatments) was used. It may not have been universal, but the frost was the worst since 1991.

After the caprice of the frost came the further indignity of an ensuing lack of rainfall and a lack of synchronicity, pace Nicolas Glumineau at Pichon Lalande, between the phenological (bud) and photosynthetic (leaf) development, which introduced a new feature that was to thread its way through the entire vintage: an incipient inconstancy at every stage.

An even budburst was not followed by an even flowering or an even véraison. Inconsistency was constant. In addition, as Hélène Génin at Château Latour notes, the combination of cooler temperatures and lack of rainfall meant that the precocity noted above was sacrificed.

The precarious situation was exacerbated by what came next. Vincent Priou at Beauregard (and now Petit Village, too) notes that the vines had been weakened by the onslaught of frost and were not really in the ideal state for the mildew that followed.

Most of the properties hand out illustrated vintage booklets with graphs, which clearly show both the lower-than-average temperature of the mid-season and also, more dramatically, the significant increase in rainfall.

Mildew loves such wet and humid conditions, and the tentacled spraying machines were out in force; between 15 and 20 outings for a property working along more traditional (or shall we say lutte raisonné) lines—Grand-Puy-Lacoste, for example—but up to 30 times for the some of the “stricter” organic and biodynamic domaines such as Pontet Canet or Du Tertre.

In the case of the latter, rain washed away the treatments, which, accordingly, had to be re-applied immediately if there were the slightest suggestion of imminent rain.

The fact that this took up more energy, in terms of the mechanics of application, is a moot point. That aside, with more and more vignerons converted, or in the process of conversion, to organic viticulture, 2021 proved tricky in the extreme. Challenges from nature just at the moment of trying to embrace it. Cruel.

Flowering was both delayed and protracted. It was eventually completed between late May and early June.

Thereafter, stormy and humid conditions increased cryptogamic pressure and the vigilance (a key word used repeatedly by growers such as Jean-Charles Cazes and Dominique Arangoïts) was ongoing.

In Pauillac, June was the wettest since 1997, with 138mm [5.4 inches] of rain. A testing time for all. Pessac-Léognan had the most rain on the Left Bank, and Pomerol, with even more precipitation, notched up the most on the Right Bank. 

Summer 

Wisdom, received or otherwise, dictates that summer should be warm for the vines, with even the odd heat spike (canicule) and certainly sufficient precipitation… the combination of these phenomena, peppered with appreciable diurnal variants, provoking just enough hydric stress to prompt the vine to dig deep and to ensure eventual complexity and structural integrity in the wines.

The summer of 2021 certainly did not offer much by way of a heat spike; the campaign was fought under monotonous Whistler skies of gray, and with the temperatures seldom above 30ºC (86ºF)—often significantly lower.

There was rain—less and less as the season went on, admittedly, but generally at inopportune moments, reigniting risks of rot and, latterly, botrytis. This proved to be a struggle especially for young vines without deep roots; less so for the white grapes, which proved far better suited to such conditions.

Veraison was staggered and inconsistent; polychrome bunches were far too visible for far too long.

Alexandre Thienpont sent out teams to deleaf the vines between July 19 and 21, and again in early September; the canopies had to be managed with rigor both to facilitate photosynthesis and to try and dispel the latent rot.

According to Bruno Lemoine at Larrivet Haut-Brion, Merlot was especially vulnerable, its cycle in head-on confrontation with the trickier aspects of the season. Many Merlot berries swelled and threatened dilute fruit, their unusual size also threatening air circulation within the plants.

The sorting tables were primed for action! And later on, in the winery, some bled the gapes (saignée) and others resorted to reverse osmosis to concentrate the musts. Rear-guard actions both.

One must underline once again the lack of homogeneity, in its broader sense, and that while some properties struggled with veraison—both L’Evangile and La Conseillante bemoaned the cold and inconsistent conditions—for others—Figeac, for example—there were fewer problems.

Figeac’s early and untroubled veraison, starting in the third week of July, serves to illustrate just how unpredictable and temperamental, literally, the conditions had become.

As so often in the newish metrological template mentioned above, the conditions improved as the season progressed, and while not resorting this time to the term “Indian summer,” it is true that the concluding weeks of the cycle were dryer and warmer.

Cyrille Thienpont at Pavie Maquin alludes to “light at the end of the tunnel” and a sense of relief. It was not warm enough, however, to encourage discernible hydric stress, and, even if photosynthesis was successful, it was clear that the sugar levels would be lower than of late, the total acidity higher.

Pierre-Olivier Clouet at Cheval Blanc notes that the lower-than-average temperatures of July and August prolonged the gap between véraison and harvest from the average of 40 days, to 60 days; as a result, he says, the wines were set to share refined and delicate tannins (he describes them as “al dente”) and pronounced and refreshing acidity.

But levels of alcohol were considerably lower than those of the three previous years. And so it came to pass.

Harvest 

As, eventually, did the harvest.

What had started as a precocious cycle ended as one that was a little later than normal, the process protracted for many of the reasons already rehearsed.

Complicating matters yet further (not that they needed further complication), were the dire weather forecasts for the end of September and early October. Many were inclined to play safe and therefore missed a period of eight days of sunshine in the second week of October, seen by many as the key redeeming factor for the entire year, and certainly fundamental to the success or otherwise of both Cabernet varieties.

Merlot was, once again, the unlucky one, and did not benefit from the sunshine’s last hurrah. That is not to say that Merlot was irredeemably compromised; Diana Berrouet-Garcia at Le Pin advises that her team “kept calm and carried on” and were able to harvest a fully ripe and, as it turned out, successful crop.

Over the river in Pessac, Olivier Bernard at Domaine de Chevalier notes that not only did the storms fail to materialize, but there was a significant change in the wind, with the cooler, less humid north air serving to aerate and, where necessary, dry the vines.

D’Issan boldly defends two months of back-to-back generosity on the part of nature, whereas at Du Tertre there is a little more stoicism; chef de culture Romaine Beurienne observes that there was indeed rain at the beginning of October, 60mm (2.3 inches) of it, but not nearly as much as had been predicted, and not enough to provoke the botrytis that everyone feared.

The actual harvest dates were therefore varied, but maybe not quite as much as some had speculated.

Some, such as Château Canon, did indeed start early (they attacked the Merlot harvest from September 16), but generally those in the vanguard were merely extending rather than advancing the process. Canon did not finish picking until October 8.

Some noted “latest ever” harvests, including Figeac, which completed the task on October 19, and La Conseillante, which finished on October 12.

All of those who defied the Jeremiahs at the weather stations were relatively happy; relieved, certainly. The long and late veraison had pushed back the maturity, but not fatally; and if the late summer was not as redemptive as in, say, 2002, 2007, 2012, or 2017, it was nonetheless of sufficient quality to “save” the vintage.

The Médocians who did harvest October 5–8 may be disappointed, but hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing. As it turned out, October ended up with 207 hours of sunshine, which was 30 percent above the 30-year average.

The cycle certainly started and finished well. Rather a shame about some of what came in between!

Less impressive, in a sense, were the yields.

The combined forces of frost, mildew, coulure, and low temperatures conspired to restrict the crop, sometimes significantly. No-one else, thankfully, had to resort to the commercially catastrophic 1hl/ha picked by Suduiraut in Sauternes, but most were below and, in some cases, significantly below average.

“We had to sacrifice juice for quality,” says Didier Thomann, the technical director at Léoville-Poyferré, and the sacrifice was significant indeed, especially for those in organic conversion (or fully organic), such as Pichon Lalande, whose final yield was a very modest 15hl/ha.

Elsewhere there was less pain, with some, such as Troplong Mondot (44hl/ha) or Château Talbot (44hl/ha) close to the normal levels.

Hélène Génin at Latour is succinct in her summary: “2021 was a particularly difficult vintage, with significant losses due to downy mildew, sun-burned berries, and botrytis. The overall yield in 2021 was low, with an average of 27.1hl/ha in the vineyard, which equates to a yield in the wine of 23.14hl/ha.”

Even the sun was not always a bonus, it seems, especially if the grape skins were not fully prepared for it—a cruel irony.

Thomas Duclos at Palmer brought in the fruit at 22hl/ha, although he does note that this was actually higher than in 2018, because this time his team was ready for the mildew and knew how to counter it in a pro-active fashion.

The official numbers for 2021 reveal a production of 377 million liters (500 million bottles) which is 14 percent down on 2020, short of the ten-year average of 487 million litres, and significantly less than the 30 year-average of 580 million liters.

Only 2013, 2017, and (marginally) 2020 produced less over the past decade. Overall production can be divided by color as follows; 84.2% red, 10% dry white, 5.3% rosé, and a minute 0.5% of sweet white wine.

Bordeaux 2021 red wines

Quality 

A difficult, low-yielding vintage, then, but does this equate to a poor vintage?

Not necessarily, and many of the comments above reflect a preparedness in the vineyard and winery alike.

It would be unwise to discount the technological advances of the past couple of decades. Indeed, similar vintage conditions might well, historically at least, have unleashed a catalogue of faults or weaknesses in the wines themselves; marked acidity on the attack, a hollow mid-palate, drying finishes, and a lack of concentration the most prominent among them.

Just as bad, wines with big, echoey structures and little flesh; an empty coat of armor rattling in the cellar.

It was significant how, on the one hand, few wines were either green or vegetal (or even lean for that matter) or, on the other hand, either over-worked or clumsy.

The fact that virtually all the wines tasted failed to match the descriptions offered in the previous two sentences is testament to the progress that has been made; progress nourished by indefatigable effort and tenacity in the face of a sequence of unpredictable obstacles.

Tenacity in the vineyard, as we have seen, but also in the winery…. The modus operandi has been refined over the past few years, where a Socratic spirit of moderation has replaced a “big is better” mentality and has proved well-suited to 2021.

In terms of maceration, extraction, new wood, and length of maturation, the philosophy of “less is more” generally holds sway now.

Chaptalization was widespread, however, with between 0.2% and 0.5% (very seldom more) of extra alcohol achieved by the addition of sugar.

And yet nothing tasted out of balance or excessively sweet/caramelized; even the rich and occasionally indulgent wines from the Teyssier and Pavie empires in St-Emilion were, by their standards, restrained and succulent rather than overtly sweet.

Alcohol levels were invariably at 12.5% or 13%, some at 13.5%, but very few any higher than that. Significantly lower than of late, therefore.

With these moderate levels of alcohol and the higher natural acidity (malic acid is “tamed,” in any event, by the malolactic fermentation), the key variable under the control of the winemaker is the treatment of the polyphenols, and more specifically the extraction of the tannins.

Several different approaches to this were encountered—Air Pulse, pigeage, remontage, and delestage, among them—all focused on achieving the gentlest of extractions. Anything hard or aggressive would compromise the latent structure, probably irreversibly.

Ronan Laborde at Clinet compares his extraction to the infusion of a teabag, while Jean Charles-Cazes goes to great lengths to explain that his variation of the traditional delestage technique (essentially emptying the vat and then filling it up again and historically prone to oxygenation) is the gentlest method possible. I am inclined to believe him, having seen it in action.

Bruno Lemoine at Larrivet Haut-Brion adopts a far from atypical approach, aware that some of his berries were a little larger than sometimes; a “normal” pigeage at the start, to extract maximum anthocyanin potential, but then very light and infrequent pump-overs to avoid any danger of hard tannins from the pips.

The method selected is fundamental to the texture and character of the ultimate wine—all the more so in the relatively fragile vintage that was 2021.

Other variants center on the (generally lower) fermentation temperatures and the (generally shorter) maceration times. Eric Kohler and Louis Caillard at Château Lafite advise, however, that 2021 has not been the year to essay whole-bunch fermentation, the stems being insufficiently ripe.

At the other end of the process, however, there has been a little more experimentation with the use of amphorae as fermentation and/or maturation vessels, perceived by many, including Noëmie Durantou at L’Eglise-Clinet, to be an ideal means of ensuring that the full aromatic potential of the vintage is captured.

Less new oak has been used and/or shorter maturation spans, still on-going, of course, at the time of writing. “The pendulum has swung toward more elegant wines,” says Philippe Blanc at Beychevelle, and 2021, he avers, is the ideal year to showcase this phenomenon. One wonders if the pendulum will ever swing back again.

Be that as it may, Jean-Dominique Videau at Branaire-Ducru (over the road from Beychevelle and the river and therefore a little more frost hit) concurs; one has “tried very hard… but not too hard!” he jokes. “We had to be gentle, too!”

Bordeaux 2021: Red wine style 

The style of the wines has been sketched already: elegant, a little lighter than their three immediate forebears, with bright acidity and elegant aromatics. “I am very glad I’m not writing this up,” jests Aymeric de Gironde at Troplong Mondot—recognition that the many varied challenges affected different properties to different degrees, and that the resulting wines can differ radically.

Stephan von Neipperg at Canon La Gaffelière is one of many who uses the term “classic modern.” His wine came in at 12.6% ABV, with a little chaptalization, and he is perfectly happy with that: “It has a pleasing aromatic, a solid mid-palate, and a sense of balance and harmony,” he concludes.

Veteran winemaker and (maybe erstwhile?!) garagiste, Jean-Luc Thunevin doesn’t agree, however: “It is not classic,” he maintains, “it required too much of the human touch for that; but it is digeste and attractive.”

For Alexandre Thienpont at Vieux Château Certan, the 2021 vintage “is timeless…it could have been made by my grandparents.” One would not in any way wish to disrespect the grandparents of Monsieur Thienpont, but one wonders if he is too modest.

Pierre-Olivier Clouet does not venture back quite as far, making comparisons, as we have seen, with 2004, 2008, and 2014. “We had to understand a new dynamic,” he maintains.

Cheval Blanc clearly understood this new dynamic well, since their wine is outstanding. It is worthy of note, in passing, that there are few, if any comparisons, to the difficult 2013 vintage, the implication being that 2021 is appreciably better.

Antoine Gimbert at Léoville-Las-Cases detects a similarity with 2001 and generously opens a bottle of the latter for me to try by way of comparison. I have to admit that I have always been fond of 2001, and can indeed detect the stylistic thread. Good news indeed!

Lots of different opinions, then: a good to very good vintage but not a great vintage. A Cabernet vintage (Sauvignon on the Left Bank and Franc on the Right), with a lot of the Merlot “relegated” to second-wine status.

Noëmie Durantou concludes thus: “2021 is a little different texturally… a little different, but it works. This is a vignerons’ vintage, and we had to make a lot of decisions at speed; but I like the wines very much; they are perfumed but not exuberant.”

François Mitjavile at Tertre Roteboeuf is typically lyrical: “The tannins have been softened by the rain; it seems that the vines themselves were softened, pulverized, and challenged… It was absolutely essential that the vines reached maturity to achieve a vin de garde.”

Time and time again we hear of struggles. “One had to be especially sanguine in 2021,” is the summary of Ronan Laborde at Clinet, adding “but it worked out fine in the end.”

Fine if one could avoid both underripe and drying tannins, and if one could avoid a stretched structure and a hollow mid-palate. Overall, most have been successful thus, and especially those, as we have seen, who harvested a little later.

It is actually quite hard to single out individual communes in 2021, for reasons that I hope will have become apparent by now. St-Estèphe probably had the least rain, and there are some excellent wines, full of the vigor of the commune.

I think there was probably more variety in the more southerly communes but confess a soft spot for several of the St-Juliens and for the wines from the plateau of Margaux.

Pessac was similarly variable; it may or may not be a coincidence that those wines made closer to the (warming) city were successful, by which I mean any wine featuring the words Haut and Brion. Les Carmes was by turns fascinating and delicious. Very exciting things are going on there.

On the Right Bank, there was most consistency, unsurprisingly, on the plateau of Pomerol. There were great wines from the usual suspects, with Petrus, Lafleur, and VCC performing strongly. I was impressed by Nénin this year, too, but only the plateau wines missed the Fugue.

St-Emilion was the most varied of all the “big names,” I suspect, the challenges of ripening Merlot sometimes a little overwhelming. Great efforts, for all that, from Cheval Blanc, Figeac, and Tetre Roteboeuf, truly excellent one and all.

And there are some nice wines from less well-known satellites, Castillon and Fronsac among them, ditto some of the addresses north of St-Estèphe; Sociando-Mallet comes immediately to mind.

Bordeaux 2021 white and sweet wines

At La Mission Haut-Brion, harvest of the white grapes began in near-perfect conditions on September 3, first the Sauvignons and then the Semillon. The crop was in by September 10, a full ten days before the first reds were broached.

The comments from the team there are devoid of equivocation: “The grapes gathered were of extraordinary quality, both in terms of ripeness and aromatic characteristics; they herald a truly magnificent vintage in white.”

And so it has turned out. At Haut-Brion, the white-wine harvest was equally precocious; the conditions perfectly temperate; no need for the October sunshine here and, of course, a relief to avoid the unpredictable rain patterns of the period. 

As Olivier Bernard at Domaine de Chevalier joked, “If the red grapes like to bask in the sun, the whites are more unassuming and dislike too much by way of sunburn, rather like a 19th-century aristocrat beneath her parasol.”

Ideal conditions, then, for white grapes and white wines throughout 2021. The Sauvignon Blancs are particularly impressive in 2021; the aromatic precursors and acidity levels are perfectly aligned, giving wines with freshness, energy, and length on the palate.

Additional complexity of texture comes courtesy of the Semillon; the temperamental but fascinating Muscadelle is still underrepresented in the category, however. It can lend spice and a teasing pithy dimension.

Daniel Cathiard at Smith Haut Lafitte is effusive in praise of his whites; for him, the acidity and aromatics follow the line of 2013 and 2017, with the resulting wines outpacing both earlier vintages.

Over at Fieuzal, the affable Stephen Carrier, having honestly underlined the travails involved with the red wines, is equally fulsome about the whites. Back in the winery, the tack is a little different; bâtonnage levels and oak élevage were not adjusted in any unnecessary attempt to “save” the wines, but rather to enhance their full natural potential: a fundamental change of emphasis, this.

Excellence is also encountered in the white wines at Carbonnieux, Larrivet Haut-Brion, Domaine de Chevalier, Malartic Lagravière, Lynch-Bages Blanc, Aile d’Argent at Mouton, and Pape Clément, inter alia.

Château Haut-Brion Blanc is quite probably my overall favorite wine of the vintage, if you will forgive a personal intrusion!

Similar quality can be found with the sweet wines, but there was only aminuscule production, such was the damage done by the rainy conditions, and, even more, by the frost.

The destructive fungi did eventually cede to a wonderful late-season botrytis, but the brutal economics of the prospective triages meant that several properties abandoned their projects altogether, albeit with great reluctance given the potential quality.

The overall average for those who did make wines was a mere 4hl/ha, and production was only 20 percent of the ten-year average. In Barsac, the average was even lower, at 1.5 hl/ha.

There will, alas, not be any Doïsy-Védrinnes, Climens, Guiraud, or de Malle, among others; indeed, only 12 of the crus classés made wine in 2021, and even those who did had to be entirely phlegmatic, not to mention stoical.

Jean-Jacques Durbourdieu at Doisy-Daëne maintains that his wine (3hl/ha) was made largely to maintain a presence in the market, however small, rather than by following the logic of any commercial imperative.

Many producers could not even afford such a gesture. Suduiraut, with the benevolence of AXA Millésimes at its side, made a very fine wine, a superb swan song for Pierre Montégut, who now moves on to Pichon Baron.

Only 6,000 bottles were made, and this from a large vineyard of more than 80ha (200 acres).

Conclusion 

This was a fascinating vintage with which to start my WFW Bordeaux odyssey, and one, possibly against expectations, that has confirmed and reinvigorated my life-long appreciation of the wines of Bordeaux.

A rather tricky vintage, even so, in terms of punchy headlines, the excellent white wines notwithstanding.

2021 cannot be described as a Left or a Right Bank Vintage; the pockets of excellence, however, are very real and overall, this is no curate’s egg.

There are no poisoned chalices here either. Some rather good wines, in fact.

“A turbulent scenario gave way to a majestic conclusion,” says Cynthia Capelaere at Château du Tertre. It would probably be an example of lèse majesté to gainsay such a positive conclusion, and churlish in the extreme to deny the many examples of real excellence produced.

What it is impossible to deny, however—and what struck me most of all in my first “immersive” visit to the region for a while—is the positive mind-set of the Bordelais.

A mindset not born out of wishing to gild (or paint) the lily in what was clearly a tricky year. On the contrary: I was most impressed by the honesty and integrity of all those who received me. Nothing could be more positive than that.

Bordeaux 2021 coverage

Bordeaux 2021 en primeur: Romance and Reality

Bordeaux 2021 Field Notes: Château Figeac

Bordeaux 2021 Field Notes: Vieux Château Certan

Bordeaux 2021 Field Notes: Château Pavie

Bordeaux 2021 Field Notes: Le Dôme

Bordeaux 2021 Field Notes: Domaine de Chevalier

Bordeaux 2021 Field Notes: Sauternes and Barsac

Bordeaux 2021 Field Notes: Pichon Lalande

Bordeaux 2021 Field Notes: Enquiring Minds

Bordeaux 2021 Field Notes: The Whites Have It

Bordeaux 2021 Field Notes: In the Cold Light of Day

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