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2021 Bordeaux En Primeur
 First Impressions Ahead of the Upcoming Campaign

After two years tasting en primeur samples in my kitchen and over Zoom, I was delighted to return to Bordeaux for the en primeur tastings at the end of April.  Vinum's buying team spent five days in the region visiting friends old and new, discovering and unpicking the details of the new vintage, and tasting and re-tasting barrel samples of the young wines.

A couple of hundred wines later, and after a further week to reflect on what we tasted and learned, here's my first report on Bordeaux's 2021s - one of the trickiest, most surprising and complicated vintages I have ever tasted en primeur!

Have a great weekend, enjoy the read, and do reach out if you'd like to discuss the 2021s in greater depth.

Matthew Hemming MW


Register My Interest In 2021 Bordeaux En Primeur
2021 Bordeaux en primeur report
Everyone loves a soundbite but 2021 resists easy descriptions and refuses to fit into convenient off-the-peg vintage categories.  
 
Success and quality in 2021 do not conform to rules of origin, grape variety, style or quality classification, making the vintage very challenging to navigate.
 
As a buyer, whether professionally or for my own family cellar, the fundamental question is quite simple: with good stocks of 2018/19/20 waiting to be drunk, are there 2021s I am excited to buy, own and drink, factoring in that we are not expecting deep discounts this vintage?
 
The answer is a resounding ‘yes’.
 
A related question is whether this is going to be one of those complicated vintages in which the best chateaux made the best wines?  In other words, will I only be recommending 1st growths and their peers at the elevated prices they command?
 
Here the answer is ‘no’. 
 
Whilst 2021 is not a vintage to stock up on 2nd wines and Cru Bourgeois chateaux – that is 2019 – neither is it a great respecter of hierarchies.  There are some delicious wines from the lower orders just as there are some very smart wines we will not be recommending.
 
What can we expect from the successful 2021s?
 
  • Pure and vivid fruit that is delicate but without any lack of intensity or ripeness and held in high definition by its acidity.
  • Modest alcohol levels recalling the wines of the 1980s – 13.5% is the exception and many great wines do not break 13%.
  • Structure that matches 2018/19/20 in terms of analysis – IPT tannins levels, etc – despite the wines feeling lighter, more supple and having less alcohol.
  • Truly outstanding dry whites, possibly the finest examples we’ve ever tasted en primeur.
  • High degrees of minerality, expressed as a tangy and refreshing salinity in both reds and whites.
The Vintage
On returning from Bordeaux, I used to be asked whether a given year was a right or a left bank vintage? Whether the season had favoured Cabernet or Merlot?  Was it a strong vintage or had it been challenging and, if the latter, there was often talk of a miraculous Indian summer that had saved the crop.
 
None of these labels really fit 2021.  
 
Climate change is not happening in Bordeaux, it has already happened and the old paradigms for classifying vintages are becoming increasingly redundant.  I honestly cannot remember the last time I tasted a vintage and felt definitively that it was a year for either left or right bank wines.
 
The most impactful manifestations of climate change for wine growers are probably extreme weather events and shifting weather patterns.  Omri Ram, at Chateau Lafleur, told us that there had not really been a winter in 2020/21 and that this is now becoming normal.  During a traditional winter vines become dormant in the cold weather, they rest and recharge their batteries whilst the cold kills off pests and diseases. 
 
The mild winter was followed by a mild spring, that kick-started precocious growth in the vineyards.  This meant that the plants were advanced when the vicious frosts struck, threatening devastation in the vineyards.
 
Much has been made about combatting frost in French vineyards, from lighting candles to wind machines and deploying helicopters.  Certain producers will tell you how their privileged terroir is naturally frost resistant.  More modest growers talk about the blood, sweat, tears and sleepless nights they committed to battling to protect their vines.  
 
The reality is that the frosts were the first factor leading to a small and challenging 2021 vintage.
 
Following the frosts, late spring and early summer were both mild and almost unprecedentedly wet.  This brought about an almost perfect storm in terms of conditions for mildew.  In practical terms, 2021 was a perfect vintage for mildew.  Of course certain farming practices, such as biodynamics, severely limit your ability to spray chemicals against mildew.  Last year, even those willing to spray faced huge challenges getting machinery into the vineyards to do so as it was so wet that traditional tractors simply sank in the mud.  You could not use your tractor and attempting to do so caused further issues of soil compaction and damage.  For those with the means, specialist vehicles on caterpillar tracks were the order of the day.
 
Mildew savaged the potential crop of 2021s, causing particular damage to the thinner skinned and earlier-ripening Merlot.  An illustration of this is at Chateau Ausone, where the Chapelle d’Ausone consists of 75% Cabernet Franc, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and no Merlot whatsoever.
 
Finally, after the disaster of the frosts and the challenges of the mildew, the late summer weather brought a warm and clement August and September with the cool nights necessary to sustain healthy and prolonged ripening.  This should not be understood as the key to a Miracle Vintage or a dawn that seized victory from the jaws of defeat.  The scars inflicted by frost and mildew cannot be underestimated: August and September did not heal wounds but they allowed growers to bring to ripeness the fruit they had been able to protect and salvage.
 
My favourite 2021s display a delicacy that is not easily explained.  It is not to do with fragility or lightness but can be understood in contrast to the strength and power of the preceding three years.  It may be imagined, on my part, but I link it to the wines’ precision and poise.  For me, the delicacy is in part a consequence of the hardships of the growing season: the wines have faced down disaster in the vineyard, they have pulled through in the face of great adversity but their success is hard won.
 
Of course, to say that such factors result in a delicacy of taste and aroma is nonsense, but it is one way in which the vintage expresses itself to me and offers a way of understanding the wines and what shaped them.
The Wines
Tasting on the right bank, I started to reach the conclusion that wines with a higher proportion of Cabernet Franc, or Sauvignon, were the most successful.  After all, Merlot had been the most impacted by the mildew and the late summer weather was to the benefit of the later-ripening varieties.  It is no accident that Chateau Angelus 2021 is fully 60% Cabernet Franc – the highest proportion ever.
 
Time and again, my favourite right bank wines were those with significant percentages of Cabernets in the blend: Chateaux Lafleur, La Conseillante, Canon, Vieux Chateau Cetan, Figeac and Cheval Blanc.  2021, however, refuses to conform to rules so as soon as you spot a pattern you discover wines that confound your conclusion!
 
Le Pin, Latour a Pomerol and Trotanoy are all 100% Merlot and they are all 100% delicious in 2021 – Le Pin being particularly lithe, aerial and fine-boned.  Chateau Belair Monange contains a whole 1% of Cabernet Franc and continues to assert the case for the superiority of its terroir.
 
Whilst discussing Saint Emilion, it is worth mentioning, and celebrating, the appellation’s resurgence.  The lighter alcohols of 2021 perfectly showcase the progress made by so many estates.  In the past, there might have been temptation to over-extract a more delicate vintage, to try and ‘pump up’ the wines beyond the capacity nature had delivered in the vineyard.  Winemakers may have attempted to build body and muscle into lighter wines by means of oak, adding spice and sweetness.  
 
Those days seem to be behind us, however, and such instances are rare in the 2021 vintage.  Many of the best examples – from La Gaffeliere at the foot of the village to Cheval Blanc on the top of the Cote – are naturally expressive, above all unforced and with a fluid sense of ebb and flow in the glass.
 
Switching to the left bank, with its larger estates and vineyards, it would be a mistake to expect more abundant crops.  2021 was the smallest ever harvest at Chateau Pichon Baron and only 36% of the crop made the cut for Chateau Margaux’s grand vin.  
 
In a reflection of the right bank scenario, the wines favouring Cabernet seemed to be stealing the show.  The outstanding Chateaux Latour and Lafite each consist of 96% Cabernet Sauvignon in 2021, on paper it makes sense that Cabernet-dominant wines will do best in this vintage.  Yet once again, just as you start to get a handle on the wines, 2021 surprises you: Chateau Palmer is a classical blend including 56% Merlot and I’m still unconvinced it does not eclipse Chateau Margaux itself.
 
In a vintage when ripeness only came right at the end of the season, there are obviously Medoc Cabernets that did not achieve full maturity and which show skinny profiles and green characters.  I have already read reports stating how rare under-ripeness is in 2021, but this was simply not true in my tastings  – there are many angular and emaciated wines, including some from famous name chateaux. 
 
It would be reasonable to assume that the best producers, with the finest terroirs and the greatest resources to invest in their production, have made the best 2021 wines.  This would lead to focusing solely on the top crus and upper echelons of the classifications but, once again, 2021 defies these generalisations.  Whilst I would not recommend stocking up on 2nd wines this year, I would buy Alter Ego de Chateau Palmer over many classed growths.  Similarly, I would rather take the Cazes family’s modest Chateau Les Ormes de Pez over any of the famous Saint Estephe wines I tasted - although it is true that the likes of Cos and Montrose really split opinion this year and were amongst the wines of the vintage for some very well-respected tasters.
 
The mid-tiers of the classified growths offer many attractive 2021s that will not command top dollar prices. Restricting myself to just two wines, I would like to highlight Chateaux Rauzan Segla and Leoville Barton.  Rauzan Segla continues the run of form it has established in recent years.  It is 75% Cabernet Sauvignon with impressive clarity and density of blackcurrant fruit and flattering blossom scents on the finish.  Leoville Barton is a fine testament to the late Anthony Barton, who passed in early 2022.  There seem to have been gentle tweaks made to the winemaking at this famous chateau, bringing greater refinement and polish to the tannins.  The 2021 is a Saint Julien of great poise and sophistication, a wine with not a hair out of place.
Conclusions
2021 Bordeaux has an undeniably tough gig, following a trio of exceptional, and well-received, vintages and (correctly) perceived as a challenging year from its inception.  Last week’s tasting revealed that there are certainly some examples of exceptional quality in 2021.  Whilst I did not find perfect three digit wines in my tastings, I came close with scores up to 99/100 for Chateaux Lafleur, Latour and Margaux and am drawing up a short shopping list of wines for my own cellar.
 
The moderate alcohols are definitely an attractive feature of 2021 and I have heard Bordeaux fans, grown tired of the big ‘solar years’, speaking enthusiastically about a return to a more classical style.  What 2021 delivers is not an old fashioned vintage, in the style of the 1980s or 1990s, but wines with those classical proportions interpreted via contemporary viticulture and winemaking.   Even as recently as 1996, Bordeaux could not produce the poise, precision and quality of tannin that the best 2021s display.
 
I just wrote 200+ words concluding that I view 2021 as a vintage of Atlantic sunshine but have deleted them as self indulgent and fanciful.  A better conclusion is that 2021 brings Bordeaux lovers wines that are unpredictable, surprising and complicated, and that is why it promises to be so rewarding to follow and drink.  

The very antithesis of a hole-in-one for producers or a no-brainer for buyers.  The thrill of 2021 is going to be in finding, owning and sharing the wines that defy the odds and over-deliver against such a challenging year.  As a fan of these wines of modest alcohol, delicate fruit, significant structure and luminescent purity, this is a thrill worth chasing.