Bordeaux vintages will always initially be judged against their immediate predecessors. And after three highly regarded years, 2021 is looking like a ‘challenging’ vintage in comparison.
Hammered by one of the worst frosts in the region since 1991 and hampered by a cool summer, the outlook for the wines was not promising. The Bordelais, as ever, are quick to agree on the positives from the results. This was a vintage of ‘freshness’, it was ‘classically styled’, with lower alcohols.
Tasting the Bordeaux 2021 wines en primeur corroborated much of this opinion. After several vintages with alcohols of 14% to 15%, a plunge back to levels of 13%, even 12.5%, was refreshing indeed. But this didn’t make it a ‘good’ vintage overall and despite some standouts, the general impression was that the vintage was ‘largely mediocre’ or ‘lukewarm at best’. When they were first offered last summer, many wines were priced too high given the so-so reviews and, thus, did not sell, completing the vicious circle of en primeur disappointment.
After a year of cellar work, might the Bordelais have coaxed a little something extra out of the 2021 Bordeaux wines?
However, as Bordeaux winemaker Gavin Quinney is apt to say, ‘the Bordelais are masters of élévage’. After a year of cellar work, might the technical directors have coaxed a little something extra out of the 2021 wines? This November’s Union Grands Crus tasting in London was a good place to find out. And the answer is a qualified ‘yes’.
On the plus side
The frosts were the big story of 2021 but, as Lilian Barton of Château Léoville Barton & Langoa Barton says, ‘that affects volume not quality’. For her, the 2021s have ‘fruit and freshness, with more ripeness than older Bordeaux styles’.
There is a real charm to many of the red wines. The good ones can be bright, fresh and crunchy, while the low alcohol and fine tannins give them a very moreish quality. Many of the wines are very drinkable now and the vintage appears to be one for drinking relatively young.
‘Those that rolled with the punches have done well,’ says Corney & Barrow’s head of fine wine, Will Hargrove. ‘I really like the freshness of them, and they follow on from the ‘14s and ‘17s as a cellar wine to drink before the ‘19s or ‘20s.’
With early budding Merlot hit hard by the frosts, many reds rely on high levels of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. To my mind, this adds to the fineness of these Bordeaux 2021 wines at their best but is also why some lack a little flesh, the ‘body’ that Merlot can add.
This is a much stronger vintage for the white wines, both dry and sweet. Many dry whites are Sauvignon Blanc-driven due to frost on the Sémillon. The results are spotless, pure wines with delicious herbal and grapefruit characters.
And the Sauternes are wonderful, concentrated and luscious. The autumn conditions were ‘perfect’ for noble rot, says Aline Baly of Château Coutet. But those spring frosts hit Sauternes and Barsac hardest, and production was pitifully low. These are the vintage’s rare and precious jewels.
On the downside
The Bordeaux 2021 vintage was not a disaster but that doesn’t mean there aren’t issues. Bright and crunchy the good reds may be but others are somewhat thin, lacking body and mid-palate. They are wines that make you say ‘ho-hum’ not ‘hot damn!’.
Overall, this is still a very average vintage and at the prices many of the Bordeaux wines command, that’s not good enough. As one fellow taster remarked, if you want crunchy, Cabernet-led wines then those in the Loire won’t cost you as much as these.
Unfortunately, nor is it an easy vintage to navigate. There are good wines on both banks of the Gironde. Growers that held their nerve and waited to harvest were rewarded with a late burst of sunshine that could make all the difference in the final blend, moving the dial from skeletal to svelte. It’s a vintage that comes down to individual properties rather than appellations: the classic ‘winemaker’s vintage’.
If you are in the market for a bit of old-school claret and buy with care, there are good wines to be found. However, unless you’re able to pick up the reds for less than they were offered on release or you have low drinking-stock in your cellar, there’s no need to go rushing out for the 2021s. The Sauternes remains the standout exception.