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The first word on 2021 Bordeaux: In a mixed vintage, look to the whites for value

After a string of stellar vintages, the reaction to Bordeaux 2021 looks set to be lukewarm at best. Panos Kakaviatos takes the temperature in the region ahead of the official en primeur tastings

Words by Panos Kakaviatos

Photography by Panos Kakaviatos

bordeaux 2021
The Collection

After three strong vintages in a row, Bordeaux was dealt a weak hand in 2021 – for the red wines at least. ‘This was the most difficult vintage since 2013,’ said Nicolas Glumineau of Château Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande in Pauillac. ‘I’m just glad it’s over.’

The property’s conversion towards organic viticulture wouldn’t have helped in such tough climatic conditions, but Glumineau was not alone in his assessment. Ahead of a preview tasting this week, Bordeaux’s Union of Grands Crus announced how the vintage had ‘tested winemakers’ nerves until the end’. Or, as another winemaker at a famous Médoc estate, who did want to be quoted, said, more succinctly: ‘It was really crappy.’

‘Challenging’ is the term the trade is adopting ahead of the official en primeur week, which starts on Monday. Challenging in the form of vine-killing frost, mildew-causing late spring rain, and early October rain preventing many Merlots from ripening ‘optimally’ – as Bordeaux University professors Laurence Geny and Axel Marchal outlined in their vintage report. Many wines I have tasted have a barely ripe plum aspect to the palate. On the Left Bank, where Merlot was not as successful, wines include record percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend, with the variety better able to benefit from a long Indian Summer (harvesting ran well into October). At Château Pichon-Longueveille Baron, the 88% Cabernet Sauvignon is the highest the property has ever had, said director Jean-René Matignon, who is retiring after 37 years with the venerable Second Growth.

Olvier Bernhard Domaine de Chevalier
Olivier Bernard and son Adrien pour wines for critics at Domaine de Chevalier

As opposed to 2018, 2019 and 2020, 2021 was a cool vintage, because summer was, as Olivier Bernard of Domaine de Chevalier said, merely ‘nice’ but not ‘really warm’. The positive spin in Bordeaux is that this latest vintage represents a ‘return to freshness’ after three solar years. Tasting with renowned critic Jane Anson, it was rare to find wines with the overt fruit expressions of the previous three vintages. The 2021s showcase rather high levels of acidity, reflecting the coolness of the year. As Anson put it: ‘You can find wines that stand out among their peers in 2021, but if you compare it to vintages from the same château in a vertical tasting, the ‘21 would not be among the best.’

bordeaux 2021 red wine
Olivier Berrouet of Pétrus said of the 2021 reds: ‘The vintage required careful piloting; it's a year in which we were happy to make merely a "good" wine’

The red wines fall into three broad categories. Firstly, estates playing it too safe by not extracting too much under-ripe tannin, ending up with lacklustre wines of little character or mid-palate. Secondly, estates not as careful in their grape selections and ending up with astringent tannins accentuated by high acidity. Third, the best performers, where risks were taken to harvest later, obtaining much-needed ripeness, and taking painstaking care to extract the best possible tannins to make very good (and, on occasion, excellent) wine. As Olivier Berrouet of Pétrus, in Pomerol, said: ‘This vintage required careful piloting.’

Winemakers, as ever, were keen to compare 2021 to other vintages. For Jean-Charles Cazes at Château Lynch-Bages, the vintage is a cross between the acidity of the 2008 and the density of the 2014. ‘It really depended on how you handled the acidity,’ said one negociant. ‘Some estates seem to have over-compensated, trying to balance it with added sugar, and the wines taste awkward.’

Almost all estates chaptalized – adding sugar to the vats ­ – a practice that has historically been customary in Bordeaux until recent, warmer vintages. For some, it was necessary to get more alcohol to balance the wine. For others it was more a case of ‘fine tuning’ – a rather deft exercise.

2021 is neither a ‘Right Bank’ nor ‘Left Bank’ vintage, but rather a vintage where the best terroirs – and most attentive winemaking – have yielded rewards

As can be the case in challenging vintages, some regions have fared better than others – and in 2021, Saint-Estèphe comes across as the appellation of the Left Bank, for a simple reason: it rained less. The particular success of Château Calon Ségur, for example, was clear as one of the wines of the vintage. Along with Château Latour in Pauillac and Cheval Blanc in Saint-Emilion, Calon Ségur counts among the few grand-cru estates that did not chaptalize its wine. ‘We didn’t feel that it was necessary, as we achieved natural alcohol degrees of about 13%,’ said director Vincent Millet. Château Capbern also yielded an affordable and delicious Saint-Estèphe as tasted from barrel, with red cherry fruit, freshness and smooth tannins. Further north, too, at Château Potensac (AOC Médoc) yields were healthy and the wine smooth and tasty. Many wines in the southern appellations of Moulis and Listrac suffrered by comparison, too often lacking mid-palate or refinement of tannin.

‘It rained much more in the south,’ added Millet, ‘which explains why we had little mildew in our vineyards – and high yields’. Château de Pez, also in Saint Estèphe, and also under the guidance of Glumineau, reached maximum yields of 57 hectolitres per hectare (around twice the yields at many other estates), but the wine is tasty, dense and smooth, just like other non classified wines from Saint-Estèphe I tried, like Les Ormes de Pez and Tronquoy-Lalande. Another candidate for wine of the vintage is Cos d’Estournel: such refinement and elegance, plus characteristic spice and sumptuousness, was difficult to achieve in a vintage with modest summer sun.

Saint-Estèphe, which escaped much of the rain further south, stood out in 2021

Over on the Right Bank, the French adage applies: ‘petit millésime, grand vin’ (‘in a lesser vintage, go with the bigger names’). The contrast between the top terroirs and lesser estates has never been more evident. Even so, the cooler profile of 2021 means that most wines showed off pepper, wet stone, tealeaf and mint expressions rather the bright, ripe fruit. Only the very best, including the likes of Lafleur and Le Pin in Pomerol and Châteaux Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarrosse, Canon and Cheval Blanc in Saint-Emilion, display more obvious, juicy fruit as well.

On a more uniform plus side, one can appreciate why Geny and Marchal describe the vintage as boasting ‘exceptional’ dry white wines. They explain how cool summers – not so ideal for reds – are ‘generally conducive’ to obtaining ‘great’ dry whites, as they ‘guarantee good acidity and preservation of aroma precursors’. The 2021 vintage has proven to be no exception.

The cool summer of 2021 wasn't conducive to brilliant reds, with only the biggest names of the Right Bank displaying juicy, ripe fruit notes

Some whites I tried – Domaine de Chevalier, Malartic Lagravière and Château Olivier – had a gorgeously chiselled profiles with intense aromatic expressions. At Smith-Haut-Lafitte, the 2021 white showed particularly well against its 2019 counterpart. Tasting the whites and reds of Graves and Pessac-Léognan side by side, the highlights came more often with the white wines. Even for Médoc estates that also craft dry whites, the greater ooh là là moment often came when tasting the whites. Those of Châteaux Cos d’Estournel, Lynch-Bages and Margaux all displayed clean, crisp elegance, and density, recalling the excellent 2017 vintage.

You would think that with such an obvious reduction in quality compared to the previous trio of vintages, prices would go down, but don’t expect huge falls. A broker with over 20 years experience in the trade told me flatly: ‘The châteaux will not lower prices enough.’ The counter-argument to lower prices is lower yields, and therefore less wine, even if many estates – and not just in Saint-Estèphe – were stressing how their yields were similar to 2020. Others will point to increasing costs due to inflation. And still others will point out that 2021 is not as bad as people might think. The vintage is clearly better than 2013, for example, and fine wine sales have been brisk despite challenges to the world economy. Bordeaux-based negociant Millésima calls the vintage ‘good’, with CEO Fabrice Bernard stressing that pricing will be ‘a delicate question because we have never seen such dramatic demand for the fine wines of Bordeaux’.

bordeaux 2021 white wines
White wines are where you'll find the best value in the 2021 vintage

But Liv-ex, the London-based wine exchange marketplace, has issued a report pointing out ‘market headwinds’, with stock from previous vintages still ‘lingering in the supply chain, narrowing margins in what is already an increasingly squeezed sector’.

Savvy merchants like Michael Sands of US importer Calvert Woodley in Washington D.C. see the writing on the wall: ‘Even without World War III going on, it’s unlikely that they lower the prices enough to make them attractive,’ Sands said. ‘My guess is that we’ll buy very little 2021, because after three great vintages in a row, I’m not sure how much sense it makes, financially or otherwise.’ Shaun Bishop of JJ Buckley in California says that prices ‘need to be the lowest of any available vintage for there to be real interest from merchants’. How much lower? For Jeff Zacharia of Zachys in Chicago: ‘I would hope 15% to 20%.’

2021 is neither a ‘Right Bank’ nor ‘Left Bank’ vintage, but rather a vintage where the best terroirs – and most attentive winemaking – have yielded rewards. Readers should not come away with the impression that the entire vintage is ‘off’. Savvy buyers should look to the northern Médoc and Saint-Estèphe in particular, as well as the dry white Bordeaux of 2021. The question is, at what price?