The most complicated vintage since 2013, 2021 has caused Bordeaux residents to see all the colors. The vines suffered from a succession of challenges throughout the vegetative cycle: frost, mildew, and an absence of any water stress, due to a cool and not very sunny summer. “It was a tiring vintage for us, and psychologically difficult», recalls Juliette Couderc, new technical director of Château L’Evangile.
The previous six vintages had been relatively lenient, and the tasters rather spoiled, especially with the superb 2018, 2019 and 2020 trio. – requiring a real ability to project, beyond the wood, the still firm tannins, with a biting acidity, in order to be able to estimate the potential of the wine to come. Although it is rarer than in previous years, this potential is still very much present. Purchasing choices will therefore require a great deal of vigilance and must be made with care. Critics’ opinions will therefore be higher than for recent vintages, which enjoyed a very high overall level of quality.
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Viticulture and winemaking have progressed since 2013, with know-how and new technologies available to producers – and which they did not necessarily benefit from before, during difficult vintages. In addition, 2021 was saved by a peculiarity, namely: an unusually long vegetative cycle. It started with a bud burst at the beginning of April, and harvest dates which were staggered until mid-October, thanks to an Indian summer, which offered more than necessary sunshine. October was even the sunniest month since 1991. Pierre-Olivier Clouet, technical director at Château Cheval Blanc, spoke of a vintage “at low temperature“after six years of cooking”over high heat“.
The vintage was more difficult for the Merlot than for the Cabernet (Franc or Sauvignon), because it was more vulnerable to mildew, and with faster maturation. The Merlot therefore missed the best of the Indian summer, while a large part of the Cabernets benefited from a hot and sunny start to October. Many winegrowers made the daring bet to ignore the pessimistic weather, forecast for the weekend of October 3 and 4, and did not harvest under the pressure of rain that never materialized. “We were told the apocalypserecalls Vincent Millet, manager of Château Calon-Ségur in Saint-Estèphe, but the Cabernets were not ready. So he waitedand, finally, there was no rain, then a bright sun“. Further south, in Margaux, Alexis Leven-Mentzelopoulos, co-owner of Château Margaux, points out that “picking up unripe berries was out of the question“.
At Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, in Saint-Julien, owner Bruno Borie told us that the 2021 vintage was a “ode to cabernet sauvignon, which was much more resilient than merlot at every stage“. This superiority of the Cabernet does not, however, result in a homogeneous way with a more successful vintage on the left bank, as one might have expected. The right bank shows great successes and, strangely, fewer failures than the left bank.
The key word in 2021 would therefore be heterogeneity, and the quality is undoubtedly disparate, ranging from very disappointing to exceptional (even if no wine will have reached the score of 100 this year). All of this makes for an extremely interesting vintage to taste, sell and buy. A vintage for which the châteaux will have had a real opportunity to stand out, in particular thanks to an exceptional terroir and the provision of significant resources – both financial and human. “It was viticulture seven days a weekexplains Jean-Emmanuel Danjoy, technical manager of the entire Château Mouton-Rothschild team who, like many others, has stressed the vital importance of the unfailing commitment of the teams. It was necessary to adapt relentlessly, both in the vineyard and in the cellar. To accept that the fruit, which arrived at the end of the season, was not that of the previous six vintages, and to be ready to give up a proven recipe, in order to make a different wine, which reflects the vintage. “We didn’t look for a material we didn’t have», underlines Vincent Decup, technical director of Château Montrose, in Saint-Estèphe. Not far away, at Cos d’Estournel, technical director Dominique Arangoits points out that this vintage “is an opportunity for amateurs to discover the terroir, because the wines are bare“.
Among the biggest challenges: that of achieving a fairly substantial body and avoiding excessively vegetal notes (pyrazine), without over-extracting hard and green tannins or depending too much on new wood, which is difficult to absorb by a delicate fruit. Many of the most successful estates will have made extractions smoother than ever, and added a significant proportion of press wine in order to fill out the mid-palate. Chaptalisation has returned to service for the first time so widely since 2013. Nevertheless, the 2021s offer pleasantly modest alcohol levels – around 13% rather than 15 and 15, 5%, which has become ubiquitous in recent years – which could be a key selling point with consumers.
Generalizations are neither easy nor advisable in the case of a vintage displaying such a disparity in quality and style, but – with a few exceptions – red wines tend to be fresher, lighter, reminiscent of classic Bordeaux wines from 1980s and 1990s.”It’s 1980s style, but with ripe grapesthinks Aymeric de Gironde, president of Château Troplong-Mondot. The fruit is more red than black, with lots of raspberry, and even rhubarb. There is less of this dazzling floral side than in the last three vintages, and the floral notes are on a more vegetal spectrum – iris, violet, lilac. Less successful wines have a rather hollow mid-palate, overwhelming acidity, and often an overdose of wood. The best ones, on the other hand, are so pure and soothing, you would never guess the sweat and tears they required. For Olivier Gautrat, cellar master at Château L’Eglise Clinet, it was “a difficult, tiring vintage. We had lost the habit of grapes that were a little less explosive in terms of taste. We were very scared, but the more we taste them, the more we find them charming“.
The dry whites are pure and fresh, and the best of them have a sumptuous complexity. Sweet wines are remarkable, but produced in very small quantities, if at all, because of frost. This is why, with a yield below 1 hl/ha, Christian Seely, general manager of Axa Millésimes, describes Château Suduiraut 2021 as “tragically beautiful”. What all wines – reds, dry whites and sweet wines – share is a high level of acidity, which will undoubtedly give rise to a strong aging potential. We nevertheless remained cautious in the peaks awarded, before being able to taste again in two years, once the wines have been bottled. You will find them, as well as comments and notes on 380 wines, on the Figaro Vin website from next week.
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