2021 Bordeaux En Primeur: Back to Classicism


The 2021 Bordeaux have turned out to be such a surprise. Weather conditions were challenging, and yet the top properties turned out gorgeous, classically built wines that will absolutely thrill readers who appreciate freshness and energy. Restrained alcohols and mid-weight structures will remind readers of Bordeaux pre-2000s. The best wines offer a striking combination of old-school classicism with modern-day precision. Quality is inconsistent though, so choosing carefully is essential. Even so, there is much to like in the 2021s.

How did this happen? Wasn’t the year a disaster, you might be asking? Well, there is a lot to talk about. To be sure, 2021 was full of challenges. These include severe frost, heavy summer rains, elevated disease pressure and then a lack of sun during the summer. It was not an easy year, to say the least. And yet the best wines are so compelling.   

There is no question there is far greater precision in farming and winemaking today in Bordeaux than ever before. One of the key elements in 2021 was labor. With wages up around 50%, estates that could afford extra workers at critical moments clearly had an advantage over those that could not. Another significant development in Bordeaux is the wave of new cellars that have been outfitted with small fermentation vats. Imagine a large stock pot in your kitchen. It needs to be filled with a certain volume to work well. That is the same with the large fermentation vats. Today’s fermentation tanks need to be filled with a smaller volume of grapes than in the past. That means vineyard managers can pick only what is truly ripe as opposed to having to pick a certain amount of fruit to fill tanks, as they once did. This greater amount of selection with regards to timing in the field is having a profound impact on the quality of Bordeaux wines, especially in challenging years.

Experience is another factor. Winemakers, vineyard managers and owners had the experiences of frost in 2017 and mildew in 2018 to guide their choices in 2021. This year, I heard far more technical discussions of the different kinds of frost (black versus white), along with the different techniques to mitigate them, than ever before.

The 2021 red wines are generally marked by alcohols in the 13% range for the Left Bank and a bit more for the Right Bank, but about 1% lower across the board than what we have become accustomed to in the 2000s. The 2021s are intensely aromatic and marked generally by red fruit character. The low alcohol style, classic for Bordeaux, is sure to appeal to both consumers and professionals who appreciate vibrancy and nuance. I expect 2021 will find a great deal of enthusiasm among sommeliers. In some ways, the 2021s remind me of the 2014s in that they aren't obvious wines as this stage, but in the best wines quality is there, for those who are willing to look, just as it was with the 2014s. 

Sara Lecompte Cuvelier, seen here at Leoville-Poyferré, turned out a gorgeous set of 2021s at her family’s various properties.

The 2021 Growing Season

The year got off to an early start. Warm, dry conditions in February and March led to a precocious budbreak at the beginning of April. Unfortunately, Bordeaux witnessed brutal frost on April 7 and 8, which reduced the crop and weakened the vines ahead of the challenging weather that arrived in the summer and then led to irregular ripening. Flowering was quite variable from property to property. An especially fine spell of weather at the end of May and early June helped many estates achieve very fast and even flowering. Results were less consistent for estates where flowering was later. Of course, this sort of timing can’t be planned with Mother Nature in advance, it is coincidental.

June brought heavy rains, about double the historical average, along with hail in some places. Mildew pressure mounted considerably in July as rain continued. Blocks that had struggled through frost were especially vulnerable. Vineyard managers responded by deleafing more aggressively than most years to stave off rot. Merlot was more heavily affected by both coulure, rot and later by bloat than Cabernets and Petit Verdot. Potential yields were once again impacted.

Summer was overcast, with no excess heat to speak of. Vegetative growth continued later than what is considered optimal. During set, vineyard managers are looking for the vine to stop growing so that a natural water deficiency causes the vine to focus of all its energy into the berries. In 2021, that happened, but later than ideal. Mid-veraison, a critical measuring point for estimating harvest dates, was both later than the 20-year-average and more drawn out because of the lack of heat and sunlight, along with the lack of water stress. 

Conditions improved markedly towards the end of the season. Cool and dry weather persisted throughout September and into October, accompanied by healthy diurnal shifts. By then, the Merlots were bloated, but there was enough time to allow the Cabernets to properly ripen and find greater equilibrium. In fact, some technical directors on the Left Bank reported dehydration in the Cabernets at the end of the season. Harvest for the Merlots was concentrated around the last week of September. Another critical moment arrived around October 2 and 3, when heavy rains were forecast. As it turned out, that rain never materialized. Not wanting to risk further losses, some properties picked early, but others waited for the additional days for their Cabernets to fully ripen.

Managing Director Véronique Dausse and Technical Director Fabrice Bacqueyat Phélan Ségur, one of the stars of the Left Bank.

It was an especially challenging year for many châteaux that farm biodynamically, as readers will see in perusing the producer commentaries that accompany these reviews. Yields were decimated at many properties, including Haut-Bailly, Smith Haut Lafitte, Pichon Comtesse and many others. “We farm biodynamically out of a sense of conviction, because we think it is the right thing to do,” Pauline Vauthier told me at Ausone, where the Vauthiers presented only the wines from Ausone and La Clotte because production at their other properties was down 80-90%. “Losing a large part of the harvest is very difficult,” she continued. “If we have another year like 2021, we might seriously reconsider some of our choices.” Interestingly, yields are more or less in line with historical norms at nearby Canon La Gaffelière and Stephan von Neipperg’s other properties. “We have been farming biodynamically for more than twenty years now, and I think over that time the vines have simply become accustomed to our practices,” Neipperg elaborated.

Many producers take a more practical approach in farming sustainably but leaving themselves options. “I have children and grandchildren,” Alexandre Thienpont explained at Vieux Château Certan. “I drink wine every day. I am not going to put anything in our vineyards that is harmful. At the same time, every now and then a challenging growing season comes along. You have to take the bull by the horns and make the occasional choice that is not permitted in biodynamic farming. That’s exactly what we did.”

Technical Director Nicolas Glumineau made one of the wines of the vintage at Pichon Comtesse. Production is off 2/3rds though, so readers will want to jump on the 2021.

Vinification and Élevage

Saignée (bleeding) for the Merlot was employed at many, if not most, properties to re-establish healthy balance in the musts and produce component wines that would blend better with the generally richer Cabernets. Speaking of the Cabernets, many required slight chaptalization, a practice that has not seen widespread use in Bordeaux in a number of years. Some winemakers opted for shorter ferments, while others increased the amount of days on the skins, but the consensus favored the sort of gentle extractions that have become the norm in Bordeaux in recent years.

In blending, the Cabernets are way up because of their higher quality and greater resistance to the climatic challenges of the year. Many Left Bank wines contain the highest amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon ever. Where available, Petit Verdot was used to give the wines more structure. Readers will also notice an increased use of press wines in many blends, as technical directors sought to give the wines as much depth as they could. It’s a similar story on the Right Bank, where Cabernet Franc (and Cabernet Sauvignon, where planted) fared better than Merlot. “It's a Cabernet vintage for sure," Hubert de Boüard told me. "We used more Cabernet Sauvignon in the Left Bank blends and more Franc in the Right Bank blends than ever before," he added, referring to the wines he oversees at his consulting practice.

It is important to note that the 2021s are not finished wines. Many 2021s feel quite fragile at this stage, as if they could improve or deteriorate in barrel. It is a vintage in which élevage (aging) is going to be absolutely critical in determining the final result.

Proprietor Corinne Mentzelopoulos and Managing Director Philippe Bascaules at Château Margaux following our tasting.

How to Approach the 2021s

Stylistically, the 2021s are a radical departure from the preceding three vintages. The wines are a good 1% (or more) lower in alcohol than the wines of 2018, 2019 and 2020. One of the benefits of lower alcohol is that oak is very nicely integrated in many of the best wines. Alcohol extracts oak, so less alcohol also means less oak impact. A good example is Ducru-Beaucaillou, which is often marked by strong barrel signatures en primeur, but that shows exceptional balance as a young wine in 2021.

Acidities are pronounced to a degree that will surprise readers who aren’t accustomed to tasting Bordeaux wines that at times exhibit the balance last seen in the 1990s. With less stuffing and overall body, the tannins also feel quite present in many wines. At the end of many days tasting the 2021s, I could feel the accumulated effect on my palate and gums from the high acids and tannins that reminded me of tasting young Piedmont wines or vins clairs in Champagne.

The calm end of day at Château Palmer, where the wines are once again outstanding.

Is It a Left Bank or Right Bank Vintage?

Good question. The answer is both, but for different reasons. There is greater consistency on the Left Bank. Yes, that’s a generalization. Like all generalizations, there are some exceptions, but if we look at the Left Bank as a whole, quality is a touch higher, especially moving into the lesser appellations. But the Right Bank has plenty to say in 2021. In fact, many of the best wines of the year are found in Pomerol and Saint-Émilion. On the Right Bank, 2021 is truly a vintage for the great terroirs. Moving beyond them, quality becomes inconsistent, especially in the satellite appellations. There are plenty of terrific wines on both the Left and Right banks, but if I had to make a quick decision off a restaurant list or in a shop, I would gravitate to the Left Bank.

Alexandre and Guillaume Thienpont made one of the most unforgettable wines of the vintage at Vieux Château Certan.

Dry Whites

Two-thousand twenty-one is a brilliant vintage for the dry whites of Bordeaux. It is an unusual year in which the wines have the energy that is often associated with cooler seasons, but the textural richness that is often only achieved in warm years. That duality makes the best 2021 whites compelling and absolutely riveting in the finest examples. 

“Back in the 1990s, harvest dates were chosen for us by deteriorating conditions at the end of harvest. Rain and the risk of rot essentially dictated when fruit had to come in,” Managing Director Jean-Philippe Delmas told me at La Mission Haut-Brion. “In the 2000s, with climate change, we were forced to the other extreme, that is to say picking earlier and earlier to avoid losing acidity and bringing in overripe grapes. Two-thousand twenty-one was a very rare vintage in which we could harvest when we wanted to, with no pressure whatsoever.”

2021 Sauternes: Great but Tiny

Mother Nature was especially hard on Sauternes in 2021. The April frost was particularly brutal. Hail later in the year further reduced the crop. Some estates reported yields in the single digits. But then, there are the wines. And what wines they are. Despite all the challenges of the growing season, the 2021s offer a beguiling combination of textural richness and energy that is absolutely compelling.

A calm Saturday afternoon at Valandraud.

2021 En Primeur

With the en primeur campaign about to start within a matter of days, the usual chatter over the market and pricing remains pretty hushed. Proprietors are understandably quite concerned.

I certainly don’t have the crystal ball. This is what we know. First and foremost, 2021 carries with it a negative perception because of the challenges of the year. In my opinion, that view is simply not justified by the quality of the best wines, but the reality is that perceptions are hard to change. After the so-called ‘trilogy’ of 2018, 2019 and 2020, what will the market accept?

We are in a rising interest rate environment and possibly heading into a global recession. The war in Ukraine, and the risk of other armed military conflicts introduce great uncertainty. These all suggest owners should price the 2021s with extreme caution, meaning conservatively. 

On the other hand, inflation is real. Bottles, labels, capsules and wood are all up 25% or more, assuming they are available in the first place, as many of these are in limited supply or backordered. The fine wine market is red hot. Bordeaux négociants are coming off two years of record sales, while shortages in other regions, most notably Burgundy, have depleted inventories. Based on what various professionals shared, the Unites States remains the single biggest market for Bordeaux futures. The US dollar’s appreciation vis-à-vis the Euro might compensate for an increase in prices to some degree, at least from a US perspective. We will see.

Although I never agreed, a commonly held view in recent years was that the en primeur system was ‘broken.’ The 2019 campaign, held during the first COVID lockdown in 2020, amidst great uncertainty, was a huge success. Why? Because the wines were priced attractively. The same thing will happen with the 2021s. If the wines are priced well, they will sell, if they aren’t they won’t. The market is always right.

Tracey Dobbin MW and Bruno Borie presented a stellar set of wines, including the superb 2021 Ducru-Beaucaillou.

“Good Enough” Is Never Good Enough

This year, en primeur samples were the most variable I have ever seen in Bordeaux. There are just too many wines being shown and more people who want to taste them than the current infrastructure can handle. As a result, samples are often prepared in advance, but too far in advance to show well. One of the advantages of tasting wines more than once, as all serious critics do, is seeing wines in more than one setting. I observed very quick sample degradation in the 2021s. Perhaps, the previous three vintages hid this. Most people also tasted the last two en primeur vintages remotely. But the fact is that the richness of 2018, 2019 and 2020 probably allowed samples to last a bit longer. That is not the case with the 2021s. Moreover, a number of properties, including some elite châteaux, prepare their samples only every few days. To be sure, there are many ways to prepare samples and also many qualified opinions on when they show best. I could not help notice though, that in many cases I tasted fresher en primeur barrel samples in New York during the pandemic than I did visiting the châteaux this year. Some technical directors seem to not care much about presenting old samples. Their answer is “it’s good enough”, but it’s not. “Good enough” is never good enough if the goal is to be elite.

Technical Director Vincent Millet and his team turned out a stunning set of wines at Calon Ségur. The Grand Vin is majestic in 2021.

This Year’s Report

Readers will notice that this year’s report is a bit condensed relative to the past. The official en primeur tastings took place about three weeks later than normal, and that naturally left less time to prepare this article. The reality is that there are only about 300 wines that are sold en primeur. Of those, somewhere between 40 and 100 actually have a market, meaning they may increase in value between now and when they are sold in bottle. I will have some additions to this article in the near future, but my goal with this report is to focus on wines that are actually sold en primeur. Readers will find notes on a wider range of wines in Neal Martin’s forthcoming article on the 2021s.

Pierre Lurton and Pierre-Olivier Clouet in the vineyards at Cheval Blanc.

Les Coups de Coeur

These aren’t necessarily the highest-scoring wines in this report (readers find those easily by sorting by number), but rather wines that offer a compelling mix of quality, personality and expected price. In short, these are the 2021s I personally would love to have in my cellar.

· Beau-Sejour-Becot

· Calon Segur

· Cheval Blanc

· La Conseillante

· Doisy-Daëne L'Extravagant

· Ducru-Beaucaillou

· La Gaffelière

· Les Carmes Haut Brion

· Les Perrières

· Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande

· Smith Haut-Lafitte Blanc

· Vieux Château Certan

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