The advice is clear. A slightly shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See also Bordeaux 2021 – a guide.
Last year was a bit of a shock for France’s vignerons. After a decade of increasingly warm summers, ripe grapes and full-bodied wines, nature tested them to the hilt and finally delivered a crop that struggled to ripen, even though – thanks to frost and the ravages of downy mildew – it was far from generous.
It will be fascinating to see the effect of a cool, grey summer on the more ethereal wines of Burgundy, whose wines are arguably less well suited to heatwaves than those of Bordeaux. But I’ve just come back from tasting embryonic 2021s as part of the annual en primeur campaign in Bordeaux and can report that habitual buyers of red bordeaux are probably in for a bit of a shock too. Gone is the opulence of the reds made in 2018, 2019 and 2020, when alcohols as high as 15% were not uncommon. These 2021 reds are more likely to be 12 to 13% alcohol – and in many cases had to be helped even to this level by the addition of fermentable sugar to the fermentation vat, a historical practice called chaptalisation that in 2021 was widely employed for the first time since 1997.
There certainly wasn’t any need to add acid, the common recourse of winemakers in hotter parts of the world. The grapes had quite enough of that, thanks to the cool, damp weather that characterised the summer of 2021 in Bordeaux.
And the result? Red wines that are very much lighter and tarter than we have become used to. As Danish wine writer Peter Winding put it to me as we helped ourselves to a hotel breakfast buffet before a day’s tasting, the wines are ‘nice and old-fashioned but helped by better techniques’. I should point out that Winding is a contemporary of mine. I wonder how younger drinkers raised on full-bodied red bordeaux will respond to these lighter wines? Perhaps they have anyway been schooled to give red bordeaux a wide berth thanks to the phenomenon known as ‘bordeaux bashing’ that has seen bordeaux virtually disappear from hipper wine lists.
No one should mistake these 2021s for the scrawny, dull, pale red wines made in 2013, the last tryingly miserable Bordeaux vintage. It is clear that Bordeaux’s winemakers bust a gut to make the best of a less-than-satisfactory growing season in 2021. The Merlot grapes may have been particularly ravaged by mildew but those producers with the later-ripening Cabernet grapes, whether Cabernet Sauvignon on the left bank of the Gironde or Cabernet Franc on the right bank, kept them on the vine far longer than usual to try to maximise ripeness after September rains, right into October’s Indian summer. Although since October days are so much shorter than daytime in August, the month that usually delivers final ripeness, this could only go so far.
Optical sorting machines designed to eliminate imperfect grapes were employed to the full and at organic pioneer Ch Smith Haut Lafitte in Pessac-Léognan, for instance, they bought a special, third sorter, whose job was to detect mildewed grapes by measuring their density. Downy mildew is the bane of Bordeaux, and even the increasing number of producers there who are adopting organic practices are, rather extraordinarily, allowed to fight this common vine fungal disease with copper-based sprays (up to certain limits) even though copper can leave toxic residues in soils.
What with the cruel frosts of 7 and 8 April, all this meant that volumes were well down, and some producers further reduced their production volumes by concentrating such juice as there was either using special concentrating machines (that had lain unused for a decade or two) or by bleeding off some of the lighter juice, a technique known as saignée.
There is also the possibility, perfectly legal, of blending the 2021 wine with up to 15% of wine from either the ripe 2020 vintage or 2022. Of course the 2021 cask samples we tasted last month could not have contained any 2022, but perhaps some were beefed up by the addition of a little of the 2020?
There was certainly huge variation between different appellations and different châteaux, perhaps reflecting their picking dates and how much they could afford to eliminate from their grand vin, the principal bottling. I split the tasting by appellation with my colleague on JancisRobinson.com and fellow Master of Wine James Lawther, so the red wines I tasted systematically were only those of Pessac-Léognan, Moulis, Listrac, Margaux and St-Estèphe – or rather the wines of those appellations whose producers deigned to submit them to the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting for wine writers at the Cité du Vin in the city. There were some real successes, but some reds that were not just slim but skinny. (One experienced en primeur taster suggested that the reds were deliberately served slightly warmer than usual in order to minimise the impact of the acidity.)
Domaine de Chevalier produced a pair of stunning 2021s, both red and white. This Pessac-Léognan property has a track record of producing exceptionally long-lived wines anyway.
St-Estèphe seemed to be an extremely successful appellation, perhaps partly because of its reliance on Cabernet Sauvignon. I did not taste either of the giants of St-Estèphe, Chx Montrose and Cos d’Estournel, but I was very impressed by two of the less glamorous names, Chx de Pez and Meyney, the latter over performing generally in recent years.
But the real takeaway from what I tasted is that 2021 is an absolutely brilliant vintage for white bordeaux, whether dry or sweet, which I had the pleasure of tasting. They may not be an attribute in reds, but high acid levels are a bonus for white wines. The dry whites, all picked before late September’s heavy rain, were delightfully aromatic and full of fruit and zest – with great mastery of oak, and none of the flab seen in some riper vintages.
And the sweet wines are truly superb, even if made in even smaller quantities than the reds. Poor Ch Climens, usually a top performer, made ‘not an ounce’ of sweet wine, according to chatelaine Bérénice Lurton, and a yield of less than one hectolitre per hectare (<0.06 ton/acre) for the grand vin is reported at top performer Ch Suduiraut (whose selling price is sometimes lower than the cost of production, so unfashionable are sweet wines). Sauternes suffered particularly badly from frost – exacerbated by summer hail – in 2021. But the September rains encouraged the development of the noble rot crucial to fine sweet bordeaux while the Indian summer concentrated everything so that the quality of such grapes as were picked in October was exceptional.
Alas the en primeur campaign tends to concentrate on red wines, but with the 2021s I would suggest you look very seriously at the whites, which are already delicious but should have quite a future too.
Great 2021 white bordeaux
Note that I have not yet tasted Chx Suduiraut nor d’Yquem and neither of the famous dry whites of the Haut-Brion stable but James Lawther MW has tasted all of these except for Ch d’Yquem, which nowadays is released later than the en primeur season.
Image of lovely, healthy Sauvignon Blanc grapes on 8 September 2021 courtesy of Gavin Quinney of Ch Bauduc, who also provided Wednesday's report on the 2021 growing season in Bordeaux.