After two years tasting in gardens and via zoom, our recent primeurs trip marked a welcome return to Bordeaux. In truth, we had no expectations about this vintage. Unusually, chateaux have been playing their cards close to their chests, so we approached with no preconceptions.
A few points on the tastings themselves. The UGC calendar was delayed by about three weeks. This move has been welcomed. The extra time in barrel (even a couple of weeks) makes the wines much easier to assess. Our whole UK Private Client Team, as well as five Buyers, spent four days tasting barrel samples. Some might consider this overkill; however, for an advice-based business like Justerinis, we feel that this is essential. We believe salespeople need first-hand tasting experience in order to inform and advise. This is particularly valuable in vintages like 2021.
2021 threw just about everything at winemakers: frost, mildew, lack of sunshine and the threat of rain at harvest; yet those who manged the conditions and held their nerve have been rewarded with something quite ravishing and unique. It would be easy to write off a vintage like 2021 based on meteorological data, but that would be a disservice. While it requires some attention, there are undoubtedly many wines collectors will want in their cellars.
As we have witnessed in recent vintages, mild winter conditions resulted in an early budbreak. This feature of climate change is causing headaches for vignerons. The more precocious the cycle, the greater the risk of frost. High pressure systems in April and May resulted in several early starts… Lesser terroirs and those without the means to protect themselves have been affected. The best terroirs were largely unscathed.
No sooner had the threat of frost subsided, the spectre of downy mildew raised its unwanted head. May and June were both wet months and made vineyard management extremely difficult. While usually light, the rain was almost constant, which meant treatments needed to be numerous and applied at the opportune moments. Although this process is time consuming and laborious, Bordeaux has made huge advances in this area. It is becoming the “new normal”. Even biodynamic estates such as Chateau Palmer and Pontet Canet were successful and lost little of their crops.
Summer didn’t arrive until mid-July, and when it did, although temperatures warmed, there was a distinct lack of sunshine. Most chateaux compensated with green harvests and leaf thinning, which not only helped ripening, but also aided aeration and prevented botrytis. Veraison was late and slow. It wasn’t until the second week of August that hot, dry weather finally provided a little water-stress. This weather lasted well into September and October and helped the grapes reach a good level of maturity. White grapes were harvested in perfect conditions with warm days and cool nights. A heavy band of rain was forecast for the end of September, followed by further rains in October – neither materialised. Those who gambled were rewarded with more fine weather and extra maturity. Thanks to the well-spaced bunches and lots of leaf thinning, vines were well aerated and there was little risk of rot.
Although many vignerons observed a lack of sunshine, average temperatures and rainfall were quite normal throughout the summer. This resulted in slow, steady maturations. Phenolic ripeness came ahead of sugar ripeness, unlike 2018, 2019 and 2020 (where sugars matured ahead of the phenolics). 2021 is not a weedy vintage. Many chateaux reported record or near record IPTs (total polyphenol index), yet in most cases, tannins have been extracted expertly and remain in harmony with the crisper style of fruit. Some estates did chaptalize and or used a little saignée (bleeding to concentrate vats), mainly because berries contained a lot of juice.
To continue our cardplaying theme, 2021 would certainly have gone bust only 15 years ago. Advances in the vineyard, but also in the winery, have made this vintage possible, even successful. It’s not the sort of year vignerons would want too often, requiring a huge amount of work. However, 2021 has resulted in a slew of wines that are unique for modern Bordeaux. They clearly nod towards the celebrated vintages of the 80s and 90s with their low alcohols and low pHs, although there is a modernity to the tannins and the quality of fruit that makes these superior to their forebears. Vignerons should be extremely proud of their results. William Kelley from the Wine Advocate sums this up succinctly:
“Some of the northern Médoc reds, with their intensely Cabernet Sauvignon-driven personalities, evoke the 1996 vintage. While sometimes nodding to such comparisons, the vintage’s very best wines largely transcend them. But what is clear is that, were the 2021s transposed to the decade of the 1990s, they would be considered the product of a superb vintage… We may have lost the habit of tasting wines with moderate alcohol levels and classic pH en primeur, but anyone who enjoys the great benchmark Bordeaux wines of the 1980s and 1990s should seriously reflect on what the 2021s may have to offer in 10 to 15 years’ time.”
Before everyone gets too carried away, a small word of caution: 2021 was clearly a heterogenous crop. For every success there will be several failures. Only the chateaux with the best terroir, considerable means and savoir faire could triumph, and in some cases, that still wasn’t enough… The luck of the draw was certainly a defining factor. This is not a vintage for generalisations. There’s certainly no adequate comparison. The best efforts have a profile that is reminiscent of the great vintages from the 80s and 90s with better clarity and much more sumptuous tannins. Advancements in the cellar, plot by plot vinifications and selections clearly give these wines more than a hint of modernity. Whilst discussing the 2021 with Emeline Borie, we felt there were components of the 1996, 2001 and perhaps something more contemporary like the 2016. To call these “classic” is only half the story. Yes, they’re not sumptuous fruit bombs, but there are no pyrazines and there’s generally a core of sweet, fleshy fruit you wouldn’t have found in the wines of yesteryear. What we found so attractive was the vibrancy of the fruit and the sense of balance and cohesion. The best will give immense pleasure and will have a surprising capacity to age.
There are too many excellent examples to mention in this space. Our full tasting notes will follow in the coming days but, suffice to say, there are plenty of aces that we can endorse with confidence. There are even one or two that could be the best wines produced to date (for our tastes). Though completely different in profile from 2018, 2019 and 2020, we think 2021 has the capacity to join this illustrious sequence and may even become some collectors’ preference.