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Bordeaux 2021 En Primeur: first impressions

Three weeks into tasting and ahead of the ‘official’ en primeur week which starts today, Monday 25th April, Georgie Hindle delivers a first look at one of the most interesting and talked about vintages of recent times.

There’s no doubt that 2021 was a challenging vintage. Most explanatory statements or technical sheets handed out over the past few weeks have mentioned the unfavourable, oft disastrous weather conditions, the sometimes very low and disheartening yields and the slightly varied or unusual blends on offer in 2021.

Difficulties faced by vignerons both inside and outside of the cellar have been explained in detail as has the raft of highly important decisions needed to be made throughout the year, not limited to when and how to prevent and/or treat frost, mildew and botrytis, the exact date of harvest  which was crucial to many, (for those who still had grapes to pick that is), and the final blend which many have said took longer to get right this year.

So while the vintage certainly presented an untold number of challenges for some – see the full report in May for a more detailed appellation-to-appellation analysis – it is also being called ‘the marathon vintage’, ‘the on-call vintage’, ‘the victory vintage’ and ‘the miracle vintage’ with winemakers not only glad to have been able to harvest healthy grapes at all but surprised at the resulting quality. ‘I hated the grapes during harvest and I fell in love with them in the tank,’ said one winemaker.

Key takeaways

  • A year of intense aromatic complexity in both the reds and whites
  • Lower alcohol, freshness, balance and elegance in the best wines
  • No clear winner between Left and Right Banks, with highs across Bordeaux
  • Excellent white wines, including a small amount of sublime Sauternes
  • Pricing will be very difficult to predict

Nowhere to hide

Soundbites and quippy vintage summaries aside, there will be some beautiful bottles worth buying from 2021 – if you know where to look – and more importantly worth drinking. ‘These are wines you are not only going to finish but want to drink more of,’ said one winemaker. It’s likely that they will present earlier opportunities to be consumed compared to the more robust and plush vintages, though again several winemakers seem certain of the ageing potential given the acidity, tannic structure and balance on show.

I personally love the no frills, no make-up aspect to the wines. There’s really no hiding behind sunshine and alcohol this year, meaning for those who were either blessed with more favourable weather conditions, grapes and terroir that coped better, or a vinification process that was more easily managed, their wines will definitely find fans.

Yes, some are austere right now, the acidity is sharp and in focus and some wines lack a bit of a push to suggest a long life ahead while others are more sustained and driven at this point with focus and persistence albeit also with a lighter frame and more grace on the palate. Freshness and drinkability (or buvabilité) is high for this vintage and these wines do display energy and charm.

Wine-growers dealt with what nature provided and that’s what you get in the glass. I was told on Friday; ‘perfection doesn’t exist, but on fait aller’ – we will make it work. Such refreshing realism and stoicism coming out of Bordeaux.

Tasting 2021 en primeur samples in Bordeaux

Dry and sweet whites

The whites are excellent and maybe more consistent across the board with ample freshness, drive and clarity on the palate as well as an astounding aromatic complexity thanks also to the cool summer and long ripening period. As you would expect, Pessac-Léognan and Graves have turned out some lovely, drinkable and appealing wines, but also across the Right Bank and in the Médoc, where the top picks will certainly deliver in bottle and over ageing. That said, some are piercing, sharp and acidic at the moment with ageing a key process to soften them.

Sauternes was the most wounded in 2021, not only for the grapes, but producing wine there is surely becoming the most disheartening job in Bordeaux with some notable absentees from the tasting schedule. Weather wasn’t on their side this year, but we should be! Those that did make wine achieved a feat of pure magic. Sheer determination alone saw some estates pick grape by grape with a 2hl/ha yield but some of the results are sublime. If you weren’t considering buying them before, please do in 2021 – bright, energetic, sweet, succulent and fresh. On more than one occasion I felt compelled to shout about their quality.

A selection of sweet wines at the UGCB tasting in Bordeaux

A selection of sweet wines at the UGCB tasting in Bordeaux

Weather and terroir

This isn’t a big, opulent, plush year – that’s not in contention; the rain was at first too heavy and too frequent, record-breaking in its intensity in fact, and the heat and sunlight simply did not avail enough to produce the sun-kissed fruit, high alcohol and uber glamour on show in grand vintages like 2016 and 2018. However, what we get instead is freshness and elegance, racy acidity, lower alcohols, balance where successful, and a true sense of terroir and grape signatures in the glass.

‘We’re back to Bordeaux’ as several winemakers put it, quoting terms such as ‘classic’ or ‘modern classic’ and ‘the new traditional’ referring to similar fresher, cooler, lower alcohol wines of the 80s and 90s but with more precision and refinement on show. This is thanks largely to increased dedication and time spent in the vineyards and more advanced technology in the cellars. It is also being said that 2021 is more suited to a ‘British’ or ‘European palate’ given the fondness for these kinds of wines in the past, but of course that’s not to say it won’t find appeal across the world.

But, it is also very variable. Not everyone has made a great wine in 2021 – or indeed a lot of it. There are some exceptional highs and some unfortunate lows, with some wines displaying an unripe greenness, stalky astringency and a weak or diluted mid-palate, but as always it’s very hard to generalise across a rough area of 110,000ha under vine (or the equivalent of 205,000 football pitches). As one winemaker put it; ‘It’s impossible for Bordeaux to be homogenous – in any year’. Even in Margaux, just to pick an appellation, there are variances in the effects of frost, how much mildew attacked the grapes or how waterlogged the soils became.

Grapes and aromas

While I may have been keen to call this a ‘Cabernet vintage’ a week ago that would still only be half true and do a disservice to some incredible Merlots on offer on both banks with the odd Petit Verdot and even Malbec making an appearance.

Merlot is an early-flowering grape, therefore more susceptible to frost, more sensitive to the environment, and is thin skinned meaning that many grapes either didn’t survive or were big and water heavy come harvest. Where available (more so this year given the recent trend to replace Merlot with later ripening and more robust varieties), other grapes were favoured including slightly more Cabernet Franc in some places and larger percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon with one notable 100% Cabernet wine and several at more than 90% in total.

Macerations needed to be kept gentle with slow and cool extractions and in some places no pumping over with the emphasis on an inert atmosphere so grapes were not exposed to too much oxygen throughout the vinification process. Again, largely generalising, but retaining freshness and the aromatic display were of key importance this year, something which is largely evidenced in the resulting wines.

For both the reds and whites aromatic intensity is at an all time high with expressive, scented and perfumed noses. The long, warm but not hot summer with cool nights allowed grapes to ripen slowly and for those that ultimately achieved adequate ripeness it meant there was a gradual build up of aromatic nuance giving more identifiable grape and terroir markers in the glass. It also allowed for a retention of acidity giving freshness and vibrancy and, for the reds, a desired long build up of phenolic ripeness meaning tannins are soft, smooth and well integrated – and interestingly with the same IPT levels (total polyphenol index) in many cases as in 2020 and 2019.

Primeurs tasting sign

Variations in alcohol and style

Given the lack of heat leading up to harvest, natural alcohols were on the low side in 2021 which, largely speaking, encouraged winemakers to use chapitalisation in the reds – common practice in bygone decades, and needy vintages, in Bordeaux but used habitually in Burgundy and Champagne to increase alcohol by up to half or a degree and give a sensation of added weight and plumpness to the wines. But where some grapes reached 12.5 abv necessitating this practice, others achieved 14.1 natural alcohol so it’s not one rule for all.

This is not a ‘weak vintage’ by any means – just more varied, particularly at this point, with wines even younger during these en primeur tastings than they would have been following an earlier harvest.

These are certainly lightly framed and aerial wines in many cases but there are also some that are unbalanced at this time, with acidity too high and tannins too austere and lacking crucially in mid-palate density and intensity on the finish. This should be aided and ameliorated to some extent by the ageing process with wood giving sweetness, roundness and coherence, and I’ve written many times in my notes that I’m already looking forward to retasting the wine in bottle. Ageing will be key in this vintage, and it will be interesting to see which oak regimes are favoured as I’ve heard both longer and shorter time periods being mentioned.

While some winemakers have referenced a combination of 1996 and 1999 as potential comparisons on the Left Bank, 2021 is largely considered to be better than 2011 and 2013, some better than 2017. It has also drawn similarities to 2008 in terms of the difficulty to taste en primeur with many of those wines tight, shy and unyielding then but opening up nicely today.

Ultimately the wines will need to be closely monitored so this could well be known as the ‘constantly-tasted vintage’ with untold numbers of grapes sampled at harvest and several hundred thousand batches blind tasted to try and make the final blends with a long year of regular tasting in barrel ahead before they’re ready to be bottled. The opening of several new high-tech cellar facilities also this year meant many winemakers had more vats and more control over individual vinifications which also would have helped for precision.

For some the sheer onslaught of unpredictable and uncontrollable conditions was something never experienced (not in 30 years – or at least in the longest time one could be reasonably expected to have experienced them) while others, for instance on the Pomerol plateau, experienced no frost, little to no mildew, no botrytis, normal yields and didn’t have to chapitalise.

Nevertheless, the work was relentless and for this 2021 may well be remembered as the ‘vintage of stress’, as many were unable to relax from the very beginning of the year in November, right through to today even with samples having a fragility to them and changing almost daily. ‘A month ago I wasn’t sure we should even show at primeur,’ said one technical director; ‘however the wines are changing and improving every day.’

Winners, Losers & Prices

It’s a vintage where money and time were key – those with bigger budgets and bigger teams were able to better cope with the conditions. The imperative to be more focused in the vineyard meant higher labour and resource costs not only starting with the early days of frost prevention and protection but for treatments (some double what a normal year might require), de-leafing, green harvesting and longer, more protracted harvests especially where teams were gathered and then put on hold during several nervewracking days where winemakers decided to keep grapes on the vine despite potentially catastrophic weather predictions where 60mm of rain was forecast and in many areas as little as 6mm or none at all fell.

One estate I spoke to had to buy tractors halfway through the year – and find people to drive them – while others had to go in by foot treating grape by grape as machinery was unable to navigate the waterlogged soils. And where frost didn’t deplete yields, strict selections did, with the removal of unhealthy or disease-affected grapes where possible throughout the year as well as the discardment of sub-par berries at the time of harvest which means the percentage of grand vin is generally smaller while some wines haven’t been made at all.

This has several implications – smaller estates with already tiny margins may justifiably be looking to increase prices just to maintain economic viability. Especially given that at the moment, costs for glass, wooden cases, labels, electricity and any other number of associated elements have increased on average by 40-50%. Consignments of (in some cases custom) bottles and wooden cases that were planned 18 months ago and now ready to be collected are sat waiting to be settled with a vastly different price to when they were ordered. Clauses in contracts state that quotations are subject to change given the prices in effect at the time of delivery.

This isn’t limited to the wine industry – food is seeing a similar hike in supermarkets around the world, but where buyers seem to have an insatiable appetite for extremely expensive wines, those at the lower end of the scale may be vulnerable and will need support this year.

It’s a slightly different story for the classed growths and larger estates who have enjoyed several years of productive yields and healthy sales. Given that, in general, this is a year not as qualitatively reliable as some preceding it, it may be unlikely that prices would increase, with buyers and collectors no doubt wary about purchasing at this stage and looking to be judicious in how and where their money is spent.

Yet, it remains that buyers want wine and there is a smaller quantity of it to sell (not just in Bordeaux but also across France in other key regions) so it’s anybody’s game as to how the campaign will go, when it’ll start and who will be the first to price it.

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