For the first time in three long years, the international wine trade was able to make their annual pilgrimage to Bordeaux and taste the En Primeur vintage. The timing could not have been more fortunate, as unlike the extraordinarily solar 2018, 2019 and 2020 vintages, 2021 was a far more complicated endeavour in which carefully considered and repeated tastings were hugely beneficial in forming our opinion.
The vintage presented estates with an endless string of challenges both in the vineyard and with decisions to be made. While some were able to deftly navigate through the obstacles with the help of deep pockets and decades of expertise, producing elegant wines which recalled the classic Bordeaux style of the 1980’s and 1990’s; others made wrong turns, producing more average wines which lacked the concentration and depth of fruit required to balance the high levels of acidity in 2021.
The Growing Season – ‘Hit me with your best shot’
The ISVV at the University of Bordeaux define a “great” red Bordeaux vintage by analysing whether five conditions have been met throughout the growing season.
1) and 2) A temperate Spring to facilitate a quick flowering and fruit-set.
3) A warm and dry July to allow the gradual onset of hydric stress before véraison (when the grapes change colour).
4) Continued warmth and dryness into August and September to allow a prolonged and complete ripening of each grape variety.
5) Clement weather during the harvest to allow vignerons to choose their ideal picking date without any fear of dilution or rot.
After consecutive vintages defined by drought and hydric stress, 2021 began with a wet winter which gave way to a pleasant April. This unfortunately (and once again for the Bordelais) triggered the perilous early bud break, leaving a great number of vines vulnerable to the devastating frost which struck the region on the 7th and 8th of April, followed by more localised frosts in early May, and led to the first reduction of yields for many growers.
Despite this, flowering was fairly even at the start of June. However, an abundance of rainfall followed at the end of the month preventing the ideal conditions of hydric stress during fruit set and resulted in notably larger berries than recent vintages. July continued to be cool and wet enough to facilitate the spread of mildew, which was the second cause of a reduction in yields for many. The cooler temperatures also kept the grapes from reaching the high levels of ripeness that we have seen in the past half a decade, when record breaking heat waves struck the region in consecutive summers. Thankfully, by August a dry sunny spell awaited to allow the grapes the ideal clement weather conditions needed to finish their ripening. By late September, the ominous forecast of storms on the horizon led some to commence harvesting the naturally later ripening Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon in order to avoid the predicted deluge. However, those who kept their nerve had luck on their side as the storms never materialized, and they were able to gain several weeks of much needed maturation in October.
Overall, the harvested grapes had much larger berries than in recent vintages where comparisons were made to their “caviar” like resemblance. They also had naturally lower levels of sugar and high levels of malic acid, which make a stark contrast to the trio of preceding vintages, which were defined by their high level of alcohol and sweet, ripe fruit characteristics. As an earlier ripening grape with a higher sensitivity to mildew, the Merlot plots suffered for many estates. In response, there is generally a higher proportion of Cabernet in the blend for most on the Left Bank. Saying this, our great takeaway of the vintage is that sweeping statements are unwise – thus it is important to note that many produced fine Merlots without any issue at all. With the cool summer and a lower level of ripeness, there may have been concern for under-ripe green notes in the Cabernets. Thankfully, we found very little signs of the tell-tale herbaceous character in any of the top estates.
Due to the heterogeneity of the vintage, it is impossible to declare 2021 a “Cabernet vintage” or a “Merlot Vintage”, nor any of the other straightforward generalisations to help one to find the best wines of the vintage. Instead, those who stood the best chance of producing a commendable wine were the estates with the greatest number of resources at their disposal combined with the ability to make sound decisions under intense pressure.
The dry white wines of 2021 had a much easier growing season, with the cool summer producing desirable amounts of acidity as well as excellent aromatic potential in the grapes and the harvest taking place without issue in the first two weeks of September. The regions of Sauternes and Barsac were not as fortunate as they were badly affected by both the frost and the hail, resulting in incredibly small final yields for many.
The Wines – ‘In this great future, you can’t forget your past’
Bordeaux has had a truly remarkable series of vintages over the past decade, culminating in the most recent blockbuster series of 2019, 2018, and 2010. Yet while these are undoubtably superb vintages, they have been indicative of the new normal within the region; whereby scorching summer heat waves and prolonged periods of drought have produced an opulent and alcoholic style of wine remarkably different from the “classic”, beloved style of the 80’s and 90’s.
It was difficult to know what to expect when arriving in Bordeaux to taste last week. 2021 was clearly far more complicated to produce, taste and market externally, defying any easy simplifications of where one should look for the best wines of the vintage. However, after a week tasting through each appellation and having had the opportunity to taste many wines two or three times, we can conclude that while it’s not the most overt and seductive vintage, those who were the most successful produced balanced, elegant wines with crisp red fruit character, refreshing acidity and amazingly fine, silky tannins. The weather patterns certainly recalled the cooler years of the pre-climate change era; but estates are now armed with decades more experience and technological advances to avoid under-ripeness and rusticity in the wines.
When asked to liken 2021 to a past vintage, the effortless drinkability of 2001 came to mind for many, while others ventured that (thanks to the high levels of acidity), 2021 could have the long-lasting ageability comparative to the iconic wines of 1996.
The dry white wines are far more straightforward to assess as they are almost entirely and uniformly excellent in 2021. Thanks to the cooler summer, they exhibit plenty of desired freshness as well as beguilingly intense aromatic complexity. It goes without saying that the category of dry white Bordeaux wines remains vastly underappreciated, but if one is remotely tempted to give these wines a try, 2021 is the vintage to do so without any regrets. The little Sauternes that made it to production despite the frost and the mildew is exceptionally delicious, with incredible concentration of fruit due to the miniscule yields and plenty of mouth-watering acidity to balance them out.
Expectations by Appellation – ‘I did it my way’
Due to the incredible investment and advancements in technology which the top Bordeaux estates now have access to, we have steadily moved away from vintages which can be summarized by the unadulterated effects of mother nature on each respective appellation, as many Chateaux now possess both the ability and expertise to deftly navigate their way through the many obstacles they may face in a vintage like 2021. They are not afraid of making several selections in the vineyard to uphold their strict quality levels, and are skilful enough in the winery to be able to coax the very best results out of their juice.
This year it is simply impossible to declare that it was a “Right Bank Vintage,” a “Pauillac Vintage” or to give any other broad guidelines as there were highlights to be found in nearly every appellation we visited.
Overall, we found quite a lot to like in St. Emilion, where once again the stars of the AOC like Chateau Canon, Chateau Cheval Blanc and Chateau Figeac reminded us how unfailingly consistent they have become.
On the left bank, the north of the Medoc avoided the worst of the rainy weather with Montrose and Cos d’Estournel vying for top seed in St. Estephe, while in Pauillac and St. Julien, the Mouton stable was on fine display as well as that of Leoville Las Cases, with Clos du Marquis earning a special mention.
Moving south to Margaux, it became more of a mixed bag. Chateau Margaux soundly proved that producing superb Merlot was entirely possible in 2021, while Brane-Cantenac won our hearts with their exuberance and silkiness.
Finally, in Pessac-Leognan we were as impressed by the stunning new cellar unveiled at Haut-Bailly as we were by what we tasted in our glass. Unfortunately unlike in recent vintages, we did not find a great deal to recommend in the smaller satellite appellations or to take a chance on among the lesser-known names.
Instead, 2021 will be a year to fall back on the estates you know you can trust, year in and year out.
From the Critics – “Let’s give them something to talk about”
In the past few years, the field of critics has steadily expanded as several big names at major publications have embarked on their own independent ventures, with varying and often contrasting opinions for the public to decipher.
At the Wine Advocate, William Kelley has been one of the first out with his report on the vintage, with largely positive feedback on the top estates of the region. He underlines his thoughts by reminding his readers, “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. It’s a style of wine that could come from nowhere else.”
Georgie Hindle at Decanter also notes the marked contrasts to the recent blockbuster vintages, “This isn’t a big, opulent, plush year […] 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.” She also reminds us of the benefit of this more restrained style, “It’s likely that they will present earlier opportunities to be consumed compared to the more robust and plush vintages.”
Jane Anson (who has the benefit of being based full-time in Bordeaux) had several insights as to who was inevitably the most successful in 2021. The first came down to the resources of the estate, “This is undoubtedly a vintage that rewarded estates that have a talented team of full-time employees who work in the vineyards throughout the year, and who know their terroir. It rewarded skilled and timely decision making. Those who sub-contract vineyard work were at a disadvantage.” The best wines of the vintage in her opinion revealed, “Classical balance and lower alcohols. Malic acid levels were high at harvest but after malolactic fermentation ph and acidity levels were in the main classically balanced, giving wines that are fruity, and supple in texture.” And finally, unlike vintages where all the hard work could be achieved in the vineyard, the complex work in 2021 only continued in the winery, “Skilful winemaking. We have got used to repeating that wine is made in the vineyard. This is of course still true, but in 2021 it was abundantly clear that the best wines are also sometimes made in the cellar.”
Since the 2020 En Primeur campaign, Bordeaux has enjoyed a prosperous period at the top end of the market. Liv-Ex reported last week that the region’s overall market share was at an all-time low, currently making up only 32% of the secondary market.
However, this is certainly not suggestive of a lessening in demand, rather a lessening of supply; in the twelve months since last year’s En Primeur campaign, Liv-Ex’s Bordeaux 500 index has increased 10.39%. Moreover, the average price of the First Growths has also increased at a staggering rate rising 36.67% over the same period.
One thing that is noteworthy here is the growth seen in the broader basket of wines included in the Bordeaux 500 index, which is demonstrative of price appreciation being observed in a broader section of the market, not just the heady heights of the First Growths. This should come as good news to investors with a variety of budgets as purchases for speculation can be made across a wide range of releases.
Bordeaux En Primeur campaigns live or die by the pricing and a facet of this is the positive or detrimental impact the FX rate has on the release prices, which are denominated in Euros. At the time of writing, the EUR/GBP rate is identical to the rate at the start of the 2020 En Primeur campaign; 1.17.
Fine wine has been enjoying an extended bull market across almost all fine wine regions. Bordeaux is no different and has seen excellent growth with 2.70% and 5.16% observed in the Bordeaux 500 and the average price of First Growths in Q1 alone. Macro factors such as runaway inflation and the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine will cause a continuation of demand for tangible assets with a globally priced market. Fine wine possesses these qualities alongside more unusual traits such as the naturally increasing demand as the wine ages. These are likely to spur on a continuation in demand for fine wine across the remainder of 2022 and beyond. As such, astute investors should be paying particularly close attention to the key releases of the 2021 En Primeur campaign. If the pricing works, they should be bought wherever possible as money will almost certainly be left on the table.