Bordeaux’s 2021 vintage is not likely to feature among the greats of all time. It breaks the spell of the trilogy of 2018, 2019 and 2020. It is lighter and fresher than those three vintages and will probably mature more quickly. The 2021s are now being sold en primeur, as futures.
The 2021 vintage was “an obstacle course with nature,” says Hervé Diez, head of production at Château Kirwan in Margaux. Frost in April then mildew in late July and early August were the main culprits. As a whole, bad weather cut Bordeaux’s crop by a third. It was truly a vineyard vintage.
That said, it is certainly not a vintage to avoid. It did receive a bad press before a single glass was raised to anybody’s lips, just from reports of the difficult weather, even before fermentation had finished.
There were tales to tell.
“We sprayed with copper 19 times through the season, a record,” says Philippe Bascaules, director general of Château Margaux, which is now effectively organic.
In typical Bordeaux language, Louis Caillard, technical director of Château Lafite-Rothschild, described the vintage as “complicated. We were kept on our toes even during the harvest.”
If all this makes 2021 sound like a bad Bordeaux vintage, that’s not the case. Conditions that even as recently as 2013 led to a poor vintage can now be overcome thanks to the quantum leap in technical know-how, particularly in the vineyard. Vignerons were constantly vigilant with the understanding of what to do and when to do it.
The result is a small vintage of extremely enjoyable red and white wines at the top end. At its red heart, it is a Cabernet vintage. That means look for wines with Cabernet Sauvignon on the Left Bank in the Médoc and in Pessac-Léognan and of wines with a good percentage of Cabernet Franc in Saint-Emilion.
The 2021 is lower in alcohol than recent vintages (13-13.5% compared with 14.5% or even 15% in 2018), higher in the fresh fruits and lighter on the tannins. Whites and sweet wines in Pessac-Léognan and Sauternes are magnificent despite seriously lower volumes.
“We have produced wines that are classic, with fruit to the fore,” says Nicolas Labenne, technical director at Château Lynch-Bages in Pauillac.
“What surprised us was the ripeness of the grapes when we started tasting them before harvest, says Olivier Berrouet at Château Pétrus in Pomerol. Despite being solely Merlot, “now the wine is made, we are really pleased.”
Diez compares the 2021 to older vintages in Bordeaux from the 1990s and earlier. “This 2021 vintage reminds us of the time when global warming was not a main subject of concern.”
But of course, Bordeaux en primeur is not just about the wine. It’s also about the market, price and investment. These wines will be bottled and available to buy and drink in 2023. The 2020s were being bottled for export as I toured the wineries earlier this month.
Currently, the market is saturated with the three great recent vintages of Bordeaux reds: 2018, 2019 and 2020. It doesn’t need a not-so-great vintage, attractive as many of the 2021 wines are.
It seems that most chateaus are either dropping their prices or holding steady, but prices of the wines will need to fall for them to become investments for collectors. Some estates are taking advantage of demand or of having made a particularly critically acclaimed wine to raise the price.
Importers are the key to what arrives in the United States. So far, they tell me, their markets are not interested in 2021. Although, with frost already affecting the 2022 vintage, which is likely to be small, demand may increase.
I agree. My advice is to wait until the wines are bottled and enroute to American shores. In the meantime, buy the 2019 vintage, which has already been discounted from its opening price. Many of those top names are just now revealing how special and delicious they are.
The Top 10 2021 Bordeaux Red Wines
Château Pontet-Canet 2021 Barrel Sample (Pauillac); 97–99. Barrel Sample. The dense color and the perfumed aromas set the scene for a rich wine full of fruit. The balance is already there, complex with structure and dense juicy fruits. The wine is impressive.
Château Margaux 2021 Barrel Sample (Margaux); 96–98. Barrel Sample. The wine has richness but its main attraction is the balance between acidity and the light touch that gives the wine great freshness. The touch of Cabernet Franc in the blend brings its own perfumed structure. This is a wine that, of course, will age but that will also give pleasure relatively quickly.
Château Lafite Rothschild 2021 Barrel Sample (Pauillac); 96–98. Barrel Sample. This is essentially Cabernet Sauvignon, giving beautiful black currant notes that come through in succulent juiciness and a serious core of tannins that are giving the wine a solid backbone. This will push the wine’s maturity well into the long-term.
Château Latour 2021 Barrel Sample (Pauillac); 96–98. Barrel Sample. This grand wine is powered by velvet tannins as well as black currant tones and the purity of the freshness of the year. On the surface, it is light, but the tannins and the wine’s smokiness do give power and the potential for plenty of aging.
Château Pétrus 2021 Barrel Sample (Pomerol); 96–98. Barrel Sample. This very aromatic floral wine has already a great sense of presence. The generous, never hard, tannins are cushioned gracefully in the velvet texture. It is very complete—ripe tannins and beautiful juicy fruits bring lightness to the wine as well as freshness at the end.
Vieux Château Certan 2021 Barrel Sample (Pomerol); 96–98. Barrel Sample. The wine has freshness and a fine perfume that highlights the structure. There is a lovely velvet character to this wine, enhanced by the structure from the 20% Cabernet Franc in the blend. It is light, packed with fruit, beautifully aromatic.
Château Cos d’Estournel 2021 Barrel Sample (Saint-Estèphe); 96–98. Barrel Sample. For the vintage, this is a big wine. Big in all the senses, giving juicy black fruits and powerful tannins. The fruit also exudes great concentration. It will take many years to develop fully.
Château Durfort-Vivens 2021 Barrel Sample (Margaux); 95–97. Barrel Sample. Almost entirely Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine is seriously structured. Its fine berry flavors favor black currants with a firm backdrop of texture. It will be such a stylish, classical wine as it matures.
Château Palmer 2021 Barrel Sample (Margaux); 95–97. Barrel Sample. The wine is dense with warm tannins supporting black fruit tones and acidity. Juicy and spicy, the wine’s Cabernet Sauvignon shows so well with black currant flavors. It is fresh and it obviously it will age well.
Château Lynch-Bages 2021 Barrel Sample (Pauillac); 95–97. Barrel Sample. The structure of this wine is the thing—with both power and density, it has weight and the richness associated with this property but in a lighter style proper to the vintage.
The Top 3 2021 Bordeaux White Wines
Château Smith Haut Lafitte 2021 Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 98–100. Barrel Sample. Fresh, crisp but with intensity and ripe texture, this wine is the star of the white wines this vintage. It is tight, with minerality and acidity. Pink grapefruit, and a dynamic texture reveal its concentration. It will be a great wine from a great white wine vintage.
Château Haut-Brion 2021 Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 97–99. Barrel Sample. This is a magnificent wine. It is the epitome of great white Bordeaux. Its texture and spice give an alluring touch to the lime, apricot and kiwi flavors that come through the toast. This is a classic.
Domaine de Chevalier 2021 Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 96–98. Barrel Sample. This is a serious white wine. Its structure and its spicy fruit tones lend depth. The style is ageworthy with ripe white fruits that are touched by apricots.