Our Buyer and MW David Roberts has just returned from Bordeaux, where he spent 3 days visiting some of main negociants and tasting a few 2021s in advance of their official showing next week at the Union des Grands Crus En Primeur tastings. Here he tells us what we can expect from the upcoming 2021 En Primeur campaign:
2021 was a year which tested the skills of Bordeaux’s best. April frosts, wet early summer months of May and June and a nail-biting late harvest the end of September and early October meant this was, as Jean-Sebastien Philippe at Ch Lafite-Rothschild described, “a vintage of decisions”. Made correctly, the result is a selection of wines exceeding all expectations. Take a wrong turn, and the consequences could be painful. Terroir, microclimate, vineyard management and wine making decisions were key to success, much more so than appellational differences. From the small selection I tasted, it is clear there are so many positives about the 2021s, with fully mature tannins and pleasingly low alcohols around 13%, although sadly volumes are substantially down in comparison to the 2020 vintage.
Quality and style
The successful wines are well balanced. Green, herbaceous unripe characters were nowhere to be seen: the tannins show full maturity. Pierre-Olivier Clouet at Cheval Blanc commented that, importantly, the tannins were fully ripe, but in style are drier in character as opposed to the sweet tannins of some years. Cabernet Sauvignon in general coped better than the more precocious and earlier budding Merlot, which was more vulnerable to the April frosts and mildew during the wetter months of May and June. Together with a later, cooler flowering, this had a notable impact on Merlot yields.
2021 is a later, more traditional harvest, which took place in the latter part of September and into the 2nd week of October. However, it did require Chateaux owners to hold their nerve to allow their fruit to achieve optimum ripeness. The risk of serious rainfall at the end of September was in most cases avoided and the braver wine makers were rewarded with some very good quality Cabernet Sauvignon reaching optimum maturity for October picking.
The other key thing is the alcohol levels. Following several years of higher alcohol vintages, the 2021s are a welcome relief. 2021 has produced wines around 12.8% (Lafite) and 13% (Rauzan) on the left bank, and 13.3% (La Conseillante) and 13.5% (Canon) on the right bank. Some estates chaptalized to a maximum of ½ a degree, but none of the wines I tasted exceeded 13.5%, with the majority around 13%.
The proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend for many estates is the highest for almost 25 years. Without getting g carried away, Lafite is 96% Cabernet Sauvignon, and they very nearly went for a 100% Cabernet wine; the last time they did that was 1961!
- A mild and wet winter causing early bud break.
- End of April and Early May sever frost impacting yields, particularly of Merlot.
- Wet May and June causing mildew and delaying flowering which further impacted on yields.
- A dry August but not excessively hot.
- Late harvest September/October.
Yields and Volumes
2021 is a small harvest and as generalisation, volumes are down approximately 35%. It really does vary from estate to estate.
The most dramatically hit is Pichon Lalande, which is down 75% in its first year of full conversion of biodynamics. Nicolas Glumineau was philosophical, citing how Ch Palmer has recovered from a similar hit whilst also converting to biodynamics in 2018. He is hopeful that going forward the vines will be more resilient to disease.
More positively, whilst yields are down at La Conseillante, volumes to be released En Primeur will be close to 2020. Similarly at Ch Cheval Blanc, the proportion of the harvest going into the Grand Vin means that the reduction in yield will have less of an impact on total volume released. In general, Merlot based wines were hit more severely than the Cabernet-led estates. However, overall volumes will be down across the board in comparison to 2020.