Our MW David Roberts has returned from yet another intense week of tasting and discussion in Bordeaux with renewed excitement for the 2021 vintage. There are many excellent wines to be found, full of classic finesse and more approachable alcohol than in recent vintages. Here he tells how human intervention, microclimate and a dose of luck has blessed the best wines of the vintage in their battle against Mother Nature.

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The 2021 Bordeaux vintage reminds us that whilst nature is fundamental to a wine’s quality, there are so many other aspects which can make or break a vintage: above all, human influence. In 2021, decisions made by vignerons have resulted in a year which has exceeded all expectations. This is a vintage where there was no place for complacency and ‘le weekend’ (sacrosanct in French psyche) was removed from their dictionary.

Nature tried its hardest to derail the vintage, throwing frosts, hail, rain at Bordeaux. However, thanks to dedication, hard work, vineyard location and technological advancements, 2021 is a year which has not only succeeded for the best but has also produced some extremely exciting wines. This success is something we couldn’t have foreseen 6 months ago and would never have been possible 30 years ago.

2021 embraces two words with confidence: traditional and classical. It is a vintage that reminds us of the incredible advancements in viticultural science and technology in recent years, but also of the absolute joys of wine styles more typical of a previous era. It has produced wines with sensitivity and balance. We should welcome their lower alcohol levels at between 12.5% and 13.5% following the richer and more flamboyant styles of 2020, 2019 and 2018.

The wines have a brightness and purity of fruit and the tannins, as described by Pierre-Olivier Clouet at Cheval Blanc, are not sweet and robust but most definitely ripe, providing energy and tension. This means that 2021 should not be considered a vintage just for early consumption: the finest wines undoubtedly have excellent aging potential.

This vintage showed more than any other the importance of location, and, in some cases, a little bit of luck. It would be wrong to call it a right bank or left bank vintage. As a generalisation, Jean-Sebastian Philippe at Ch Lafite-Rothschild’s quote “that Cabernet was king” is true, as some of our favourites of the vintage, such as Ch Latour, had their highest proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon ever. At Lafite they even considered making a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon cuvée, for the first time since 1961! However, the best Merlots should not be overlooked. Here it is all about vineyard position, as highlighted by Jacques Thienpont at Le Pin who praised his well-drained Pomerol soils benefitting the quality of the Merlot this year.

Location rather than appellation allowed so many estates to defy the odds. In the Medoc, the top estates’ proximity to the estuary endorses the famed 1855 classification. It was a recurring theme, whether at the northerly tip of St Estephe, such as Calon Segur and Montrose, or further south down in Margaux, that the warmth of the river allowed them to escape the worst of the frost. The same can be said for the famed plateau of St Emilion, which includes properties such as Ch Canon and Ch Ausone. Whilst they don’t have the benefit of a river, height was their saviour, and it was the lower lying vineyards in the plains that took the full brunt of the April frost.


mother nature

A frequent comment from chateaux owners was that 2021 was a vintage of decisions, all of which were influenced by the seasons and weather.

The winter of 2020/21 was mild and wetter than average. Many vignerons are not fazed by an early excess of water, for it guarantees healthy water table levels, which can protect the vines against the risks of insufficient rainfall in the spring and summer months. Unseasonable warmth however is a much bigger fear, and the particularly mild February last year resulted in an early budbreak and the vines’ subsequent vulnerability to springtime frost.

The ‘black frost’, as it was described by Veronique Sanders of Ch Haut Bailly, duly arrived between 6th and 8th April, proving fatal to vineyards exposed to the north wind. Some estates were spared thanks to their location, whilst others were able to avert or minimise the risk thanks to their anti-frost towers, such as Haut Bailly, or lighting candles, a tactic suitable for smaller vineyard areas from properties such as La Conseillante in Pomerol. Sadly, as is so often the case, the less fortunate were the less wealthy chateaux who couldn’t afford such luxuries. These were the properties worst hit, losing 30% or more of their crop before the season had really begun.

Mother Nature did not stop there. The combination of wet weather and initially mixed temperatures in May, followed by the mild and wet months of June and July, proved perfect for the onset of mildew. One missed treatment or a day missed in the vineyard and a crop could be lost. At Ch Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, wine director Nicolas Glumineau reflected that 2021 was a humbling experience for them in the year they converted to biodynamic viticulture, losing 70% of their crop, first through coulure (loss of flower set) and then mildew with a final harvest yield of 15 hectolitres per hectare.

Round-the-clock work was vital, something available to the wealthier estates, but less so for the petits chateaux. However, even this didn’t guarantee protection: on the wettest days, tractors simply couldn’t access some of the steeper slopes of St Emilion. The environmentally conscious saw the added benefits of seeding grass and clover between the rows, as it provided much needed grip for machinery traversing the slopes.

Thankfully, August arrived just in time. Whilst not a hot month, it was crucially dry, halting any further onset of disease. The previous weather conditions meant that the vines didn’t suffer any water stress, and a long, slow ripening process took place before a traditional later harvest at the end of September and early October.


Decision Making and Dedication

Even if your vineyard or estate had the benefits of an ideal location, protected from the worst of the dangers the spring and early summer offered in 2021, the key to a successful harvest was all about the decisions made throughout the year. Initially, this had to be in the vineyard: weekends and bank holidays were forgotten. Pierre Lurton at Cheval Blanc said it was an unforgiving year, which wouldn’t support mistakes. You had to be out in the vineyards at all hours to protect and nurture, and in exchange, the rewards could be exciting.

Late ripening vintages are increasingly rare. For us consumers they are something to behold, as we see fruit flavours and complexities that are sometimes lost in the warmer earlier ripening years. But for a vigneron, they can be nail biting. Whilst the earlier budding Merlot is vulnerable to frost, it ripens some two weeks ahead of the Cabernets. In years of potential September inclemency, it has the advantage that it can be safely gathered at peak ripeness before risks of the autumn rains. This was the case for most Merlot vines, which were harvested before the end of September.

The Met Office however was predicting rains throughout the first weekend of September, and for many growers, their Cabernets were not yet fully ripe. The ultimate decision for a vineyard manager arrives here: do you pick and guarantee a harvest, even if it is not perfectly ripe, or risk waiting and so a potential onset of rot, which would render fully ripe fruit irrelevant? As Marielle Cazaux at Ch La Conseillante told us with a huge smile “I was brave and won the bet!” The rain never came. The Met Office got it wrong, and all those estates who held their nerve and kept their Cabernet Sauvignon fruit on the vine were abundantly rewarded and could pick well into the 2nd week of October in perfect conditions.

Finally, on arrival into the winery, the fruit required careful handling. This was not a year for heavy extraction but one of gentle touch. ‘Infusion’ was an often-used word for gaining the best of the fruit characters: light maceration of the berries achieved a balance between the lower alcohols, fruit flavours and tannins. It was a year for respect of terroir and vintage identity.

The wines

Considering everything that nature threw at the vines, 2021 really shows how we are very much in a new era in the science of wine making and viticulture. To achieve the quality that the top estates have reached is remarkable and wouldn’t have been possible in a previous generation. It might not be acclaimed as a great vintage, but certain wines will achieve acclaim for their outstanding quality. The overall success of 2021 will certainly gain respect well above many other vintages this century, of that there is little doubt.

Stylistically 2021 will excite lovers of classic Bordeaux. This is not just hype but a genuine belief. A memorable and fabulous wine experience I once had was a weekend event with Henri Lurton tasting Ch Brane Cantenac in Margaux, decade by decade back to the 19th century. As is so often the case, it was the cooler, less hedonistic and later picked vintages that stood out as the really exciting wines and the best 2021s have a similar feel about them.


The red wines at their best have an excellent purity to them. They are more reserved than a richer flamboyant year. The lower alcohols and fresher acidity in conjunction with a subtle tannic tension has made for very complete wines. The temptation for a less powerful vintage is to drink the wines young, but they do have a backbone which will ensure longevity. I cannot quantify this better than the words of Nicolas Audebert describing his 2021 Ch Canon in St Emilion: “It is like comparing a kilo of iron and a kilo of feathers. This wine is definitely 1 kilo of feathers: it has elegance and yet without realising it, also the power and structure as well!”


So much of our report has focused on the red wines, but the white wines must not be overlooked. The 2021 harvest whilst not large has produced superbly balanced dry white wines. The combination of intensity and weight of fruit, in many cases from hugely successful Semillon, and the bright energy and zesty citrus flavours of Sauvignon Blanc have clearly benefitted from the cooler summer conditions. At a time when there is an obvious shortage of white Burgundy, with almost no crop at all coming in next year’s 2021 release, the white Pessac Léognan wines offer a fascinating alternative and should be recognised for their own individuality and quality.


Sadly, in Sauternes the story is a little tougher. Many estates such as Ch Climens were so badly hit by the frost that they didn’t even have a harvest and at Ch Suduiraut a production of just 1 hectolitre per hectare is the equivalent production of 1 sip of wine per vine (in comparison to red wine production of nearer a bottle per vine!). The few wines we did taste were quite lovely. We are unsure as to how a vintage of such limited volume will be released this year, but we will keep you updated.

Releases & Prices

We anticipate the main releases for the 2021 vintage to be from mid-May through to the end of June. As a generalisation, volumes are down at an average of 30%. Some properties such as Ch Pichon Comtesse have lost considerably more, and some such as Ch Troplong Mondot have produced a normal crop.

The prices will reflect many considerations and should be taken chateau by chateau. At the Cru Bourgeois category and certain lower classified growth estates, they already follow a cautious path to pricing so we shouldn’t expect automatic decreases. Higher up the classification certain estates, in part due to small volume and others based on quality, may take a firmer stance. The market will certainly dictate at which level they are set, but we hope the chateaux owners will be sensible and respect the need for prices to offer value to satisfy a wish to buy en primeur over the next two months.