Despite the challenges brought throughout the growing season of the 2021 vintage, Bordeaux’s dry whites shone in terms of quality. To guide those still considering their 2021 Bordeaux en primeur purchases, Wine Lister presents some of the best choices in Bordeaux whites from the vintage, at five different price points. (All prices are quoted in-bond per bottle when purchasing by the case).
Under £25 – Olivier Blanc
The 2021 vintage from Château Oliver’s white was described by Jancis Robinson as “Racy and lively” with a “good balance of interesting fruit and zest”. Ella Lister (for Le Figaro) gave Olivier 2021 a score of 92-93, praising its balance and describing it as an “ethereal and harmonious blend of Sauvignon and Sémillon”. Olivier 2021 can be purchased from Millésima for £22.70.
Under £40 – Malartic-Lagravière Blanc
Awarding 90-92 points, Antonio Galloni (Vinous) describes the latest vintage of Malartic-Lagravière as “Bright and sculpted”, with “plenty to offer”. Jancis Robinson deems it “Already attractive” and “Impressively persistent”. Malartic-Lagravière Blanc appears on Wine Lister’s list of value picks in Part II of our 2022 Bordeaux Study, indicating a strong quality-to-price ratio. Elsewhere in the study, Wine Lister found that Malartic-Lagravière is enjoying a robust short-term (six-month) price performance of just under 14% – placing it in the top 15 short-term price performances. Malartic-Lagravière 2021 can be bought from Justerini & Brooks for £39.42.
Under £75 – Domaine de Chevalier Blanc
The 2021 vintage from Domaine de Chevalier has received acclaim from the critics, with Neal Martin (Vinous) awarding its white 95-97 points and declaring it “one of the best Domaine de Chevalier whites that [he has] tasted in 20-plus years”. Jancis Robinson confers a score of 17+ and writes that it “should be a real long-distance runner”. Domaine de Chevalier Blanc 2021 can be bought from Farr Vintners for £72.17.
Under £110 – Cos d’Estournel Blanc
The only wine among the five selected here not to hail from Pessac-Léognan, Cos d’Estournel’s Blanc 2021 receives its joint-highest Wine Lister score in over 15 years. Indeed, Antonio awards it 93-95 points, above last year’s vintage (91-93), and writes that it is “one of the finest vintages I can remember tasting”. He praises its “sheer palate presence”, a sentiment Ella echoes as she describes Cos d’Estournel Blanc 2021 as “delectable, lingering in the mouth”. Cos d’Estournel Blanc 2021 can be purchased from Berry Bros. & Rudd for £105.
Under £650 – Haut-Brion Blanc
One of the most noteworthy releases of the 2021 Bordeaux en primeur campaign is the latest white from Haut-Brion. In such a challenging vintage, Haut-Brion Blanc 2021 seriously impresses as it sees the greatest increase in Quality from 2020 to 2021 – as explored in Part II of Wine Lister’s 2022 Bordeaux Study. The 2021 vintage also achieves the wine’s highest ever potential en primeur score from Vinous as Neal awards it 96-98 points. Haut-Brion Blanc 2021 can be purchased from Cru World Wine for £640.
Wine Lister’s Founder and CEO, Ella Lister shares her thoughts on Bordeaux’s 2021 vintage.
Bordeaux en primeur tastings: UGCB (left) and CVBG (right)
What can we expect from Bordeaux 2021?
The most complicated vintage since 2013, Bordeaux 2021 had everything thrown at it. The vines suffered a barrage of challenges during the growing season, from frost, then mildew, to a lack of the all-important hydric stress during a cool, cloudy summer. “It was a tiring vintage for us, and psychologically difficult” recalls Juliette Couderc, the new technical director at Château L’Evangile.
Bordeaux had been lucky with six relatively clement vintages in row, and en primeur tasters had been spoiled – especially with the trio of 2018, 2019, and 2020. Tasting more than 350 wines from the 2021 vintage in late April, we were reminded of en primeur tastings of old – the art of seeing through the wood, the hard tannins, the searing acidity, and attempting to form an idea of the wine’s future potential. And potential there is, if much less widespread than in the last three years. Buying decisions will need to be made carefully, and the critics’ views will be more important than in recent vintages blessed with high quality across the board.
Vinegrowing and winemaking have come on even in nine years, with know-how and tools at the disposal of producers that they didn’t necessarily have in 2013. Furthermore, 2021 had a saving grace – an unusually long growing season, beginning with early bud break, around the beginning of April, and ending with harvest dates running well into October, thanks to an Indian summer that finally provided some much-needed sunshine, with the sunniest October since 1991. Pierre-Olivier Clouet, technical director of Château Cheval Blanc, referred to a vintage “slow-cooked at a low temperature” following six years of cooking “on a high heat”.
The vintage was more challenging for merlot than for cabernet (franc or sauvignon), as the grape variety is more susceptible to mildew. Being an early ripener, merlot also missed out on the best of the Indian summer, whereas much cabernet benefitted from a warm and sunny early October, where vignerons dared to ignore the pessimistic weather forecasts for the weekend of 3rd and 4th October and hadn’t already rushed to pick before the non-existent rain. “The weather forecast was predicting an apocalypse,” recalls Vincent Millet, managing director of Château Calon-Ségur in Saint-Estèphe, but the cabernet grapes weren’t ready, so he waited, “and in the end there was no rain at all, and then a good stint of sunshine”. Further south in Margaux, Alexis Leven-Mentzelopoulos, co-owner of Château Margaux, echoes, “It was out of the question to pick unripe grapes ”.
At Château Ducru-Beaucaillou in Saint-Julien, owner Bruno Borie says the 2021 vintage is an “ode to cabernet sauvignon, which was much more resistant than merlot at every step.” However, cabernet’s upper hand in 2021 does not neatly translate into a left-bank vintage as might be expected. The right bank has its fair share of hits, and, bizarrely, fewer misses.
The watchword in 2021 is heterogeneous, and quality is undoubtedly very patchy in 2021, ranging from the seriously disappointing to the truly exceptional (though we are not in 100-point territory in this vintage). This makes it a hugely interesting en primeur campaign to taste, to sell, and to buy. It is a year where châteaux had a real opportunity to stand out from the pack, usually thanks to outstanding terroir and the application of significant resources – both financial and human. “It was viticulture seven days a week,” explains Jean-Emmanuel Danjoy, estates manager of the Château Mouton-Rothschild stable, who, like many others, underlined the vital importance of the team’s unstinting dedication. It was necessary to adapt tirelessly in the vineyard and in the winery; to accept that the fruit coming in at the end of the season wasn’t that of the three previous vintages, and be willing to throw out tried and tested recipes to make a different kind of wine, suited to the vintage. “We didn’t go looking for density that simply wasn’t there”, underlines Vincent Decup, technical director at Château Montrose in Saint-Estèphe. Down the road at Cos d’Estournel, Dominique Arangoïts points out “it’s an opportunity for wine lovers to really uncover the terroir, because the wines are stripped right back.”
The biggest challenges were to achieve a full enough body and to avoid vegetal (pyrazine) notes, without over-extracting hard, green tannins or being over-reliant on new wood, which the more delicate fruit couldn’t absorb. Many of the more successful properties used gentler extraction techniques than ever, and added a significant proportion of press wine to fill out the mid-palate. Chaptalisation was widely resorted to for the first time since 2013. The 2021 vintage nonetheless offers refreshingly modest alcohol levels – around 13% rather than the 15% or 15.5% which had become ubiquitous in recent years – potentially a key selling point with consumers.
Generalisations are not easy (or wise) in a vintage of such disparity of quality and style, but with few exceptions, the red wines tend to come in a lighter, fresher vein, recalling the classical clarets of the 1980s and 1990s. “It’s a wine style from the 80s, but with ripe grapes,” muses Aymeric de Gironde, president of Château Troplong-Mondot. The fruit is more red than black, with lots of raspberry and even some rhubarb. The vintage is less opulently floral than the last three, and floral notes are more often on a slightly more vegetal spectrum – iris, violet and lily. The worst wines have hollow mid-palates and searing acidity, and often an overdose of oak. The very best are so pure and soothing that you would never imagine the sweat and tears that went into making them. For Olivier Gautrat, maître de chai at Château L’Eglise Clinet, it was “a difficult and exhausting vintage. We’ve been out of the habit of less explosive flavour in the grapes, so we were really scared, but the more we taste, the more we find real charm in the 2021s. ”
The dry whites are pure and fresh, and the best have a sumptuous complexity. The sweet whites are remarkable, but produced in tiny quantities, if at all. For this reason Christian Seely describes Château Suduiraut 2021 as “tragically beautiful”, with yields of less than 1 hl/ha. What the reds, whites, and sweet wines all share is high acidity, which will likely result in long ageing capacity. We look forward to tasting the wines again in bottle in a couple of years to confirm that!
350+ tasting notes will be published (in French) at Le Figaro Vin next week. In the meantime, watch this space for part II of this blog series, with a focus on the Bordeaux market, to be published next week. To track the impending Bordeaux en primeur releases, click here to discover our en primeur page.
Working around the clock
Wine Lister catches up with nine top producers from Bordeaux’s Left Bank to find out more about their 2021 harvest, and to hear their early evaluation of the vintage
Bordeaux’s 2021 vintage required patience and commitment. Producers worked around the clock to protect their vines – some were threatened by frost, others by disease pressure over the cool and wet summer, but all brought their respective teams together, facing the hand that Mother Nature dealt them with the best experience and techniques the modern wine world has to offer.
What do we know about Bordeaux’s 2021 vintage so far?
- Several producers were protected from the April frost due to their proximity to rivers – just 600m from its banks of the Gironde, d’Issan vineyards escaped damage, according to owner, Emmanuel Cruse. Similarly, Vineyard Manager, Nicolas Dudebout tells us that Malescasse were “naturally shielded” by their privileged positioning near the Garonne
- Other properties were well-equipped to fight the frost proactively, with Smith Haut-Lafitte’s owner Florence Cathiard confirming that a combination of “Valerian decoction (Valeriana officinalis plant root used for its restorative properties), and candles” protected their vines
Organics against disease pressure
- The cool and wet start to summer left some producers vulnerable to disease pressure: Florence told us that Smith Haut-Lafitte reacted to the threat of mildew using “copper mixed with phytotherapy decoctions of horsetail, nettle, wicker, and comfrey”
- “We take the best of both worlds” at Larrivet Haut-Brion, describes Cellar Master, Charlotte Mignon. She explains that the team were “reactive to fighting mildew attacks”, using biocontrol to facilitate the sustainable use of “organic, biodynamic, and conventional solutions [as] necessary”
Late summer ripening
- Late summer sun in August and September created favourable conditions for Merlot, an early-ripening grape variety that is notoriously challenging in hotter temperatures. Cos d’Estournel’s Technical Director, Dominique Arangoïts, found their Merlot to be “remarkably enticing, fruity, and rich with a very noble expression”
- Slower ripening of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes encouraged good phenological maturity: During his last harvest at Lafon-Rochet, Basile Tesseron tells us that, following early pre-harvest berry tastings, the grapes fortunately progressed beautifully in the last few weeks, eventually becoming “more expressive, and well-balanced”
- After a trio of warmer vintages, Charlotte notes that the Cabernets at Larrivet Haut-Brion achieved “perfect ripeness”, thanks to a longer growing season, and sunshine in late-August right up until harvest in October, which gave grapes with “a very good state of health”
A snapshot of this year’s harvest: Lafon-Rochet (far left), Palmer (middle left), d’Issan (middle right), and Smith Haut-Lafitte (far right)
Lower alcohol content
- “Low levels of sugar have resulted in a lower alcohol content” in Cos d’Estournel’s Cabernet Sauvignon this year, with Dominique identifying “a magnificent intensity and freshness” and the characteristics of “the most elegant, sophisticated wines”
- “This harvest will be marked by an alcohol-acidity balance, completely different from previous years”, observes Haut-Brion’s Technical Director, Jean-Philippe Masclef. Their Cellar Master, Florence Forgas associates “moderate alcoholic degrees” as being “closer to much older vintages”
- A cooler vintage compared to the previous three resulted in “pure fruit, and a very interesting density” in Palmer’s 2021 grapes, according to Thomas Duroux
Good things to come
- “Merlots are softer than usual and the Cabernets more compact” according to Cantenac Brown’s winemaker José Sanfins, who hopes for an overall blend that is “dense and complete, with fine and elegant tannins”
- Favourable weather during harvest, including “morning temperatures of around 4˚C, preserving freshness across all grape varieties” at d’Issan
- Bordeaux’s whites also boast vibrancy in 2021, with Charlotte noting “freshness and tension” with “aromatic clarity” from Larrivet Haut-Brion’s Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon grapes
As well as gaining top scores across its reds, Bordeaux 2020 was successful for dry whites, notably at the highest level. Helping you to discover some of the leading examples, we explore the top five Bordeaux 2020 dry white wines by WL score.
The top dry Bordeaux whites of the 2020 vintage, displayed in order of WL score
Will 2020 be a good vintage in Bordeaux for dry white wines?
Despite another exceedingly warm growing season in 2020, Bordeaux’s earlier-ripening white grapes fared well across many of the region’s top blanc producers. Having seen one of the earliest harvests on record, the first Sauvignon Blanc grapes were picked on the 14th of August, and all fruit destined for dry whites was harvested by early September. The white Bordeaux vintage therefore avoided high temperatures during the rest of the month, maintaining balance and freshness.
With a remarkably small production of just c.600 cases per annum, Haut-Brion Blanc remains one of the most sought-after Bordeaux dry whites. To combat the warm summer temperatures, the team conducted pre-dawn harvesting, picking grapes during the cooler night-time climate to ensure better levels of acidity and freshness. Wine Lister CEO, Ella Lister, found Haut-Brion Blanc to show “an almost Burgundian minerality accompanying its unmistakable Pessac green and yellow-fruit character”. With a WL score of 94, it champions the leader board of Bordeaux dry whites for the last four vintages, and there is still some of the 2020 available to purchase en primeur at IG Wines for £600 per bottle (in-bond).
Haut-Brion’s sibling estate, La Mission Haut-Brion’s white is characterised by a Sémillon-dominated blend – a grape with naturally low acidity compared to Bordeaux’s other white varietals. With soaring summer temperatures in 2020, the team therefore increased the percentage of Sauvignon Blanc in its blend to 54.7% (up from 30.1% in 2019) to ensure balance. Ella notes the impact of the increased Sauvignon on the wine’s acidity, describing a “zippy acidity, zingy energy, [with a] peach stone finish.” La Mission Haut-Brion’s white gains a WL score of 94 for the 2020 vintage, and can be found at Justerini & Brooks for £480 per bottle (in-bond).
Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc’s white vines are planted just behind the château to the north, where they benefit from a cooler microclimate that withstood high temperatures in 2020. Technical Director, Fabien Teitgen found a “nice balance and liveliness” in the grapes after harvest, while Ella characterises the 2020 as “subtle and flirtatious, building slowly into notes of white pepper and lime, as well as pure white fruit”. Gaining a WL score of 93, Smith Haut Lafitte blanc 2020 is available at Honest Grapes for £96 per bottle (in-bond).
Located at the heart of the Landes pine forest, Domaine de Chevalier’s vines are also subject to a cooler microclimate as a result of the surrounding woodland, which was certainly welcomed in 2020. When sampling the latest release at the estate, Ella enjoyed the richness of the vintage, noting “Aromas of tangerine, white flowers, custard, and acacia honey” and a palate that is “creamy and caressing […] with a lift of tension and a savoury bite.” Receiving a WL score of 93, Domaine de Chevalier Blanc 2020 can be acquired from Berry Bros & Rudd for £68 per bottle (in-bond).
Though First Growth Margaux has been producing a dry white for over 300 years, Pavillon Blanc 2020 marks the 100th anniversary under its current name. The only non-Pessac pick to feature in the top-five ranking, the success of the latest release was not without its challenges. Tasting alongside Margaux’s Managing Director, Philippe Bascaules, and Business Development Director, Alexis Leven-Mentzelopoulos, Ella was informed of the high mildew pressure as a result of a hot wet spring in 2020, which risked affecting the Sauvignon Blanc grapes of their single-varietal wine. Nevertheless, their 2020 receives a WL score of 93, with Ella describing a “Really rich, mouthcoating texture on entering the mouth – almost a Chardonnay-esque opulence”, and declaring the wine “Delicious.” Pavillon Blanc 2020 can be purchased en primeur from Goedhuis & Co for £180 per bottle (in-bond).
As the Bordeaux en primeur campaign draws to a close, Wine Lister has published its latest Wine Leagues on the new vintage – exploring which Bordeaux 2020s rank best for WL score in each major appellation (as separated by decimals).
For the third year running, First Growths Mouton and Lafite dominate the Pauillac leader board with a joint WL score of 97. Super-seconds Pichon Comtesse and Pichon Baron follow suit with scores of 96 and 95, while Haut-Bages Libéral has climbed to joint-eighth place in 2020 (from ranking 18th in 2019). As explored in Part II of Wine Lister’s Bordeaux study, the estate is one of the top-15 wines to have seen its quality improve the most in 2020, compared to its average Quality score (explore key findings from the study here).
The Margaux appellation possesses the top-scoring wine of the vintage, Margaux 2020. Wine Lister CEO, Ella Lister, tasted the vintage and is confident that “This will age into eternity. And yet the texture is already so soft now.” For the second year in a row, Palmer secures the next-best place with a WL score of 96, while Rauzan-Ségla climbs eight places this year, into the third spot.
The top five Saint-Julien 2020s are in line with that of last year’s league, with Léoville Las Cases and Ducru-Beaucaillou sharing the top WL score of 96. Neighbours Léoville Poyferré and Léoville Barton follow suit with 95, while Gruaud-Larose once again achieves fifth place. Also appearing on the list of top 15 wines whose perceived quality in 2020 most exceeded their average, (Part II of Wine Lister’s Bordeaux Study) Talbot climbs four places since last year’s league, securing a WL score of 94 for the first time since its 1986 vintage.
Wine Lister Buzz Brand, Montrose, has another successful vintage in 2020, overtaking last year’s leader, Cos d’Estournel, to achieve the top place in the Saint-Estèphe league. Tasting in Bordeaux, Ella describes Montrose as having “silkiness in spades” and “beautifully integrated” wood on the palate. Lafon-Rochet climbs four spots to third place in 2020, having gained its highest WL score since 2016 (94). Entering the market last month (Thursday 20th May), the estate also features alongside Haut-Bages Libéral and Talbot as one of Wine Lister’s Quality score outperformers for the vintage.
Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion perform notably well, once again achieving joint-first place in the league of top Pessac-Léognan 2020 reds. As in 2019, Smith Haut Lafitte and Haut-Bailly share third place, alongside the en primeur darling, Les Carmes Haut-Brion, whose WL score increases by one mark this year to 95. Second wines Les Hauts de Smith and Le Clarence de Haut-Brion enter the league with WL scores of 93, with the former gaining with its highest ever WL score in 2020.
Despite both scoring slightly down from 95 in 2019, Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion attain joint-first place for their whites as well as reds in 2020, achieving scores of 94 in the league of top Bordeaux whites by WL score. Tasting Haut-Brion Blanc, Ella notes it “Flexes its flinty muscles on the nose, with an almost Burgundian minerality accompanying its unmistakable Pessac green and yellow-fruit character.”
Pavie rises through the ranks from fourth place last year to lead Saint-Emilion’s league for the 2020 vintage, alongside Angélus, Ausone, Figeac, and Canon, whose scores of 96 are separated by fractional differences. Having been awarded 97-99 by Wine Lister partner critic, Antonio Galloni (Vinous), he describes it as, “Very clearly one of the wines of the year.” Clos Fourtet has climbed significantly this year, now standing in sixth position (up from the 17th spot in 2019).
As the only appellation to achieve a significantly higher average Quality score in 2020 than in 2019 (as explored in Part II of our Bordeaux Study), Pomerol takes the top spot for Quality score across all appellations in the latest vintage. Lafleur, Trotanoy, and Petrus share the leading WL score in its 2020 league (97), beating their score of 96 last year. Lafleur 2020 receives notable praise from the few critics who tasted in Bordeaux – Ella describes its mouthfeel simply as “out of this world”.
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