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.
The balancing act
Following our recent report on Bordeaux’s 2021 harvest, Wine Lister now turns to Tuscany to find out more about its 2021 vintage so far, with insight from 10 top producers across the region
Tuscany’s 2021 growing season has been characterised as a year of climatic extremities, including a mild and rainy winter, the onset of frost in spring, persistent drought in summer, and ending in ideal harvest conditions. In a show of resilience and adaptability, producers were able to reap the benefits of acute weather patterns – with the potential consequences of drought lessened by the groundwater reserves accumulated in winter, and dry conditions reducing disease pressure over the summer.
What can we expect from Tuscany’s 2021 vintage?
Multiple methods to fight frost
- Properties lit fires in the vineyards to circulate warm air and reduce the risk of frost. Owner of IPSUS, Giovanni Mazzei tells us that the technique successfully “increased the temperature up to 2˚C” across the IPSUS vineyards, protecting the vines from damage
- Several producers used organic treatments to improve vine health following the frost, including Argiano, whose Sales Manager, Riccardo Bogi tells us that “brown algae allowed the plants to stabilise and respond as quickly as possible to the loss of sprouts”
- Frost was particularly prevalent in low-lying coastal regions, with Ornellaia’s winemaker, Axel Heinz witnessing “damages limited to a few lower altitude vineyards, without significant impact on production”. Le Macchiole’s Commercial Director, Gianluca Putzolu tells us that the estate also implemented “organic spring fertilization” to combat frost that hit “some, but fortunately very few vineyards”
- Rainfall during winter accumulated important water reserves at both Argiano and Romitorio, encouraging a good state of hydration ahead of the growing season
- Some high-altitude properties also saw snowfall during winter that, when melted, “percolated the soil with water”, according to Romitorio’s owner, Filippo Chia
- Abundant rainfall in May allowed plants to survive the hot summer, with Riccardo confirming that this was “essential” for Argiano’s 2021 vintage, “since after that, there was no rain until the beginning of October”. Similarly, Fèlsina’s owner, Giovanni Poggiali tells us of some “rainy days in June”
Sun and heat exposure
- “The management of the canopy needed to be delicate and precise to avoid sunburns”, explains Avignonesi’s COO and Agronomist, Alessio Gorini, who also explained that the use of high-tech sorting equipment allowed them “to completely remove any berries withered or raisined by the sun”
- Organic treatments were adopted to protect the vines from sun exposure, such as the use of “kaolin” at Tenuta San Guido. General Director, Carlo Paoli explains this to be “a natural substance that we have been using for many years in hot vintages”, which helps to reduce the vines’ susceptibility to scorching
- A broad diurnal range across several high-altitude estates encouraged balance despite the hot summer, with Castiglion del Bosco’s winemaker, Cecilia Leoneschi noting that the difference of more than 10°C between day and night temperatures was a “real blessing”
Teamwork amongst Tuscan vines: IPSUS (left), Tenuta San Guido (middle), Ornellaia (right)
A remarkably healthy vintage
- Lack of rain throughout June and July minimised disease pressure; Filippo confirmed that “from a mould and disease standpoint, it was actually one of the healthiest vintages [Romitorio] has seen”, thanks to the “dry summer”. Giovanni echoes this sentiment for IPSUS, while Gianluca reiterates there were “no particular problems” at Le Macchiole, despite the risk of powdery mildew – a more common problem for the Bolgheri area
Striking when the time was right
- For many estates, harvest timing was essential, with Alessio and the Avignonesi team similarly conscious of “avoiding over-ripening on such concentrated grapes”
- Producers had to be particularly reactive to picking dates, explains Axel – whose 2021 harvest “required great skill” in planning, eventually leading to a “very compact harvest completed in one month, instead of the usual 40 days”. Owner of Tua Rita, Giovanni Frascolla similarly characterised 2021 as a “lightning harvest”
- “Powerful dark structure – we normally see this with low acid, but this has high acid” recounts Filippo from Romitorio’s latest tasting of the blend
- First impressions show “bright aromatics and, luckily high acidities to keep everything in balance”, at Ornellaia, with Axel describing a “rich and concentrated” wine, “with soft tannins”
- “Grapes matured in a homogeneous way and with a perfect balance of acidity and PH” explains Carlo at Tenuta San Guido
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
Change and adaptation on the banks of Bordeaux
Unpicking the challenges of the 2020 growing season, we talk to seven top Bordeaux producers to understand more about how climate change continues to impact the region’s fine wine industry.
Haut-Bailly harvest under the scorching September sun
How is Bordeaux adapting to climate change?
Bordeaux has been no stranger to extreme climatic conditions in recent years, culminating in what some may describe as climatological confusion for many châteaux last year. While witnessing 15% more rainfall between March and September 2020 than its 30-year average for this period, Bordeaux also saw 54 days of excessive drought during the summer. It would appear that now, more than ever, adaptation and innovation are key to the successes of the region’s releases.
Dealing with drought
- Extensive dry spells have become a common phenomenon in Bordeaux, with Margaux’s Business Development Director, Alexis Leven-Mentzelopoulos, sharing with us his concerns that the vines “could end up with wilting” leaves, leading to “a loss in terms of yields but also eventually in terms of quality”. Despite also being one of the wettest years on record, 2020 was no exception with its pattern of heatwaves and ensuing drought.
- Saint-Émilion’s Cheval Blanc experienced its driest vintage since 1959, though Technical Director Pierre-Olivier Clouet explains the humid spring fortunately allowed the vines to accumulate “water and nutrients much needed later in the season”. He elaborates that despite the drought, this allowed vines to “grow calmly and homogenously”.
- Across the Gironde, Haut-Bailly’s Véronique Sanders tells us that “work in the vineyards has evolved enormously”, and that “the fundamental process of pruning has been re-examined” as part of a wider series of viticultural practices that have been changed to adapt to climate change, enabling Haut-Bailly to make the most out of the varied conditions.
Coping with concentration
- Several properties such as Larrivet Haut-Brion saw small and concentrated berries as a result of high temperatures and persistent drought in 2020. The estate’s Cellar Master, Charlotte Mignon tells us that it has had to adapt its winemaking in recent years, opting for punching down versus pumping over in order “to control light and elegant extractions” in such hot years.
- Alexis similarly tells us of Margaux’s recent investment in more highly advanced phenolic analysis equipment, which reports the levels of tannin and pigment in the individually-vinified lots and allows the team to “precisely plan extraction with lower temperatures, fewer and gentler pump-overs, and limited maceration time”.
- Increasingly concentrated grapes have also reduced yields across the region, as told to us by Calon Ségur’s Managing Director, Vincent Millet, whose volumes in 2020 fell to 33hl/ha (down from 40hl/ha in 2019) due to the heat.
Larrivet Haut-Brion incorporating recently harvested whole bunches into their blend
A move away from Merlot
- With global warming affecting the evolution of certain grape varieties, Palmer CEO, Thomas Duroux tells us that the “classic complex finish of Merlot” is particularly threatened by rapid ripening induced by hot summers.
- This concern was shared amongst several properties, with Charlotte finding Larrivet Haut-Brion’s Merlot grapes to be heavier, with greater sugar levels and thus a higher alcohol potential. To regain freshness in their Merlot juice, she now “incorporates the whole grape bunch, including the stalk”, to add more structure and tannins. In the long term, the estate is planning to replant more plots to Cabernet Sauvignon due to the varietal’s slower ripening, while Margaux is similarly including “more and more” Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in their blend, and “even thinking of perhaps experimenting with a few rows of Carménère”, to study how it reacts to high temperatures.
- In similar vein, Claire Villars-Lurton of Ferrière remarks on the advantage of less Merlot in the changing climate: “We have prioritised replanting of Cabernet Sauvignon, rather than Merlot, as even young the latter variety is more sensitive to water stress”.
- Several of the châteaux we spoke to highlighted their aim of counteracting the effects of climate change by enriching the natural environment and the soil. Thomas emphasises the importance of having a “living soil” in the face of ecological stress, noting that biological compost and plant growth amongst the vines offers “greater stability, root resilience, and nourishment” in increasingly hot and dry years.
- The benefits of a living soil are echoed by Vincent, who tells us that at Calon Ségur they plant grass cover in the vine rows maintains “some moisture in the soil during dry periods”.
- Claire notes that cover crops help to maintain soil biodiversity, but the approach she takes goes beyond this purpose: “we adopt a minimal intervention approach in the vines. We plant cover crops between the rows, that we fold over or cut so as to have a natural mulch – this protects the soil from the damaging effects of strong sunlight, allows the soil to keep a good level of humidity, and means any rain that falls can seep deeper into the subsoils”.
Shading from the sun
- Like several châteaux adapting viticultural practices vintage-by-vintage, Larrivet Haut-Brion withheld leaf removal until later in the 2020 growing season, to shelter grapes from the scorching sun.
- A similar strategy has been adopted at Haut-Bailly, who revise their canopy management every year to reflect the concurrent needs of vines.
- At Calon-Ségur, Vincent explains they are “careful about thinning out the leaves in order to avoid burns”, and are considering “adjusting the height of the trellis” to provide shade from one row to another. Opting for a more permanent solution, Margaux have gone so far as to “change the orientation of the vine rows” in order to “expose each side of the vine to the heat equally and minimize sunscald”.