Wine Lister’s COO, Chloe Ashton shares her thoughts on this year’s en primeur campaign so far.
The latest Bordeaux en primeur campaign is already underway, with Batailley 2021 opening the stage at the beginning of last week, and Domaines Baron de Rothschild’s Carruades and Duhart-Milon following suit. Cantemerle’s release on Friday 13th rounded out the week, and thus far starting prices have been a relatively pleasant surprise.
What does the trade expect from this year’s campaign?
In Part I of Wine Lister’s annual Bordeaux study, we asked key members of the global fine wine trade about their expectations ahead of the 2021 campaign. Of 47 respondents, half expected prices to be somewhat more expensive, or significantly more expensive than 2020 vintage releases, after rumblings on La Place of strong trading over the past few months.
Bordeaux study (p.10): Founding members survey – 2021 release price expectations
After the first physical en primeur week in Bordeaux since the 2018 vintage (our view of the vintage can be found here), the trade will at least have had the chance to work their way through a vintage so complex that tasting was surely a necessity. With such a heterogenous vintage, pricing strategies should logically also be extremely varied, making the potential successes of 2021 sales difficult to predict. Nonetheless, here’s what we know:
- Wine Lister’s annual Bordeaux study reveals that confidence in Bordeaux us up. Respondents increased ratings on last year for three quarters of the wines included in our study – after so many trade members have been reminded of the joys of tasting in situ, both these elements could contribute to campaign positivity and momentum, with merchants backing those properties they historically believe in, and/or were indeed impressed by during en primeur tastings
- 2021 appears to be a vintage that speaks from the soil, so imparting knowledge of the best terroirs to customers should help to create demand for the best-performing wines in general
- Outside of focusing only on the very best, 2021 may be a vintage for pleasant surprises – the fresher, lower-alcohol, and more classical style of wines certainly garner appeal from traditional palates, so any merchant or collector seeking this style of drinking experience in the near to mid future could do well in seeking out some of the better-value wines hailing from this complicated campaign
Wine Lister’s wine-by-wine analysis of this year’s campaign is available in email newsletter form through a Pro+ subscription. For more information on this, please contact us.
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.
Marking the end of this year’s Bordeaux 2020 en primeur campaign, the past two days (Thursday 24th and Friday 25th June) have seen the last First Growth to enter the market and some promising Right Bank releases, among others.
The last First Growth to be released, Mouton entered the market yesterday at £433 per bottle, 20% below current prices of the physical 2018. Completing a trilogy of top-scoring vintages, the 2020 earns high praise from critics, including Wine Lister’s partner critic, Antonio Galloni (Vinous), who awards 96-98 and describes “a wine of unreal elegance and finesse”. Tasting in Bordeaux, Wine Lister CEO, Ella Lister also praises the latest release, writing, “Everything is in perfect harmony,” adding that the wine is “Arterial in its focus, poise, and pure presence”. Mouton’s top quality in 2020, and it being the number one most searched-for wine in the world (according to searches on Wine Searcher), should encourage interest amongst collectors.
Sibling properties La Conseillante and Figeac were both released this morning, Friday 25th June, at £156 per bottle. Both wines sport scores suggesting a third consecutive triumph following on from 2019 and 2018.
Vinous’ Antonio Galloni gives La Conseillante 94-97 points, while his colleague Neal Martin awards 96-98 points, calling it a “deeply impressive and quite profound” wine, in which “The old “iron fist in a velvet glove” cliché rings true”. Ella adds to the commentary; “Wow – is this the purest, brightest, most precise La Conseillante yet under the auspices of Marielle Cazaux?”
Figeac’s 2020 release prices comes to market comfortably below what little remains of 2019, and 4% below 2018. Similarly well-scored, Galloni names Figeac 2020 “superb”, while Martin remarks simply, “a magnificent Figeac”. For the Wine Lister team and CEO, Ella, Figeac is one of the wines of the vintage. Ella describes a “gentle, distinguished” nose “with ripe red fruits and floral delicacy”, and a “juicy, profound, mouth-filling and feather-light” palate. She concludes, “The harmony is mind-blowing.”
Given the moderate price increase compared to other releases this week, and taking into consideration next year’s reclassification for Saint-Emilion, Figeac appears an attractive buy.
Excepting a handful of wines sold more or less on allocation-only bases (Petrus and Le Pin), the release of Vieux Château Certan, expected early next week, will conclude the Bordeaux en primeur 2020 campaign.
Watch this space for a retrospective review of best picks of the campaign, including our official list of MUST BUYS.
Following the entry of Rauzan-Ségla 2020 onto the market on Thursday (10th June), yesterday (Monday 14th June) saw releases from two more top Margaux properties: Durfort-Vivens and Giscours.
“The texture is to-die-for” – Wine Lister CEO, Ella Lister, on Rauzan-Ségla’s (pictured above) 2020 vintage
Preceding the arrival of the first release from a First Growth on Friday (recap here), Rauzan-Ségla released its latest vintage at £66.50 per bottle. Wine Lister partner critics, Neal Martin and Antonio Galloni (for Vinous), both award the 2020 95-97 points, with the latter calling it “a super-classic Rauzan-Ségla that will delight readers in search of restrained elegance”. Tasting alongside Nicolas Audebert at the property, Wine Lister CEO, Ella Lister is also complimentary, noting “the texture is to-die-for: not too smooth and not too coarse, with a real bite to it, a savouriness”.
Neighbouring estate, Durfort-Vivens kicked off this week’s releases, having received praise across Wine Lister’s partner critics in 2020. James Lawther for JancisRobinson.com awards it the best score received by the critic outfit since the 2015 (17.5), noting a “Mouth-watering, saline finish”, while Ella describes distinctly floral notes, including “violets, freesias, and lilies”, with a “beguiling, lithe” palate. At £44 per bottle, Durfort-Vivens 2020 enters the market 50% below the 2018 (whose price has risen significantly since release due to strong scores and tiny production levels). While the latest release is not as small a crop (if smaller than usual), the quality nearly matching 2018 combined with the estate’s future potential should gain appeal from buyers.
Giscours 2020 also released yesterday at £41 per bottle. James Lawther for JancisRobinson.com gives the wine 16.5+ points, noting “Supple texture, good persistence and freshness all the way through”. Ella describes its “bouquet of concentrated bilberry fruit and old velvet cushions” on the nose, and a “classy, structured frame… on the palate”. Offering similar quality to the now physical 2018, which has seen price growth of nearly 25% since its release, this is a promising pick for fans of the property.
Wine Lister has now released Part II of its annual Bordeaux Study, exploring which wines have seen the greatest step up in quality in 2020, and evaluating the leading Bordeaux bottles for long-term price performance and presence at auction. Check out the Study Digest for some key findings here, or purchase the full report on our Analysis page. Pro subscribers can access their free copy here.