Quality of the 2021 vintage

Letter of May 20, 2022

After 6 consecutive vintages marked by very hot and dry summers (from 2015 to 2020, voluntarily including 2017 which was barely less hot but just as dry as its neighbors), 2021 offers us a real return to the basics, with a very classic weather pattern, alternating hot and cool, dry and rainy periods.

With global warming, we can see that little by little the climate is changing, that the exceptional becomes normal while the normal becomes exceptional. It is perhaps these vintages with an oceanic profile, such as 2021, which will become in one or two decades the most sought-after (?).


Bordeaux 2021 : the weather in Gironde

Four important events punctuated the vegetative cycle of the vine in 2021 and shaped the vintage:

• A severe frost in early April. With temperatures dropping to -5°C on the morning of April 7 and 8, all the appellations were severely but unevenly affected depending on the exposure of the plots and the earliness of the budding of the vines. An example with the Barton family: Langoa and Léoville, less than 1 km from the estuary, suffered, without any particular protection (candles, windmill, etc.), no damage whereas Mauvesin, in Moulis, 10 km as the crow flies from the estuary and duly protected, was 50% frozen.

• July and August were dry but continuously cool, with each month having a deficit of 1.2°C compared to the thirty-year average and no hot days (temperature above 35°C). We have to go back to 2014 to find a summer that was only slightly cooler.
• Four rainy episodes (September 8, 14, 18 and October 3) during the harvest. These were not settled Atlantic disturbances, but thunderstorms, occasionally intense but brief, one or two days at most. To avoid these storms, it was enough to stop the harvest on those days.
• A very nice Indian summer, a traditional phenomenon in Aquitaine at the beginning of autumn. The month of October 2021 was magnificent, warmer (20.3°C instead of 19.4°C on average), less rainy (32 mm of rain instead of 93 mm) and 40% sunnier (206 hours of sunshine instead of 147 hours).

The first consequence of this meteorological scenario is quantitative: the 2021 harvest was historically low in Bordeaux (as in all of France), with a volume loss of 27% for all of the Gironde PDOs, following the April frost, mildew attacks during the very wet months of May and June, and the damage caused by a succession of thunderstorms in late June. 2021 has left the winegrowers with little to show for it.


Bordeaux 2021 dry whites: superb vintage

With a rather cool summer and no heat wave, 2021 was logically an ideal vintage for the production of great dry white Bordeaux wines.

The ripening of the Sauvignon and Semillon grapes was slow and smooth while the sanitary state of the grapes was impeccable thanks to August being half as wet as usual (29 mm of rain instead of 56 mm on average).

The freshness and the tonicity being acquired, the wine growers could concentrate on the perfect aromatic maturity of the white grapes to start the harvest. This took place serenely between August 28 and mid-September (15 days later than in 2020), carefully avoiding the showers of September 8 and 14.

As expected, volumes were low everywhere, more often between 30 hl/ha and 40 hl/ha except in a few protected vineyards (the Pessac-Léognan closest to the Bordeaux urban area or the northern tip of the Médoc).

After 6 months of barrel ageing, the dry white tastings are enthusiastic, the 2021s being remarkable in every respect: purity, precision and aromatic intensity, ripeness, richness and length in the mouth. All of this is supported by a lively acidity, a guarantee of a good evolution in the bottle and an assured ageing potential.

The particular success of the 2021 whites is explained by the unusual combination of the tension typical of a fresh year and the richness of texture encountered in a warm year. To put it simply, the 2021 whites have the vivacity of the 2017s and the aromatic breadth of the 2018s.


Bordeaux 2021 sweet white wines: an exceptional (but infuriating) vintage

Losing most of the harvest in the first days of spring is discouraging for any winemaker. But when the weather during the rest of the year is optimal for making glorious wines, the frustration is at its peak.

The frost at the beginning of April hit the Sauternes vineyard hard, all the more painfully as the white grape varieties had started their vegetative cycle 15 days early. With the hail storms at the end of June washing away the few remaining grapes, the 2021 production of sweet white wines is infinitesimal: the yields are everywhere lower than 10 hl/ha, and even lower than 1 hl/ha (!) in Suduiraut.

From the beginning of July, the sequence of weather sequences proved to be eminently favorable for sweet wines:

- the maturity acquired with great regularity in July and August with, as for the dry white wines, freshness and aromatic intensity,
- the hoped-for rains that arrived in waves on September 8, 14 and 18, just when the grapes were ripe and healthy,
- the Indian summer that lasted throughout the month of October, giving the grapes time to dry out, to see a pure botrytis take hold of the vineyard and to initiate the concentration of sugars,
- In spite of the extreme thinness of the harvest, the Sauternes grands crus insisted on making several selections, the most qualitative being those of mid-October (between the 10th and the 19th).

Apart from their purity and aromatic complexity, what makes the 2021 Sauternes so brilliant, so tasty and so vibrant is the acidic framework they possess as a counterpoint to their sugar concentration. This acidity gives airy, delicate, chiseled finishes and the parallel with the great 2001 vintage is accurate, minus the quantity.

Once again, we can only praise the determination of the Sauternes winegrowers to produce sweet jewels, a determination that has been poorly rewarded in recent vintages.


Bordeaux 2021 reds : back to classicism...

In 2021, Bordeaux has returned to the typical climate of southwestern France, the one that prevailed in the last century and that we fear will disappear:

- moderate daily (day/night) and seasonal (winter/summer) thermal amplitudes,
- Atlantic disturbances distributed throughout the year,
- temperate but very changeable interseasons (frost, snow, storms...),
- beautiful autumnal after-season (Indian summer) in October/November.

The 2021 vintage has exactly all these characteristics, some favorable for the vine, others less :

- unfavorable. The frost at the beginning of April, annihilating part of the volumes and forcing the vine to develop secondary buds with delayed maturity (heterogeneous harvest),
- unfavorable. The heavy rains of May and June, generating a strong pressure of mildew and complicating the task of the winegrowers, especially those in organic farming.
- favorable. Slow maturation without stress in July and August.
- unfavorable. The rains of September, disrupting the harvest of the early Merlot.
- favorable. The Indian summer of October, allowing us to wait for the complete ripening of the Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The main disadvantage of a classic vintage is that human intervention is decisive in order to make the most of all the potential qualities and correct the inherent imperfections. In this sense, 2021 was demanding for all the winegrowers and all the appellations, requiring constant attention (from March to October), experienced know-how (interpreting a vintage opposite to the previous ones), well-stocked and reactive teams (fighting against diseases), a good dose of coolness (wise choice of harvest dates) and important financial means (sorting of the harvest and drastic selection of the lots).

The great advantage of 2021 is to return to the fundamentals of Bordeaux: to produce fine, elegant and digestible red wines, delicate and full-bodied, without harshness or rusticity. Bordeaux wines are neither the most tannic, nor the richest, nor the most vigorous, but they have a balance, a complexity and a longevity that have made their reputation throughout the world.


Bordeaux 2021 reds : ... mais un classicisme moderne

Over the last 20 years, the great growths of Bordeaux have acquired prodigious knowledge, technical equipment and competence (sometimes at the cost of their past mistakes). We are now far from the time when winegrowers used to focus on filling up (= reaching the maximum authorized yield) and then trying to make good, or from the time (1990-2000) when, in order to get the best rating from Parker, it was necessary to concentrate and over-wood the classic vintages.

In 2021, the challenge for the grands crus was to make the most of the natural qualities of elegance and refinement of the vintage, and to bring in addition mellowness, depth and silkiness of the tannins, all with alcohol levels most often between 12.5° and 13.5°. For this, they had to :

- wait for the full (and late) phenolic maturity of the grapes. This was easy for the Cabernets, picked in October during the beautiful Indian summer, and much more difficult for the Merlot, which was ripe and harvested between the rainy periods of September.

- to vinify gently, that is to say to infuse more than to extract (less punching down and pumping over in the vat), to lead the alcoholic fermentation at low temperature, possibly chaptalizing from 0.3° to 0.5° (because the alcohol participates to the sensation of fatness and roundness).

- To mature with tact, by reducing the proportion of new barrels and the degree of toasting of the barrels, or by using large containers (barrels of 400 l and more).

Under these conditions, 2021 resembles the beautiful classic vintages of 2014 and 2008, but more precise, more velvety, more seductive. And surely of very beautiful guard.


Bordeaux 2021 reds : what are the best choices?

Left bank or right bank?

As mentioned above, 2021 depends on people more than on terroir, which explains the great heterogeneity of the vintage. We have seen neighboring properties, with the same terroir and the same grape varieties, obtain radically opposed 2021s. It is the right perception of the vintage and the technical means used that make the difference. As well as the financial means because, to succeed in making a great 2021, it was necessary to be ready to eliminate all the unsatisfactory lots. This is always a difficult decision to make, especially in a low production vintage.

Merlot or Cabernet ?

The answer is simple: the Cabernets, both Francs and Sauvignons, have clearly done better in 2021 than the Merlots, which is perfectly reflected in the blends with a lower proportion of Merlot and a higher proportion of Cabernet. To the point that some Medocs are almost mono-varietal in 2021: 98% Cabernet Sauvignon at Ducru-Beaucaillou, 97% at Durfort-Vivens, 96% at Lafite-Rothschild...

Small chateaux or great growths?

The well-known adage advising to buy small châteaux in great vintages and great vintages in small vintages is not totally true this year. Our tastings proved how discarding defective lots (there were some even among the greatest) was the key to success. In 2021:

- the grands crus are an obvious choice,

- second wines if... the château also makes a third wine,

- the first wines of the crus bourgeois and non classified if... the château makes a second wine or if the château is attached to a grand cru with important technical, financial and human means. Potensac, a Cru Bourgeois belonging to Léoville-Las Cases and having a second wine (La Chapelle de Potensac) is a brilliant example.