2021 Bordeaux En Primeur report by Lin Liu MW
3. Message in the barrels
I started my first sampling of 2021 En Primeur on March 18th, 2022, with most samples tasted from mid-April to mid-May. During this period I had to delay my work for about two weeks when I caught Covid. The last tastings were done on May 20th.
Of the 1000 samples I tasted (at the estates or with trade bodies, three negoçiants and six consultants), most were tasted two to four times on different occasions. It is common to see the same wine show differently in different tastings, due to the low stability of En Primeur samples. There are not always discrepancies, but it does happen. This year, discrepancies seemed more common.
My attitude about En Primeur has never changed: it is an interesting exercise to see the birth of wines, to look into the cradle, as it were. But it has problems of reliability, for many reasons: sample stability, the genuineness of the samples prepared by the estates, the skill of the tasters, the potential influence of established brands and big names, and so on. But it is also an important part of an effective eco-system for the supply chain: this is a fact that has to be respected. This scoring game shall keep everyone humble.
From the wines I tasted I have chosen 300+ wines that I scored above 85 points. Apologies in advance: my economy with points means my scores do not necessarily follow the main stream.
More detailed tasting notes will be released here on www.winemaniacs.club by June 6. Free to read, but wine trade members wishing to use these notes for commercial means should click the subscription button to obtain annual usage rights.
An overview of 2021
After a trilogy of excellent vintages, 2021 was like hitting the reset button. For details about the weather, I encourage readers to consult the comprehensive report published by the University of Bordeaux’s Institut des Sciences de la Vigne and du Vin (ISVV), written by Laurence Geny and Axel Marchal. Needless to say, although an overview can be useful to show the bigger picture, there are still many nuances that must be taken into account regarding each individual estate and wine.
To put it simply, the biggest impact on wine production in 2021 was frost in spring, a wet, cold summer, and disease pressure both before and during harvest season – a trio of hits in just one vintage. At home in Cahors, we were also starting to worry whether the 2013 conditions were going to repeat themselves. Fortunately things turned a corner in September and this ideal shift continued through to October. That said, many wineries still had to make a balanced choice between phenolic ripeness and disease pressure.
Making a generalisation about a large region like Bordeaux (110,000 hectares) is akin to using a stereotype to represent all. Instead, we should base our opinions on the actual wine rather than applying a common perception to all.
Speaking of generalisation, themes are often applied to vintages – we speak of a Cabernet Sauvignon vintage, a Merlot vintage, a Cabernet Franc vintage and so on. And regardless of the actual facts, those who speak the loudest become the opinion leaders by default.
For example, the 2021 vintage suffered the double threat of frost and downy mildew, to which Merlot is the most susceptible of all Bordeaux varieties (this is also related to the chosen clone of Merlot). The effect was particularly evident on the left bank. However, this theory cannot be applied to the right bank, where many wines with a high proportion of Merlot (or indeed 100% Merlot) could only be described as “amazing”.
I also have to admit my special fondness for Cabernet Franc. Ripe Cabernet Franc is elegant, graceful, firm, and linear with delicate fruity expression. At the 2021 vintages tastings it was especially enjoyable to taste wines from wineries that had increased the proportion of Cabernet Franc in their wines.
As for terroir, this has always been a very complicated issue. A good terroir can produce excellent wines in a good year, but it can also produce a winning wine in a normal one. However, a poor terroir may offer a pleasant surprise in a good year, but in a difficult vintage, the chances of a positive result can be slim.
Limestone holds an unassailable position in the minds of the terroirists, which remains the case in this vintage. Many wineries had also mentioned how the gravel soils had produced wines of excellent quality. There were indeed some outstanding wines in the tasting. However, altitude, aspect, vine age, viticulture practices and so on all have an impact on the final harvest. It is difficult to generalise, even more so in a challenging year that lacked homogeneity.
Having said that, as long as the winemakers respect the nature of the grapes, good wine can be made in most vintages. This does not mean a wine that can be aged for decades, or that transports you to a heavenly plane. Making an easy-drinking, pleasant wine is nothing to be ashamed of. The 2021 vintage had created many wines that can be enjoyed young, which is something delightful in its own right.
Judging from the wines I tasted, the overall performance was much better than expected. Of course, a small sample of 1,000 wines does not represent the entire Bordeaux region, and there were some regrettable wines. However, there were also many excellent wines and a few stunning samples.
Wines rated over 95 points
Keys to the quality of the 2021 vintage
In my opinion, the key words for quality in the 2021 vintage are ripeness, extraction, and texture, which all boils down to one word: balance.
2021 was a vintage that generally lacked ripeness. Enrichment or chaptalisation was common practice, even for Merlot which often can reach 15% in a warm vintage. Most of the Bordeaux appellations allow a maximum increase of 1.5% from chaptalisation, assuming the potential alcohol of the grapes is below 13.5%. In many estates, they had to adjust a small number of tanks to make a balanced final wine. However, some estates, such as the Delon family (owners of Château Nénin and Château Leoville Las Cases), mentioned that in the end they didn’t use the chaptalised wines and sold them in bulk.
Note: Readers not familiar with current viticulture and vinification practices may feel this practice to be sinfully unnatural. In reality, chaptalisation was a common practice before global warming even in regions that pride themselves on natural winemaking such as Burgundy, where many producers have perfected the use of chaptalisation.
With the effect of global warming, wineries will often trim the canopy as harvest time approaches. The canopy is thinned above the grape bunches on one side while keeping leaves on the other side for shading and to prevent grapes from overheating, or worse, sunburn. However, in 2021, many wineries had to take the opposite approach and tried to increase the sun exposure as much as possible in order to maximize phenolic ripeness. Château Smith Haut Lafitte went as far as stripping the leaves on both sides of the grapes, a practice that had become quite rare in recent years. The last time wineries did so was the 2008 and 2013 vintages.
Lastly, the decision on the timing of harvest: in 2021, the main difference was how long the wineries could afford to wait (or were willing to do so). Thomas Duclos is a wine consultant known for advocating early picking in warm vintages pursuing drinkability: he had to pick late based on the vintage condition in order to achieve the desired ripeness. Most of the wines made with his consultation presented great balance overall, proving that the best recipe consists of adapting to the mother nature.
For red grape varieties, most wineries waited until the last week of September to pick, finishing in mid-October. But there were a few that waited until the beginning of October or even mid-October before starting to pick. For some of these wineries, the quality was laudable. For example, L’If waited until October 2nd to pick Merlot and finished on the 13th, and Cabernet Franc did not start until October 16th. The resulting wine displays perfect ripeness.
At well-funded wineries with the necessary resources, pickers made multiple passes through the vineyard in order to harvest the best quality grapes at the optimal time.
Furthermore, applying high tech equipment on grape selection resulted in a degree of sorting, based on the ripeness and quality of the grapes. For most well-equipped Bordeaux wineries, this was not too difficult. The best results, commented by most estates, came from Tribaie, which costs less than many more sophisticated machines but which functions better, using density to sort the grapes.
For the 2021 vintage, in addition to the quality of the grapes, the key extraction decision depended on the levels of concentration and tannin texture. A lack of extraction can result in wines with thin texture and lack of body, while over-extraction can result in harsh, austere tannins.
Extraction decisions have been varied and complex. Normally in a vintage like 2021, most wineries would extract as gently as possible during fermentation and take even more care after the alcohol content has risen, as higher alcohol means greater extraction. At the same time, a certain amount of extraction was necessary to increase body and achieve a balanced palate. Many wineries – such as Château Margaux on the left bank and Château Clinet on the right bank – practiced saignée to increase richness. Similarly, some wineries re-macerated their wines on finest musts to optimise the quality.
For many estates, press wine has become another critical factor for enhancing quality. Leading left bank consultant Eric Boissenot is known for his talent in mastering the use of press wine. Considering the particularity of this vintage, he advocated avoiding any manipulation of the cap when sugar content dropped to 1010-1020 density, until the wine had fermented dry. This is typically followed by a post-fermentation maceration, as usual.
For the 2021 vintage, managing texture also played a key role in shaping the different styles of wines.
Most of those producers who pursue an easy-drinking style did not put emphasis on the viscosity of the wines. A term related to viscosity and commonly used by French winemakers is gras, the literal translation of this being fat, as in foie gras (fatty liver in English). In the classical French aesthetic terms, gras is an indispensable element for wine ageing. A parallel can be drawn with Spanish ham: a certain amount of fat is required to give the meat more complexity.
Both the glycerin and alcohol produced during the winemaking process enhance this roundness in terms of texture, encasing the tannins and binding the fruit character into a new sensory dimension.
Extraction during alcoholic fermentation and possible high temperatures in the later stages of fermentation will both increase the gras and add roundness to the texture. To use braised pork belly as an analogy, this is the moment during the caramelisation of the sauce and a few seconds before the pot dries up: the fat becomes seamlessly integrated with the soy sauce and sugar, resulting in a texture that melts in the mouth.
But as stated previously, extraction in 2021 was a highly critical decision. In the process of obtaining gras, it was possible to extract coarse or even dominant green tannins, so caution had to be exercised, based on the specific situation. Thus other means were needed to achieve sufficient fruit concentration without risking the extraction of undesirable tannins.
Some wineries used cold maceration before alcoholic fermentation to enhance floral and fruity notes, and reduced the extraction of tannins during fermentation. The floral and fruity notes shift the focus of the wines to the more obvious, and can thus compensate for a lack of body, or mask tannins which could otherwise be astringent. Generally speaking, the more successful wines taking this approach are simple, fresh and easy-drinking, with imperceptible tannins. As an example, both Château Joanin Becot and Château Aurore successfully mastered the fresh, gentle and easy-drinking style.
Within the easy-drinking category, there were some wines with fuller body that showed a refreshing style in their tannin treatment. This is similar to Chinese stir-fried vegetables where the ingredients remain crunchy, fresh and delicious, rather than a “stew pot” style which lasts hours, creating flavours that are inseparable from one another. For example, Château Tour Saint Christophe has produced many expressive and remarkable wines in recent years: they continued to make their 2021 in a dense, direct, fruity style with certain depth, but not necessarily combined with much gras.
Another way of managing texture was to achieve as much gras as possible. Petrus, most of J.P. Moueix’s wines and the left bank wineries working with Boissenot as their consultant all shared an obvious viscous texture on the finish that not only enveloped the tannins but also gave the mouth coating sensation. Outstanding quality wines were often plush and elegant, powerful yet understated, rather like Chinese calligraphy. Technically speaking, most of these wines would have had additional post fermentation maceration at high temperatures (between 25-30 °C).
Of course, the winemaking process is not always a simple question of black or white thinking, but rather the challenge of combining different elements to achieve the desired balance.
There were many well-made, satisfying wines worth mentioning. These wines did not have impressive structure or distinctive character, but they have always been consistent and reliable, and met expectations. In other words, they were successful commercial samples. Though commercial may sound pejorative, these wines neither aspired to be trendy nor did they aim at unrealistic goals. There was no shortage of these satisfactory, precise and reliable wines from producers such as Château de la Dauphine, Château La Lagune and Château La Tour Carnet.
When it comes to texture it is important not to overlook the impact of oak barrels, which are commonly used in the appellation. Oak barrels can be used to enhance a sensation of sweetness and to mask unripe tannins. They can also increase mid-palate dimensions and add complexity by bringing spice notes. If the barrels are not used well, the result can be over-oaked, unpleasant wines. When poorly practiced, oak shows its limitations, for example when the wine lacks sufficient substance and and body to support it.
Left or right?
So is this a left bank or a right bank vintage?
In 2021, the uneven quality and resource gap between the left bank wineries were even more evident than in previous years.
In general, the overall quality in Saint-Julien seemed more even. Most wines were pleasant to drink and there were some outstanding wines such Château Beychevelle.
During the tastings of most Saint-Estèphe wines, I have to confess that I was shocked by the level of austerity in the tannins. I was quite concerned about the wineries that I have tended to admire and how their wines would be received. Fortunately, my fellow wine critics awarded them high marks that left me surprised yet relieved that my concern was a moot point. However, I changed my opinion on Saint-Estèphe after I tasted the wines from Château Montrose and Cos d’Estournel. These wines showed seamless integration and very high quality. Château Montrose was elegant, delicate, exquisite and ethereal, while Cos d’Estournel was deep, profound, dense and firm (I like to think of them as violin versus cello). I would also like to mention Xavier Copel: his Saint-Estèphe achieved more than above-average quality and is certainly a successful, noteworthy wine in this difficult vintage.
Pauillac overall produced wines of average quality in 2021. Many familiar top wineries did not present grand and opulent wines as in the great vintages. Some wineries produced wines with slightly coarse tannins, but the first growths (though some grapes may come from another sub-appellation) all managed to show delicate, graceful tannin profiles and finish. Other wineries worth mentioning included Château Pichon-longueville Baron, Château Pichon-longueville Comtesse de Lalande, Château La Fleur Peyrabon and Château Grand Puy Lacoste.
For Margaux, there were only a few good surprises. The handful worth mentioning include Château Dufort Vivens and Château Giscours, as well as Château Brane-Cantenac which has kept its sweet fruity house-style, seldom producing breathtaking wines but instead making a delightful style, even in a vintage like 2013.
For Pessac and Graves, the white wines made up for the less exciting performance of the reds. I would cite Château Haut Brion, Château La Mission Haut Brion, Château Smith Haut Lafitte, Domaine de Chevalier, Château Bouscaut, to name just a few. Almost all white wine producers achieved very high quality.
When it comes to sweet white wines, I have already made a public confession about my obsession for acidity in order to appreciate them. As a result, I do not tend to enjoy many Sauternes wines. However, I was enthralled by the 2021 Château Suduiraut and could not resist taking a large sip during the tasting. It was opulent, complex, luscious, brilliant, nuanced and extremely pleasurable. Other producers who excelled in 2021 include Château Coutet, Château Doisy Daene, Château Rieussec, Château La Tour Blanche and Château Guiraud, based on the samples I tasted.
In terms of right bank wines there were many outstanding examples, but there were also some land mines. Overall, the quality of the right bank wines was much better than those of the left bank. If you look at my list of 95+ point wines, you will clearly see where my heart lies, as far as this vintage is concerned.
More details on these wines can be found in the individual tasting notes at (www.winemaniacs.club) by 6th of June. I will select some of these and write another article in due course to bring them to my readers’ attention, including some left bank wines.
More words to wrap up
I was delighted by so many lesser-known producers and inexpensive wines out-performing themselves in this vintage. Some of them were comparable to top producers, and a handful were really exciting.
Amongst the top producers, some estates sacrificed their second labels in order to maintain the quality of their top wines. At the same time, there were some excellent second labels made in an enjoyable, easy-drinking style. If we compare these wines to others that attempted but failed to attain true grandeur, it suggests to me that sometimes in life, it is better to simply make the very best of what you have.
Perhaps we should see the 2021 vintage as a blessing, encouraging and allowing us to focus on the quality of the wine itself.
Should you wish to read more my comments regarding 2021 Bordeaux, please click the two articles below.
English adaptation: Pey-wen Ting and team