THE GAMBLE WITH MOTHER NATURE
The 2021 vintage is the interesting intersection of where luck and skill come in to play. The top houses of Bordeaux have become tremendous poker players with Mother Nature, and the resulting vintage yielded wonderful wines of charm, freshness, and vineyard character.
The 2021 didn’t suffer from one challenge, but more like one after another. The first challenge was a late spring frost that threatened crop levels pretty much across Bordeaux. The impact of the threat varied from having higher elevations where it subsided, to large amounts of devastation, and everything in between. The next challenge was wet weather and humidity that hung around until July, which brought about mildew and disease pressure. This had much more of a widespread problem but was carefully watched by the wineries who jumped into action and acted quickly. Ducru Beaucaillou hired an extra 35 people just to help with the disease pressure they were facing! Next was a cool summer which extended into the growing season, but it remained dry so that the grapes could continue to mature on the vines. Harvest was rather late, but a new threat was on the horizon. A forecast of up to 3 inches of rain around October 3rd was looming, and it panicked pretty much everyone. As the date drew closer and closer, some went out and frantically picked, but the bold were fortunate and let the grapes hang on the vine…and it paid off. The rain was minimal (3mm instead of 3 inches), and harvest continued the following week with much to be excited about.
The overall results are an odd combination of low yields, late harvest, and low alcohols. That last part is the most interesting component as the first two usually drive higher alcohol. It was such a cool year, that it came across like a vintage from the 80s with alcohols coming in at 13% or less along with fresh and vibrant acidity and fine tannins. The most successful wines of the vintage have remarkable balance, focus and precision with great expressions of both fruit and vineyard and well-integrated tannins.
THE TALE OF TWO GRAPES
There is also a tale of two varietals that resulted from harvest, Merlot vs. everything else. Merlot was the most impacted varietal as it is the most susceptible to disease pressure and required the most work and attention in the vineyards. By contrast Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot all experienced tremendous success. When discussing final blends with estates it was sometimes eye opening on what was decided. The 2021 Latour (when it’s released 7 years from now) is 96% Cabernet Sauvignon and only 4% Merlot, while 2021 Ducru Beaucaillou will be a whopping 98% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Merlot. Based on total production, that is only 4 barrels of Merlot going in to 2021 Ducru Beaucaillou! Both wines happened to be stunning, so the reasons for the final blend were obviously correct. Cabernet Franc was electric and elegant, and wines that showed higher percentages of the varietal were among the most interesting and refined. Vieux Chateau Certan mimicked Grand Cru caliber wines from Chambolle Musigny, and a relative unknown called Trottevieille was absolutely smashing and will be a huge sleeper of the vintage. Petit Verdot thrived quite nicely, and even small amounts of 2-5% showed varietal character and added a nice bit of complexity to the blends.
A VINTAGE LIKE NONE OTHER
The question that everyone always wants to ask is “what vintage does this remind you of?”. The short answer is none! This is a truly unique vintage that really has no contemporary which is crazy to think. There were discussions of vintages like 12 and 14, but 2021 is a higher quality vintage. There are also some very strong comparisons to be made to 2019 as well, but in 2019 the wines also have a different profile and the overall quality on the right bank is higher than in 2021, but it really is the closest and truest comparison. Another reason the comparison to 2019 is appropriate is the drinking window of these wines, as outside of a few wines, most of the Chateaux believe that 2021 will be drinking fabulously in 10 years. This is a departure from the super popular years like 2016, 2018 and 2020 which likely require double that (or more) for the very best wines. For the Bordeaux die-hard, you have a vintage that mimics what came out of the 1980s that will be drinkable in 10 years, without sacrificing the longevity of the wines either. I would call this a huge win for the classic Bordeaux drinker.
LEARNING FROM THE PAST
Being in Bordeaux also gave me tremendous perspective on what the future of Bordeaux looks like. First, the likelihood of another vintage like 1992 or 2013 is basically gone. The weather would have to be so bad and so dire that it would basically wipeout the entire vintage. The best houses used their notes from 2013 to make the changes to turn 2021 into a success. Speaking of work in the vineyard, there is more and more folks each year moving towards organic and biodynamic practices. Some are resisting full blown certification, but astonishingly most producers I spoke to didn’t even use the common treatment of cooper sulfite (which is organic) to combat the mildew this year, and instead chose to get out the snips and cut the bad parts away instead.
Another big movement is gravity flow winemaking facilities which allows for more complexity. Pumping wines can strip nuance and aromatics, and the houses have that implemented this are seeing tremendous results. Also, in the wineries they are moving away from barrel fermentation and more towards tank and concrete. These both also allow for better aromatics and complexity and showed during the tastings. The last interesting movement in winemaking is moving away from 100% new oak. Wineries are experimenting with 1 year aged barrels, concrete, tank and amphora which are all being used to preserve fruit and freshness, which went a very long way in 2021 and showed in the resulting samples.
I left the best part for last- the white wines. The 2021 vintage will be a benchmark vintage for white wines, of both the dry and sweet kind. The only bad news that comes along with this is that production was impacted, and what are largely small production wines are only going to be harder to find. Across the board the dry whites were hugely aromatic, remarkable fresh, very precise, and had incredible texture and weight. In almost every case, both the Grand Vin and the second wine were well beyond any other vintage I’ve tasted in the last 10 years. The sweet wines also bear the same characteristics, but also faced huge production impact. The story of the vintage is Suduiraut, that came in at only 1 hectoliter per hectare. Yes, you read that correctly, 1 hectoliter per hectare. That’s 5,300 bottles (not cases!) from 92 hectares of land (over 200 acres). The resulting wine is absolutely mind boggling and is absolutely on par with the legendary 2001 Yquem. This will be a treat to own on so many levels.
The 800 lbs. gorilla in the room is around the wines that weren’t successful. There were basically two reasons that wines weren’t successful, none of which was admitted, but easily tasted. First issue was not cutting back production to get riper fruit. Due to the cool weather all year getting optimal ripeness required thinning the crop or being selective with what was harvested. It was largely relegated to wines outside of the top tier wines, but it was easily tasted when wines were thin and boring. Another issue was tasting wines that showed signs of mildew that hadn’t been removed from the vineyard. Unpleasant mushroom aromas and bitter mid-palates were signs that not enough vineyard work or sorting had been done.
There are two ways to approach this vintage. First would be to isolate the top wines and declare this a very good vintage, and a legendary vintage for the whites. The wines at the top should absolutely find great homes as they will be wines that surprise and impress and allow you to daydream of vintages of yesteryear. If you are to rate the entire vintage you can certainly describe it as a mixed bag of unevenness, but this would do a huge disservice to the wines that really achieved something special in 2021. Those wines deserve love and attention and should not be grouped with the rest.