Gordon’s 2021 Bordeaux Vintage Report
Posted on: 05/4/22 3:35 PM
THE BEST OF EN PRIMEUR
Following a week of tasting barrel samples of the new 2021 vintage, I would usually begin this report by writing “I have just returned from Bordeaux…”. However, such is the way of the world that despite no symptoms, I tested positive for covid the day before my flight back home, so I haven’t returned. Instead, I write to you from isolation in a hotel room, and hopefully by the time you read this I will have managed to get home!
I will start by saying that we went into this year’s en primeur week with fairly low expectations. Bordeaux has a track record of jumping up and down and regularly declaring good vintages as the greatest ever made, and this year I had heard no such hype. Instead, there was generally a sense of ‘come and see…’
As usual I won’t go into great detail on the weather patterns throughout the year, as there are others out there with charts and figures that I can’t compete with. If that’s your thing, it won’t be hard to find with a quick google. Instead, I prefer to focus on what the fine wine taste like, and what I think their likely future is.
My snapshot of what happened with the vintage is that there was an early frost in April, and a lot of rain in the spring which caused higher than usual instances of mildew for many. Both of these factors seriously impacted yields, particularly of Merlot on the left bank, which is more delicate than Cabernet Sauvignon. The vintage got its bit of luck when rain that was also forecast at harvest time didn’t really materialize, and in fact September and October were pretty good, so things finished well.
In terms of what’s in the glass, I’ve been scooped somewhat. I usually send this email within a few days of finishing up our tastings, and I already had the main thrust of what I wanted to say in my head by Friday. I was going to make a few key points…
- While this is not a truly ‘great’ vintage as in an all-time classic, it is full of delicious wines.
- The style is one I really love and that I think a lot of you love too: low-alcohol, fresh, and balanced. It is a world away from the biggest, most powerful years like 2000, 2003 and 2018. Time and time again I tasted wines that I thought were absolutely gorgeous, and found myself thinking “wow, this is exactly what I want Bordeaux to be, but it usually isn’t”.
- It’s hard to rectify these two thoughts, that the vintage is not an all time classic, but it’s also been one of my favourite ever to taste.
- I suspected the critics would not particularly like the wines. I find with somewhat alarming consistency that almost all wine journalists have a record of looking for concentration. I’ve always thought that this is caused by the massive number of wines they taste, it’s inevitable that they look for wines that are different and bigger than their peers, rather than for subtle and restrained wines. Almost every year I could write a list of the biggest and most concentrated, powerful wines, and it would align with the wines that get the highest scores.
The scoop is that much earlier than would have been expected, William Kelley published his report for the Wine Advocate, and essentially said exactly what I was thinking. I obviously can’t post his full report, but here’s a few quotes to help tell the story. If you read only one of these, make it the last one in bold.
“it was immediately apparent that this vintage was, firstly, much more interesting than the fast-developing media consensus gave it credit for”
“while 2021 isn’t a great vintage, it has produced several genuinely great wines, as well as many good to excellent wines that will deliver immense pleasure. Exhibiting the balance and style of a vintage of the 1990s, but benefiting from all the agronomic progress and technical savoir faire of the present”
“the best 2021 reds are better than anyone could have dared to hope”
“(I hope) this report will alert consumers to the interest of the 2021 vintage, despite what appears to be predominantly negative early press.”
“were the 2021s transposed to the decade of the 1990s, they would be considered the product of a superb vintage.”
“We may have lost the habit of tasting wines with moderate alcohol levels and classic pH en primeur, but anyone who enjoys the great benchmark Bordeaux wines of the 1980s and 1990s should seriously reflect on what the 2021s may have to offer in 10 to 15 years’ time…if the 2021s’ balance is reminiscent of a vintage from yesteryear, the best wines benefit from all the precision of modern winemaking, displaying beautifully refined, polished tannins.”
As William Kelley does, it’s important for me to impart the context here. I am not declaring this the vintage of the century, but I am saying that it is full of wines of a delicious, old school, harmonious, lower alcohol style. It is a vintage that I want to be excited about as a value proposition, of course, the value part of the equation is now in the hands of the chateaux themselves. We shall see!
I always used to pick out a list of wines that I particularly liked. However, the more I taste en primeur , having now done it for more than a decade, the more I realise what I see as the folly of judging any one individual wine too seriously. I find the experience absolutely critical for judging a vintage as a whole and for getting an idea of what’s going on stylistically and to an extent qualitatively at different chateaux, but the reality is that there are all sorts of different ways that barrel samples can be prepared and tasted. These days I believe that the question of which wines to buy as futures is more complicated than can sensibly be assisted than with a simple ‘one size fits all’ list of favourites. I will interpret pricing as the wines are released, and will highlight what I think deserves highlighting.
That said, some personal, more general observations I have…
- Everywhere we went on the left bank, we were told that 2021 was a ‘Cabernet vintage’. I believe that this is the case there, but it doesn’t translate to meaning that the right bank, where merlot was dominant, is weak. Frost and mildew are both things that are much easier to fight if you have a smaller vineyard, like those found in St Émilion and Pomerol. In general, quantities were closer to normal on the right bank than the left.
- This probably is a great vintage, with a capital G, for the white wines, and perhaps for Sauternes too. These don’t get a lot of attention during the en primeur campaign, but if you’re into them, you won’t be disappointed.
- I can’t stress clearly enough how nice it is to taste the lower alcohol levels this year. Most wines were between about 12.7% and 13.3%, this is such a good place for Bordeaux to be. I suspect that these wines will actually age very nicely. William Kelley’s report said that these wines seem destined to end up being considered ‘better than expected’. It’s sort of a contradiction to say that the wines are going to be better than we think they are, but there’s some truth in it. I am reminded of a vintage like 2001, which was not a heralded year initially, but actually has been one of the best vintages of the past few decades, for drinking over the past ten years or so.
- Linked to the above point, this could be a critical vintage to own. If you have a cellar full of 2000, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019, 2020 and only buy the headline vintages, then you are perhaps in some danger of never actually having any wine ready to drink. The 2021s are charming, delicious, well balanced, well made, and have what I look for in Bordeaux more than anything else- restraint.
- William Kelley makes a similar point, and it was a conversation I heard multiple times during our week tasting, that 2021 seems a throwback to the styles, and alcohol levels, of vintages of the 1990s or 1980s. Technology and technique has come on so far since then that I actually suspect these wines will end up being better than many from vintages from those decades that were acclaimed as all-time classics.
I will finish by attempting to summarize. 2021 is not a strikingly full, powerful, intense or concentrated vintage. It is not one where the wines are uniformly delicious. However, the wines are of a delicious old-school low-alcohol style that I think is exactly what the market wants at the moment. I guarantee that much of the press coverage will talk about a lack of consistency, but the critics always write this, partly perhaps as it justifies their jobs. Look at their scores however, and while you might not get many up in the high 90s this year, winemaking is so good in Bordeaux today that I doubt you’ll find many wines that anyone finds disappointing.
If priced correctly, which of course is always a big if, and I’m sure some wines will be and some won’t be, this is a vintage that I will want to get behind, and that I believe you should too. Time and time again I tasted wines that made me think ‘wow, I wish Bordeaux was like this every year!’. The inherent contradiction between this and the fact that the vintage will not generally be heralded as a great one, is at the heart of the complex nature of the 2021s. They may not make headlines, but they may also be exactly what you want.
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