Bordeaux grower, winemaker and writer Gavin Quinney recently commented; ‘As the ‘en primeur’ tastings of young samples by critics, commentators and merchants confirmed, 2021 is a comparatively weaker and uneven vintage for reds.’ Not quite a headline grabbing quote, but this is an accurate and fair summary of the 2021 red Bordeaux vintage. It may sound better to talk of a ‘return to classicism’, but that suggests that there was intent to make lighter, fresher wines rather than the fact that weather events shaped the outcome.
The weather during the growing season was hardly favourable to achieving a successful vintage. February and March were warm and dry leading to an early budburst, but this exposed the vines to significant damage and loss to the severe frosts that afflicted more wine regions than just Bordeaux in 2021.
As you will have heard, loss of quantity does not necessarily entail loss of quality; indeed, it is frequently a precursor to increased quality, as the vine focuses its attention on a smaller crop of fruit. For this increase in quality to occur, however, fine conditions are required throughout the remainder of the growing season. Such conditions simply were not forthcoming in Bordeaux in 2021. To put some detail on this, May was almost two degrees cooler than the 30-year average and saw 50% more rain, while three times more rain than usual fell in June (184mm in 2021 vs 61mm on 30-year average (2021 figures are averages from 6 stations: Graves, St. Emilion, Haut-Médoc, Northern Médoc, Entre-Deux-Mers & Blaye, 30-year average figures from Bordeaux Mérignac)). A decidedly cool July and August followed.
While the increasingly precise approach to viticulture that is practised in Bordeaux in recent years can address the threat of mildew and rot (an ever-present threat in 2021), nothing can make up for the lack of sunshine and warmth required for ripe fruit development, particularly when this is combined with over-plentiful reserves of water in the soil. It is now well understood that a reasonable degree of hydric stress is a feature of great vintages and is required to produce high quality grapes. Without it, the vine’s energy is directed to its foliage over its fruit. Hydric stress was certainly not a widespread feature in 2021; in fact, one of the major problems for Merlot was ‘bloat’. This was evidenced by the amount of saignée practised (the process of draining juice from fermentation tanks to increase the skin to juice ratio). Such an approach has not been necessitated for many years in Bordeaux.
On robertparker.com, William Kelley titled his own vintage overview ‘Sauvé des Eaux’ (saved from the waters) and he duly highlights the strides in viticulture and winemaking that have not just saved the 2021 vintage from being a car crash, but have also allowed for some significant overachievers. He goes on to state that: ‘The less successful 2021s exhibit a variety of inadequacies. At the worst, the presence of mildew can impart bloody, ferric, metallic aromas and flavors to young wines. Dilution can be an issue. And sometimes marginal levels of ripeness translate into a gamut of outcomes ranging from ephemeral and simple to lean and angular. The vintage’s most common deficiency is a somewhat hollow mid-palate’. In our own tastings in Bordeaux in early May, we certainly found examples of these inadequacies, resulting in largely pleasant, but not hugely impressive or compelling wines. We do however concur with William Kelly that there are some notable surprises; wines that taste like they were made in a vintage with completely different conditions!
Many of these surprises are found in wines with higher proportions of Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Cabernet Franc, and at Châteaux whose teams were able to hold their nerve and wait until well into October to harvest their Cabernets. Frédéric Faye at Château Figeac told us that heavy rains were predicted across Bordeaux for 2nd/3rd October, prompting many producers to accelerate their harvest. He believes that if he had picked at that moment, and had not waited, he could have made a red wine, but he could not have made a wine worthy of the Figeac name. The predicted rains never came. The quality of the Cabernets, which have always been such a significant element of the DNA of Figeac, is evident in the glass. Like a good number of Technical Directors, Frédéric benefited from the support of the Château owners and from good fortune, given the rains never materialised. Marielle Cazaux at Château La Conseillante echoed many of Frédéric Faye’s reflections and stated that ‘in 2021 there was no chance of over-ripening; what was important was to wait to see if we can make it better’. Marielle listed three factors that, for her, defined the 2021 vintage: the place, the work of the team, and luck. Fortune may have favoured the brave, but success in this vintage certainly required more than just courage and luck.
Cyprien Champanhet at Château Haut-Bailly gave us a slightly different outlook. He included terroir and teamwork but added technology as the third. This third aspect has been highlighted in the reports written by numerous critics. Optical sorting machines, for example, which are highly effective in eliminating mildew or rot affected fruit were much needed in this vintage. More widely across Bordeaux in 2021, it was some of the ‘old technologies’ that made a reappearance in this difficult vintage. We have already mentioned saignée to increase concentration, but there was also far greater use of chaptalization, something that hasn’t been required in many years, particularly given the warmer vintages we have encountered in Bordeaux. Chaptalization is the addition of sugar to boost the final alcohol content of the wine and it was historically practised in vintages where ripeness was not complete. So, the disparity between the fruit ripeness if we compare recent fine vintages to 2021 is even greater than it might appear if simply judged by the stated alcohol of the finished wine. This point highlights why there are indeed numerous wines which, at best, lack some mid-palate weight of fruit and at worst are hollow and meagre.
So, if this is classicism, then is it a compelling argument for clients to buy en primeur?
Often at this point, the wine trade craves comparisons. There are those who have evoked the style of the 1990s, which intrigues me if this is to be a positive comparison. If memory serves me correctly, 1991 was substantially lost to frost while 1992, 1993, 1994 were not ‘sauvé des eaux’ but rather compromised by dilution due to significant rain at harvest. 1995 was characterised by firmer tannins that have in some instances dominated the fruit, and, while 1996 was a strong Left Bank vintage, it was much less successful on the Right Bank – the opposite being the case in 1998. 1997 yielded supple, earlier drinking styles that were released at…you guessed it, too high a price.
This all brings us neatly to the all-important question of price. Here, William Kelley writes another useful summary.
To understand Bordeaux’s en primeur campaigns, one must attempt to understand the place de Bordeaux. The châteaux’ clients are not end-consumers, but rather the négociants of Bordeaux; and the négociants, at the time of writing, need wine. It seems a foregone conclusion, therefore, that the 2021s will be, at best, priced somewhere between the 2019 and 2020 vintages—and perhaps as high as the 2020s. Of course, I’d love to see a return to 2019 pricing, at least for the leading estates whose prices are hardly linked to undeniably increasing production costs. The more reasonable the pricing, the easier it will be to perpetuate the positive momentum that the 2019 vintage initiated for Bordeaux in the marketplace, and to continue to win the region new acquaintances and reinterest old friends.
If these musings tell us anything, it is that pricing is more likely to remain at the 2020 levels than revert to the more market-stimulating prices of the 2019s. The initial 2021 releases from Petits Châteaux support this view. It is not unlikely that there will be multiple pricing strategies and we expect most to follow suit. The number of wines that are in demand or are successful at en primeur has become increasingly small, as we have recounted for some years already. This group includes the wines that invariably transcend the vintage, and wines that have their own dynamic in the broader market irrespective of vintage. If these wines are released at, or higher than, 2020 levels they will still no doubt succeed in many instances. Wines that are not part of this increasingly select group are likely to struggle as there are no real arguments to purchase even if the prices are reduced. Why? Well, their prices are not likely to appreciate when bottled; they will continue to be widely available in the market; and they are unfinished wines. This last point should sound a note of caution to those relying on reviews. As Antonio Galloni writes on vinous.com; ‘It is important to note that the 2021s are not finished wines. Many 2021s feel quite fragile at this stage, as if they could improve or deteriorate in barrel. It is a vintage in which élevage (aging) is going to be absolutely critical in determining the final result.’
So, what can you expect from Atlas? Basically, we will take our view on release prices, and only offer wines from Châteaux that we believe warrant purchasing en primeur. This will undoubtedly add up to a narrow and relatively small campaign as there is no need to buy pleasant, relatively light, forward drinking Bordeaux on an en primeur basis, particularly when they are priced alongside wines from recent, infinitely more successful vintages that are still available in the market.