Following more than two years of being kept away from Bordeaux, it was with much anticipation and excitement that I boarded a flight bound for my hometown. After spending Easter long weekend catching up with family, the tasting frenzy started.
Winter in 2020/21 was very wet but with alternating mild and cold spells – and the third mildest February on record (after 2020 and 1990). By the time April arrived, pleasant weather triggered an early budburst. In some areas like Pessac, it was even earlier: 10 March according to Florence Cathiard of Château Smith Haut Lafitte, who refers to this vintage as “capricious but serious”.
Fine weather disappeared and was replaced on the 7th and 8th of April by frost episodes of historical proportions, with temperatures plummeting below -5°C. This led to severe yield losses across parts of the region and set the stage for uneven ripening later in the season. Further localised frost episodes were recorded on the 2nd and 3rd of May. This was followed by overcast and cold conditions, slowing vines’ rigour during May and into early June.
Warm summer weather finally arrived in June, providing a chance for flowering to unfold in favourable conditions – a week later than the 20-year average – and even enabling fruit-set in most parts.
The second half of June was plagued by violent storms with heavy rainfall and hail in some areas, causing further damage to vineyards, coulure on merlot and bringing disease pressure. Vine growth became rigorous, helped by abundant rainfall, which prevented hydric stress during fruit set and had a big impact on the size of berries. July started warm but that was short-lived. The rest of the month was cool and wet, facilitating spread of mildew and brown rot, which after frost and hail, was the third key factor in limiting yields in 2021.
Temperatures in July were below seasonal average by 1-2°C combined with a 10-15% sunshine deficit according to Professors Laurence Geny and Axel Marchal of the Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences of Bordeaux University, Oenological Research Unit. The threat of vine disease was particularly hard to contain on merlot in July and grape-growers had to be extremely vigilant with regular treatment necessary. Organic and biodynamic châteaux worked even harder to keep crops healthy (up to 28 treatments at biodynamic-certified Château Palmer, says director Thomas Duroux).
Smart winemakers were adapting their practices to the weather. If in previous vintages they shaded bunches from the sun, in 2021 they gave them more exposure while letting the canopy grow taller to absorb the excess water in the soil, as Alexandre Thienpont of Vieux Château Certan explained. He left 20cm more leafage to drain the soil faster, while Justine Tesseron of Château Pontet-Canet didn’t plough cover crops until much later in the season to let the vines soak up the additional water.
Covid restrictions also created havoc for smaller estates that rely on contractors. “Workers were few and far between and so a lot were rushing through parcels to train canopy,” explained Pierre and Axelle Courdurié of Château Croix de Labrie. “At Croix de Labrie, we managed because we only have a small property, but larger estates saw branches of vines bundled together to save on time. Unfortunately in a cool and moist summer, that created nests for mildew to develop, thrive and spread.”
Véraison started early on in August and lasted until the end of the month. Following three very hot vintages that included heatwaves, 2021 was quite the opposite, with July and August recording below-average temperatures, the coolest vintage since 2014. At the end of véraison, the grapes had very high malic acid content, which would prove to be the signature of the vintage.
September saw the return of the weather pattern of old, which was the saving grace. Warm but overcast spells interspersed with short rain episodes sped up the ripening of red grapes and brought favourable temperature differences between day and night. Maturity got off to a slow start with larger-than-usual berries accumulating sugar slowly and acidity decreasing significantly, although malic acid content remained higher compared with previous years.
Dry white wine harvest began on 28 August, two weeks later than the precautious 2020 vintage, and completed mid-September, including in Graves and Pessac-Léognan. A lack of excessive heat during summer preserved acidity, most particularly malic acid, and absence of hydric stress gave sauvignon blanc wonderful aromatic complexity. Semillon followed about a week later. The fruit quality proved excellent, with lower sugar content than we are accustomed to, giving them liveliness and freshness with great potential. An exceptional vintage for whites.
Merlot ripened slowly until late September under thick cloud cover but warm temperatures enabled anthocyanins to accumulate quickly at the start of ripening, before slowing down to reach desired levels. Sugar content was lower than usual, while acidity levels were the highest seen in 10 years. Merlot was picked from 25 September until the first week of October, at times rushed due to storm threats (that never eventuated). Some picked other varieties by panic – these were easily recognisable while tasting with notes of pyrazine – but thankfully not many gave in to uncertain forecast.
For those who waited, cabernet sauvignon and franc, then petit verdot and carménère ripened graciously under the sunniest October since 1991, making this a great cabernet vintage. Arnaud de Laforcade of Château Cheval Blanc commented: “Mildew attacked the bunches on merlot, but only the leaves on cabernet so it makes a lot of sense for ‘Cheval’ to have more cabernets than usual”.
He noted that they harvested late in an early vintage, more than 60 days after véraison, compared with the usual 40-45 days.
Most estates like Domaine de Chevalier did a “Sauternes-like” harvest, doing several passages through vines, picking only the ripest berries, and letting the rest ripen further, as owner Olivier Bernard explained. Sorting teams worked relentlessly to ensure only good berries ended up in the fermentation vats. Like in frost-affected 2017, it seems that density sorting was preferred, utilising the less invasive water bath solution set at the desired density to only keep grapes with desired sugar content and removing mildew-affected and unripe ones.
With bigger berries, lower sugar content and higher acidity levels, most opted to chaptalise, bringing back memories of an old fashion vintage. Most producers were open about this, explaining there was nothing wrong with a tradition practised throughout most of the world in cold vintages, and indeed some of the best vintages in history: 1947, 1961 and 1982 were all chaptalised.
A lot also bled some vats of excess juice to concentrate juice-to-skin ratio, while others opted for the more controversial reverse osmosis technique. This highlights the technological advancement that the wine world has gone through in the past 20 years to deal with such variable weather patterns and still produce technically sound wines.
Sauternes producers had another traumatising vintage, especially with frost and hail damage earlier in the year, but small rainfalls alternating with warm weather and blue skies encouraged development of botrytis cinerea on the tiny crops left on the vines. Yields were at a historical low (1hl/ha at Château Suduiraut, according to Axa Millésimes commercial director Xavier Sanchez), however, this does not mean quality was low.
Late September rainfall helped the development of noble rot to spread on the perfectly ripe grapes with high acidity, which is a prerequisite to making an excellent Sauternes vintage as Aline Baly, co-owner of Château Coutet, explained.
A hot dry spell furthered the concentration of the grapes, leading châteaux to start their first pick in early October, followed by wet weather, then a second pick was undertaken with the same quality in mid-October, and eventually a last pick in the last week of the month.
Unusually, with a month’s worth of sunshine hours missing, phenolic ripeness was reached prior to sugar ripeness, resulting in lower alcohol levels than usual but completely ripe and without the greenness of old. 2021 saw the return of an ‘old school claret vintage’, saved by the Indian summer, producing some fantastic white wines, delicious but rare sweet wines and heterogenous red wines. This highlights the importance of tasting before making a call and the gap between top producers and the more modest ones.
It was a vintage that had growers nervous for most of the year, but that highlighted the best producers’ adaptability to deal with Mother Nature’s caprices. Vignerons who forwent summer holidays and opted to tend to their vineyards meticulously were rewarded with the better wines of the vintage.
In a very complex geopolitical climate, we now await release prices. These will no doubt take into consideration increasing costs of packaging and its lack of availability. Wooden cases have doubled in price in the past 12 months, are hard to acquire and are not very ecological. We now hear some Grand Cru Châteaux will offer their wines with option to pack in cardboard boxes. What interesting times we live in.
➼ Château Montrose, 2nd growth St-Estèphe
➼ Château Gruaud-Larose, 2nd growth St-Julien
➼ Château La Tour Martillac, Pessac-Léognan
➼ Château Lafite-Rothschild, 1st growth Pauillac
➼ Château Lynch-Bages, 5th growth Pauillac
➼ Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion Rouge, Pessac-Léognan
➼ Château Figeac, 1er Grand Cru Classé ‘B’ St-Emilion
➼ Château Bellefont-Belcier, Grand Cru Classé St-Emilion
➼ Château Berliquet, Grand Cru Classé St-Emilion
➼ Vieux Château Certan, Pomerol
➼ Château La Conseillante, Pomerol
➼ Pétrus, Pomerol
➼ Château Latour-Martillac Blanc, Pessac-Léognan
➼ Château Smith Haut-Lafitte Blanc, Pessac-Léognan
➼ Château Lynch-Bages Blanc, Bordeaux
➼ Domaine de Chevalier Blanc, Pessac-Léognan
➼ Les Cailloux Blanc de Talbot, Bordeaux
➼ La Clarté de Haut-Brion, Pessac-Léognan
➼ Château Lynch-Moussas, Pauillac
➼ Enclos Tourmaline, Pomerol
➼ Château La Confession, St-Emilion
➼ Château Meyney, St-Estèphe
➼ Château Lanessan, Haut-Médoc
➼ Château La Vieille Cure, Fronsac