In 2021, it is incredibly hard to make any generalisations – this really is a vintage to be assessed by individual estate. Below we do our best to break down the year by commune; read all our coverage of the year – including our run-down of the growing conditions and vintage overview – here
THE LEFT BANK
Overall looking at the regional numbers, yields were less impacted on the Left Bank – with Margaux, Saint-Julien and Pauillac producing fractionally more than in 2020, although significantly less wine (-38%) was made in Pessac-Léognan. When you dive into individual estates, the numbers are much more varied – with many down by as much as 50% in each commune. In the Médoc in 2021, Cabernet Sauvignon reigned supreme – with Merlot suffering from coulure (poor fruit-set) and being more susceptible to mildew. As a result, some of the blends are atypically Cabernet-dominant. From our tastings, quality seemed more varied on the Left Bank, especially when it came to second wines – however there are still some exceptional wines.
This northern commune escaped the impact of April’s frosts, as it always does – so mildew was the main threat to yields. In general, however, producers fared well, often producing a little more than in 2020. Properties with gravel over clay subsoils – such as Tronquoy-Lalande – thrived, as the free-draining soils that were problematic in 2020’s dry conditions helped provide water stress in 2021, something that aided ripening. At Calon-Ségur, they removed leaves from the vines on both sides, opening up the canopy in the spring to expose the fruit to what little sun there was – something that helped significantly. The key here, as throughout Bordeaux, was to be in the vineyards battling the mildew.
At Tronquoy-Lalande, they found that everything ripened at once and they had all their fruit in by 6th October. Cos d’Estournel was just a day behind, and the wine is a modest 12% alcohol, interestingly with lower acidity than the 2020. They employed lower fermentation temperatures to preserve the wine’s aromatics. At Calon-Ségur it was the latest harvest since 2012, starting on 28th September with the Merlot and finishing on 13th October – their decision to wait until after the forecast rain for their Cabernet paying off. The wines here don’t show the austerity sometimes found in Saint-Estèphe, offering pretty and charming expressions of the appellation, but more tannic grip than elsewhere in 2021.
Highlights: Calon-Ségur, Cos d’Estournel, Montrose, Marquis de Calon, Phélan-Ségur
Gravel and Cabernet Sauvignon: the two reasons that Pauillac seems to be more consistent than some other appellations in 2021. The free-draining soils meant vines here saw a little more water stress in the little of the season that was dry, and a natural predominance of Cabernet Sauvignon was helpful – provided you could ripen it. Blends contain high (and sometimes record-making) percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon – 98% at Pichon Comtesse, 96% at Lafite-Rothschild, 88% at Pichon Baron and so on. Yields varied significantly here, with a full crop at Batailley (which produced one of their best vintages), but at Pichon Baron yields were a lowly 22hl/ha – over a third down on the already small 2020 – and 23hl/ha at Ch. Latour (similar to 2018).
The battle against mildew was tougher for estates working organically (like Lafite) or biodynamically. At Ch. Pontet-Canet, Justine Tesseron explained how this was the year they could put into action everything they’d learnt in 2018, when they lost two thirds of their crop to mildew, partly because they farm biodynamically. The 2021 vintage was the first with their own “tisanerie” – to produce their own biodynamic treatments on site – allowing them to reduce the time it took to spray the entire vineyard from 16 hours to 11, and allowing them to be much more reactive, meaning losses were just 15%.
Ch. Batailley in Pauillac
Frosts were a threat (indeed, it was the first year Pichon-Baron had ever used candles to protect their vines), but the best sites closer to the river generally escaped serious damage. Harvest dates ran from 22nd September through to the third week of October, with the Batailley one of the last teams out on 15th October. The best wines show an old school elegance and pinpoint precision that we expect of Pauillac, the quality of the Cabernet Sauvignon shining through. Even wines like Ch. Latour are surprisingly approachable now, with the tannins firm but not monolithic.
Highlights: Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, Pichon Comtesse, Lynch Bages, Batailley, Pontet Canet
There are some lovely wines in Saint-Julien this year. The commune’s proximity to the river meant there was little frost damage, but mildew was a problem for some estates – at Léoville-Poyferré the yields were the lowest since 1991 at 24hl/ha, although Beychevelle had a full 50hl/ha. At Ducru-Beaucaillou – where the wine has an astounding 98% Cabernet Sauvignon – yields were only 20hl/ha, with a significant portion declassified to ensure quality met their standards. At Léoville Las Cases, the acidity was a little lower than normal and they’ve reduced the level of new oak and toasting to balance the naturally less concentrated style of wine. For the Bartons, it was their first vintage with a new vat cellar – meaning they could vinify in smaller parcels, a great advantage in a year where selection was everything. The best wines are supple with a depth of richness – perhaps thanks to the Gironde’s proximity – as well as freshness and a bite of crunchy fruit.
Highlights: Ducru-Beaucaillou, Léoville Las Cases, Léoville Barton, Langoa Barton, Gruaud Larose
In the Médoc, Margaux seemed the most varied. Frost was a particular threat here, making for sleepless nights in April as four bouts hit the vineyards, and sites further inland saw the most damage. It was, however, the sunny weather from mid-August that turned things round. At Palmer yields are down by around 30%, but at Brane-Cantenac yields were a generous 41hl/ha; Henri Lurton emphasised that he feels it’s a vintage where the best terroirs showed their colours. He was surprised by the sheer number of tannins, which were on a par with warmer years, despite the cooler conditions.
At Marquis d’Alesme, Delphine Kolasa noted how happy she was the wines weren’t being sent around the world as samples (a necessity of the global pandemic for 2019 and 2020) – feeling the more delicate style is more fragile, and even more nascent than usual given the late harvest. She thinks of it as a fresh and fruity year dominated by violet aromatics – with careful extraction essential to make sure the wine’s delicacy wasn’t over-ridden.
Quiet at Ch. Brane-Cantenac in Margaux
Ch. Rauzan-Ségla produced a stunning wine – putting in the necessary work to do so, with a team of 150 to harvest and sort the fruit, which came in at just 11-12% potential alcohol. Aurélien Valence at Ch. Margaux explained it was the worst mildew pressure the team had ever seen and working organically meant they were often in the vineyard at weekends to spray, but they have made the smallest ever volume of Margaux du Ch. Margaux (the third wine) as a result. The best wines offer dainty floral charm, vibrant red fruit, chalky tannins and well-judged oak.
Highlights: Margaux, Palmer, Rauzan-Ségla, Brane-Cantenac, Cantenac-Brown
Graves + Pessac-Léognan
Frosts threatened Graves and parts of Pessac-Léognan, although vineyards in the suburban sprawl escaped damage. Haut-Bailly brought in just 19hl/ha due to frost, and yields for Smith Haut-Lafitte were only 20hl/ha; although at Carmes Haut-Brion yields were totally normal, and Haut-Brion saw a healthy 48hl/ha. Despite the more generous yields, the Clarence Dillon team emphasised that selection was key to success; although they reported no issues with coulure in the Merlot, there’s 20% less of the Ch. Haut-Brion Grand Vin than normal as a result. At Haut-Bailly, there will be 60% less of the Grand Vin to go around.
While volumes varied, quality here was impressive – the wines tending to show more richness and riper tannins than their northern neighbours, with a plush yet refined, elegant profile. Guillaume Pouthier at Carmes Haut-Brion emphasised that clay and limestone were advantageous, leading to water stress that was essential for quality – indeed he achieved 13.5% natural alcohol in the Grand Vin (a standout of the year) so had no need to chaptalise, and wasn’t alone in that regard. As elsewhere, Cabernet represents higher portions of the blend in some instances – with a record 80% at Domaine de Chevalier. (See below for discussion of the whites.)
Highlights: Haut-Brion, Les Carmes Haut-Brion, Haut-Bailly, Domaine de Chevalier, Smith Haut-Lafitte
THE RIGHT BANK
On the Left Bank Merlot suffered from coulure, but that seemed to be less of an issue on the Right – so Merlot-driven wines shouldn’t be dismissed. We found Pomerol to be impressively consistent, while Saint-Emilion – unsurprisingly given its size – was more varied. In general, the wines of the Right Bank feel almost a little more Left in style – less exotic and polished than in blockbuster vintages, with a charm, elegance and freshness that is invigorating. Yields were down almost a third across both appellations, but again it varied from estate to estate.
There was no frost in Pomerol, so it was just the mildew that posed a threat to yields. At Ch. Belle-Brise, yields were reduced by 25% – taking them down to a mere 600 cases at this tiny estate. Jacques Thienpont at Le Pin fared particularly well, the warmth of their south-facing gravel slope a boon in the vintage. They picked over a particularly long period – from 25th September to 4th October to bring in each parcel of their two hectares at the perfect moment.
At La Conseillante, Dr Bertrand Nicolas emphasised how selection was key – and waiting sufficiently long to pick the Cabernet Franc. For Noëmie and Constance Durantou Reilhac of Ch. l’Eglise-Clinet, it was a particularly swift harvest – lasting just three days, and healthy yields of between 45 and 57hl/ha. The Cabernet Franc in particular was “mesmerising”, in Noëmie’s words. At several estates, the harvest was among the latest this century.
Omri Ram at Ch. Lafleur noted how the tannin and sugar ripeness arrived at the same time – thanks to the water stress of August which was key for phenolics. Similarly, Guillaume Thienpont at Vieux Château Certan said it was an easy year to decide when to pick – as sugar, phenolic and flavour ripeness all came at once.
Ch. l'Evangile in Pomerol
At Ch. l’Evangile, it was a baptism of fire for Juliette Couderc as her first full vintage at the estate, and its first certified organic. The warmth of the appellation meant little issue with achieving ripeness, but sandier soils struggled. She noted that younger vines did surprisingly well, suffering from more hydric stress with short root systems and therefore producing more concentrated fruit.
The 2021s in Pomerol aren’t powerful, plush wines with 14.5% alcohol; instead they have an alluring transparency, with floral charm and elegance (often at 13-13.5% alcohol), and higher than normal doses of Cabernet in some instances adding a flourish to the wines.
Highlights: Lafleur, La Conseillante, Vieux Château Certan, L’Evangile, L’Eglise-Clinet, Clinet, L’Enclos Tourmaline, Belle-Brise, Certan de May, Feytit-Clinet
Quality in Saint-Emilion varied this year – but it also produced some of the finest wines of the vintage. There’s a herbaceous freshness that isn’t green, crunchy fruit and an appealing presence to the tannic structure that isn’t obstructive – they are moderate, and all the more approachable for it.
Despite the drama of the appellation around its classification system, the top wines – classified or not – are impressive. Ch. Laroque shone – continuing its ascendancy, while Clos de Sarpe achieved an impressive 14% natural alcohol in the vintage, holding out until 7th October to start picking.
At Tertre Roteboeuf, François Mitjavile declared it a year that was “difficult to define”, but for him the wines show a subtlety, with the structure “tenderised” by the year’s rainy conditions.
The Cheval Blanc team excelled – choosing to pick over a particularly long window, from 24th September to 14th October, while at Ausone – another success story this year – the Merlot came in on 30th September, and the Cabernet Franc between 4th and 6th October. Le Dôme felt it was key to wait out the phenolics, picking from 6th October (two weeks later than some of their neighbours) to achieve supple tannins.
Frost didn’t have a significant impact here, but mildew did, especially on the crop of Merlot – at Angélus, for example, they lost 40%. Figeac reported a 10% loss, but due to a green harvest. For Joséphine Duffau-Lagarrosse – her first vintage at the helm of her family estate, Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarrosse – the vintage was a question of extraction to manage the balance of the wines. As Mäylis Mercenat at Clos de Sarpe highlighted, the challenge was to extract weight not tannin – something she did with a combination of infusion and vinification intégrale.
Highlights: Ausone, Cheval Blanc, Angélus,Figeac, Canon, Bélair-Monange, Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarrosse, Laroque, Clos de Sarpe, Tour Saint-Christophe
Blue skies at Ch. la Mission Haut-Brion
The dry whites are outstanding in 2021. Many estates reported it’s the best vintage they’ve ever made – and the wines taste like it. The cool conditions allowed the Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon to develop aromatic complexity slowly, while preserving the acidity; as a result they offer incredible richness of flavour, vibrancy and no sign of greenness.
Unfortunately yields were a challenge in some places, with frost taking out certain plots (such as Ch. Margaux – although fortunately not a plot that normally goes into Pavillon Blanc). At Cos d’Estournel – where the whites are thrilling – they noted they had the luxury to pick over an unusually long window, with multiple passes. The same was true at Domaine de Chevalier – with exceptional results. At Lafleur, Omri Ram highlighted that the wines were taking longer to come together than normal, but that the lack of water stress was key to their success – wines that he thinks will be the best white duo the property has ever produced.
It was fascinating to see exactly the same blend across all three of the Clarence Dillon stable of whites – La Clarté de Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc and Haut-Brion proper – all 55% Semillon, 45% Sauvignon Blanc, and speaking of their site. They were hit significantly by frost – with 20% less Haut-Brion Blanc and 35% less Clarté. For the team here, the combination of acidity and ripeness is what sets the wines apart, even better than either 2014 or 2017.
Botrytised sweet wines were made in tiny volumes, hit significantly by frost. The tiny volumes of fruit that survived benefitted from the long, cool growing season, however, and from the late development of botrytis in October. The tiny amount we tasted was exceptional, however very little will make it to market – with yields as low as 1 or 2hl/ha reported by some estates. At Ch. Suduiraut, for example, they made just 500 cases in total.
Highlights: Haut-Brion Blanc, Pavillon Blanc du Ch. Margaux, Domaine de Chevalier Blanc, La Mission Haut Brion Blanc, Smith Haut-Lafitte Blanc, Cos d'Estournel Blanc, La Clarté de Haut-Brion, Aile d’Argent, Les Champs Libres, Le Petit Smith Haut-Lafitte Blanc
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