"For once, it was not the vintage of the century, but only the vintage of the year," is how one winemaker aptly described the 2021 Bordeaux vintage. Frost, grape diseases, hail, the winemakers in Bordeaux had to spend more time in the vineyards in 2021 than usual. And only those who reacted promptly were able to harvest good wines. The weather was extremely variable, but a classic Indian summer enabled very good results in the end. The red wines are almost ethereal and fresh, the best ones are well-defined and have good length thanks to ripe tannins. The quantities were lower in many wines. The dry white wines performed very well, while the sweet wines experienced a great loss of volume, but the few that were on hand performed excellently.
Firstly, some general considerations about a possible en primeur purchase of Bordeaux wines from the latest vintage, which has been maturing in barrels for a few months now. The young, brilliant enology professor Axel Marchal from the Institute for Wine and Vine Research at the university has analysed the most important factors about the vintage that could be considered instrumental in its success - or failure.
The vintage began with a rainy winter in which severe cold alternated with almost spring-like conditions. This resulted in an earlier budbreak, which was nevertheless later compared to the previous year 2020. April started with high atmospheric pressure, and the thermometer climbed to around 25°Celsius in the first days of April. This was followed by ten cold days, and on the night of 7 and 8 April temperatures dropped to minus 5° Celsius at night, which meant major harvest losses for many wineries. The top wineries, located on the Left Bank directly on the Garonne, were spared, the wide body of water once again acting as a thermostat and protecting the vineyards from the frost. In May, after two dry months, heavy rainfall set in, temperatures fluctuated up and down, in mid-June temperatures rose and heavy storms occurred, hail decimated the harvest once again. Now it was time to fight mildew and other diseases, and only those who did not hesitate and were always timely prepared could hope for a reasonably good harvest. A summer like the last one followed: a cool, overcast July, an August with little rain, but still too cool. The weather improved only in late summer, September began dry, and the white wine harvest could commence. The Merlot berries tolerated these conditions less well on the whole, the berries had grown large and were thus also more susceptible to diseases, the harvest was between the 25 September and into the first week of October. The harvested grape hue was good, the sugar content low, but the acidity levels record-breaking. For the first time since 2013, the vintners were obliged to chaptalise the musts - that is, to enrich them with sugar - so that the wines could at least reach an alcohol value of 12.5%.
The small-sized Cabernet grape coped better with the conditions; here the harvest was extended, which also proved successful thanks to the good weather and also resulted in good tannin ripeness. October was the sunniest since 1991, and it was once again the Indian summer that saved the vintners' harvest. The quality of 2021 can be classified as good to very good in some cases. The red wines are characterised by a relatively significant share of Cabernet Sauvignon, and are at a moderate 12.5% to 13% alcohol by volume and are characterised by fruitiness and freshness. Thanks to the mostly well-matured tannins, they are already accessible in their youth and will be pleasant to drink after a short period of maturation. The wines are easy-drinking due to their lively acidity, and should be very well received in the culinary sector. But let's be clear: after the impressive trilogy from 2018 to 2020, this new vintage has not matched such lofty heights. Nevertheless, there are some fabulous wines and it is not surprising that they are also grown on the best terroirs. However, where shade is, there is also light. While some complain about small harvests because frost, mildew and hail affected their vineyards, others have quite regular quantities. The quantities in the sweet wine sector are particularly minimal; some winegrowers are not bottling any wine at all here, particularly unfortunate given that the botrytis that occurred in the autumn was particularly beneficial. Conclusion: what little sweet wine is available has a remarkable quality. Château d'Yquem has not yet allowed its 2021 to be tasted, so unfortunately it could not be evaluated. The dry white wines of the 2021 vintage coped very well with the cooler conditions, have a lively acidity and good aromatics, this segment is justifiably highly praised.
As far as the dry red wines on the Left Bank are concerned, one can safely say this much: the result is very heterogeneous due to the challenging general conditions. This applies especially to Margaux because of the varied soils - here you have to be selective. Of course, there are also good and inexpensive examples of the smaller growths in the Médoc and Haut-Médoc, but it remains to be seen whether one should think about buying en primeur here. The Crus Bourgeois from the past best vintages are just coming onto the market, so the price difference won't be so great that you can't stock up here. In Saint-Julien, the quality level rises significantly to culminate in Pauillac - as is so often the case - and in the north towards Saint-Estèphe, it becomes more varied again, although there are some great wines there. The top wines, such as those from Château Lafite-Rotschild, are evocative of the great era of "Claret" - graceful and richly finesse, yet profound and equipped with everything a wine lover is longing for - and high alcohol is not one of them. These are cool climate wines that defy the obvious climate change in this particular year; they are graceful growths that almost seem to have fallen out of time. These fine, Gothic-structured wines cannot win a direct comparison with their full-bodied, bold, fruit-driven predecessors. But it is also certain that the finest will find their niche in 2021.
While the thin-skinned Merlot on the Left Bank suffered from the climatic conditions and only produced very good results in a few exceptional cases, excellent wines could be vinified from the top terroirs of the Right Bank, such as the small Pomerol plateau and the best sites of Saint Emilion. On the Rîve Droite, too, Cabernet, and especially Cabernet Franc, played a much more important role than in normal years; the cuvées were often significantly increased in Cabernet Franc's favour. On the Right Bank, too, the red wines are leaner than in recent years, but display depth and ripe tannins, freshness and charm. Nevertheless, it must be conceded that the less favoured terroirs are to be enjoyed with caution, even if and although the winemakers have tried very hard. Thanks to defensive extraction, many fine, lively wines have emerged in the cellar that will be accessible sooner but will therefore not have a shorter shelf life.
Now the crucial question: en primeur purchase yes or no. If you collect a particular wine, if you want to have the wine of your choice in alternative sizes than the normal bouteille, then there is no way around the subject of en primeur. There is also already a certain consensus among critics as to the best-regarded wines - and there will quickly be shortages of these. Those who prefer the leaner style should stock up, because the likelihood of such vintages occurring in the future is clearly decreasing. And less power does not mean that the 2021s will not be storable. They will be accessible earlier and they are already approachable until the greater vintages of the more recent period mature.
Once again, prices will play the decisive role in the success of the campaign. Lower production volumes, higher costs owing to a general increase in the price of cork, labels, bottles, etc., hint at the direction of a possible trend. We frequently hear from producers that in the future they want to react less with varying prices according to the quality, but rather, as is usual with branded products, raise prices year after year in small steps in line with the market. But that would call into question the en primeur purchase in general, because what benefit would pre-financing bring to the buyer? In the end, lowering the price for a qualitatively weaker vintage is also a vehicle to sell these wines to the public. So one could already be intrigued about which path the winegrowers in Bordeaux will take in the future. Our prediction is: there will be a real run on the best wines of this vintage very quickly, while the midfield may have more difficulty.