Bordeaux 2021: cool vintage ‘new classicism’
Bordeaux 2021 marks the return to a cool-vintage classicism that is dividing the critics and that will not be to everyone’s taste. Our Bordeaux correspondent Colin Hay explains why he is one of the fans.
Bordeaux 2021 was always likely to divide the critics – and it is already beginning to do so. So let me nail my colours clearly to the mast from the outset. This, for me, is a very strong (if not exceptional) Bordeaux vintage born in the context of extreme climatic adversity. It has produced what I regard to be a series of truly exceptional wines in every one of the leading appellations. But it is also highly uneven – the single most heterogeneous vintage of the last decade. To give just one indication of that, my notes after tasting around 500 wines range from potential perfection to the lowest note I have ever awarded to an en primeur sample.
This is therefore not an easy vintage for the consumer. Heterogeneity, put bluntly, magnifies the (already far from negligible) risk that the en primeur purchaser takes when deciding to part with her money. And there is a form of ‘double whammy’ here too. For even if this is, like 2020 before it, a terroir-magnifying vintage, the challenges in the vineyard that needed to be negotiated successfully for there to be any chance of greatness, did not spare the greatest terroirs. Frost and mildew, above all, are indiscriminate assailants with no respect for vintage reputations (nor, indeed, classificatory schema).
Put all of this together and we have an almost perfect storm: a vintage that is highly heterogeneous in quality; a vintage in which quality does not correlate simply or easily with vineyard reputation or the perceived quality of a terroir; a vintage that is not easily characterised as right-bank or left-bank, Cabernet or Merlot, Pauillac or St Julien, Pomerol or St Emilion; and a vintage which seems already set to divide the leading critics.
This sounds like a good argument for walking away – or at least for deferring the decision to purchase until the post en primeur dust has settled and these wines have, ideally, been re-tasted from bottle. But if en primeur is, or ever has been, a temptation to you, I’d encourage you not to give up on Bordeaux 2021 quite so quickly.
I, for one, am a fan. And I will try to explain why.
But first, it is crucial to be clear that we are talking about highly subjective preferences. It is important – above all in this vintage – not to credit the critic or commentator (however influential she or he may be) with some undeserved or impossible objectivity in establishing the relative merits – let alone the absolute quality – of these wines.
These are – as most, if not all of them, would concede – questions of taste. And questions of taste are necessarily subjective, even when a relative consensus exists on what counts as ‘good’ taste. But the point is that we are not really in that situation today. For it strikes me that the question of what is ‘good’ is rather more contested than it has been for a while. And 2021 is likely to provide both a focus for, and an accelerant of, that contestation – red rag to the proverbial bull. For even the leading wines in 2021 are likely to pose a challenge to certain palates. It is, then, crucial to be guided by those whose taste one shares – or, at least, to be aware of how the taste of those offering guidance sits vis-à-vis one’s own.
The new classicism reinforced
To bring this back to 2021 more directly, this is a vintage born in climatic conditions that have reinforced in a way the stylistic move towards what I have previously termed a ‘new classicism’ . And, to be crystal clear, not everyone likes that. These are wines, at their best, that are characterised by a focussed precision in the wine-making. They are aromatically expressive, bright, fresh, luminous, energetic, lithe and sinuous, elegant, refined and more thoroughly expressive of both their individual terroirs and their appellations. They are not structurally massive, they are not highly extracted, they are accessible already, they are not as dense and compact in the mid-palate as the three previous vintages, they are not obviously sweet, they are characterised by their often fresh and crunchy cool-vintage fruit and they exhibit very little trace of the wood in which they are currently being aged (not least because they are typically being aged not only in wood). If you don’t like that (and, as a question of taste, there is no inherent reason why you should) you are not, for the most part, going to like these wines.
But we should be very clear here about two points.
First, this is the style of wine that most of the leading chateaux are now consciously trying to make (and that they have been consciously trying to make for a number of vintages). Consequently, that the wines taste like this is not a product of the limits of the vintage – even if it is reinforced to some extent by them. It is much more the product of a series of quite conscious and explicit choices.
Second, critics (including the most influential) who do not like this style (and the return to the classicism it reflects) are not going to rate or score this vintage (and even its leading wines) very highly.
But, as an advocate and defender of the new classicism, I will.
However, there are some important caveats. To guide you through them, I will return to some of the questions that I posed – and left unresolved – in the short vintage report that I drafted on the slow train to Libourne some two weeks – and 350 tasting notes – ago. For answers to those questions and my overall assessment of the vintage in the light of them, see here.