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Pessac-Leognan, Graves & Bordeaux Blanc sec 2021: ‘best whites since 2017’

As we are beginning to see – and I anticipated – the highly heterogeneous reds of the 2021 Bordeaux vintage are already dividing opinion. However their white counterparts are not. These are truly excellent and, in many cases, exceptional and unique wines – and they are widely seen and duly celebrated as such.


So, even if you don’t share my enthusiasm for some of the reds or simply decide that, in the absence of a critical consensus on the red vintage, it would be savvy to keep one’s money in one’s pocket for now (not an unreasonable position), there is a strong argument to be made for not forgoing the opportunity to purchase some whites (and some Sauternes) up front, ie, at en primeur.

There are perhaps two parts to that argument. The first is that en primeur prices for the entire vintage – red, white and sticky (moelleux) – tend to be largely determined by the perceived quality of the reds alone. Like 2017, then, it is credible to think that the whites will be under-priced on release relative to their (perceived) quality (and, recall, there seems to be a consensus on their perceived quality).

The second part is that, quite simply, this is likely to be the best set of white Bordeaux releases since at least 2017.

Indeed, I would go further still in suggesting that this is a unique and truly exceptional vintage that, for the most part, exceeds 2017 in quality.

But this is to take us beyond the relative consensus and into rather more clearly subjective territory. It is, above all, to takes us beyond the warm and positive mood music over the overall quality of the vintage to the more detailed assessment of the qualities (plural) of these wines in comparison to other recent vintages. This, as ever, is where things start to get interesting. For now we are talking about taste.

Crucial to all of this, for me at least, is the question of one’s attitude to acidity in white Bordeaux in a context of accelerating climate change. If, like me, you have been somewhat troubled by the greater and greater probability in recent vintages (notably the trio 2018-2020) of encountering wines that are rich, fat, heavy and, dare I say, flat and lacking in tension (and the acidity that is, for me, its very precondition), then 2021 is the vintage for you. If, on the other hand, it is a certain weight and density in the mouth, a certain opulence and amplitude on the palate, that is the very precondition of greatness (and you can live with a little less tension and freshness when that is present), then 2021 – though great – may well be no greater than 2017.

As is already clear, I am very much in the former camp – and, quite frankly, have found recent Bordeaux blanc sec vintages quite challenging (with, of course, notable exceptions).

That brings to mind a further factor that it is important not to overlook here – accelerating climate change. For if we see global warming (or, as French vignerons rather more accurately put it, dérèglement climatique) as the single most important contextual factor influencing the evolution of Bordeaux wines from one vintage to another, as surely we must, then vintages with as much natural acidity and natural tension as 2021 are likely to become less and less frequent. Put simply, the kind of tension that characterises this vintage is going to be ever more difficult to find.

That factor was very much in my thinking as I tasted these wines – and it has certainly left a significant imprint on my relative preferences between the many star performances.

In a way, it is insidious to single out truly great wines in a truly homogeneous vintage like this. For a case can be made for most of the wines that appear in my detailed tasting notes below.

That said, and even if I find it impossible to choose between them, it is not at all difficult for me to identify La Mission Haut-Brion blanc and Pavillon blanc de Chateau Margaux as the two finest white wines of the vintage. And what makes them so special is what they share – a degree of tension, energy, vivacity and dynamism that comes from their searing acidity that I find truly compelling and almost entirely unprecedented in a decade of en primeur tasting experience. Haut-Brion blanc is truly wonderful, but it does not have, for me, the va-va-voom of La Mission or Pavillon blanc in this vintage.

I find something of the same energy in Les Champs Libres and Grand Village blanc, from Baptiste and Julie Guinaudeau (better known, of course, for Lafleur in Pomerol). These wines are shockingly brilliant each time I taste them and the progression from one vintage to the next which has been so evident with the former for at least five vintages, is now no less palpably present at Grand Village too.

It will come as a surprise to no one that Domaine de Chevalier and Smith Haut-Lafitte have put in great showings in 2021. Domaine de Chevalier is elegant, refined, multi-layered and finely pixilated and Smith, whilst remaining very true to its style and identity, is perhaps a little less oaky than in recent vintages, the spice tempered somewhat to reveal more of its minerality and its glorious sapidity.

Cos d’Estournel has also made in this vintage the finest blanc sec that I have ever tasted from the property – its iodine sea-spray-infused personality more immediately redolent of its Northern Médocain terroir than ever.

Latour Martillac has made another fabulous wine that is charged with tension and biting freshness and Couhins-Lurton also deserves a special mention. Its 100% Sauvignon Blanc was picked in a series of tries to optimise ripeness. It has almost a certain Sauternes-esque exoticism allied with a brilliantly dynamic freshness. Like Latour Martillac and, indeed, the now reliably excellent Picque Caillou it is likely to prove exceptional value. All three will be immediately enjoyable the moment they are bottled.

Highlights in 2021

Best of the vintage:    

  • La Mission Haut-Brion blanc (96-98+)
  • Pavillon blanc de Chateau Margaux (96-98+)

Truly great:  

  • Cos d’Estournel blanc (93-95)
  • Les Champs Libres (94-96)
  • Domaine de Chevalier blanc (95-97)
  • Haut-Brion blanc (96-98)
  • Smith Haut-Lafitte blanc (95-97)

Value picks:      

  • Couhins Lurton blanc (92-94)
  • Grand Village blanc (92-94)
  • Latour Martillac blanc (92-94)
  • La Louvière (91-93)
  • Picque Caillou blanc (91-93+)

For full tasting notes, see here.

See here for db’s en primeur vintage report , with appellation-by-appellation reviews on MargauxSt JulienPessac-Leognan & Graves, St Estephe & Haut-Medoc, Pauillac, Pomerol, St Emilion and Sauternes.

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