Bordeaux 2021 tasting notes: St Estephe & Haut-Medoc
It is possible to produce a great left-bank wine in 2021 with 20% or more Merlot in the final blend? Our Bordeaux correspondent Colin Hay tastes the 2021 vintage en primeur of St Estephe and Haut-Medoc to find out.
First, a note on the ratings.
This year, for the first time, I have decided to provide an indicative rating for each wine alongside the published comment. All such comments and ratings are necessarily subjective (they cannot be anything else, when one thinks about it). I would urge you to look at the two together and, if anything, to privilege the comment over the rating. My aim is more to describe the wine in the context of the vintage, the appellation and recent vintages of the same and similar wines, rather than to judge the wine per se.
The ratings, of course, reflect my subjective relative preferences between wines. Your palate is likely differ from mine. I hope that my comments give you at least enough information to be able to recalibrate my ratings and, in so doing, to align them more closely to your palate. To give an example: if the idea of the ‘new classicism’ leaves you cold, you may well wish to discount the (typically high) ratings I have given to wines described in such terms.
2021 is, of course, a highly heterogenous vintage – and, consequently, my ratings span a considerable range (from the very high to the very low). I see little interest, either for the consumer or the producer, in publishing very low scores. Consequently, I have decided not to publish scores for wines that I have rated below 90 (here the range 89-91). Where no rating is published, the wine would have scored 88-90 or below.
Finally, élevage is likely to be very important in determining the quality in bottle of these wines (rather more so than in recent vintages). I am no soothsayer and cannot predict how that will turn out. All en primeur ratings should be treated with caution and taken with a certain pinch of salt. That is never more true than it is in this vintage.
Full tasting notes & ratings (by appellation)
- Calon-Ségur (St-Estèphe; 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Cabernet Franc; 7% Merlot; 1% Petit Verdot; 12.9% alcohol; pH 3.65; a final yield of 36 hl/ha – better than 2020, but there is less of it in the first wine; aging for 20 months in new oak barrels). There was no frost here, but significant mildew pressure and a late green harvest to improve sanitary conditions in the vineyard. Despite the threat of rain, picking continued until the 13th of October. This feels wonderfully wild and windswept, with heather and fresh wild herbs accompanying the lovely dark berry fruit – brambles, blackberries and blackcurrants. There’s a nice smokiness too, classic gamey notes and a hint of rain on a sun-baked path, crushed rock and a light ferrous minerality; a twist of the pencil-sharpener too. This is big-framed and broad-shouldered on the attack, yet lithe, bright and energetic and with an impressive sense of forward momentum on the palate. Succulent and pulpy, with pronounced saline notes, this is very St-Estèphe. There’s also an impressive ripeness here and nice layering and detail to the mid-palate. It is rather more red fruited than the darker berries of Montrose or the fireworks of Cos. Lots of personality and another notable success. 93-95.
- Cos Labory (St-Estèphe; 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot; 7% Petit Verdot; 12.9% alcohol; a final yield of 32 hl/ha; tasted the UGCB press tasting). This is nicely perfumed, aromatically engaging and expressive, with prominent black cherries and a wild floral element. But on the palate this lacks harmony. There’s a slightly burnt note and a gathering sensation of dryness in and through the mid-palate and especially on the finish.
- Cos d’Estournel (St-Estèphe; 64% Cabernet Sauvignon; 30% Merlot; 4% Petit Verdot; 2% Cabernet Franc; 12.74% alcohol; IPT 77; a final yield of around 35 hl/ha; tasted at the property with Dominique Arangoits and Michel Reybier). This is extremely impressive (especially when one considers the labour of love in the vineyard responsible for the quality of the fruit). At first, it is restrained, subtle and a little closed. But then it starts to divulge at least some of its secrets, with ripe, plump black cherries, their natural sweetness immediately bringing tension alongside the fresher, more croquant cassis and dark berry fruit – brambles, mulberries and blackberries. There is less exotic spice than there used to and one focusses in on the dense core and well-defined spine instead. Sinuous ripples and rivulets of sapid fruit dance around and along the spine, bringing added freshness, detail and interest. This is very harmonious despite the visceral sense of energy. Calm, cool and composed but at the same time strikingly pure and precise, dynamic and lithe. A vin de garde with glorious fruit purity and a big canvas structure. 94-96+.
- Capbern (St-Estèphe; 70% Cabernet Sauvignon; 28%;Merlot; 2% Petit Verdot; 12.8% alcohol; pH 3.75; a final yield of 36 hl/ha; aging in oak barrels, 60% of which are new; tasted at Calon-Ségur). There was no frost here. Smoky and spicy, with cinnamon, clove and cracked white pepper, accompanying the plum and black berry fruit, a little raspberry too. Creamily textured and quite pure on the attack, with a hint of wild lavender. But the mid-palate is a little chewy, it lacks a little definition and it finishes a little dry.
- Le Crock. (St-Estèphe, cru bourgeois exceptionnel; 58% Cabernet Sauvignon; 25% Merlot; 10% Cabernet Franc; 7% Petit Verdot; 13% alcohol). Fresh yet creamily textured, salty and with a little ferrous touch – that Leoville-Poyferré style instantly recognisable even in this St-Estèphe expression. This is a little nutty too, with a pleasingly dark briary fruit and a hint of wood-smoke and bonfire. It is the salinity, though, with the subtlest hint of iodine and sea-spray, that gives away its Northern Médocain identity. Lithe and bright in the mid-palate with that rippling and sapid dark berry fruit again. Smokey and with a hint of game on the finish. Very good for the vintage, but the tannins are just a touch dry and that brings my score down a notch. 89-91.
- La Dame de Montrose (St-Estèphe; 53% Merlot; 38% Cabernet Sauvignon; 6% Petit Verdot; 3% Cabernet Franc; tasted at the property). Croquant, with a bright cassis and blackberry fruit, this is very open-textured, quite translucent through the mid-palate, direct and accessible. It is energetic, pure and precise. The acidity builds in the mouth across the palate but discharges nicely in little fresh ripples that gradually taper towards the long, etiolated finish. There’s an impressive natural balance to this. Long and silky; wild and elemental. 91-93.
- Laffitte Carcasset (St Estèphe, cru bourgeois supérieur; 59% Cabernet Sauvignon; 40% Merlot; 1% Cabernet Franc; 13% alcohol). I’ve not tasted this wine before, and it’s impressive in a tricky vintage. The nose is pure and nicely lifted, with dark briary fruit and wild herbal notes. The tannins are soft and refined on the entry and this is well-structured if a little slender. But there’s good density at the core and a nice harmony here, the acidity (though evident) just about kept in check.
- Lafon Rochet (St-Estèphe; 69% Cabernet Sauvignon; 26% Merlot; 4% Cabernet Franc; 1% Petit Verdot; 12.9% alcohol; tasted at the UGCB press tasting and then again at another UGCB tasting with similar notes). Pure raspberry confit on the nose; a nice trace of graphite, and a pleasing crushed rocks minerality; less of the ferrous notes of old. Very pure and linear yet as ever quite impressive in its density and compactness. This clings tightly to the spine but just lacks a bit of interest and complexity. 90-92.
- Marquis de Calon (St-Estèphe; 58% Merlot; 42% Cabernet Sauvignon; 13.2% alcohol; pH 3.60; a final yield of 36 hl/ha; tasted at Calon-Ségur). Rather more Merlot than last year and that is very evident on the nose. Bright red berry and stone fruit (raspberries and wild strawberries); wood smoke; a hint of BBQ spices; and a red-purple peony florality. Soft and almost delicate on the attack, followed by a broad opening. The tannins eventually bring this back to the spine, but it seems like it’s a bit of a struggle. A little clumsy in the mid-palate, lacking the definition and precision of the grand vin and, like many, a touch dry on the finish. 89-91.
- Meyney (St Estèphe; 54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot and 12% Petit Verdot; in the first year of organic conversion – a tricky year to pick!). A very stylish and classy nose, with intensely dark, plump, ripe berry fruit, a little touch of graphite and a hint of cedar, cracked walnuts too. The tannins are beautifully soft and that gives this a wondrous sinuous quality on the palate that is almost reminiscent of the 2019. Long, finely-tapered and with a super fine-grained texture to the tannins, this is another excellent wine from an estate on top form. 91-93+.
- Montrose (St Estèphe; 62% Cabernet Sauvignon; 31% Merlot; 6% Cabernet Franc; 1% Petite Verdot; tasted at the property). Elemental and wondrously so: graphite; cedar; black cherry; cassis. A little closed at first, this rewards gentle coaxing (don’t we all!). Very beautiful and very elegant, with that cool-vintage plunge-pool classicism, this exudes class, polish and a subtle elegant precision. It builds gloriously, revealing as it does so the floral side of the vintage (unusual for Montrose at this stage) – violets, rose petals, even a hint of wild heather. There’s a touch of chocolate too. Intense and compact with a tight cylindrical core that is very dark and dense. Drawing air into the mouth brings an instant reward of little bright and intensely refreshing plumes of florality and sapidity. This is gorgeous texturally, with lots of interest, lots of layering, lots of detail and a beautiful, quite, delicate glossy finish. So precise and focussed; chiselled and architectural but not obvious or demonstrative. The epitome of calm perfection; it might be subtle, but I love it. 95-97.
- Ormes de Pez (St Estèphe; 49% Merlot; 40% Cabernet Sauvignon; 6% Cabernet Franc; 5% Petit Verdot; 13.1% alcohol; tasted at the UGCB press tasting and again at Lynch-Bages). Much gentler than Haut Batailley (tasted just before), this is softer, feels friendlier and is altogether less aggressive. It is pure, lithe and yet linear with an impressively precise tannic spine around which the fruits glides and a succulent creamy texture. The fruit itself is dark and intense – fruits of the forest, blackberries, mulberries and brambles. One of the appellation’s successes in this challenging vintage. 90-92.
- Pagodes de Cos (St Estèphe; 60% Merlot; 36% Cabernet Sauvignon; 3% Cabernet Franc; 1% Petit Verdot; 12.5% alcohol; a final yield of around 35 hl/ha; tasted at the property with Dominique Arangoits and Michel Reybier). This has an impressive natural sweetness to it which comes directly from the ripe mix of red and darker stone and confit berry fruit. Creamily-textured with quite a broad structure, this is silky and satinous from attack to finish. Succulent, sapid and juicy, with a lovely mouthfeel, the spice is less evident than in the past. Vivid, bright, energetic and with that lovely sweetness to the fruit, this is nicely balanced and well-judged. 91-93.
- De Pez (St Estèphe; 62% Cabernet Sauvignon; 36% Merlot; 2% Cabernet Franc; 13% alcohol; a final yield of a most impressive 57 hl/ha; tasted at the UGCB press tasting and again at Pichon Comtesse de Lalande). Not quite at the level attained in the last two vintages, but certainly impressive in the context of this one. This is pure, radiant and quite aerial. We find very dark cassis and berry fruit, blackcurrant leaf and cedar on the open and aromatic nose. Less compact than many on the palate, the fruit skates and glides around a bit, not quite fully filling out the frame, but this is pretty, well-made and quite classy in its way. 89-91 (just).
- Phélan-Ségur (St Estèphe; 75% Cabernet Sauvignon; 21% Merlot; 4% Petit Verdot; tasted at the UGCB press tasting). Not difficult to pick as Phélan-Ségur and, frankly, very good in the context of this challenging vintage. Spicy and bonfire-smoky, with super use of the oak. There are gamey and charcuterie notes too, assorted cracked Asiatic spices and punnets of plump blackcurrant fruit, pulling all of this together. A great expression of its terroir, this is limpid, lithe and elegantly crafted, with impressive concentration and yet more sinuous than linear. All and more than you can expect from a top St Estèphe terroir in this vintage. 92-94.
- Tour de Pez (St Estèphe, cru bourgeois; 13% alcohol). A pure and precisely focussed red berry nose – loganberries, raspberries and redcurrant too – with just a hint of sandalwood. On the palate this is, again, pure, precise and very linear. There’s no great depth or concentration, but there is decent length and nice crumbly tannins on the finish. Fresh, bright and dynamic.
- Tour des Termes (St Estèphe, cru bourgeois supérieur; from a vineyard of 23 hectares; 60% Merlot; 35% Cabernet Sauvignon & Franc; 5% Petit Verdot; 13.5% alcohol). Spicy, smoky, gamey and with a classic St Estèphe ferrous minerality too on the nose, this has a nice sense of energy to it. It lacks a little complexity, the acidity is just a little severe on the finish and it is quite slender, but the management of the vintage conditions is good and this will make for an accessible early drinking wine that speaks eloquently of its terroir.
- Tronquoy Lalande (St Estèphe; 48% Cabernet Sauvignon; 40% Merlot; 12% Petit Verdot; tasted at Chateau Montrose). This wine amazes me each vintage; and in 2021 it’s difficult to think of a stronger wine with this much Merlot in the final blend. Sweet and spicy on the nose, with lovely notes of cloves, cinnamon, cinnamon toast, pain d’épice and dark, plump and fleshy berry fruit. This has oodles of St Estèphe spiciness without the heaviness one sometimes associates with that. Bright and vibrant, with lots of interest and a lovely sense of tension and energy to it, this is lithe, vivid and engaging. 91-93+.
- Beaumont (Haut-Médoc; 65% Cabernet Sauvignon; 30% Merlot; 5% Petit Verdot; a final yield of 40 hl/ha; Eric Boissenot is the consultant here; tasted at the UGCB press tasting). Very Beychevelle in style and at this price you have to love that. Soft, naturally slightly sweet, creamy and complex, with a lovely suggestion of cedar and graphite. Floral, softly textured and with fine-grained tannins this is really impressive at this level. Gentle, quite long and slowly tapering on the finish. Fabulous value and rather stylish. 89-91.
- Belgrave (Haut-Médoc; 65% Cabernet Sauvignon; 30% Merlot; 5% Petit Verdot; tasted at the UGCB press tasting). Spicy, gamey, smoky. Red and darker berry fruit – quite precise, a pleasing wild herbal note too. Nice and tight, with reasonable density at first but it dissipates quite quickly. Nice ccrumbly, chewy tannins. Fine if not especially exciting. 89-91.
- De Camensac (Haut-Médoc; 66% Cabernet Sauvignon; 34% Merlot; tasted at the UGCB press tasting; tasted at the UGCB press tasting). Chocolate, a hint of wild spring flowers and a rather blended mix of dark stone and berry fruit. Rolling, soft and chewy, but the tannins build rapidly and slightly overwhelm this. There is simply more structure than the fruit can bear. Finishes a little harsh.
- Cantemerle (Haut-Médoc; 65% Cabernet Sauvignon; 21% Merlot; 9% Cabernet Franc; 5% Petit Verdot; 13% alcohol; a final yield of a deeply impressive 50 hl/ha; tasted at the property with Laure Canu and then at the UGC with similar notes). Limpid, glossy and impressively viscous in the glass for the vintage. A very pure and beautiful nose – you might guess La Lagune more than Cantemerle – that is exquisitely perfumed, with cassis, bramble and raspberry, cedar and freshly picked wild herbs. Svelte and very measured on the attack, this is long and finely structured with a nice sense of grip from the chewy fine-grained tannins. There’s a good balance and harmony to this and the acidity is seamlessly integrated. One imagines that the selection was quite strict, but this the progress here is palpable. 90-92+.
- Coufran (Haut-Médoc; 85% Merlot; 15% Cabernet Sauvignon; 12.8% alcohol; tasted at the UGCB press tasting). Wood smoke and bark; mossy earthiness; dark brambly berry fruit. A little light and slightly hollow giving this a rather dilute and disparate mouthfeel but it’s balanced and harmonious and for early drinking. Just lacks a little concentration.
- La Lagune (Haut-Médoc; 70% Cabernet Sauvignon; 20% Merlot; 10% Petit Verdot; 12.8% alcohol; aging in 50% new oak for 12-14 months; certified organic in 2016 and biodynamic in 2021; tasted at the UGCB press tasting and again at the property). Dark chocolate; violet, lavender and assorted wild field flowers; black cherry, blackberry and fresh plump raspberries; cedary and graphite. Elegant, glossy, refined, deep, rich and soft on the nose. I love the stony minerality and the loamy earthiness which feels very wild, natural and balanced. Without getting mystic about this, there is an energy that seems to come from the biodynamic viticulture here – reinforcing the pure and vivid character of the fruit. Deep and rich on the palate, with a nice compactness. Yet this is also sinuous, pure, precise and quite crystalline, with lots of interest and detail. There’s a glorious lift on the fantail finish. Very elegant and gracious. A very good showing from La Lagune, continuing on from the fabulous 2020. 91-93+.
- Potensac. (Haut-Médoc; 40% Cabernet Sauvignon; 34% Merlot: 23% Cabernet Franc; 3% Petit Verdot; 13.1% alcohol; tasted at Léoville Las Cases). Lovely, bright and energetic, very pure yet with a slightly creamy texture too. The highest ever proportion of Cabernet Franc here and an evidently super-strict selection, this is impressive with a lovely saline note on the finish.
- La Tour Carnet (Haut-Médoc; 54% Merlot; 46% Cabernet Sauvignon; a final yield of 30 hl/ha; 13% alcohol; tasted at the UGCB press tasting). Quite classic, with a bright, herb-tinged and quite lifted nose with a pleasing trace of graphite alongside the red and darker berry fruit. Quite slender on the palate, but consequently there is just enough fruit to cover the frame. This has decent length, but it feels rather dilute on the finish. Good choices in terms of the structure, though if it is ever to compete with La Lagune and now Cantemerle too, it will need a stricter selection and more concentration.
See here for db’s en primeur vintage report, with appellation-by-appellation reviews on Margaux, St Julien, Pessac-Leognan & Graves, St Estephe & Haut-Medoc, Pauillac, Pomerol, St Emilion and Sauternes.