St Estephe & Haut-Medoc: left-bank Merlot ‘a tough and tricky proposition’
It might seem odd to continue my series of 2021 Bordeaux en primeur profiles with a single article on the appellations of Haut-Médoc and St-Estèphe – we typically think of these as at the southern and northern fringes of the Médoc respectively that don’t exactly go together.
Well, yes and no.
Yes, the five classified growths of the Haut-Médoc are all in the southern sector of the appellation; but the appellation itself is in fact large and discontinuous and a significant part (qualitatively as much as quantitatively) is in fact located just to the north of St-Estèphe.
Indeed, so far north is it, that its wines (most famously Sociando-Mallet) were not authorised to be considered for the classification in 1855 – as they were considered more than a day’s ride from Bordeaux. Were it not for that simple fact, we might well be more accustomed to speaking of Haut-Médoc and St-Estèphe in the same breath.
But there is a second and rather more pertinent reason for considering them together when it comes to the 2021 vintage. For, in a way, they suffered a similar fate – or at least were exposed to the challenges of this most trying of vintages in the vineyard in a similar way.
For both appellations are characterised by a relatively high proportion of Merlot in the vineyard (in comparison with Pauillac and St Julien in particular). And, as we know, left-bank Merlot was a tough and tricky proposition in the 2021 vintage. Moreover, these are typically sizeable properties that can’t afford, in effect, to do as their Pauillac and St Julien peers did (and some Margaux estates as well) – namely to downgrade a large proportion of their Merlot to the second or lesser wines.
The result is that in both appellations we have wines in which the proportion of Merlot in the final blend is reduced – through a combination of vineyard losses (largely due to mildew) and selection – but where it still remains significant. The numbers, as ever, make for interesting reading.
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Table 1 a & b: Percentage of Merlot in the grand vin, 2020 v 2021
As the preceding tables show very clearly, none of the leading wines in either appellation – with the single exception of Calon-Ségur (whose Merlot is generally much more present in the second wine, Marquis du Calon) – have a final blend containing less than 20% Merlot. Indeed, 6 of the 10 wines listed, containe more than 30% Merlot.
As the preceding tables show very clearly, none of the leading wines in either appellation – with the single exception of Calon-Ségur (whose Merlot is generally much more present in the second wine, Marquis du Calon) – have a final blend containing less than 20% Merlot. Indeed, 6 of the 10 wines listed, contain more than 30% Merlot.
And that, arguably, is the question here. It is possible to produce a great left-bank wine in 2021 with 20% or more Merlot in the final blend?
The devil, as ever, lies in the details of the tasting notes below. But, in general, my answer is a slightly equivocal yes. The star of the show here is, for me – as it was in 2020 – Montrose (a wine made with more Merlot in 2021 than in 2020). This is an utterly brilliant – if subtle and complex – wine that, like most of the leading left-bank wines of the vintage, is a near perfect expression of the cool summer new classicism that is embraces so fully.
Cos d’Estournel, too, has made a captivating wine charged with energy and vivacity and rather different in style to the wines we have long been accustomed to from this property. I very much like the evolution and the specific personality of the 2021.
Calon-Ségur and Phélan-Ségur I also find extremely impressive, if not quite at the same level. Their styles are very different but both express very precisely and eloquently the appellation, their terroir and their identity.
La Lagune is the star performer, as it so often is, in the Haut-Médoc. It has crafted another classically Médocain wine, full of cedar and graphite, yet also wondrously vivid, pure and precise in its fruit expression. It feels like one can taste the biodynamic viticulture.
It is exciting also to see the start of a very interesting progression at Cantemerle – a wine to watch in the vintages to come I feel.
Finally, Beaumont and Tronquoy-Lalande, albeit at rather different price points, are once again likely to prove exceptional value. Both are great successes in this vintage and should not be overlooked.
Highlights in 2021
Best of St-Estèphe:
- Montrose (95-97)
Best of Haut-Médoc:
- La Lagune (91-93+)
- Calon-Ségur (93-95)
- Cos d’Estournel (94-96+)
- Beaumont (89-91)
- Cantemerle (90-92+)
- Phélan-Ségur (92-94)
- Tronquoy-Lalande (91-93+).
For full tasting notes, see here.
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.