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Bordeaux 2021 tasting notes: Pessac-Leognan & Graves rouge 2021

With Merlot taking a big hit in Pessac-Leognan & Graves, producers have been forced to use far less in the 2021 vintages. Our Bordeaux correspondent Colin Hay gives his verdict on the red wines of the region. 

Below are the full tasting notes for the appellations, however a note on the ratings first.

 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

Graves rouge

  • Chantegrive (Graves; 70% Cabernet Sauvignon; 30% Merlot; tasted at the UGCB press tasting). Spicy and smoky on the nose, with baked plums and brambles. There is initially good density to the fruit on the attack, but it stops rather short, lacks vigour and never really transits to a mid-palate. The crumbly tannins are well-managed, but the acidity is rather pronounced on the finish.
  • Ferrande (Graves; 50% Merlot; 50% Cabernet Sauvignon; tasted at the UGCB press tasting). Not showing much aromatically at this nascent stage and the fruit feels rather blitzed, blended and monotone on the palate. Unbalanced and rather heavy despite the lack of mid-palate density.

Pessac-Léognan rouge

  • Bouscaut (Pessac-Léognan; 47% Merlot; 44% Cabernet Sauvignon; 9% Malbec; 13.3% alcohol; a final yield of 20 hl/ha; tasted at the UGCB press tasting). This is crisp, bright and quite lifted on the nose – and it is the Merlot that dominates. Red and darker berry fruit, a little cherry skin too. Given the difficulties of the vintage, this is fine, but it hardly sets the pulse racing. It evolves quite nicely over the palate but is not as strong as the previous three vintages. The oak will needs a little time to integrate too. The tannins are a little coarse and, for now at least, this lacks balance. I had hoped for a little more.
  • C de Carmes Haut-Brion (Pessac-Léognan; 62% Cabernet Sauvignon; 36% Merlot; 2% Petit Verdot; 13.5% alcohol without chaptalisation and after 20% whole bunch fermentation; a final yield of 41 hl/ha; vinified separately in Martillac and an entirely separate wine from Les Carmes Haut-Brion itself; aging in a combination of foudres, barriques and amphorae; tasted at the property). Another amazingly accomplished wine from the talented Guillaume Pouthier. He always seems a step ahead of what nature throws at him – here, for instance, spraying talc on his vines to absorb moisture and reduce the threat and damage of mildew – to very good effect, judging by the impressive overall yield. It seems obvious when you think about it; and the point is that he thinks about it – a lot! This is very true to itself – with characteristic saline notes, walnut oil, a bright croquant berry fruit and wild spring flowers. In the mouth, this is lithe, glossy and limpid. The whole-bunch fermentation, as well as reducing the alcohol (here to a level others only seem to attain with chaptalisation!), reinforces the natural salinity of the terroir. The pure and precise blackcurrant and redcurrant fruit is accompanied by cracked green peppercorns, a sprinkling of fleur de sel and – as ever – a touch of iron oxide accompanying the lovely graphite and stony minerality. This has a pleasing natural sweetness to the fruit and lovely chewy, crumbly but perfectly ripe tannins that grip nicely to help structure the glorious long fantail finish. 92-94.
  • Carbonnieux (Pessac-Léognan; 58% Cabernet Sauvignon; 28% Merlot; 7% Cabernet Franc; 7% Petit Verdot; 13.5% alcohol; a final yield of 40 hl/ha; tasted at the UGCB press tasting). One of the more refined and elegant wines in the UGCB Pessac flight. Aromatically expressive, with a pleasing fresh berry fruit profile (redcurrant and blackberry), nicely integrated acidity and a hint of smoked charcuterie. There’s a nice grip from the chewy tannins, even if this lacks a little interest in the mid-palate. Very fine but hardly exciting, with decent length and reasonable structure. A little tart on the finish too. 89-91.
  • Les Carmes Haut-Brion (Pessac-Léognan; 40% Cabernet Franc; 35% Cabernet Sauvignon; 25% Merlot; 13.5% alcohol with no chaptalisation and after 45% whole bunch fermentation; aging in a combination of new oak barrels (70%), new foudres (20%) and amphorae (10%); a final yield of 41 hl/ha; pH 3.60; around 40k bottles were produced; tasted at the property with Guillaume Pouthier). A spectacular wine in the context of this – and, indeed, any – vintage and one of the very few wines to have transcended the challenges of a most difficult growing season. But this was by no means easily achieved. More like a Sauternes, this was picked in a series of tries. The extraordinary microclimate of the vineyard (and its precocious clay on limestone terroir) produced a natural potential alcohol of 14.2%. With 45% whole-bunch fermentation this was reduced to a still remarkable 13.5%. But even more significant to the character of the final wine in 2021 was the passive extraction through infusion, allowing a more full extraction from the (ripe) skins without the risk of releasing raw tannins from the (unripe) pips. The resulting wine is very expressive of the exceptional Cabernet Franc, giving it an almost Cheval Blanc-like charm and fruit profile. There is great focus and precision here, with all of the vintage’s brightness and brilliance too. But, due to the passive infusion extraction, we have an extremely dense and compact mid-palate too. The combination is unique in the vintage. This is limpid, glossy and viscous, with a gorgeous cool black cherry, bramble, cassis and plump blueberry fruit; walnuts; cedar, graphite and acacia wood; wild herbal notes; and freshly crushed black peppercorns. Beautifully soft, gentle and voluptuous on the entry; but we then have a veritable firehose of fresh berry fruit and juice exploding in the mouth and imparting sapidity to all corners of the palate. There’s great volume and amplitude too and an impressively luminous, crystal clear and, again, vibrant mid-palate – more 2019 than 2021. Glorious, utterly singular, and perhaps the most refreshing wine of the entire vintage, with a spectacular fresh mint and wild thyme note on the finish. A candidate for wine of the vintage. 96-98.
  • La Chapelle de la Mission Haut Brion (Pessac-Léognan; 51.3% Merlot; 45.2% Cabernet Sauvignon; 3.5% Cabernet Franc; 13.4% alcohol; aging in oak barrels, 27% of which are new; tasted at La Mission Haut-Brion). Lovely ripe cedar and cassis notes on the nose, with a hint of walnut and almond shell. Tender and gorgeously textured on the front of the palate, with a pure and crunchy red cherry and cassis fruit. But the acidity (not especially noticeable at first) builds slowly across the well-formed palate. As it does so, the grain of the tannins also seems to build and harshen a little, with the elegance and finesse of the attack somewhat tempered on the finish. 90-92.
  • Le Clarence de la Mission Haut Brion (Pessac-Léognan; 70.4% Merlot; 18.2% Cabernet Sauvignon; 11.4% Cabernet Franc; 13.6% alcohol; aging in oak barrels, 28% of which are new; tasted at La Mission Haut-Brion). This is initially less expressive aromatically than La Chapelle de la Mission. The fruit is darker and this feels more serious and sombre – with mulberry and plum and La Chapelle’s cedar here replaced by graphite. There’s a pleasant sweetness to the fruit on the nose and the palate is richer, more creamily textured and with a broader frame and structure. The tannins are finer too. A little more opulent perhaps, but tempered by the austere, cool summer style of the vintage. 91-93.
  • Couhins-Lurton (Pessac-Léognan; 90% Merlot; 10% Cabernet Sauvignon; 13% alcohol; tasted at the property with Jacques Lurton). A vineyard planted almost entirely with Merlot doesn’t give you a great set of cards to start with in this vintage – but Jacques Lurton has played a characteristically savvy hand. Vigilance and attentiveness in the vineyard led to less frost damage here (only around 10% of the crop was lost to mildew). Very dark berry and stone fruit – damsons, sloes, but also red fruit, with a touch of redcurrant and red cherry; slight herbal notes; and a touch of salt and cracked pepper. Lots of vertical lift. In the mouth this is all about purity rather than complexity. It is svelte, but a little lean and slender, lacking the density of some. It is quite open-textured with nice finely-grained tannins – the product of an evidently gentle extraction. But it again lacks density and the acidity though never jarring is quite pronounced on the finish. There’s good balance and harmony here; but this lacks the concentration and depth of the 2020. Juicy, sapid, refreshing – and offering plenty of youthful pleasure. 90-92.
  • Domaine de Chevalier (Pessac-Léognan; 80% Cabernet Sauvignon; 10% Merlot; 5% Petit Verdot; 5% Cabernet Franc; 13% alcohol; a final yield of 30 hl/ha; tasted at the UGCB press tasting). Another truly great wine in this vintage that contains a fraction of the Merlot that it usually would. Cherry skins and dark berry fruit. Just a little serious, cool and austere – but attractively so. This demands respect and attention and is more intellectual than many of its peers. The lovely svelte tannins exude gentle harmony, but there is not quite the pixilation or detail on the mid-palate of recent vintages. Plums and dark berry fruit, a hint of graphite and a pleasing note of grape and cherry skin on the long and rolling finish, with just a hint of the cedar to come as this ages. Overall, this is elegant, stylish and harmonious and like the 2013, it is excellent in the context of a tricky vintage. An easy pick as Domaine de Chevalier. If the mid-palate fleshes out in élevage this might well end up warranting a higher rating. 92-94+.
  • De Fieuzal (Pessac-Léognan; 50% Merlot; 40% Cabernet Sauvignon; 10% Petit Verdot; 13% alcohol; tasted at the UGCB press tasting). This is instantly recognisable from the nose as de Fieuzal – as, indeed, was the white – and I rather respect and admire that. Dense, dark, ripe but crisp berry and stone fruit – damsons, black cherries and autumnal hedgerow brambles. A little cedar arrives with gentle aeration. This is wild and herbal too but it also has a touch of sweet baking spice. There is plenty of shape and lift on the attack and this has an impressively elegant structure. But one also senses that the extraction has been reined back just a little so as not to stretch the fruit over too expansive a frame. That’s certainly the right choice – as is reflected in the harmony and sense of balance that this exhibits. This is finely detailed and nicely delineated in the mid-palate and there is a lovely juicy freshness to the finish. One’s heart perhaps craves just a little more concentration. But that’s a bit like wishing for another vintage. For it would surely only destabilise what is a finely balanced expression of a tricky vintage. 91-93+.
  • De France (Pessac-Léognan; 60% Cabernet Sauvignon; 40% Merlot; 13% alcohol; a final yield of 22 hl/ha; tasted at the UGCB press tasting). Slender and somewhat insubstantial. This has a nice tight core and a pure dark berry fruit but it’s a little soupy in the mid-palate and somewhat dilute too. The finish is tart and slightly dry. I’d like to like this more.
  • Haut Bailly (Pessac-Léognan; 65% Cabernet Sauvignon; 22% Merlot; 10% Petit Verdot; 3% Cabernet Franc; tasted at the property). Soft and supple, with an elegant, refined and composed sense of calm tranquillity about it. Graphite, cassis and blueberry compote intermingle enticingly, with a little touch of white pepper and soft Asiatic spices. This is lithe and limpid, somewhat quietly spoken but subtle, supple and very eloquent. It exudes harmony, with a lovely sapid tension from the attack all the way through the mid-palate to a distant vanishing point on the long finish. Delicate but never slender, though more compact in its structure than most other leading wines of the appellation. Sinuous, clear and translucent in the mid-palate, this glistens and glides as the fine-grained tannins and fresh acidity conspire to produce little ripples on the tongue. I love the exquisite and quite ethereal finish along the very top of the palate and the cool slate and graphite minerality. This is beautifully composed and one the most elegant expressions of the vintage. 93-95.
  • Haut Bailly II (Pessac-Léognan; 70% Merlot; 25% Cabernet Sauvignon; 3% Cabernet Franc; 2% Petit Verdot; tasted at the property). Much more obviously oaky than the grand vin and much richer and creamier than Le Pape on the nose. What I like most about this is that it has a strong personality of Haut Bailly. Graphite, red cherry and cassis fruit. Soft and intensely fruit-forward on the nose but then a little more stretched on the palate, with that telltale dip in fruit concentration in the mid-palate. What there is here is lovely but it feels a little stretched. Very pure, very pretty, but it lacks concentration and complexity. 89-91.
  • Haut-Bergey (Pessac-Léognan; 55% Cabernet Sauvignon; 20% Merlot; 15% Cabernet Franc; 10% Petit Verdot; 12.5% alcohol; tasted at the UGCB press tasting). Smoky, gamey, rich and plummy with lots of sweet baking spice; slightly oxidative in style which is not always my thing. This has an attractive, bright and somewhat lighter hued (red) berry fruit on the palate, a lovely pick up, an impressive sense of energy to it and nice herbal elements. I find a marked contrast between the slightly stolid and heavy aromatics and the bright mid-palate. I’m giving this the slight benefit of the doubt and will be very interested to re-taste this from bottle – I suspect it’ll turn out well. 90-92.
  • Haut-Brion (Pessac-Léognan; 50.3% Merlot; 38% Cabernet Sauvignon; 11.7% Cabernet Franc; 13.8% alcohol; aging in oak barrels, 73% of which are new; tasted at La Mission Haut-Brion). Sumptuous, supremely elegant and delightfully restrained. This exudes calmness, balance and harmony – with the measured tranquillity on the nose of the cool summer. Yet there is also a very attractive natural sweetness to the fruit – brambles and mulberries with a hint of damson – and a subtle trace of tobacco leaf, tapenade and white truffle. The texture is divine – so soft, yet with the acidity bound into the very core and structure of the wine from the first contact with the tongue and checks. This has a very gracious and elegant unfolding over the palate. It is very classical and impressively ample with wonderful density and compactness. The fruit is rolled in graphite. Air draws in additional plumes of cassis, blueberry and blackberry fruit and the vitality and freshness of their juice; it like squeezing perfectly ripe berries between one’s teeth. This is gorgeous in its still tranquillity; very natural and composed; tense and lithe. Above all, there is a fabulous signature here of the crunchy fresh fruit of this cooler summer vintage. 95-97+.
  • Larrivet Haut-Brion (Pessac-Léognan; 81% Cabernet Sauvignon; 19% Cabernet Franc – yet from a vineyard, 50% of which is planted with Merlot; 12.9% alcohol; a final yield of 29 hl/ha; tasted at the UGCB press tasting). Quite classic on the nose. This feels slightly wild and natural, with game and herbal elements, a touch of wood smoke, almost some barbeque notes and a bright and racy dark berry fruit. There is good lift and bright energy to this too, with a sapid and juicy dark fruit profile and pleasingly chewy tannins. There is no great density or concentration but a decent sensation of structure and a bright, fresh racy finish. 90-92.
  • Latour-Martillac (Pessac-Léognan; 60% Cabernet Sauvignon; 30% Merlot; 10% Petit Verdot; 13.5% alcohol; a final yield of 38 hl/ha; tasted at the UGCB press tasting). This continues the recent rich vein of form here, even in a rather more challenging vintage. On the nose, this is floral (with wild hedgerow flowers) and nutty, too with a dark, plump and pulpy damson, sloe and blueberry fruit accompanied by a saline and ferrous minerality. The favourable impressions continue on the palate, which is lithe and sinuous, generously structured but at the same time soft and elegant. The tannins grip nicely and there is a pleasingly luminous, almost radiant, quality to the mid-palate. A great result for the vintage. Very fine, classic, refined and yet delicate too with a fine sense of harmony. 92-94.
  • La Louvière (Pessac-Léognan; 65% Cabernet Sauvignon; 35% Merlot; 13% alcohol; a final yield of 35 hl/ha; tasted at the property with Jacques Lurton and at the UGCB press tasting). Big, plump, full and reassuringly chunky, with a prominent red and darker berry fruit profile, accompanied by fresh irises and rose petals. The somewhat elevated acidity is nicely worked into the structural core of the wine and this has, as ever, a good sense of evolution over the palate; the acidity and tannins draw this back to the core after a boisterous, broad-shouldered opening. Not the most subtle or elegant of wines, perhaps, but very authentically of its appellation and terroir and impressive in the context of the vintage, its rich, ripe Cabernet Sauvignon taking centre stage. Likely to prove excellent value. 90-92+.
  • Malartic-Lagravière (Pessac-Léognan; 67% Cabernet Sauvignon; 32% Merlot; 1% Cabernet Franc; 12.8% alcohol; a final yield of an impressive 42.3 hl/ha; tasted at the UGCB press tasting; the only classed growth in the Graves with Eric Boissenot as consultant). Another great success in the context of the vintage and the latest in a series of strong wines from Malartic-Lagravière. Pure raspberry coulis and ripe raspberry pips too – with the sensation of crushing them between one’s teeth. A little hint of graphite and cedar too. This is really impressive. Deep and rich for the vintage, with very fine grained tannins and good mid-palate detail, definition and delineation – almost a sense of multi-coloured pixilation. The structural composition of the wine is impressive too, with the signature freshness of the vintage nicely interwoven with the tannins. A great success. Pure, precise, maybe a little strict and linear, but there’s lots of energy, balance and tension here too. 92-94+.
  • La Mission Haut-Brion (Pessac-Léognan; 47.9% Merlot; 45.8% Cabernet Sauvignon; 6.3% Cabernet Franc; 13.4% alcohol; a final yield of an impressive 48 hl/ha, but with a very strict selection for the grands vins, production of which is down by around 20 per cent; aging in oak barrels, 73% of which are new; tasted at La Mission Haut-Brion). Lovely limpidity in the glass and an almost iridescent radiant punk pink rim. Cool, suave, and ethereal on the nose, with lots of graphite and cedar liberally enrobing the black cherry skin and dark berry and stone fruit, with a little cool menthol and black pepper for good measure. This is very harmonious but it’s reluctant to reveal all of its secrets at this nascent stage. Subtle restraint and a diaphanous texture on the palate, with silky smooth tannins on the attack and a lovely sense of a slowly revealed gothic structure – uncovered stone by stone. The tannins are fine-grained, grip delightfully and build graciously towards a chewy, tense, fresh and juicy long finish. The acidity on the finish is slightly elevated and this is more limpid and open-textured, lithe and luminous, than Haut-Brion. Long and completely mouth-filling on the ample finish. Excellent in all its classy austerity. 94-96.
  • Olivier (Pessac-Léognan; 55% Cabernet Sauvignon; 40% Merlot; 5% Petit Verdot; 13.1% alcohol; a final yield of 40 hl/ha; tasted at the UGCB press tasting). This is good too. Pure blackberry, cassis and wild raspberry on the nose; a gentle herbal element too; it all feels very natural, with a lovely sense of balance. Fine-grained tannins, nice sapidity, and a rich dark core help define the impressive structure. Excellent and much better than it used to be. 91-93.
  • Le Pape (Pessac-Léognan; 80% Merlot; 20% Cabernet Sauvignon; tasted at the Haut Bailly). Crunchy fresh cassis fruit. There’s a nice brightness and lift to this. But it’s rather slender and it closes down and tapers off quite quickly. One craves a little bit more flesh and substance and there is a slight tartness on the finish.
  • Pape Clément (Pessac-Léognan; 60% Merlot; 40% Cabernet Sauvignon; tasted at the UGCB press tasting). What is fascinating about this wine is that there is proportionately more Merlot in the final blend than is actually planted in the vineyard. I cannot think of another wine in this vintage about which one can say that. Sour cherries, bramble compote with a noticeable saline and ferrous minerality; classic cedar notes emerge with gentle aeration. Interesting and distinct and yet not very obviously Pape-Clément (this is a wine that used to be so easy to pick blind). Plump and rich with very refined fine-grained tannins; broad but soft with the tannins and acidity together working to bring this back to the spine. Complex, nutty and with a subtle gentle natural sweetness. Long and refined if not exactly classic. No evident oak. Good choices and a subtle change in style here it seems. 92-94.
  • Picque Caillou (Pessac-Léognan; 60% Cabernet Sauvignon; 30% Merlot; 10% Petit Verdot; 13% alcohol; a final yield of 38 hl/ha; tasted at the UGCB press tasting). Walnut shell and a very cool, dark damson and plum fruit; a little cherry skin too. Lovely skin-notes again feature on the palate; it’s like chewing a fresh ripe grape or a black cherry skin. This is very bright with a lovely compact and concentrated mid-palate. A great success in this vintage and likely, as ever, to represent excellent value. 91-93.
  • Smith Haut Lafitte (Pessac-Léognan; 63% Cabernet Sauvignon; 33% Merlot; 3% Cabernet Franc; 1% Petit Verdot; 13% alcohol; a final yield of just 22 hl/ha; tasted at the UGCB press tasting). Seductive, soft, elegant, highly classy and very refined. Deep, dark and plunge-pool soft in texture. Black cherries, walnut, bramble, cassis, with wild flowers and herbs; lovely cedar, acacia and graphite notes too. This could really only be Smith Haut-Lafitte – though with a little less notable oak than in recent vintages. A truly great wine, with impressive density and concentration if not quite the intensity at the core of recent vintages. Long on the finish, but it perhaps tapers just a little earlier than you’d hope. 93-95.

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

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