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Bordeaux 2021 en primeur: the verdict

It is just over two months since my initial reflections on the Bordeaux 2021 vintage. They were written, as I recall, on the slow train to Libourne having tasted just 150 wines.

In them I suggested that Bordeaux 2021 was likely to prove a contentious vintage and one that would divide the critics. So it has proved to be. And that, in turn has cast something of a pall over a relatively short en primeur campaign that opened in earnest with the release of Batailley on the 9 May. The initial enthusiasm accompanying that release (described at the time by Farr vintners as “very moderately” priced) rapidly subsided with most chateaux simply sticking to their 2020 release price in euros as the pound continued to fall.

To help make sense of the vintage now that the critics verdicts are all in, the prices set and dust of the campaign is starting to settle, it is helpful to return to the list of questions that I posed right at the start of my coverage

At the time they were still largely unresolved in my mind. Now, I think, the picture is clearer. In what follows I gather together my thoughts as the campaign draws to a close in the form of an answer to each question.

Has a silk purse really been crafted from the meteorological pig’s ear?

Here I have not changed my initial view, which is a classic equivocation – a bit of ‘yes’ and a bit of ‘no’.

There is no escaping the compound climatic challenges of this vintage and they undoubtedly leave their mark. But, the sheer quality of the wines produced in this most incredibly difficult vintage is truly impressive. Indeed, I suspect that there is no precedent in Bordeaux’s history.

Never before have the challenges of a vintage been more successfully negotiated. Wines of this quality simply could not have been made in the context of this set of meteorological difficulties even a decade ago.

But that does not make 2021 a great vintage, at least for the reds.

It is hardly surprising when you think about it. But 2021 is the most uneven vintage in qualitative terms that I have tasted en primeur, more so even than 2017 and 2018 and much more so than 2013 (a vintage that is in fact extremely homogeneous, just not very good).

My notes and ratings may, at first impression, appear generous. But that is simply because I have chosen not to publish notes and ratings for wines that I graded below 90. There are many of them and my overall average rating for the vintage would place it on a qualitative par with 2017.

But, crucially, the distribution of my scores is nothing like that for 2017. The best wines in 2021 are often better than the equivalent 2018 though only very rarely do they attain the level of the 2019 or 2020. There are, in short, great successes. But there are also many wines that are difficult to taste now and which are unlikely to age gracefully.

Is this really a Cabernet vintage (for the reds) and a Sauvignon Blanc vintage (for the whites)?

Here, again, my initial views have only been reaffirmed and reinforced by more extensive tasting. It is also a subject I have written about before, so I will try to be brief.

In short, whilst 2021 is much closer to being a Cabernet vintage on the left-bank, it is very far from being simply a Cabernet vintage on the right-bank. Indeed, the issue here is not so much the Cabernet as the Merlot.

On the left-bank, where the Merlot proved extremely challenging, there is quite a high (and positive) correlation between the proportion of Cabernet in the final blend and the quality of the resulting wine. Second wines have often also suffered from this strict selection (and typically contain a significantly higher proportion of the residual Merlot).

On the right-bank this is much less the case, with a number of truly excellent monocépage Merlot wines on top Pomerol and St Emilion terroirs and the vast majority of the best wines being Merlot-dominant (as ever). That said, on the best right-bank terroirs, the Cabernet Franc is so often the star of the show in this vintage, just as the Cabernet Sauvignon is the star of the show on the best left-bank terroirs.

While simple generalisations are therefore unhelpful, if there is a rule of thumb it is to look out for left-bank wines with an unusually high proportion of Cabernet and Petit Verdot in the blend and right-bank wines with a significant share of Cabernet Franc (though, as in 2020, a little Cabernet Franc can actually go quite a long way). On both banks, the cool vintage Cabernet fruit where full ripeness was attained is aromatically and texturally beautiful.

And turning to the whites, while 2021 is not in my view a Sauvignon Blanc vintage, it is certainly a vintage in which the Sauvignon Blanc is truly exceptional, attaining a level that is almost unprecedented in the context of recent vintages.

But the Sémillon is also fabulous, even if it perhaps tends not to reach quite the same relative heights.

Much more importantly, though, 2021 is a truly superb vintage for both Bordeaux blancs secs and Sauternes and Barsac. The relative merits of the two principle varietals in the blend is a question of much more marginal importance.

Is this a left-bank vintage – and, if so, because of that or for other reasons?

Saint Emilion, France

Here my answer is very clear and unequivocal. No, this is not a left-back vintage; but neither is it really a right-bank vintage either. It is an almost unprecedentedly heterogeneous vintage, not least because of the highly uneven distribution of, and exposure to, the meteorological challenges even within an appellation. And that, of course, makes it quite a difficult vintage to buy for the consumer.

It is a vintage in which there are great wines on both the left and the right bank. But is also a vintage in which the quality of the wines in the leading left-bank appellations (with the partial exception of St Julien and Margaux) trails off more rapidly than it does on the right-bank (typically, as the proportion of Merlot in the blend rises). Properties that could simply not afford to downgrade or declassify large proportions of their Merlot have found it very difficult to make a first wine of the level of their 2018, let alone their 2019 or 2020.

Is this a vintage for the European rather than the new world palate?

This perhaps sensitive issue is one that I have also touched on before. 2021 is for me a cool summer vintage that, tasted en primeur, is open and aromatically expressive, with lots of energy and freshness, low alcohol, relatively moderate extraction and minimal to low influence of wood.

As such, it might well be argued that it is a vintage whose characteristics are both increasingly rare (in the context of accelerating climate change) and more likely to please the archetypal (perhaps stereotypical) European palate than its new world counterpart.

This seems to be borne out, at least in part, by the critical appreciation that the vintage has received. Continental European based critics have typically been much more fulsome in their praise and more generous in their rating of the vintage overall and individual wines within it than those whose en primeur campaign started with a trip to the airport.

There is no judgement intended here. My comment is the simple statement of an empirical impression (indeed, I am sure, an empirical fact). But it begs, of course, a series of fascinating questions which it might well be interesting to return to in future pieces. To what extent are the tastes of critics and commentators the product of place- or continent-based conventions? How are such conventions formed, reproduced and transformed? Have the tastes of continental European based critics and commentators diverged from their typically Anglophone counterparts in recent decades? Do they continue to diverge today in ways that might help explain the divergence in critical acclaim for the 2021 vintage (its ‘marmite’ character)? Where (post-Brexit) should we place British-based critics and commentators in all of this? More generally, is this a question of language or culture (or, indeed, as some would have it, a question of objectivity versus subjectivity)?

These are certainly questions for another occasion. But what they do perhaps serve to underscore is that in a world in which there is no longer a single globally authoritative critic (a Robert Parker or equivalent), the consumer needs to seek out the guidance of those whose sense of taste is closest to her own. Arguably, the consumer’s choice as to whom to follow becomes at least as important as the critic’s view as to what is excellent, good, bad or indifferent. And that may be no bad thing, not least as it helps to puncture the (convenient) fiction that questions of taste are (or ever can be) objective.

Which appellations  have excelled – and why?

As I hope is already clear, the heterogeneity of the 2021 vintage is not neatly partitioned between appellations. As a consequence, no single appellation stands out above the rest. There are great wines and significant disappointments to be found in each of the leading appellations of the right and left bank.

Which properties have excelled?

See below my list of the wines of the vintage by appellation and the link to my complete tasting notes for each.

What do we learn about climate change and the capacity to cope with it from this vintage?

We need to be very careful here. Any climate scientist will immediately stress that there is very little (in fact, virtually nothing) that one can learn about climate change (a long-term phenomenon) from a consideration of specific meteorological conditions (such as the weather during a single vintage).

However, the 2021 vintage and the meteorological excesses out of which it was born, do at least remind us of a couple of crucial climate change truisms, each of which has major implications for this vintage and beyond.

The first is that although we tend to think of climate change as global warming, it is also – and, perhaps in the short to medium-term, more significantly – linked to climatic destabilisation or ‘climate weirding’ (what the French call dérèglement climatique). Sustained and (still) accelerating climate change produces, above all else, a higher propensity for meteorological excess. The 2021 growing season is a chastening reminder, were one needed, of that excess and the compound damages it is capable of inflicting.

Second, and perhaps more alarmingly still, the 2021 growing season is perhaps also a no less powerful reminder that, thus far at least, we have been relatively lucky. For however extreme and however challenging the meteorological conditions that Bordeaux’s wine-growers endured, a serendipitous combination of their vigilance and skill, on the one hand, combined with just enough of an Indian Summer to allow for late ripening, on the other, saved the vintage from complete catastrophe.

Something equivalent happened in 2018 in which the near monsoon conditions of the spring were almost perfectly compensated by the extreme heat of the long summer that followed. As I said at the time, “the only way that the spring and early summer of 2018 could turn out well was if it were followed by such an exceptional and long late summer; and, conversely, the only way that a summer like 2018 could have turned out well was for it to be preceded by a monsoon spring”. Twice in the last four vintages, then, an unlikely and unexpected triumph has been clutched from the jaws of defeat.

One hates to think it and one hates to write it. But, statistically, and in a context of accelerating climate change, there is a time when one’s luck starts to run out.

That raises an interesting and a final point. For 2021 is also unusual, in the context of recent – and almost certainly, future – vintages in being the product of a cool summer. One can like or loath that (the ‘marmite’ factor). But the point is that vintages with this degree of natural freshness combined with relatively low levels of alcohol are likely to be become rarer and rarer. And if that is true, I suspect that our affection for this vintage is likely to grow with time.

What is a fair price for these wines? And is there a demand for these wines at that price?

This, too, is a sensitive and difficult set of issues on which a great deal of ink has already been spilled – some it my own.

Bordeaux has been widely criticised in the Anglophone press for not having reduced its release prices further (indeed, in many cases, for not having reduced its release prices at all) in a vintage that is clearly not as strong as either of its immediate two (many of the critics would say three) predecessors.

It is not my task nor my aim to defend Bordeaux’s release pricing strategies; that is for others, if they wish to do so. But there is, to me at least, nothing terribly surprising either about these release prices nor that they have been attacked in this way. Let me try to explain why.

The relevant context here, it strikes me, is provided by the 2019 en primeur campaign. In the immediate wake of the initial Covid episode, the exceptional 2019 vintage was released at a very significant discount relative to the price trajectory of its predecessors (most notably, of course, 2018). Though there were, even then, critical voices arguing forcefully either that no en primeur campaign should take place or that prices should fall much lower, the campaign still proved a massive success.

Yet, despite that success, its effect was to limit the potential for release price inflation in 2020. The vintage, though also widely seen as excellent, was also deemed marginally less strong and release prices were, accordingly, kept in check.

In reality, the 2019 recalibration in prices had produced an unintended step-level reduction in en primeur pricing (breaking the pre-established trend).

Rightly or wrongly, Bordeaux is now of the view that the 2019s were overly discounted (as, in effect, were the 2020s released in their shadow). It is not surprising, then, that when it came to a vintage produced in significantly smaller volumes, it has been reluctant to accept the need for further price reductions. The 2021 release prices are a simple reflection of that fact.

But this is also reinforced by a further rather intriguing factor which has thus far passed largely without notice. Fascinatingly, even those commentators most critical of the vintage in general terms have given, for the most part (and with the partial exception of Neal Martin), surprisingly high scores to the majority of the (100 to 150) labels that typically make up an en primeur campaign.

This somewhat mixed messaging is both confusing to the consumer and hardly a strong incentive for the substantial reductions in release prices called for in some quarters (and probably necessary to produce a campaign of the size even of that for the 2020 vintage).

That brings us to perhaps the key point. Arguably, further reductions in release prices would not have prompted greater sales. There are two factors at work here.

First, the best-selling wines of the vintage were certainly not those that offered the greatest reduction in their release price, but typically those with an established track-record and reputation for increasing in value post-release (Carmes Haut-Brion and Calon-Ségur are good examples).

Second, and however counter-intuitive it might at first seem, it is now clear that demand for the vintage to date has turned out to be remarkably price-insensitive. It appears that the generally negative critical mood music surrounding the vintage (notwithstanding some high individual scores) significantly depressed potential demand (with consumers, presumably, deciding to pass on the entire vintage). If that is correct, it seems unlikely that a 10% reduction in, say, sterling-equivalent release prices would have done much to bolster demand. And, even had it done so, it is unlikely that it would have restored demand to the level of the 2020 campaign, let along to that of 2019.

Put differently, 2021 was always going to prove a difficult sell. It was never likely to be, as Liv-ex has suggested, an opportunity to re-energise the en primeur market.

Its market entry was not aided by the availability of well-priced 2019s (and the way in which 2019 has become a benchmark for prices in the post-Covid period, effecting the secondary market of other recent vintages too).

It was also not aided by the declining purchasing power of sterling and by steadily rising inflation. And that final factor has also served to hold up release prices. It might also help to explain the (typical) reduction in the proportion of the wine released to the market. Given all of these factors, the campaign has perhaps proved more successful in the end than one might have imagined.

Wines of the vintage

  • l’Extravagant de Doisy-Daëne (97-99)
  • de Fargues (97-99)
  • Lafleur (97-99)



Wine of the appellation

  • La Lagune (91-93+)


Wine of the appellation

  • Margaux (96-98)

Truly great:

  • Brane Cantenac (93-95+)
  • Cantenac Brown (93-95)
  • Durfort-Vivens (95-97)
  • Issan (93-95+)
  • Palmer (95-97+)
  • Rauzan-Ségla (95-97)


Wine of the appellation:

  • Lafite Rothschild (96-98)

Truly great:

  • Duhart-Milon (92-94+)
  • Grand-Puy Lacoste (93-95)
  • Latour (94-96+)
  • Lynch Bages (94-96)
  • Mouton Rothschild (95-97)
  • Pichon Baron (94-96)
  • Pichon Comtesse de Lalande (94-96)

Pessac-Léognan (rouge)

 Wine of the appellation:

  • Les Carmes Haut-Brion (96-98)

Truly great:

  • Haut Bailly (93-95)
  • Haut-Brion (95-97)
  • Malartic-Lagravière (92-94+)
  • La Mission Haut-Brion (94-96)
  • Smith Haut-Lafitte (93-95)

Pessac-Léognan (blanc) & other blanc sec

Wines 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)

St Julien

Wine of the appellation:

  • Léoville Las Cases (96-98)

Truly great:

  • Beychevelle (94-96)
  • Ducru Beaucaillou (94-96)
  • Gruaud Larose (95-97+)
  • Léoville Barton (94-96)



Wine of the appellation:

  • Montrose (95-97)

Truly great:

  • Calon-Ségur (93-95)
  • Cos d’Estournel (94-96+)

Sauternes & Barsac

Wines of the vintage:

  • l’Extravagant de Doisy-Daëne (97-99)
  • de Fargues (97-99)

Truly great:

  • Rayne Vigneau (95-97)
  • Sigalas Rabaud (95-97+)
  • Suduiraut (96-98)



Wine of the appellation:

  • Lafleur (97-99)

Truly great:

  • La Conseillante (94-96)
  • L’Eglise Clinet (95-97)
  • La Fleur-Pétrus (94-96+)
  • Hosanna (93-95+)
  • Petrus (96-98)
  • Le Pin (95-97+)
  • Vieux Chateau Certan (95-97+)

St Emilion

Best of the appellation:

  • Ausone (96-98+)

Truly great:

  • Angélus (94-96+)
  • Beau-Sejour Bécot (94-96)
  • Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarrosse (93-95)
  • Bélair-Monange (95-97)
  • Canon (94-96)
  • Canon La Gaffelière (93-95)
  • Cheval Blanc (96-98)
  • Croix de Labrie (95-97)
  • Figeac (95-97)
  • La Gaffelière (94-96+)
  • L’If (95-97)
  • Laroque (93-95)
  • La Mondotte (94-96)
  • Pavie (94-96+)
  • Rocheyron (93-95)
  • Tertre Roteboeuf (93-95)
  • Troplong Mondot (95-97)
  • Valandraud (94-96).

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