Day One - A broad view of the region & Right Bank
As the team boarded the flight last month to Bordeaux, it was with both extreme excitement and a little apprehension. Excitement to once again be back in the region, tasting with the châteaux and hearing directly from the winemakers themselves how they fared, but with early reports of a nightmare growing season, we weren’t entirely sure what to expect.
Monday started early, with our first stop at négociant Ballande & Méneret winehouse in the Médoc, to taste a broad range (over 150 wines!) from across the region and get a good understanding of this vintage. Excited to get stuck in, we were surprised with what we found and realised that our slight apprehension was not warranted at all.
Considering everything that nature threw at them, winemakers blessed with enviable terroir and armed with top winemaking techniques stand clearly above the rest. Those who have got it right, have made classically styled, elegant wines with moderate alcohols, something rarely seen in the last decade or two. As Antonio Galloni states, “the best wines offer a striking combination of old-school classicism with modern-day precision.”
The Right Bank shows the most heterogeneity in terms of quality and will require careful consideration to unearth the jewels in this tricky vintage.
We broke for lunch where we were treated to delicious platters of jambon, mountains of fromage and brownies and macarons we couldn’t get enough of! After a cleansing glass of champagne we moved to the left-hand side of the room to tackle the Left Bank wines.
There is seemingly greater consistency on the Left Bank with the ever-reliable St-Julien and Pauillac faring better than some of their neighbouring communes.
Tasting notes written, we set off to Bordeaux city centre to toast the new vintage over dinner (along with a very tasty bottle of ’98 Chateau d’Armailhac) whilst Gregory, Rosti and Alex made their way to Smith Haut-Laffite for an exclusive tour and tasting of their primeurs.
Day Two - The Left Bank
Tuesday was another early start as we headed to Saint-Estéphe, first stop – Montrose who have made an impressive wine this year, fruit driven but with purity and freshness. Next up, the powerhouses of Mouton Rothschild to taste their stable, followed by Lafite Rothschild along with the other châteaux within their collections.
It may come as no surprise to many that Lafite Rothschild and Mouton Rothschild have both produced wines of excellent quality, and possible contenders of the vintage. While they may not possess the exuberance and opulence of more recent vintages, they are characterised by a freshness and litheness, perhaps even an element of stoicism, not often seen in the 21st century.
While the second wines of both Châteaux have a very strong following, what may come as a surprise to many is the quality of the supposedly lesser wines in both Rothschild stables; d’Armailhac and Clerc Milon are both terrific and so too is the Pastourelle de Clerc Milon, punching well above its price tag.
Likewise, while Lafite and Carruades were both exemplary, demonstrating great typicity, so too was Duhart Milon, a clear winner, with the second wine Moulin de Duhart also demonstrating good potential.
Onto Château Margaux, who have undoubtedly made one of the wines of the vintage in both colours. The Grand Vin possesses the same level of phenolics as 2019 with very ripe tannins and unexpected levels of concentration, with a moderate alcohol level of 13.1%. During our visit, when pressed on which vintage the 2021 most resembles, the Château humbly likened it to the 1996 and 1986 vintage.
Next on our tour of the Left Bank was Château Beychevelle who have also been highly successful. Having tasted their grand vin the previous day, we were looking forward to trying this one again, as it was a favourite amongst the team. We weren’t disappointed. They were so bold to present the 2021 side by side with the 2020, both were excellent.
We finished the day at the picturesque Château Pichon Comtesse Lalande for the Pauillac and Haut Medoc UGC tasting and after a compulsory picture in front of the stunning Château we got stuck in tasting the selection – another strong performance with notable mentions to Pichon Baron, Lynch Bages, Potensac, Lafon-Rochet, Meyney, Phelan Segur, Canon, Berliquet, La Gaffeliere and Tour Saint Christophe to name but a few.
Day Three - St Emilion
The whirlwind tour continued on Wednesday, starting with a Cru Wine favourite, Château Pavie. With their high sloping vineyards on the coveted limestone plateau, Olivier Gailly noted that they were unaffected by frost and avoided any excessive water and disease pressure. In fact they had to commit to rigorous green harvesting, pruning and sorting thanks to yields above the average of the last three years. The winemaking team held out until 14th October to pick their fruit, allowing the grapes to reach full maturity in the late autumn sunshine. We found the wine full of freshness and energy, with a lovely balance and structure, and certainly a highlight of the right banks tasted so far.
Guillaume Thienpont at Vieux Château Certain had a similar experience, noting that the old vines were completely unaffected by frosts, thanks to their location high up on the plateau, where the cold air falls down the slope away from their plots. The 2021 VCC is an extraordinary effort, round supple and well-structured with finesse and perfume, it stood out as one of the wines of the right bank.
Onto one of our favourite visits of the trip, Château Ausone. Situated on arguably the greatest terroir in St Emilion, and a haunting wine of unparalleled purity, balance, concentration and length. Chapelle d’Ausone was also a noteworthy wine. Usually made up of circa 50% Merlot, the 2021 is comprised of a highly unusual blend of 75% Cabernet Franc and the remainder Cabernet Sauvignon, containing some declassified fruit from the Grand Vin. Similarly, the Vaulithier owned La Clotte is an excellent, budget friendly stable mate.
As Rosti and Alex headed to the airport, Gregory made his way to Angélus to catch up with Bong Grelat-Tram and enjoy dinner at their partner restaurant. Despite harvesting “magnificent grapes” this was at the cost of a drastic selection process leading to a significant drop in production volume. This is also the first grand vin with 60% Cabernet Franc in the history of Angélus.
With another 50+ wines tasted it was time to head home and gather our thoughts and tasting notes and reflect on a vintage which, has defied the odds and produced some gems for your cellar.
Hunting for gems
The Right Bank was largely inconsistent, however class prevailed. Merlot is highly susceptible to mildew which wreaked havoc in June and July thanks to the large amounts of rain in these months. Spring frosts caused further damage, however after speaking to several winemakers, it is clear that not everyone was affected by these.
For the most part, the Left Bank was much less affected by frost in contrast, with communes situated next to the Gironde faring the best. However, disease pressure was high and mildew decimated many biodynamic Châteaux, most notably Château Margaux, who lost five hectares each of white and red to the rot. In general Saint Julien appears to be one of the most consistent, with a host of terrific wines made by Leoville Barton, Langoa Barton and Clos du Marquis, while Pauillac and Saint Estephe also showed good consistency.
As with all things, luck plays a part too, picking dates were again crucial, most notably for Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, those that held off picking in early October despite forecasts of heavy rain that failed, were rewarded with surprisingly clement weather, allowing optimal maturation in the berries.
To summarise, excellent wines were made on both banks, mostly by those gifted with terroir, but also by those who put in the work in the vineyard throughout the growing season, and those who took risks and were able to make quick decisions reacting to the unpredictable conditions. Stylistically, many of the wines have more in common with vintages from the 80s and 90s, than they do with modern day vintages, and while this vintage lacks consistency there are some excellent, classically styled wines to be found, if you know where to look.