The recently bottled 2021 vintage from Bordeaux is “very demanding” remarked friend and (very) experienced taster Jürgen Steinke while tasting many recently bottled red wines. Barrel aging has filled out some palates, but many wines lack excitement. Whether one encounters underripe tannin, middling mid palates or short finishes, the wines often lack the caliber of the solid if not amazing 2017 vintage and the verve of the more interesting 2014.
The hype for the vintage when tasted from barrel was that it was a lower alcohol vintage, which is to say—about as far away as one could get from the more frequent hot, dry, and concentrated wines in 2022 and 2018 especially. These vintages reflect global warming, crafted from thick-skinned tiny grapes that pack punch – and high potential alcohol. But as the adage goes, “It’s all about balance.” And just as you can have imbalanced high alcohol wines, you can have boring, low alcohol (for the modern era) wines.
When I wrote about the barrel tastings for Club Oenologique in April last year, I recommended that buyers should look to the whites – a notion reinforced by a comprehensive tasting organized by the UGCB in Zurich, Switzerland earlier this month. The UGCB or Union de Grands Crus de Bordeaux covers many appellations with both red and dry and sweet white wines, permitting tasters to get a bird’s eye view of this latest bottled vintage. It is a pity that the selection in Zurich didn’t include the two Pichons of Pauillac, La Conseillante in Pomerol, Rauzan Segla in Margaux and Canon in Saint Emilion, among others. Readers should know that the First Growths and estates like Montrose, Cos d’Estournel, Calon Ségur and other top wines from the Right Bank such as Ausone, Cheval Blanc, Petrus, Lafleur, Trotanoy, Lafleur Petrus, Eglise Clinet and Vieux Château Certan are not part of the UGCB.
Nonetheless, many classified growths were included in Zurich, and the better reds tend to come from top terroirs. As the French say: Petit millésime, grand vin, which means that if you have a challenging vintage, go for the top wines. The better reds achieved a certain 1997-like charm by not trying too hard to be a Rolls Royce in a Honda vintage. As Peer Pfeiffer of Borie Manoux (which counts the venerable Château Batailley of Pauillac in its stable) said, “We accept the limits of the vintage; it’s 2021, ok?” Such frank remarks are more welcome. Château Batailley was indeed solid, but if you look at winesearcher.com and compare pricing between the truly excellent 2020 vintage of Château Batailley and the 2021, the 2021 is shown as having an average price of $60 while the 2020 is $55! As the saying goes, the choice is a no-brainer.
Having said all that, a few of the wines I tasted in Zurich transcended vintage character, and – as can happen in off vintages – proved to be remarkably good. If you buy any 2021 reds, do not miss the elegant and refined Château Brane Cantenac, an estate in Margaux that has been improving in recent years, and the performance in a challenging vintage proves just how good this wine can be. It is a classified growth, a second growth, so the pedigree is there. In Pauillac, I liked the suave expressions of Château Haut Batailley. In Saint Estèphe, Château Phélan Ségur was very good: smooth yet grippy tannin and a longer than average finish. Further south along the Left Bank, in Pessac-Léognan, the red Domaine de Chevalier doesn’t taste like it comes from the 2021 vintage, with much refinement and mid palate depth. Saint Julien proved to be the most consistent appellation of the vintage, which is not such a surprise, given its concentration of high level, second growth wines. So, you cannot miss with charming Château Branaire-Ducru, a solid Château Gruaud Larose and a flashy and appealing (if someone downbeat—which is the vintage character) Château Léoville Poyferré. The cherry cakes in 2021 however go to Château Léoville Barton, which displays unusual concentration, grace, and tannic power. Indeed, even the price is right: the 2021 Barton costs $79 on average according to winesearcher, as opposed to $117 for the 2020 and $104 (futures price) for the 2022. If your child or niece or nephew has a 2021 birthdate, why not?
On the Right Bank, I really like the cool and fresh expressions with concentration coming from both Château Clos Fourtet and Château Larcis Ducasse, both Saint-Émilion Premier Grands Crus Classés. Château Trottevieille, another Premier, also proved delicious, displaying much minty freshness. But in many cases, the vintage again suffers coming after the superior 2020. While visiting two excellent Saint-Émilion Grands Crus Classés this month, at Château de Ferrand and Château Laroque, the 2021s proved veritably boring next to the superlative 2020s. While the 2020 de Ferrand costs $35, the 2021 is listed at $40! At least the 2020 Laroque average price makes more sense: it costs on average about $40 compared to the 2021, at $32.
But 2021 should be mainly known as a vintage that reminds us how Bordeaux produces excellent dry whites. Even if I tasted about a dozen in Zurich, they were collectively better than the reds. Quite simply, I had more emotionally positive reactions to the dry whites showcased in Zurich than I did for the reds. For example, any wine lover would be silly not to purchase Château Bouscaut 2021 white, which has nuance, vivacity, depth, and tangy flavor, and worth the $50 price tag. And for only about $20, Château Chantegrive Cuvée Caroline of the Graves appellation is tangy and fun and would go with your fish and seafood like a charm, and is an ideal choice if on the wine list at a restaurant. The more expensive whites excelled, too. Château Pape Clément was in its usual ostentatious style, but with verve and grip. Domaine de Chevalier was also excellent, very wet stone in expression. Unsung heroes from Pessac-Léognan, like Château de France, crafted a smooth and vivacious dry white.
In short: Look to the whites when thinking of Bordeaux 2021.