2021 Bordeaux: L’Enfant Terrible


Left Bank: Saint-Estèphe | Pauillac | Saint-Julien | Margaux | Moulis and Listrac | Pessac-Léognan and Graves | Left Bank Satellites | Sauternes

Right Bank: Pomerol | Saint-Émilion | Right Bank Satellites

After three highly successful vintages, Bordeaux owners and winemakers were presented with a highly challenging growing season in 2021. En primeur tastings presaged a vintage with a high degree of variability. Extensive tastings from bottle confirm that initial first impression. Within that context, though, readers will find a wide range of compelling wines that merit attention.

The tendency is often to write off 2021, especially in our world today, where so often things are highly polarized into some version of either “great” or “terrible.” I don’t share the view that 2021 is a bad vintage; rather, I believe it is more accurate to say that 2021 is a highly inconsistent vintage. Yes, there are some wines, many perhaps, that don’t reach their customary levels of excellence, but those wines are far from bad. At the same time, a number of estates turned out seriously impressive 2021s.

How about Calon Ségur, for example? It’s magnificent. The same is true for Ducru-Beaucaillou, Lafite-Rothschild, Pichon-Comtesse, Rauzan-Ségla and a host of other wines on the Left Bank. To the south, in Pessac-Léognan, Les Carmes Haut-Brion is majestic. Over on the Right Bank, Vieux Château Certan, Cheval Blanc, Canon and Lafleur, among others, are compelling. There’s a lot to admire in the best dry whites, starting with the riveting Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc, Haut-Brion Blanc and Domaine de Chevalier Blanc. So far, I have only tasted a few Sauternes. Yields were decimated by brutal conditions, but the wines are tremendous.

The 2021s In Tasting

Almost without exception, the 2021 reds are lighter in body than the wines we have become accustomed to seeing in Bordeaux since the dawn of the 2000s. Alcohols are down about 1% from the recent norm in Bordeaux, while acids are on the higher side. The balance of structure, alcohol, acid and other technical measures is one that has not been seen in more than two decades. In many ways, 2021 can be summarized as a year in which classic Bordeaux weather of the past meets the technical know-how of today in both the vineyard and winery.

Last year, I wrote, “It is important to note that the 2021s are not finished wines. Many of them feel quite fragile at this stage. This is a vintage in which élevage (aging) is going to be especially critical in determining the final result.” That has turned out to be very much the case.

One of the biggest fallacies in wine is the idea that “wine is made in the vineyard.” I could not disagree more. Grapes for wine are made in the vineyard. Wines are made in the cellar. Two thousand twenty-one provides so many examples. Faced with a lighter vintage, winemakers, consultants and estate managers took one of two main directions. Some chose to follow the naturally lighter style of the year by shortening fermentations, dropping new oak, shortening time in barrel and generally employing a lighter hand. Others attempted to give the wines what they lacked, specifically texture, by bleeding the musts (saignée), using more new oak, stirring the lees in barrel, incorporating more press fractions and other techniques to build body. Where available, winemakers emphasized Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc over Merlot in the blends. There is no right or wrong. Results simply vary from wine to wine.

Overall, I feel the quality is higher and more consistent on the Left Bank over the Right Bank, even though at the very top, the best Right Bank wines can only be described as stellar. One of the significant advantages properties have on the Right Bank over those on the Left Bank is their smaller size, which makes vineyard operations, especially in hard years, easier to complete in a short period of time. That can be absolutely critical in some situations.

It is hardly surprising that the best wines are often those from the most renowned sites and top properties. The first part of that equation is self-explanatory. There is a reason certain estates and vineyards have become famous over the generations. Much of that comes down to their ability to consistently produce good or better wines across a wide range of growing seasons. The second piece is increasingly important in today’s world. And that comes down to financial resources. Two thousand twenty-one required a considerable amount of time, energy and work, which ultimately boils down to money. Where the weather was not extreme, estates that had the resources had a shot at making good wines. Properties that lacked financial strength were seriously handicapped. It’s as simple as that.

The striking cellars at Jonathan Maltus's new Le Dôme winery in Saint-Émilion.

The 2021 Growing Season

For readers who wish to revisit the travails of the 2021 growing season, I reproduce my recap from my article 2021 Bordeaux En Primeur: Back to Classicism, as these details have not changed over time.

The year got off to an early start. Warm, dry conditions in February and March led to a precocious budbreak at the beginning of April. Unfortunately, Bordeaux witnessed brutal frost on April 7 and 8, which reduced the crop and weakened the vines ahead of the challenging weather that arrived in the summer and then led to irregular ripening. Flowering was quite variable from property to property. An especially fine spell of weather at the end of May and early June helped many estates achieve very fast and even flowering. Results were less consistent for estates where flowering was later. Of course, this sort of timing can’t be planned with Mother Nature in advance. It is coincidental.

June brought heavy rains, about double the historical average, along with hail in some places. Mildew pressure mounted considerably in July as rain continued. Blocks that had struggled through frost were especially vulnerable. Vineyard managers responded by de-leafing more aggressively than most years to stave off rot. Merlot was more heavily affected by both coulure, rot and later by bloat than Cabernets and Petit Verdot. Potential yields were once again impacted.

Summer was overcast, with no excess heat to speak of. Vegetative growth continued later than what is considered optimal. During set, vineyard managers are looking for the vine to stop growing so that a natural water deficiency causes the vine to focus all its energy on the berries. In 2021, that happened, but later than ideal. Mid-veraison, a critical measuring point for estimating harvest dates, was both later than the 20-year average and more drawn out because of the lack of heat and sunlight, along with the lack of water stress.

Conditions improved markedly towards the end of the season. Cool and dry weather persisted throughout September and into October, accompanied by healthy diurnal shifts. By then, the Merlots were bloated, but there was enough time to allow the Cabernets to properly ripen and find greater equilibrium. In fact, some technical directors on the Left Bank reported dehydration in the Cabernets at the end of the season. Harvest for the Merlots was concentrated around the last week of September. Another critical moment arrived around October 2 and 3, when heavy rains were forecast. As it turned out, that rain never materialized. Not wanting to risk further losses, some properties picked early, but others waited for additional days for their Cabernets to fully ripen.

It was an especially challenging year for many châteaux that farm biodynamically, as readers will see in perusing the producer commentaries that accompany these reviews. Yields were decimated at many properties, including Haut-Bailly, Smith Haut Lafitte, Pichon Comtesse and many others. “We farm biodynamically out of a sense of conviction because we think it is the right thing to do,” Pauline Vauthier told me at Ausone, where the Vauthiers presented only the wines from Ausone and La Clotte because production at their other properties was down 80-90%. “Losing a large part of the harvest is very difficult,” she continued. “If we have another year like 2021, we might seriously reconsider some of our choices.” Interestingly, yields are more or less in line with historical norms at nearby Canon La Gaffelière and Stephan von Neipperg’s other properties. “We have been farming biodynamically for more than twenty years now, and I think over that time, the vines have simply become accustomed to our practices,” Neipperg elaborated.

Many producers take a more practical approach to farming sustainably but leave themselves options. “I have children and grandchildren,” Alexandre Thienpont explained at Vieux Château Certan. “I drink wine every day. I am not going to put anything in our vineyards that is harmful. At the same time, every now and then, a challenging growing season comes along. You have to take the bull by the horns and make the occasional choice that is not permitted in biodynamic farming. That’s exactly what we did.”

2021: The Wines of the Vintage

An even dozen. These are the 2021s I found the most compelling. Some of them offer tremendous relative value in the world of top-flight wine.

Calon Ségur


Cheval Blanc




Les Carmes Haut-Brion

Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande


Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc


Vieux Château Certan

2021 Bordeaux: Beyond the Obvious

I appreciate that sifting through a large report like this one is not something everyone has the time to do. The top properties and wines continue to garner most of the attention in Bordeaux. Looking past the most familiar names reveals a pretty long list of wines that are equally notable, many of them some of the very best values in the market. These are some of my favorites from 2021.

Au Champ de la Fenêtre



Clos Saint-Julien



La Dauphine


La Tour Carnet

Le Pin Beausoleil

de Pressac


I tasted most of the wines in this report in Bordeaux in December 2023. Ideally, I would have liked to publish this article a little sooner, but the delay in the arrival of additional samples to our office in New York pushed the timeline back. There are a few important properties that are missing from this report because of scheduling conflicts. I will endeavor to add reviews for those wines as soon as is practical.

© 2024, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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