Our Bordeaux Buyer’s Vintage Report

By Beth Pearce MW | Buyer
May 2022

I’ve just got back from six days tasting in Bordeaux, and despite visiting over 45 chateaux and tasting well over one hundred wines, there’s no easy soundbite to encapsulate the year.


Described as a ‘determination vintage’, a ‘vintage of decisions’, a ‘victorious vintage’, and a ‘capricious but serious vintage’, there was a sense of almost euphoric pride amongst the winemakers when presenting their 2021s.

Growers were thrown all manner of viticultural challenges. But their understanding of their individual terroirs, combined with world-leading winemaking techniques, has resulted in some spectacular wines, full of tension, purity and freshness. There’s balance and poise in the best wines, with freshness, moderate alcohol, and enough ripe tannin structure to age gracefully.

That’s not to downplay the severity of some of the vintage conditions. A warm start to the year, followed by devastating frost, intense disease risk, and a cool, cloudy summer all threatened the 2021 harvest. Inaccurate weather predictions at the end of September tested vignerons’ mettle when it came to picking dates, something we saw first hand when the Lay & Wheeler team visited Bordeaux to see the grapes coming in. But the best terroirs and meticulous winemakers have made fantastic, joyfull wines that suit the modern appetite for fresh, elegant, classically bordelais wines.

Changes to the climate have increased extreme weather events, often occurring out of sequence, and in 2021 Bordeaux ran the gamut. A warm February and March kick-started bud break, not unlike 2020, but saw April temperatures plummet, resulting in devastating frost. Sauternes suffered greatly, with some estates reporting almost an entire crop loss. The right bank also saw havoc, and the breezes at altitude proved a saving grace for many properties. Proximity to the river on the left bank yet again determined the impact of spring frosts.

The following few weeks saw a return to what could be considered normal, but subsequently, there was rain, increasing the risk of mildew and necessitating meticulous management and timing.

The long, cool growing season that continued led to gradual ripening, and this, along with a lack of hydric stress, resulted in large berries retaining plenty of acidity. Merlot took a long time to ripen, with veraison taking up to a month, and so the wines are elegant, pure and full of crunchy red fruit.

A late spell of warm weather and sun allowed Cabernet growers an extra few weeks. There is more Cabernet in blends than ever before, testament to its quality. Larrivet Haut-Brion only used Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc in 2021, and Ducru-Beaucaillou used their highest proportion at 98%. The results in the best of the Cabernet-based wines are totally delicious. They’re ripe, deeply-flavoured, with a bright, refreshing lift on the finish.

Away from the vineyards, Bordeaux has been experiencing something of an architectural revolution, with state-of-the-art wineries springing up since the last en primeur tasting for the 2018s. These new chais give winemakers greater control, from receiving the grapes all the way to bottling. This allows them to vinify plot by plot, meticulously blend, and ultimately express the terroir of their sites better than ever before. This flexibility has never been more useful than in 2021 when the timing of harvest and methods of extraction were so crucial.

2021 has shown again why terroir is so key to quality in Bordeaux. Those with great terroirs have crafted delicious, impressive, moreish wines. But there is a larger gap in quality between the first and second wines in many cases, compared to previous years, notwithstanding some excellent examples. Quality is heterogeneous in the lesser terroirs, and subsequently we have worked hard to identify those wines that still offer incredible value and quality in 2021.

On the right bank, Pomerol has produced some excellent wines with characteristic stoniness and power reined in by the fresh acidity. St-Emilion seems mid-renaissance, with the 2021 vintage suiting those properties looking for greater freshness and elegance in their wines. The vast majority of wines came in at 13.5% or less, and the best had perfume, raspberry-like acidity and salinity-creating freshness. We’re increasingly excited about the direction of our favourite estates in St-Emilion, however in 2021 some of the wines in less desirable spots lacked the mid-palate concentration and felt out of balance.

On the left bank it was easy to find the unique characteristics of each commune, and I found my favourites in St-Julien and St-Estephe. The best wines from St-Julien had brilliant concentration of blackcurrant fruit, framed by an elegant structure of carefully managed tannins, bright acidity with moderate alcohol and body. The slightly chewier tannins in St-Estephe suited the appetising, savoury style of the vintage, and many properties found that their advantageous locations avoided the frosts that devastated vineyards further south. Many estates on the left bank used much more Cabernet Sauvignon than usual in their blends, and this gave the wines a lovely, lifted, refreshing herbal note, none more so than in the finest wines from Margaux, which were truly ethereal. Pauillac has produced some aristocratic wines with bold black fruit, graphite and liquorice with incredible purity and tension.

The best red wines in Graves were very impressive. Elegant and classic, they felt complete and effortless. Refreshing and tightly knit at the moment, these will be fantastic wines as they develop.

The whites from great estates across the region were brilliant. Usually, the picking date for white wines is determined by the acidity, the harvest beginning when the acidity levels begin to drop. In the cool, cloudy Summer of 2021, the grapes were able to stay on the vine longer, and the result is some of the most exhilarating, succulent, mouth-watering white Bordeaux in recent memory. Whites from as far north as St-Estephe, all the way to Graves, are exuberant and broad with fleshy ripe, juicy fruit character, counterbalanced by a seam of electric, zingy acidity and a seemingly unending finish. Their lip-smacking texture will only improve before most are bottled in the Summer. In a year where other classic white wine regions in France were also heavily damaged by frost, and yields are incredibly low, white Bordeaux looks like more and more of a great buy.

It is hard to compare 2021 to other vintages. It is no doubt a departure from the style of the previous three riper years. But the clear advantages in technique in the vineyard and winery take 2021 equally far from lighter years like 2017 in character. Some winemakers saw similarities to 2014 in their technical analysis, but the fruit in 2021 has an altogether more pleasant softness and purity. Great terroirs managed by great teams making decisions boldly and quickly have resulted in some lovely wines, and winemaking techniques that harnessed the style of the vintage mean that these fresh and elegant wines will provide masses of pleasure in the decades to come.

Bordeaux remains inimitable, with incredible value, and with quality attainable at all levels. In the context of the small 2021 vintage across France, it’s a year that is accessible and attainable for drinkers and collectors alike - a beautiful thing.

We invite you to find out more in a live online discussion with Beth and Robbie Toothill, Head of Wine on 26 May - details here.