Northern Rhône 2021: Buyer’s Report

By Catherine Jaën MW (née Petrie) | Rhône Buyer
March 2023

It’s a paradoxical vintage: the whites are truly wonderful, but drastically restricted in volume. And the reds may be written off as a lesser vintage next to the warm and powerful 2018/19/20s. However, having tasted widely across the region, I can honestly say this is the most enjoyable vintage I’ve encountered at this early stage.

My personal preference is for red-fruited Syrah with aromatic precision and supple tannins, rather than the powerful, black-fruited, grippy wines, the likes of which we have become accustomed to in recent years. 2021 turns out to be just my kind of vintage in the Northern Rhône.

2021 in the vineyard

It sounded like the most hellish year in the vineyards. An April frost took chunks out of yields everywhere from Côte-Rôtie down to St-Péray. A wet and overcast summer impeded ripening and fanned the fires of mildew. Thankfully, a warm and sunny September arrived to give the growers something to smile about.

Pierre Burgaud of Domaine Bernard Burgaud in Côte-Rôtie said that even though 2021 was the toughest vintage he’s done in the vineyard, he’d take it every year for the rest of his career, because the resulting wine is so wonderful.

2021 in the bottle

Before tasting I expected to find difficult wines that seemed meagre in comparison to recent years. But I came away appreciating it for what it really is: a refreshing, elegantly restrained vintage, encapsulated so well by the French word ‘buvabilité’ (drinkability - but somehow more than that).

Most growers agreed the wines would likely start to drink earlier than recent vintages, and probably peak earlier too. That is, the drinking windows for 2021s are not as extraordinarily long as for the 2018/19/20s. But let me persuade you this does not make them less worthy of your attention. Indeed, don’t we need something delicious and approachable to drink before the bigger, bolder recent years come around?

Common traits I found throughout the region were cooler alcohols (mostly around 12-13.5%), fine-grained tannins, crunchy red fruit, and admirable restraint in the use of new oak.

The wines have a slender frame and an attractively fresh bite to them. With echoes of vintages from the 1990s - and 2016 in particular - as numerous growers cited, it’s all stacking up to be a vintage I want in my cellar.

As in Burgundy it may well be the last of the cool, classical vintages we ever see.

What a welcome change of pace 2021 is. A respite in the cool shade.