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From 25 to 28 April 2022, for the first time since the pandemic restrictions, the Bordeaux Vintage Week – la Semaine des Primeurs – took place in its usual format – with international wine professionals and big tastings. Living in Bordeaux, I could not miss the opportunity to discover the result of work of winemakers during the difficult 2021 vintage. This article is going to focus on its characteristics, with the tasting notes, which I will gradually add in the following parts.
Before moving on to an analysis of the climatic conditions for 2021, let us recall what is needed for a great vintage for red wines of Bordeaux:
- Warm, dry weather during the flowering and fruit set – essential for even flower formation followed by successful pollination, which will ensure the necessary volume of the crop, harmonious berry formation and even berry ripening. Rainy, cloudy weather will make flower formation and pollination difficult. It will also shorten the ripening period and reduce the volume of the grapes, and the formation of berries will start later and will be slower.
- Some water stress in July before berry ripening – véraison – is necessary to stop the growth of the vine, which will then concentrate itself on fruit ripening rather than increasing the foliage.
- Sunny weather with moderate precipitation – is needed for proper, uniform ripening of berries – excessive moisture will increase the volume of juice, diluting the bouquet of the future wine, while an important lack of moisture (water stress) will stop photosynthesis, which in turn will stop the accumulation of sugar in the grapes
- Warm sunny weather before and during the harvest, with little rainfall and fresh nights, will allow the grapes to reach optimum ripeness without the risk of grey rot and a dilution of the bouquet (if it rains) or a decreasing of acidity (if temperatures at night are not low enough)
What 2021 Bordeaux vintage was like
The first feature is a rather unusual weather in winter. December 2020 and January 2021 were marked by heavy rainfall and changing of temperature, alternating warm and cold periods. But average temperatures remained close to their standard value. Temperatures in February, on the other hand, were almost the highest of the last 50 years. The beginning and end of March were also very warm for an early spring, but the middle of the month was cooler, balancing the temperature averages.
However, following prolonged periods of unusual heat, the soil warmed up sufficiently for the bud break to appear on the vines by the end of March, and for blossoms – in early April, which was also marked by high temperatures. The next 10 days were colder than usual, and on 7-8 April frost hit the Bordeaux vineyard, affecting all vintages. Before the next frost in early May, the weather was warm and dry from April 25th. Vine accelerated its growth during the warming period and slowed it during the frost.
Conditions in May and June – heavy rains alternating with periods of heat – caused vineyard diseases, especially mildew, almost everywhere in Bordeaux.
June began with a period of dryness and heat, which allowed flowering and berries formation in favourable conditions. However, subsequent episodes of thunderstorms and hail with hot and humid weather caused an outbreak of mildew on vines. In some parts of the region, the level of cumulated precipitations in June was close to the two-month norm, and some areas was devastated by hail. Therefore, by the end of the month, depending on the location in the region, the vines were at different stages of their cycle – on some of them bunches just started to form and on some they were already clearly visible.
Thus, thanks to favourable conditions the conditions – warm weather without excessive rainfall – for flowering in vintage 2021 were successful. But after fruit set, because of thunderstorms the weather was hot and humid, which caused development of vine diseases and forced winemakers to apply treatment on vines more frequently.
July was not the hottest summer month as it usually is. Apart from the first sunny days and the third week of the month, July was cool and humid, with almost daily rains. As a result, average monthly temperatures were 1-2 degrees below normal and the amount of sunshine was 10-15% lower than average value. Under such conditions, mildew continued to develop on bunches and not just on leaves.
In addition, due to the lack of water stress, the vines continued to grow and the berries continued to cumulate juice instead of entering the first stage of ripening – véraison, or color change. Ripening began by mid-August, in cool but already drier conditions.
Unlike three previous vintages (2018, 2019,2020), there was no extreme heat in summer of 2021, on the contrary, the average temperatures of July and August were below their average values. Therefore, the technical maturity of the grapes (sugar content) was reaching slowly, and by the end of August the berries still possessed fairly high malic acid content, and consequently a high level of acidity.
Thus, the conditions to stop the vine growth in the beginning of ripening and slight water stress were not satisfied for the red varieties in 2021. Due to frequent rainfall and cool weather, the vines continued to grow, increasing size of berries, which was also above average.
The end of August, warm but not hot, dry and sunny, accelerated the ripening of the grapes and the decreasing of acidity, but the sugar accumulation was still slow.
The white grape varieties began harvesting in late August (Sauvignon Blanc) and continued until the third week of September (Semillon).
September, on the other hand, was the warmest since 2000, under the influence of the anticyclone and thick clouds which maintained night-time temperatures above normal. Under such conditions Merlot continued to ripen, at first quite rapidly, then more slowly, failing to achieve the desired level of anthocyanins (colouring agents) by the period of harvest. Merlot’s sugar content also remained below normal, and acidity was one of the highest of the last 10 years. Harvesting of Merlot began in late September and ended in early October, just before to the rainy period, as winemakers were worried about a possible deterioration of grapes health due to their thin skins and the development of grey rot. As a result, the grapes of Merlot did not reach their optimum level of maturity.
Therefore, for Merlot, the conditions of dry, warm weather at the end of the season and at harvest time were not satisfied. July was rainy, which favoured the swelling of the grapes, and the generally cool summer 2021 slowed down their ripening. In addition, because of autumn rains prior to harvest, the Merlot was harvested earlier than it could reach its optimum ripeness. So, the last vintage of Merlot was not particularly favourable.
For Cabernet Sauvignon the 2021 vintage was different. As this variety has a thicker skin and requires a longer ripening period, it could benefit better conditions (dry, sunny late-season ripening and harvesting period) in October 2021, the sunniest since 1991 – with warm days, cool nights and no excessive rainfall. The profile of the Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 was also quite different from last vintages – with less sugar content (hence lower alcohol levels) and higher acidity.
Thus, the Cabernet Sauvignon enjoyed more favourable conditions than the Merlot, and therefore the 2021 vintage was globally more successful for this variety. However, due to the heterogeneity of the terroir, not all Bordeaux sites achieved the same results.
For its red varieties, the 2021 vintage has the following characteristics:
- Larger berry size than the average of the last 5 years
- Lower sugar content
- Higher acidity
Sweet wines of Sauternes
For sweet wines of Sauternes the 2021 vintage was even more difficult as the vines of this appellation were affected by frosts In April, then heavy rains in May and hail in June. The relatively cool and dry late summer slowed the emergence and spread of noble rot. Rains in late September helped it to appear and develop on ripe grapes with high levels of acidity. The first warm, dry period in early October increased the concentration of aromatics of berries, but the subsequent selection was not enough fruitfull as the noble rot had just begun to develop on berries . Two following “tris” allowed to increase the volume of harvest and select berries at an optimum stage of noble rot development. Thus the sweet wines of Sauternes of 2021 vintage are exceptional, but rare, because of a low level oif crop.
The characteristics of the (future) wines of 2021
Dry white wines – a vintage with a cool summer usually mean an excellent vintage for white dry wines, as the white grapes have time to mature, retaining the acidity and bright aromatics of a variety. The 2021 vintage is not an exception from this rule. The Sauvignon Blanc harvest was exceptional, ripe and aromatic. For the second major Bordeaux white wine – Semillon – the 2021 vintage was more difficult, but on the most suitable terroir this variety also produced excellent results.
Sweet white wines – very small volume of crop, but exceptional quality. At the end of the season, which is longer for the grapes used to produce botrytized wines, the weather conditions were unfavourable, causing grey rot to develop. For this reason, winemaked needed to proceed to a very strict selection of berries,reducing the volume of crop. But the resulting wines surpassed all expectations – full-bodied, complex, with high acidity, necessary to obtain perfect balance in sweet wines.
Dry red wines – the 2021 vintage was more difficult for Merlot than to Cabernet Sauvignon due to cool summer, late halt of foliage growth (which slowed down its ripening) and rains before the harvest. This is why some of the Right Bank wines of 2021, based on Merlot, lack concentration, their tannins seem harsh and the acidity seems too high in comparison to the bouquet and body. On the other hand, Merlot 2021 has a lower and more integrated alcohol level, comparing to the last three vintages. The Cabernet Sauvignon, which ripens later, took advantage of warm temperatures in mid-autumn and completed its ripening. This variety, particularly those grown on gravelly soils, gave depth, concentration and great tannic structure to the wines in assemblage. Due to the fact that Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 is more successful than Merlot, winemakers have generally included Cabernet in greater proportions in the blend.
Vintage 2021 was difficult for winemakers due to the cool, wet summer, variable weather at the end of the season and important disease problems. However, it produced some very successful results on both banks of Bordeaux, particularly for the white wines. It is also important to note that the 2021 wines approached Bordeaux classics, with high acidity, medium body and medium level of alcohol, differently to the last three vintages wines after which we have become accustomed to the power and a full body in Bordeaux wines.