Wine Futures: En Primeur 2021
After all the challenges faced in the two years prior, this year critics and trade professionals finally returned to Bordeaux to evaluate wine futures after a long absence in what felt like a victorious return to normality. Attending events that showcased the wines after the inaugural six months of development allowed us to get a feeling for the 2021 vintage and how the growing season, vinification, blending and resulting wines are faring.
Speaking to the winemakers, it seemed that the year was characterized by tension and ceaseless vigilance on account of the weather. Though the vintages that preceded it had been more reasonable, the oftentimes chaotic weather shifts of 2021 proved a real challenge to be met by producers of all viticultural approaches.
Winter saw abundant rainfall, refreshing the ground for the new growing cycle, with February seeing drier weather, ideal for soil preparation. An earlier and swift bud break in March led into a cold spring, with temperatures hitting as low as 23℉ in some areas and brutal frosts causing significant damage, with only those with elevated topography or good proximity to the Gironde being spared. Flowering during May and June brought cool weather and sporadic showers, resulting in prolific growth and the need for leaf thinning from the get-go.
As summer came around, the vines were in need of constant attention as earlier showers had brought about downy mildew, which in many cases threatened Merlot most severely. However, temperatures rose, bringing fruit into full color in July, and the onset of hot, dry weather during August and September encouraged much needed ripening and development, solidifying great potential for wine futures. This extraordinary coda to the season encouraged aromatic intensity as well as a distinct lusciousness to the key varietals that will define the vintage with freshness, setting the groundwork for good fruit development. Finally, October’s warmth, dryness and wind staved off the threat of botrytis and allowed for excellent phenolic ripeness during picking.
As has been widely reported throughout mainstream media, the challenges faced by producers created by climate change are now irrefutable, and years like 2021 have been met with solutions ranging from holistic, ground-up techniques to those that seem almost exorbitant.
Many producers have leaned wholeheartedly on minimal intervention and natural methods that promote more ecologically minded wine futures. Pauillac’s Château Pontet-Canet has eschewed the usage of machinery altogether, relying on traditional horse-drawn agriculture, biodynamic practices and expert vineyard management. Château Cheval Blanc in Saint-Émilion has gone as far as to sacrifice valuable vineyard space over to vegetation cover and tree planting in the place of ploughing. Promoting biological and microbial activity works harmoniously with the vines to stimulate growth and a protective ecosystem. These analog and time-tested methods have seen negligible reductions in yield and demonstrably complex and fresh wines as a result.
By contrast to these techniques, more drastic measures such as bougies, mobile frost fans and even helicopters have been common occurrences to the Bordeaux region, providing highly effective but costly solutions to frost, preserving good yields and maintaining excellent quality fruit development later down the line.
Though historic vintages show incredible prowess today, the modern world of winemaking is a hugely exciting place. Centuries of experience have refined processes, and modern technology, as well as a better understanding of terroir, have put twenty-first century vintages on track to be some of the greatest wine futures the world will ever see.
Though manual hand selection remains the most tried and tested method, today’s winemakers have the added benefit of technology such as optical sorting machines, which use cameras and/or lasers to determine the grapes’ quality. More recently, density sorting has also become a popular choice, where grapes are submerged in a sugar solution and ripe fruit with the desired sweetness sink to the bottom.
As wider adoption of these techniques becomes more prominent, the trend towards fresher, cleaner wines becomes a more achievable outcome for many.
On the Right Bank, many producers have increased their percentage of Cabernet Franc in the blends on account of its excellent phenolic ripeness and harmonious partnership with Merlot. This brings not only complex red fruit and bramble notes, but also robustness and acidity that will provide an excellent backbone for aging and wine futures. Château Angelus, which considers the grape quintessential to the DNA of its wines, has included 60% Cabernet Franc in their Grand Vin which shows complexity and spice even at this early stage of development.
On the Left Bank, yields have suffered in some cases, although not to devastating levels. The winemakers are outwardly happy with the outcome and the wines are remarkably fresh and approachable already and will likely be ready to drink sooner. With fine tannins and purity of fruit, they are still capable of aging for many decades to come with careful cellaring. There is also a slightly lower alcohol level around 13%, making these wines more affable in their youth.
Through the incredible efforts of entire teams of people that see the process from growing to finished wines, 2021 has been an impressive year for sure. Tempestuous conditions have pushed producers to really engage with the terroir, but the outcome shows that proactive viticulture and diligence have turned what would otherwise be a challenging year into one of real character, and one that tells a story.
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