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Bordeaux En Primeur 2021

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Bordeaux En Primeur 2021: Consciously Managing Complexity

Given the context of the vintage, the red wines of Bordeaux in 2021 are considerably better than you might expect them to be. Are they the best wines you will ever taste? No. Do they stand up to the magic, drama and intensity of 2018, 2019, or 2020? No. But are they a demonstration of the sheer will, technical prowess, and fortitude of the Bordeaux vignerons? Undoubtedly. These are wines that have no right to be as good as they are - and they really are good: as The Wine Advocate's William Kelley states "were the 2021s transposed to the decade of the 1990s, they would be considered the product of a superb vintage".

Some will say that 2021 in Bordeaux was a complicated vintage. More accurately it should be described as complex. This is not mere semantics: complicated problems are hard to solve, with a series of often interlinked tasks requiring completion; but these can be addressed with rules and processes. Fundamentally winegrowing is always complicated. Complex problems require far more applied thought, analysis, and ultimately, risk-taking, as they involve more unknown factors than merely complicated problems. Finance Professor and author Rick Nason suggests that when facing a problem, too many people resort to merely complicated thinking when in fact they should be "consciously managing complexity", making brave decisions which allow for multiple further options. This seems like the perfect analogy for 2021: vignerons and estate owners who consciously managed the complexity of 2021 were able to vastly outperform the natural potential of the vintage and deliver highly satisfying and at times downright surprising wines.

Here's the vintage in a nutshell:

  • A warm and wet winter and spring led to early budbreak which was heavily impacted by severe frosts at the start of April, thus reducing yields for most estates
  • May was cold and extremely wet causing very slow vine growth and whilst early June delivered fine weather and thus good flowering, epic rainfall amidst continued warm weather caused significant mildew attacks, further reducing yields
  • July and August were overcast and cool, with vine growth superseding grape ripening and causing late veraison (colour change)
  • September was nigh-on perfect with warm days and cool nights allowing for a significant increase in ripening; Merlots were harvested in late September albeit with large berries with relatively low sugar and good acid, tannin and anthocyanin (colour) content
  • Early October rains promised by the meteo never really arrived and those who withheld the pickers were rewarded with a fine Cabernet harvest which took place well into October; whilst grapes were again large and lower in sugar than the past few years, there was excellent fruit ripeness and complexity to be found
  • After significant sorting, careful methods were required in the winery to extract maximum fruit and terroir expression whilst minimising harsh tannins or acids
  • The best of the resulting wines, whilst not as dramatic or directly comparable to the (extremely rare) high-quality solar trio of 2018-2020, are fluid, precise, terroir expressive and layered with minerality, more red fruit than black, fresh but balanced acidity, low alcohol and fine, powdery, but present tannins. They will make for relatively early drinking but the best have the potential to age gracefully
  • Their transparency and low alcohol make the best wines feel rather effortless although this could not be further from the truth; vignerons worked incredibly hard to appear invisible
  • It is neither a Merlot, nor Cabernet, nor Left Bank, nor Right Bank vintage - it is a farmer and a winemaker's vintage; arguably the best wines were made by those who are both

Make no mistake, in years and decades gone by, the vintage conditions experienced in 2021 would have delivered wines that were close to the bottom of the pile. However a combination of terroir characteristics, natural situations, and individual philosophies, have created a vintage which at its peak is ultimately comparable to some of the better vintages of the 1980s and 1990s which we regularly enjoy and occasionally revere today when the wines are poured. If we had to pick a vintage to which it could be compared - in style rather than growing season - it might be 2001. The 2021s are a reminder that not every vintage has to be about richness, drama and bombast - after all we love Bordeaux for its variety and flexibility, and cooler vintages driven by freshness and minerality which will likely provide earlier drinking are more than deserving of their place in the cellar.

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