June 24: After looking at the weather and its impact, our Bordeaux expert, John Salvi Master of Wine looks at the Structure in vintage 2021 and analyses the four components that create most of the structure in a wine- Tannins, Acidities, Alcohol and the Hand of man and looking at how the 2021 vintage measured up in these respects, says that it was not a Great Vintage with lesser structure but lower alcohol, easier and pleasant to drink with higher acidity but not great to lay down, with Château Mouton Rothschild claiming that without question it was a Cabernet year
We all know about Tannin- it is in our tea, coffee and also wine. It is our principal job to protect its host plant from attacks and diseases and in 2021 it had plenty of work to do. Tannins are formed from individual flavonoids that have bonded together to form polymers. They accumulate during the fruit set and this process continues until the grapes start producing anthocyanins (another type of flavonoid) at colour change. They are made up of 2 classes of phenols: flavonoids and non-flavonoids. They are a class of astringent, polyphenolic bio molecules that bind and precipitate proteins and other organic compounds.
Tannin in the skins protects the grapes from the sun and light-more intense the light, the more the tannin produced. The molecules of skin tannins are much larger and much less aggressive than those of pip tannins, which are much smaller and much more astringent. Their molecular weights can vary vastly and polymerisation increases their size.
In wine, and that is what interests us here, they provide texture and mouthfeel as well as weight and structure. Some winemakers regard them as the backbone of the wine. It is also an antiseptic. With time the tannins agglomerate and polymerise, (the assembly of a number of molecules to form a bigger one) forming large molecules too big to remain in suspension and which therefore precipitate. At a stretch one could say that the capacity of a wine to age depends upon the time that it takes for the tannins to polymerise.
So what about 2021
There was plenty of tannin in the grapes in 2021, despite it not being a very hot summer, and it was very important not only to fully ripen the grapes where possible, but also to extract very, very gently during fermentation in order to extract the minimum amount of pip tannin.
Château Mouton Rothschild talks about “mature pips and fine tannic structure,” but we must remember that it was 88% Cabernet Sauvignon, which had time to ripen, 100% new barrels and only 13.1° of alcohol. Only 36% of their yield went into the First Wine. They say their 3% of Cabernet France added structure.
Also Read : Tech Talk: Effect of Weather on Bordeaux Vintage 2021 (Part 1)
This is where Merlot fell short. Due to a cool and almost poor summer the Merlot grapes in many properties did not fully ripen. The Merlot had a very long cycle and was picked a tad too early for fear of rot and bad weather that never materialised. Château Lafite says, “the dice were loaded against the Merlot from the start, and they paled in comparison to the Cabernet.” Only half of one vat went into the final blend which was 96% Cabernet Sauvignon.
As we have seen, it was not a fine, hot summer. It was a cool summer overall with only short bursts of heat. Both chlorophyllisation and trans-evaporation were less vigorous than during a hotter summer. Therefore, less sugar accumulated in the grapes leading to less sugar in the grape juice.
This was perhaps the most prominent feature of the 2021 vintage – less alcohol. Almost nobody made wines that reached 14°. I can only find Château La Mission Haut Brion Blanc at 14.1° and Château Pavie at 14.14°. Château Cos d’Estournel, frequently highly alcoholic, was only 12.74°. Château Léoville Poyferré says, “classical, easy to drink approach.” Château Mouton Rothschild talks of, “the classic equilibrium of vintages from a generation ago.”
Also Read: Bordeaux 2020 : A Trinity in the Making (Part-1)
Overall, everybody was happy with these less alcoholic wines. In recent vintages alcohol has grown higher and higher and red wines were achieving over 15°. This is not typical of past vintages of Bordeaux, and I repeat that Bordeaux wines are not cut out for power, concentration and alcohol but for finesse, elegance, grace and beauty. The more alcohol there is in the wine the more difficult it becomes to preserve these attributes and thus 2021 comes as a welcome reminder of the great past vintages of Bordeaux.
Here are a few examples: MOUTON ROTHSCHILD 13.1°, ISSAN 13.18°, HAUT BRION RED 13.8°, HAUT BRION BLANC 13.7°, LEOVILLE POYFERRE 13.11°, VIEUX CHÂTEAU CERTAN 13.2°, LE PIN 13.4°, CHEVAL BLANC 13.8°, FIGEAC 13.6°, COS D’ESTOURNEL 12.74°, LEOVILLE LAS CASES 13.2°
Acids and Acidity
Acidity is without doubt one of the most crucial elements in any wine. It is one of the components that enables wine to age with grace and beauty, together with tannin and it is also the element that combines with the fruit to keep a wine fresh, crisp and vigorous. Wine without sufficient acidity is both flat and lifeless.
We have said a thousand time what a difficult year 2021 was with hail, mildew, frost and a poor summer. Everything we say here should be seen in this context, and it is a great tribute to winemakers who succeeded in making fine wine under such onerous conditions.
This year the acidities were high, higher than normal, higher than in 2018, 2019 and 2020 and in many cases too high. Château Margaux, in its brochure, speaks of, “acidité mordant,” which means “biting.” Nothing could be clearer than that. It was the MALIC acid that was particularly high. Malic acid is generated during fruit metabolism. It is formed in metabolic cycles in the cells of almost all living matter – in grapes and in you and in me!
Also Read: Bordeaux 2020 : A Trinity in the Making (Part-2)
To be technical, it is formed via glycolysis and the TCA cycle. It reaches its peak just before colour change, when the grapes can contain anything up to 20 grams/litre. Through the ripening stage it is metabolised in the process of respiration and by vintage time can be anywhere between 1-9grams/litre. If there is none left in the grapes, then they are overripe and SENESCENT. Strangely enough in 2021, after the vital malo-lactic fermentation, both the Total Acidity and the pH were more or less normal, which shows how important is the malo-lactic fermentation and what a good job it did.
Many of the hundreds of people who attended the En Primeur tastings a couple of months ago said that many of the 2021 wines tasted sharp, again in many cases sufficiently to spoil their perfect balance. Those skilful growers who got it right made some superbly balanced wines.
Here are some examples of Post Malolactic Total Acidities:
COS D’ESTOURNEL AC: 3.0/pH3.79. LEOVILLE LASCASES AC: 3.66/pH3.71. PAVIE AC:3.69/pH3.67. MOUTON ROTHSCHILD pH3.73. ISSAN AC : 3.60/pH3.60. VIEUX CHÂTEAU CERTAN AC :3.7/pH3.63. LE PIN AC :3.8/pH3.6. CALON SEGUR AC :3.5/pH3.65. FIGEAC: pH 3.65
Many growers chose to say that there was no rot in 2021. Either they were very fortunate, or they picked before any developed, or they are not telling the strict truth. My son did the entire vintage at Château Lascombes and so I got a first-hand daily report. He told me that the first pickings were wonderfully healthy, but rot crept in about halfway through the vintage, the management endeavoured to finish the vintage as quickly as possible and by the last days the vines had what my son described as “moderate rot.”
This is one of the very last attributes to develop before the vintage. This year, due to the lower alcohol level, the lighter structure and the fresh acidity the fruitiness was more prominent. Thus, if 2021 is not a year for laying down, it is a year with charm, freshness and fruitiness. While not making it a GREAT year, it made wines to be drunk relatively early and quickly and with pleasure. A commercial vintage and perhaps what was needed after the sumptuous trilogy of 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Also Read: Bordeaux 2020: A Trinity in the Making-Structure (Part-3)
TELLING COMMENTS BY THE GREAT CHATEAUX
LAFITE “2021 - the Hamlet vintage”
“Decisions, decisions, decisions »
« Renewal has always been first and foremost a return to the roots”
“A vintage in which it was impossible to cheat”
HAUT BRION « Millésime de vigneron »
“Surprising vintage in a positive way”
“Analytically like 1990s”
LEOVILLE POYFERRE “Surprise is the test of true courage – Aristotle”
“A victorious vintage”
CHEVAL BLANC “Vintage of extreme and contrasting climatic conditions”
“Unusual. Some plots were vintaged more than 65 days after the beginning of the ripening period”
DUCRU BEAUCAILLOU “An ode to Cabernet”
MONTROSE “Interplot specifities not as explicit as usual”
EGLISE CLINET “Navigating through extremes. Impetuous vines, restful wines. Charm of Myrrh!
LEOVELLE LASCASES “Less exuberant, greater tension on the palate than 2018 – 2020
“An epic vintage. At the same time precocious and tardy, rapid and slow”
“The wine has a mythological temperament”
“What would mythology be without its quests? Accomplished when deemed impossible”
LE PIN “Temperate weather suited earlier ripening terroir”
“Four magnificent weeks created stress and saved the vintage”
“Dynamic, incredibly aromatic, silky, fruitiness, freshness, crunchiness, aromatic complexity, delicate structure, impressive persistence” WOW!!!!
FIGEAC “Sincerity, precision, Purity”
YQUEM “A vintage that has brought people together in adversity”
John Salvi Master of Wine