2021 Bordeaux vintage; weather challenges and what it means for the wines

With 2021 wines starting to appear in the shops, now is a good time to look back on the weather challenges of 2021 and the likely impact on the wines we can buy.

Just when Bordeaux winemakers thought 2021’s weather couldn't get any worse, it did.

2021 was a brutal year for vineyards in the Bordeaux and Bergerac regions in Southwest France. Speaking to several owners during my time in the area I heard, and witnessed first-hand, the impact of the challenging weather on the vines.

Frost, excessive rain, heat, humidity and thunderstorms, there was a lot to deal with.

"If we can just get some sunshine from now until mid-October, we might be ok" said Gaëlle Reynou Gravier when I visited Domaine de Perreau in mid-September. But rain was forecast.

Gaëlle was most concerned about her red wines. Her whites, which she had just started to harvest, were looking ok. But the reds needed a good month of sunshine, and she was monitoring them daily to check how they were ripening. These sentiments were echoed by the other winemakers I visited.

Unfortunately, although some sunshine did come, it was mainly the rain that kept coming.

By early October some owners had decided not to wait any longer and were harvesting early. Working on hand harvesting Merlot grapes for Chateau Haut Pradot's Cuvée Prestige wine, I experienced the problems they have been enduring first-hand. Smaller harvest volumes, bunches not as full as normal, and pouring rain throughout the harvest.

An added complication was that different parcels of vines were ripening differently, making it very difficult to decide how long to wait before harvesting. "Usually it is easy" I was told when I visited Chateau Penin, near St Emilion. All the vines of each grape variety usually ripen largely at the same time meaning they can be harvested at the same time.

As most vineyards don't have the luxury of being able to harvest parcels at different times, this year was proving to be a brain teaser involving closely monitoring the relative ripeness of individual vines and calculating the optimum mix to harvest.

What made 2021 so bad?

  • Frost
  • No consistency
  • Humidity

First there were the widespread spring frosts across many parts of France. Bordeaux and Bergerac did not escape. I was told that some vineyards, particularly around Bergerac, lost most of their crop. All the vineyard owners I spoke to had been impacted to some extent, but they regarded themselves as lucky with only losing up to 20%.

There had been no consistency in the weather from June onwards. It would be hot, then it would rain. A lot! With localised torrential thunderstorms. Rain, particularly torrential rain can damage the individual grapes making them susceptible to rot which reduces their quality, in some cases severely.

However, a big problem this year has been humidity. The warm weather plus continual rain resulted in damp conditions within the canopy of the vines, ideal conditions for mildew. Downy mildew attacks the green parts of the vine, particularly the leaves. This reduces the amount of photosynthesis. As this is what powers grape ripening, less photosynthesis reduces the volume of ripe grapes to harvest.

White downy fungal growth on underside of leaves from downy mildew

Many of the winemakers I spoke to were managing their vineyards organically, this together with the humid conditions has meant a lot more work this year since organic rules restrict what they can do mitigate the impact on the vines.

For example, the only chemical defence they have against mildew is the traditional treatment "Bordeaux Mix". However, as it sits on the surface of the grape rather than being absorbed by the vine (as happens with modern chemicals) it only lasts until 20 mm of rain has fallen. With the frequency and heaviness of the rain over the growing season it had to be reapplied frequently, significantly increasing workloads.

What is the impact?

  • White wines less affected
  • Red wine quality will suffer
  • There will be lot less wine from the region in 2021
  • Alcohol levels will be down

All the owners I spoke to said that their white wines had been less affected by the weather than the reds and they anticipated that quality would be ok.

It is red wines that will take the biggest hit. The poor weather right up to harvest means quality is bound to suffer and 2021 is likely to be regarded as a particularly poor vintage for reds. However, from my discussions some vineyards, and parcels of vines within vineyards, had been luckier than others in avoiding some of the more damaging aspects of the weather. Frosts and thunderstorms tended to be highly localised, and I was quite surprised how localised the rain could be too.

Early indications are that the very patchiness of the weather has been translated into varying wine quality, with some good quality 2021 Bordeaux reds to be found, however it is not universal.

There will be a lot less wine made in 2021 from the Bordeaux and Bergerac regions. One owner said he was expecting only 50% of his normal volumes. Another said they would be as low as 25%. All types of wines have suffered but, here again it would appear that red wines will take the biggest hit.

Compared to 2020 when hot, dry conditions meant winemakers struggled to keep the alcohol levels of their wines below 15%, 2021 alcohol levels will be down. One winemaker was anticipating around 12% to be the norm. Good news for the increasing number of people looking to reduce their alcohol consumption whilst still enjoying wine.

Is this climate change?
From interviews I undertook over the summer for a research paper for my WSET diploma, there is evidence that Bordeaux has been experiencing an increasing frequency of unusual and irregular weather patterns. Is hot dry 2020 followed by frosty, rainy, humid 2021 a snapshot of that change? I will be writing more about the impact of climate change on the wine industry in future posts.

Most vineyard owners I met were quite philosophical about the challenges of 2021. As Gaëlle Reynou Gravier told me the first year I met her, "it is just farming".

Janne Hallinan

 April 2022

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