The entire appellation for Sauternes is somewhere over 2000ha, comprised of five main villages, with Preignac having the largest area of vines, then Sauternes, Barsac, Bommes and the smallest Fargues. Most chateaux are small, when compared with the Medoc. Fewer than 20 chateaux exceed 20ha. There are several hundred producers and winemaking varies widely.
In general Sauternes is an appellation dedicated to unfortified, sweet white wine. All wines must be sweet, with a minimum of 13% alc/vol and made from Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and/or Muscadelle. Semillon is the principal grape, with about 80% of an estates encepagement (or mix of vine varieties) because it is especially susceptible to noble rot. Sauvignon with its naturally higher acidity can give the wine a freshness that balances the richer, broader flavours of Semillon.
An extended Jancis Robinson quote from 2011 to set the scene:
…the array of Sauternes was of uniformly high quality even if they varied stylistically from the unctuous richness of star performers Ch Climens through the relatively savoury style of Ch de Fargues to the raciness of the Ch Doisy Daene…These sweet white treasures, so much more difficult to make than the red wines of Bordeaux, continue to be underpriced – with the most obvious exception of Ch d’Yquem, which has been so firmly moved into the luxury goods category by owners LVHM.
About the tasting
From various participants there were remarks on just how difficult it was going to be to assess these wines. Firstly because there was a stylistic divide where some of the wines are big and bold, others were refined and beautiful. The lack of a shared base of reference brings into question whether liking one requires there to be a flaw with the other? Or can the wines only be looked at as a series of individuals rather than an assessment of an entire appellation?
Next: few, if any, assembled had experienced a line up similar to this before and so they had no established ideas of the wines to refer back to. Also, because of the rarity of this tasting an element of excitement may have clouded the objective analysis of the wines.
And to further complicate matters, the longer wines sat in the glass the more they would change and evolve and so it was hard to pin down exactly what the wine was. In talking to Geoff more than a week after the tasting he anecdotally remarked that the d’Yquem didn’t start to show its true nature until days later.
Finally, these wines are a thing of beauty. Even the least of the line up could still be considered a very good wine, so how do you distinguish meaningfully between them?
The awe with which tasters approach Sauternes and the impossible complexity of the wines means that even the big names of wine can’t seem to nail it down. In the notes presented on the night introducing each wine, reviews from Jancis Robinson, Robert Parker and Berry Bros. & Rudd in London were all referenced. Side by side, they all seemed to be talking about entirely different wines.
From the 1855 classification we have Ch d’Yquem, 9 of the 11 premier crus and two others rated their equals by Robert Parker. Of these 12 wines, only the d’Yquem is commercially available in New Zealand for a mere $2,265 a bottle.
Wine one: 2001 La Tour Blanche Sauternes / Bommes Premier Cru
13.5% ; Se 70%, SB 20%, MU 10%
Most of the Se barrel-fermented, the Sauvignon Blanc fermented in stainless steel
Aged in new oak 18-24 months
This wine was intentionally placed first in the line-up as it shows a more delicate wine with a huge amount of honeysuckle florality. Where most Sauternes are massive wines, this one shows a more refined expression.
This is one of the first wines in the line-up to open with a volatile acidity character, this tends to blow off rather quickly and is replaced by an aromatic beauty that outshines many of the others. With layers of honey from the richness of nectar to the more savoury qualities of mead. Add to this toasted almonds and caramel. On the palate the wine has a fantastic texture, it’s positively dripping in silkiness. There’s a sharp acidity that balances out the vast sweetness. There’s plenty of peach and melon mixed up with a zingy orange peel biscuit character.
Wine two: 2001 Guiraud Sauternes Premier Cru
13.5%; Se 80%, SB 20%
All barrel fermented and aged up to 30 months in small wood, sometimes all new
An astonishingly rich wine, especially considering the high proportion of Sauv. The wine is a dense buttery pound cake, infused with honey and vanilla then layered with plenty of candied fruit and glazed orange peel. The flavours and aromas are all from another place and time, they remind me of my Grandmother’s house at Christmas time. The palate has big alcohol, big acidity and big oak with a delicate, caramelised nuttiness and burnt, wholegrain Vogel’s smothered in marmalade. The bigness of the wine is kept in check with an equally huge hit of fruit.
Wine three: 2001 Doisy-Daene, Barsac Deuxieme Cru
13%; Se 80%, SB 20%
All barrel fermented and aged 18-24 months in small wood, 1/3 new
The wine opens with layers of volatile acidity that strongly swayed the group against the wine leading many to label the wine as their least favourite. The stink of a fault blows off and allows a pleasant, syrupy canned peach aroma. The nose has limited aromatics, what’s there is rather soft. There’s a great deal of oak apparent in the wine, not all of it new. The palate is rich with savoury liquorice and aniseed spice and brazil nuts on the first go, this softens to mead and lime juice with a bit of time. This wine is built for finesse, not power. Being hit with a dose of VA this elegant wine stumbles briefly but quickly regains its stride.
Wine four: 2001 Clos Haut-Peyraguey Sauternes/Bommes Premier Cru
13.5%; Se 90%, SB 10%
All barrel fermented in 50% new oak. Aged up to 24 months in small oak, 35% new
This wine had a very confused expression. My notes range from stale with sharp acid and obvious oak all the way to beautifully perfumed with lots of zesty freshness with an array of lemons, limes and orange peels. From the custard and burnt caramel of creme brulee to the unpleasant sting of sour alcohol. The wide swath of descriptors highlight thats the wine just didn’t hang together as well as it could.
Wine five: 2001 Rabaud-Promis Sauternes Bommes Premier Cru
13.5%; Se 80%, SB 18%, Mu 2%
Fermentation not specified, aged 15 months in small oak, 33% new
There’s a huge amount of fruit present on this wine with a darker aromatic profile and a good deal of complexity. Across the nose and palate the wine shows cinnamon and sweet spice with almond meal and cold, hard toffee dominating. There are more subtle layers of dried peaches and herbs, honey and oranges with a swath of caramel coated almonds and hazelnuts threaded throughout. My favourite descriptor for the evening, that I’ve opted to parrot, this wine is what some might call ‘unsubtle’, showing the power of the appellation.
Wine six: 2001 Coutet Barsac Premier Cru
14%; Se 75%, SB 23%, Mu 2%
All barrel fermented and aged 16-18 months in small oak, % of new oak not clear
The wine has a freshness with delicate notes of peppermint and spearmint as well as softer white florals. This wine is completely different to the rest in the line-up, it takes a while to unravel itself. The caramel and bitter orange of Grand Marnier with spritz of lime and a fresh sprig of mint is the closest approximation of the wine. Looked at alongside the impossibly rich lineup this wine could be accused of lacking palate weight. The delightfully long finish is laced with fennel.
Wine seven: 2001 de Malle Sauternes Preignac Deuxieme Cru
14.5%; Se 70%, SB 27%, Mu 3%
All barrel fermented and aged 18-plus months in small oak, 1/3 new
Dripping in caramel. Crème caramel, orange peels dipped in caramel and the harder darker toffee flavours are all represented in my notes. Apart from caramel this wine is noted for it’s structure. Big and bold. The wine is not without it’s softer side. There are fragile white florals, white peach and raw honey all present in their delicacy. This wine is acutely lacking in any citrus descriptors, which is odd considering how prominent that character was within the lineup as a whole.
Wine eight: 2001 Lafaurie-Peyraguey Sauternes Bommes Premier Cru
13.5%; Se 90%, SB 8%, Mu 2%
All barrel fermented and aged 18-20 months in small oak, 1/3 new
The notes supplied as part of the tasting described this wine as extremely sweet and rich. With age those descriptors still apply, the wine carries with it a great density. A smoky new oak character dominates the wine. Many of the shades of beauty that decorate a young wine have faded and in its wake the wine is showing plenty of petrol notes, old raw honey and fresh, spritzy orange peels. The palate sings with flavours of grapefruit marmalade. The wines weight is it’s real success.
Wine nine: 2001 Suduiraut Sauternes Preignac Premier Cru
14%; Se 90%, SB 10%
All fermented in s/s then aged 24 months in small oak, 33% new
This wine stands apart for it’s sheer depth of flavour. I struggled to pin this one down and my best approximation is that this is very much a Griffin’s Super Wine biscuit dunked into hot milky tea, with the delicate, slightly malty flavour that’s not quite caramel. Along with the biscuity quality the wine is very candied and while it’s not oaky it is wonderfully bready with a whole grain tension that tautly draws itself along the fruit and maltiness of the wine with an absolutely awesome length to it.
Wine ten: 2001 d’Yquem Sauternes Premier Cru Superieur
13.5%; Se 80%, SB 20%
All barrel fermented and up to 36 months elevation in 100% new barrels
This is the palest in the lineup with a bouquet that stands apart from the rest. It carries with it a character of baguettes and the autolysis commonly found in Champagne. There’s a huge amount of fruit on the palate and the whole wine is wrapped up in an undeniable smokiness from the new oak. A zing of citrus zest shot down the middle and caramelised honey that’s just shy of being burnt. The finish just won’t quit. The wine has layers and seeing it only once on one night, I expect I barely scraped the surface of this wine.
Wine eleven: 2001 Climens Barsac Premier Cru
14%; Se 100%
Barrel fermented, typically 1/3 in new oak, then aged 18-22 months in small oak depending on the vintage
This wine is far sweeter than the rest, it is drenched in vanilla beans and lemon drops. As the 100% Semillon the wine lacked the acidic punch that’s clearly found in the others. Rather than the stronger caramel based flavour and strong citrus zing, this wine is more of a mix of the sweeter Clementines you get at Christmas time and the slightly bitter Seville oranges that are used in marmalades. A touch of oakiness can be detected but it’s not prominent the new oak that the wine saw has come through rather strongly as vanilla.
Wine twelve: 2001 Rieussec Sauternes Fargues Premier Cru
13.5%; Se 89% SB 8% Mu 3%
Fermented in both s/s and barrel, aged 18-24 months in small oak, 70% new
Looking at my notes I’ve described this wine as rich a handful of times. Rich in texture, rich in sweetness, rich in fruit and rich in palate weight. This is a rich wine. There’s heaps of zest and citrus with an oily texture and a delightful nuttiness in the way of almond meal. Orange peel and candied oranges dance across the palate saturating the experience with fruit. There is a darker undercurrent as the backbone of the wine is solid toffee. Lovely.
Even more about Sauternes
Botrytis is everywhere in Sauternes, but the different mesoclimates will affect the final wine, Barsac being the most distinctive with a lighter, more elegant style. Bommes and Sauternes produce the fattest wines of the five communes.
Without the onset of noble rot, the grapes will ripen sufficiently to make a sweet wine, however, it will seriously lack the concentration and complexity. And this can separate the mediocre from the great. The estate owners each vintage need to take the gamble of waiting for botrytis to arrive, while grey rot attempts threatens to set in and ruin a vintage.
When picking grapes, this is done in successive tries, first in September for Sauvignon Blanc, which attracts botrytis earlier, then again in October for Semillon. These successive tries push up production cost for the wine.
The barriques used for the 18-36 months of ageing are an additional expense as the some producers will choose to use 100% new oak. Ch d’Yquem, Raymond-Lafon and La Tour Blanche are all examples of 100% new oak, Ch Climens or Doisy-Daene will use a mix of old and new oak.
Superb vintages were 83, 86, 88, 89, 90, 96, 97, 01 and 03. In 90 and 03 botrytis swooped over the whole vineyard, making for an easy vintage. In 78, 85 and the early 90s botrytis either failed to arrive or arrived very late in the season.
Source: The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd edition