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A sweet deal, if you can sell it

Sauternes doesn’t fly off the shelves these days, but that’s down to producers as much as consumers, says a frustrated JOANNA SIMON

Annual production: 6 million bottles. Annual demand: less than 5 million. Result: misery. OK, that may be a bit strong,but there’s no question that Sauternes producers would be happier if the two figures could be brought into line. That they don’t line up is not new. Château d’Yquem excluded, Sauternes has been a hard sell for years – decades, in fact. And all while the market for fine red Bordeaux has boomed, and at more elevated prices. Even at Château Climens, universally regarded as second only to Yquem, the market can’t be taken for granted. As owner Bérénice Lurton puts it: ‘With our name, we don’t have the worst difficulties, but if we were a red wine we would sell a lot more easily and at higher prices.’ The problem, she says, is fashion: sweet wines in general are unfashionable, and Sauternes in particular. I doubt anyone would deny that

Sauternes is a victim of the vogue for dry wines – white and red – for fresher-tasting whites, the trend to lighter, healthier food, shorter lunches, the tendency to skip pudding altogether and the reduction inconsumption because of drink-drive laws. Inevitably, the drinks at the end of the meal are the first to be culled – not that Sauternes has ever been consigned entirely to the pudding slot, but, with foie gras also under fire, its place at the beginning of the meal is similarly under threat. We’ll come back to food… There is also more competition these days. Although German sweet wines are not the rivals they once were, others have come along. Since 1990 we’ve seen, among other developments, the renaissance of Tokaji, a flurry of botrytis, late-harvest and ice wines from the New World, the rise of botrytis and other sweet wines from Austria, improvements in regions of France such as the Loire and Jurançon and the popularity of inexpensive Muscat vins doux naturels.It’s symptomatic that the two Green & Blue boutique wine shops in London don’t stock a single Sauternes. Initially, there was one in the Dulwich branch, but it took 18 months to sell six bottles. Kate Thal, the owner, says that it’s not that customers were unhappy with it: they just weren’t looking for Sauternes. ‘We promote esoteric wines and our customers are open minded. Pantelleria at £40 a half-bottle sells very well.’ She has Sauternes in the five-star hotel for which she consults (Rickmansworth’s

The Grove), but most of the business is expense accounts, and choosing Sauternes there is a status symbol, she says. When sommeliers do get behind sweet wines, they often make a feature of the category, rather than simply offering Sauternes and an alternative. Dawid Koegelenberg, general manager ofLondon’s Lindsay House, says: ‘Our customers are a bit more old school and know their classic regions, so if we ask whether they’d like a glass of Sauternes, 98% will say “yes”.’ That’s the good news.The bad news for Sauternes is that that’s no longer what they ask at Lindsay House. ‘Instead we suggest “a glass of sweet wine”. We have 11 by the glass, but only one is Sauternes. The consolation prize is that it outsells all the others by a mile.’ So it’s tough for Sauternes, but is it everybody else’s fault, or could the Sauternais do more to help themselves? Christian Seely of Axa Millésimes, whose portfolio includes two of the world’s other great sweet wines, Disznók˝o Tokaji and Quinta do Noval port alongside Château Suduiraut (premier cru Sauternes), feels that Sauternes ‘hasn’t been marketed with great dynamism. It has a reputation in its traditional markets for being slightly out of fashion – and it’s also probably true that once-regular drinkers are now drinking it slightly less often.’

Moving forwards

But at the same time Seely thinks that the image of Sauternes as a region stuck in the past is ‘a little unfair’: it’s not Sauternes which is out of date, but people’s view of it. Mediocre wines were made, he concedes, but things have changed. ‘What’s going on in winemaking and in the vineyards now, particularly in the last five to six years, is really quite dynamic. In fact, it’s one of the more dynamic regions I work in: the people who run the vineyards couldn’t be more passionate. It’s one of the reasons I like to show younger vintages at tastings.’ Pierre Lurton, director of Yquem (and first cousin ofBérénice of Climens, see p86), makes much the same point: ‘The philosophy of the people has changed.’

This is evidently true at the top level, but there is surely still room for improvement lower down? Certainly this is a view among sommeliers and UK

wine merchants. Dawn Davies, Selfridges’ wine buyer and ex-sommelier of The Ledbury restaurant, says Sauternes sells well because it’s a name people know and feel comfortable with, but she nevertheless believes that producers need to address the issues of price and quality, especially at the lower level. And there are producers who agree with her. Bérénice Lurton thinks that eventhough Sauternes has emerged from a phase of trying to produce the most concentrated wines possible, some wines are still a bit heavy: ‘There needs to be more effort to make wines that are extremely well balanced.’ This is all the more critical now because, while everyone is thrilled to have had such an exceptional run of vintages since 2001 (culminating in what Pierre Lurton calls the ‘amazing’ 2007), the changing climate has actually made it more difficult in some years to achieve this balance. ‘The 2003 and 2005 wines may be heavier than people want and expect. We need to make Sauternes to suit all tastes,’ she says. One way of adapting to changing tastes and market demands has been to make wines drinkable younger, not only so that they don’t need much cellaring, but so that they are drunk when they are zestier and, by extension, less rich and heavy seeming. Having younger Sauternes as an option could help with food matching, too – always a thorny and subjective issue, but all the more critical now that producers are looking to new markets in Asia and Russia. Many are steering away from traditional matches with foie gras, puddings and blue cheese, as well as the more esoteric but passésounding mousseline of turbot, quenelles de brochet et al. In their place are Asian cuisines and influences: not searingly hot dishes, but those with complex spicing, sometimes allied to slight sweetness, Chinese in particular. Another area where Sauternes could help itself as well as its customers is by offering more half-bottles. Cos Kampanos, managing director of Sommelier Cru, is convinced that the price of halves would be a real incentive for both home and restaurant customers. Perhaps also, bearing in mind Waitrose’s new Vin à Deux wine range, the time is right at last for 50cl bottles. Bérénice Lurton, who is seeing increasing demand for half-bottles, persevered in producing small volumes of 50cl bottles for 11 years, finally

abandoning them after 2005. She is notplanning to reintroduce them, but if she does then Dawid Koegelenberg is in the queue – and I’m sure I could rustle up

quite a few others. It wouldn’t take a huge adjustment in sales to get supply and demand in balance. Perhaps if we all drink a few more bottles

of Sauternes this year…

Chateau Guiraud: The Archetypal Hard Sell, By Carla Capalbo

Today, so many great châteaux are owned by the likes of Chanel, Hermès and LVMH, or liquor conglomerates. For would-be private owners, the investments required to keep them running competitively are prohibitive. When an important château is to be sold, a list is compiled of potential buyers. If this targeting strategy works well in areas like the Médoc or St-Emilion, it’s a tougher sell in

Sauternes, just 40km south of Bordeaux. ‘The great sweet wines of Sauternes such as Château d’Yquem are legendary and eternally desirable, but few people have the know-how to produce them,’ says Christian Seely. ‘In top vintages, the magical transformation by botrytis of white grapes into a golden, opulent and perfumed wine is as astonishing as the caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly. But here nature has to be paired with money to succeed, and then only if the weather permits.’ There’s no foolproof way to control botrytis. When it does take hold, the best wines are made by picking the grapes as they become affected by the fungus, one berry at a time if necessary, which may require as many as seven separate harvests within a single vineyard. In poor years, little or no wine of quality may be made. So it’s a costly, risky business.

That’s why when Château Guiraud, one of the largest and oldest of

Sauternes’ premiers crus, came up for sale in 2004, finding a buyer proved a challenge. Guiraud is a 100-hectare property next-door to Yquem, to its south. It was classified in 1855 under its then temporary name, Bayle, along with just 12 other Sauternes châteaux.

A history lesson

The property is thought to have been built on a Roman road, and was growing vines in the 16th century. In the Middle Ages it was a péage, or toll, for passing caravans, and a watering hole for draught oxen. In 1785, just before the French Revolution, it was bought by Pierre Guiraud, a Protestant republican, which caused a longstanding feud with neighbouring Château d’Yquem, whose

aristocratic owners, the de Lur-Saluces, were Catholic royalists. The Guirauds

had the radical idea, long before the 1855 classification, to give their wine a black label. ‘This was a direct provocation towards the aristocracy, who wore black when mourning Marie Antoinette and her consort,’ says Planty. ‘Guiraud did his own mourning for Napoléon 1st with his black label.’ Luckily the two houses havelong since made their peace. The Guirauds were forced to sell in 1858, and the château then changed hands many times. When former owner Franky Narby bought it in 1981, it was close to ruin. It is thanks to ex-director and current

co-owner, Xavier Planty, that the estate’s future is now looking settled and bright. Planty began working at Guiraud in 1982 as director and winemaker for Narby, who was in the Canadian shipping business; their 22-year collaboration did much to bring the property back to its former splendour. When Narby reluctantly decided to sell for personal reasons in 2004, he entrusted Planty with the task. ‘I was surprised that no serious takers came forward initially,’ says Planty. ‘After all, this is a major Sauternes property on key terroirs, with its vineyards in one block. It was a rare chance to get involved in a unique winemaking situation. Château Guiraud was profitable, debtfree, had little overstock, and a lot of reconstruction had already been done. It looked like an irresistible sales dossier, but several big groups didn’t bid for fear they wouldn’t know how to sell a Sauternes wine.’ After a year on the market, an offer came in from a Bordeauxgroup, but it was deemed too low. Now Narby, who had never put a figure on Guiraud, named his price. ‘I didn’t sleep for a week,’ admits Planty. ‘I had lived through two decades of change here at Guiraud. I didn’t want to leave but I couldn’t afford to buy it. I decided to form a group of my own to meet the asking price.’ Narby was delighted. Planty went directly to Olivier Bernard, the young owner of Domaine de Chevalier, nearby in Graves. ‘His answer was immediate: I’m in!’ They decided to approach Stephan Von Neipperg, the owner of Canon La Gaffelière among other properties. ‘Sounds great, when can we meet?’ was his reply. For two hugely successful Bordeaux producers, Sauternes offered the last frontier in winemaking. ‘That was the psychological side of the deal,’ says Planty. ‘Sauternes and the mysteries of botrytis were irresistible.’ The three met and Planty explained Guiraud’s situation, including its weakest link – the market. ‘We agreed to go forward anyway as equal partners. We had raised just 30% of the sum.’ They needed another partner to raise the rest. ‘Initially, Stephan Von Neipperg Left: while the quality of Sauternes has never been higher, the large bottle format alienates many drinkers seemed pessimistic,’ says Planty with a smile, ‘but he spent the weekend on the internet. By Monday morning he was brimming with excitement. “We’ve got a winning combination to attract an investor,” he said.’ With Planty already running Guiraud and two top producers of Bordeaux wines adding it to their portfolios, the Sauternes proposition was beginning to look more attractive. It was Narby’s bank in Paris, HSBC, that came up with what at first seemed to Planty a crazy idea: the Peugeot family, France’s premier car-makers. The banker

explained that the Peugeots only invested in groups managed by families or experts, and that they had just sold their holdings in Taittinger. He was willing to arrange a dinner to introduce them. ‘It was an unforgettable evening,’ says Planty. ‘Armed with our bottles, we boarded the TGV for Paris. In HSBC’s private dining room we met Robert Peugeot. He’s 55, a little older than me, and shared our passion for great wines and food. Peugeot was charming but direct: “You three will need to convince me tonight,” he said. “Because as far as I’m concerned, Sauternes is a wine for old ladies, its good vintages only come once in a decade, and what’s more, there’s no market for it…” He threw us every objection he could!’ The four men spent an evening in camaraderie, without talking business. ‘We were like four copains setting off on an adventure together.’ At the end of the meal, Château Guiraud 1989 was served.

‘We let the wine do the talking for us.’says Olivier Bernard. ‘And it seduced Robert Peugeot just as it had seduced us.’ Within a week Peugeot was down at Guiraud, and had fallen in love with it. He was in. Narby authorised the group

to officiate at the 2005 primeur tastings, even if the contracts had not been

completed. Reactions to the wine were very favourable.

The four tops

Peugeot is not involved in the daily running of the château, but all four take

part in the most important decisions, including the assemblage of the wine. Planty says: ‘The Peugeots respect our experience as vignerons and are used to long-term cycles of investment, so a 10-year winery plan doesn’t scare them.’ Improvements to the vineyards continue; a competition will be held to design the

new cellar. Planty works large parts of Guiraud’s vineyards organically. Recently, he has set up an association with Christian Seely and Charles Chevallier of Château Rieussec to safeguard and conserve Bordeaux’s white grape varieties. They have collected 110 vine stocks of Sauvignon and Semillon found in diverse crus across Bordeaux, have planted them in experimental vineyards, and are carrying out microvinifications from their grapes. The object is to increase the aromatic complexity of these two important grape types which, in most

vineyards, have been reduced to just three or four varieties. Guiraud is currently the only Bordeaux cru classé to produce its own plants from a nursery on the property. A sense of ecological responsibility has also aided Planty in his research on botrytis. A return to traditional growing methods, careful selection of the botrytis-affected grapes, and a refusal to chaptalise has brought personality to Guiraud’s wines. ‘Great botrytis reduces the heaviness of the sugars, adds a fresh bitterness and a salty finish,’ he says. ‘It amplifies the vintage.’ Olivier Bernard is enthusiastic and pragmatic about Sauternes: ‘I believe in these wines – though you probably have to be crazy to make them: you need so much energy, most years you lose money, and they’re hard to sell,’ he says, echoing the issues raised in the main article. ‘Without passion you can’t do it.’ He has seen some cause for optimism, though: ‘In the next 10 years we’ll have three big markets to expand into: Russia, China and India. In the east

everyone loves Sauternes – especially Japanese women. And in India, where

the wines marry so well with the spicy sweetness of the dishes, you can eat a whole meal with it. In France, I prefer it with the cheese course: pain grillé, blue cheese and salty butter. Heaven! We need to show how great these wines are when they’re young – you don’t have to wait 50 years to drink them!’ ‘To make Sauternes succeed, you need to demystify it,’ concludes Bernard. ‘To love Sauternes, il faut aimer le plaisir.’

Written by Joanna Simon

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