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Dicing with the Devil

For the Sauternes grower every vintage is a knife edge gamble, but, finds Clive Coates MW, the results can be truly worthy of the heartache.
  • Occasionally the micro-climate of the region works its magic.
  • Anyone who invests good money must be mad.
  • A fashionable wine once again.
  • Blends are made a year or more after the vintage.

The life of a Sauternes producer is precarious. Much of the lower lying land in Barsac is a frost trap. Hail is also more common here than in most of the rest of the Bordeaux region. And then there is the vintage. While the rest of Bordeaux sensibly harvests its fruit when it is ripe and healthy – as would any other agriculturalist – the Sauternes producer sits on his hands and lets his bunches of grapes get over-ripe and rotten. It sounds crazy. More often than not it is crazy for this is just the time that summer turns to winter and it begins to rain more frequently. The fruit gets over-ripe, but dilute rather than concentrated, and the rot is ignoble. The result is no good to man or beast.

Occasionally – one year in three, on average – the micro-climate of the region works its magic. From deep in the Landes, the spring-fed, cold stream of the Ciron River winds its way through the region. As it subsides into the warmer, grey-brown River Garonne it creates a mist which flows back over the vineyards. Should the weather be fine, this mist will be burned off by late morning. At nine o’clock you are driving around with your fog headlights. By lunchtime the skies are blue and the grapes are glistening with dew. In these conditions beneficial spores will bite into the surface of the grape. The resulting penicillin rot will be noble rather than base. Juice from the already over-ripe berry, brown-purple rather than golden, will evaporate and concentrate. The liquid that will make great Sauternes has been born.

But – and it is a big but – this will occur only three times a decade. As the noble rot does not spread uniformly through a vineyard each row will have to be picked three, seven, even 10 times. This costs. Moreover, the quantity produced will be a third or less what the vineyard would have yielded if dry table wine had been the object of the exercise. Even then, what will you obtain for all your effort? FF250 (£25.80), the going rate for a bottle of red wine from a ‘super-second’ Médoc château? No, more like FF100 to FF150, FF200 (£10.30, £15.51, £20.68) if you are Château Climens. Financially it is a total nonsense. Anyone who invests good money in a Sauternes vineyard must be mad. Yet brave souls there are, eccentric or not. One such soul said to me once, running over the scenario I have outlined above: ‘Being a Sauternes producer is like playing poker with God.’ After reflection I replied: ‘The Devil, not God. God surely cannot cheat. He would beat anyone at chess or bridge. Poker, on the other hand is a game of bluff and deception, and by definition God would not dissemble.’ So the brave Sauternes producer is setting him or herself up against a far more wily creature. And as we all know, the Devil has all the best tunes. Nevertheless there is, and has been now for 15 years, an atmosphere of enthusiasm and perfectionism in the Sauternes area. The vignoble has been transformed and when I compare it with what it was when I first started to visit the châteaux regularly, two decades ago, the change is total.

Sauternes in the 1970s had fallen into a vicious descending spiral. There was a lack of interest in the product. Sweet wines were unfashionable. In 1949 Château Climens had sold for the same price as the Médoc first growths (Yquem was double or more). By 1971 it fetched one tenth of the price of Lafite or Latour. There was therefore a dearth of profit. This absence of money led to a failure to re-invest – in new oak, in selection, in the proper upkeep of the vineyards – and this in itself resulted in a decline in quality. No wonder demand for the product remained moribund. All this was not helped by a run of poor vintages. Between 1945 and 1962 there were as many good sweet wine vintages as there were for red wine. During the 20 years thereafter we can only point to the patchy 1967 (excellent for Yquem but not for all), 1971, 1975 and 1976 (and many of these were too heavy). It was not a coincidence that in 1971 no fewer than four of the two dozen classed growths sold up, or that in 1976 yet another decided to grub up its vines and cease production.

Salvation arrived with the 1983 vintage. The whole world, including a new generation of men and women in the UK and especially the USA, had been eager to purchase the splendid 1982 reds. The following year saw the first fine Sauternes vintage for seven years. Those in charge of en primeur offers decided to list the Sauternes as well. The wine suddenly started to become fashionable again. Not all the 1983s are as good as they could have been. Some were still being vinified in tank rather than in wood. And the selection was not as rigorous as possible. But some were delicious (Climens, Lafaurie-Peyraguey, Rieussec) and the price that the wine fetched at least meant that all would make a profit. Sensibly, this profit was re-invested in the domaines, with the result that, when nature smiled and gave the Sauternais four splendid vintages out of five: 1986, 1988, 1989 and 1990, all the properties could benefit. There are now few underachievers among the classed growths, and several crus bourgeois whose wines are worthy of at least second growth ranking.

So who are the stars today?

The one property that has historically always rivalled Yquem, often producing superior wine, is Château Climens. I rate this luscious, marvellously balanced, 100 per cent Sémillon from Barsac one step ahead of the pack. Close behind, Lafaurie-Peyraguey, Rieussec, Sigalas-Rabaud and Rayne-Vigneau can be relied on to produce fine wine whenever nature lets them. Suduiraut has improved since being acquired by AXA. La Tour-Blanche has also taken a turn for the better and Clos Haut-Peyraguey can often, as in 1996, surprise. This leaves, among the first growths, Château Guiraud, a wine which seems to lack elegance and true Sauternes concentration, the latter the fault of the mix of grape varieties but the former surely to be blamed on sloppy handling in the cellar; Rabaud-Promis, is reluctant to put its wine up for judging against its peers, and for which I have few (but mainly ‘very good’ rather than ‘fine’) notes, and Château Coutet. Coutet can be brilliant (1989, 1990) but can be disappointing, as on my first (and so far sole) encounter with the 1997.

The second growths are more irregular. Châteaux Broustet, Lamothe, Romer-du-Hayot and Suau produce unexceptional wine. Filhot is produced with little botrytis and lives in fibre-glass tanks, not new or newish oak. The vines at Château de Myrat are very young. Château Doisy-Dubroca, though delicious (it is made by the Climens team) is so tiny that the wine is rarely seen. This leaves us with Château d’Arche, rich and fullish, dependable if not mind-blowingly exciting; Château Nairac, concentrated and oaky, sometimes a little too much so, sometimes lacking a little elegance (this is the vineyard closest to the River Garonne), and Château Caillou, where the basic wine is often neutered by the creaming off of a crème de tête (a special super-cuvée), and is merely sweet and heavy, occasionally sulphury. The two Doisys are often the best of the second growths. Doisy-Daëne is elegant and flowery; Doisy-Védrines is rich, concentrated and stylish, particularly successful in the 1988, 1989, 1990 trio of vintages. Château Lamothe-Guignard is clean, stylish and nicely rich, consistent and good value. Château de Malle is in the style of Doisy-Daëne: the 1988 is very lovely, as promises to be the 1997.

Behind the classed growths are two major contenders: Château de Fargues, owned by Yquem, and Château Raymond-Lafon. Both are well-known, expensive, and when set among the super-stars, betrayed by the inferiority of their terroir. They may have lusciousness, but they lack elegance. On the other hand they are better than the average of the second growths. Then there is a strange animal called Château Gilette. The wine is aged for up to 15 years in glass-lined tanks before being bottled. The result is original, the difficulty is that the basic juice, while certainly concentrated and sweet, rarely seems to be properly botrytised. It is also expensive. Value for money lies elsewhere. Here are my favourites:

Château Bastor-Lamontagne: a reliable estate next to the autoroute in Preignac. Good botrytis flavours.

Château Cantegril: made by Pierre Dubourdieu of Château Doisy-Daëne. Lovely elegant fruit if no great weight.

Château Gravas: a Barsac property close to Château Coutet. Elegant wines.

Château Haut-Bergeron: another Preignac estate. Proper use of new oak here, as well as elegance and concentration.

Château Liot: the opposite to Château Gravas. A Barsac lying next to (and with similarities to) Climens. The wine is fat and luscious, but can be a touch sulphury.

Château Piada: the vines lie between Château Coutet and the Doisys in Barsac. Carefully made wines with fruit and style.

Château Saint-Armand: situated close to the main road outside the village of Preignac, overlooking the river Ciron, this produces a plump, medium-weight, reliable Sauternes for the mid-term. Some of the wine is sold as Château la Chartreuse.

The latest vintages:

After the glories of the great 1988, 1989, 1990 trio, the weather in the Sauternais was unconducive to finely concentrated botrytised wine until 1996 – a long wait. This was followed by what promises to be an even better vintage in 1997. Here I pronounce warily. Sauternes blends are not normally made until a year or more after the vintage. What one is offered in the spring after the harvest is but an approximation. So far I have seen the 1997s once and the 1996s twice, but only from those châteaux who deigned to submit samples (so no d’Arche, no Rabaud-Promis in 1997) to a communal blind tasting. From this limited base I’d suggest that in both vintages the properties on the higher ground away from the river have fared better than Barsac, with the exceptions of Climens in both vintages, Coutet in 1996 and de Malle in 1997. Other stars in 1997 are Rayne-Vigneau, Lafaurie-Peyraguey, Sigalas-Rabaud, Suduiraut and Rieussec, with Lamothe-Guignard worth a mention for outstanding value (nearly as good but half the price). Among the 1996 the following showed well in April 1998. As well as those above, I would recommend Clos Haut-Peyraguey, Lafaurie-Peyraguey, Sigalas-Rabaud and Suduiraut, followed by Rieussec and La Tour-Blanche. Prices, however, are as high or higher, than those asked for the best 1988, 1989 and 1990. With these three vintages approaching maturity, and no sign that demand is surging to push prices up further, I would go for the older wines.

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