France – Bordeaux

Sauternes: It’s What’s For Breakfast

28 April 2017

Everyone agrees that we should all be drinking more Sauternes. The World Atlas of Wine calls it “lamentably underappreciated but incomparable,” and The Oxford Companion to Wine argues that “it remains underpriced in relation to the enormous pleasure it brings to those growing numbers of wine lovers who find a fine Sauternes has an undeniable place on the dinner table.”

Alas, Sauternes is the gym membership of wine. We all think it’s a great idea, but too few of us actually take advantage of it.

For perhaps the first time in my life, I attended a dinner where the Sauternes truly flowed: at the charming Auberge les Vignes in the village of Sauternes itself. Over some exquisite foie gras and sensationally flavorful duck breast that had been grilled in the restaurant’s fireplace, the six of us who won the 2017 Millésima Wine Blog Awards discussed Bordeaux’s famous sweet wine with Pierre Montégut, the Technical Director of Château Suduiraut.

Auberge les Vignes

“People tell me all the time that they love Sauternes, and that they don’t understand why people don’t drink more of it,” he said. “Then I ask them, how many bottles of Sauternes do you drink in a month? Or in a year?” If people manage two or three bottles a year, they’re at the top end of the curve, unfortunately. I’m ashamed to admit that I probably average only a bottle a year myself.

What makes Sauternes so special, anyway? In a word: rot. The vineyards of Sauternes (and neighboring Barsac) grow near the confluence of the Garonne and Ciron rivers. Starting in the early autumn, the Garonne is warm enough so that when the cool spring-fed waters of the Ciron flow into it, the temperature difference causes evening mists. The fog creates conditions ideal for the development of Botrytis cinerea, or Noble Rot. This mold looks ugly but it is vital to Sauternes.

The vineyards of Château Suduiraut abut forest and the vineyards of Château d’Yquem

Noble Rot causes minuscule holes in the skins of the grape, encouraging water inside to evaporate, concentrating the remaining juice. But simple concentration isn’t enough — that only sweetens the wine. The mold also chemically alters the juice, usually Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, adding important complexity and aroma. Unfortunately, the mold does not affect all the grapes at once, and the best châteaux harvest multiple times, sometimes going so far as to select berries individually in the vineyard.

When it works, the wine is sweet, yes, but it also has an almost startling liveliness, with big but focused acidity and a shaft of spice, in addition to flavors such as green tobacco, mint, oak, orange, saffron and jasmine combining with the honeyed richness. It’s one of the most sensual wines I can think of. The combination of sweetness, acidity and freshness is one of the wine world’s most compelling.

Agnes Nemeth and the Head Sommelier of the InterContinental Bordeaux – Le Grand Hotel

Why do we deny ourselves the pleasures of Sauternes? Well, dessert wine just isn’t a thing in the United States, for starters. I have yet to attend a dinner party in Chicago in which a friend presented a wine to pair with dessert (or a dessert wine as dessert), and people don’t think to order it in restaurants, either. And it’s not just Americans. Even in the city of Bordeaux, the Head Sommelier of the restaurants in the InterContinental Bordeaux – Le Grand Hotel said that she rarely sells Sauternes. People might order a glass from time to time, but it was highly unusual for a table to order a bottle.

On my visit, what we’re missing by ignoring Sauternes became painfully clear. First, let’s start with something inexpensive and relatively easy to find: the 2013 Lions de Suduiraut, a new Sauternes developed by Suduiraut to emphasize freshness and minerality, which you can open immediately with no decanting, according to Montégut. The flavor started on a rich and honeyed note, but a wave of sharp ginger spice swept in, along with bright, orangey acids. The finish was fresh and spicy, not sweet. It’s absolutely delicious, rather sexy, and a screaming value at just $13 for a half-bottle.

Pierre Montégut, Technical Director of Château Suduiraut

What about something a little older and more expensive? We did an unforgettable vertical tasting (trying several different vintages of the same wine) at Château Suduiraut, one of which was the 2009. Its aroma had more to it than the Lions’ did, with heady honeysuckle, tropical fruit and some spiciness. The flavor kept changing and flowing — honey, orange, cardamom, hay — and all the notes felt beautifully integrated and refined. Fellow Millésima blog award-winner Agnes Nemeth of Hungarian Wines remarked, “I would really use this as a perfume.” Binny’s sells this wine for $45 for a half-bottle, an excellent value considering the quality. Even better, buy a magnum of it from Millésima for $190 and throw a party.

Sauternes, though white, can age just as well as any red, especially in the good years. Consider the 1997 Château Suduiraut, which had an aroma redolent of honey and something savory as well. It tasted of overripe apricot and dark honey, which moved into toffee/caramel country. Deep and dark orange acids, along with some spiciness and a touch of something smokey, assured balance. Gorgeous and complex.

To hammer home the point, Montégut also presented us with a bottle of 1975 Château Suduiraut to have with dessert at the Auberge les Vignes. This wine is older than I am, and yet it still feels lively. The aroma had an almost startling freshness to it. And I felt thoroughly seduced by the flavors of dark honey, green tobacco, dark orange and honeysuckle. The acids and spice were more than up to the task of balancing the sweetness. This unforgettable wine can be had for $80 to $100, according to Wine Searcher. That’s insane. I’m tempted to buy a bottle before I finish writing this post.

The 1975 Château Suduiraut caused quite a stir at the Auberge les Vignes!

We also had the chance to try numerous Sauternes en primeur, which means that we sampled the latest vintage, 2016, well before bottling, in order to try to determine the vintage’s quality. According to Montégut, Sauternes this young should display balance, freshness, and energy on the finish, if they’re to attain greatness.

I think the 2016 vintage should be quite fine, even though the Noble Rot arrived only in the last half of October. The 2016 Bastor-Lamontagne had more citrus to it than honey, with ginger spice and a dry finish. Château Guiraud took things a step further, balancing its dark honey flavors with deep orangey acids and a surprising blast of eucalyptus freshness. Lafaurie-Peyraguey offered stone fruit, incense and more of that eye-opening eucalyptus. And then there was the Sigalas-Rabaud, which kept itself taut as it moved through flavors of honey and peach, ending with such freshness that I felt as if I’d just popped a breath mint. Wow.

Jeff Burrows and Lisa Denning at our vertical tasting at Château Suduiraut

Which brings me to breakfast. We started our vertical tasting of Château Suduiraut at 9:30 a.m., at the end of a long week of château hopping. The week was a joy, to be sure, but exhausting. That tasting at Suduiraut perked me up far more than the pot of coffee I’d had earlier. The wines — we sampled ten of them — felt positively invigorating. Each one made me feel more and more energized, even aroused.

At brunch, we Americans tend to drink only two alcoholic beverages: Bloody Marys and sparkling wine. Why not Sauternes? I wrote in my notebook, “These would be amazing with some chicken and waffles!” Or pancakes and sausages. It’s an ideal breakfast wine. And because Sauternes is sweet and spicy, it also would work well with a range of Asian foods. If you think of sweet wines as simple and heavy, you’re not thinking of Sauternes. Instead, think rich, racy, complex and fresh.

Rare is the wine which will please absolutely everyone, from the most amateur wine drinker to the most jaded connoisseur. Sauternes is one of those wines.

For more about Sauternes and some fantastic photos of the vertical tasting at Château Suduiraut, check out this post by fellow award-winner Jeff Burrows of FoodWineClick, or this post for more photos of the village itself.

Award-winner Chiara Bassi of Perlage Suite also wrote about Sauternes, posting about our dinner at Auberges les Vignes here. She also wrote about our 2016 en primeur Sauternes tasting here, including detailed tasting notes about 19 different wines.

And on my blog, you can learn more about the 2011 vintage and why Sauternes is Bordeaux’s Most Underpriced Wine.

Note: These wine samples were all provided free of charge.

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Château Margaux: Is It Worth It?

14 April 2017

Corinne Menztelopoulos and the author (photo by Lisa Denning)

“I don’t know! Do I like Rob?” asked Corinne Mentzelopoulos, owner of Château Margaux, while considering the seating arrangement for lunch. We all laughed, because she was almost certainly joking. Against her better judgment, she placed me next to her at the dining table. Immediately I was smitten by this woman, with her easy elegance and wicked sense of humor.

Already I had been feeling a little overwhelmed. The schedule, arranged by Millésima for the six of us who had won its wine blog competition, said only this about the visit: “Private tasting & lunch at Château Margaux with Aurélien Valance, Managing Director and member of the Blog Awards jury.”

I had anticipated a lunch in the airy new Norman Foster-designed winery with Valance and perhaps a PR person for Margaux. But our group paused before the tall gates leading to the neo-Palladian château itself, and they proceeded to swing open. The building looked familiar — it appears on the château’s wine labels, which I had seen reproduced in my World Atlas of Wine. But the drawing didn’t prepare me for the experience of standing in front of the château itself.

Château Margaux

It has a startling and imposing verticality, with four ionic columns and a pediment rising from a base that itself is 22 steps above ground level (I counted). Château Margaux’s General Director Philippe Bascaules descended to meet us, accompanied by what appeared to be a foxhound. I have been witness to few tableaux more aristocratic than this.

He led us inside to the entry hall and an adjacent salon, both decorated in high French Empire style, with spindly-legged chairs upholstered in jewel-tone silk damask and marble-topped tables supported by winged caryatid figures. In my hand was a flute of Krug Champagne. I stared at it and my surroundings for a moment, feeling a sort of elated confusion.

“I don’t want to see any blog posts about Krug at Château Margaux!” someone joked. I refrained from taking tasting notes.*

Instead, I fell into conversation with Monsieur Bascaules. He had loved his time at Inglenook, he told me, but he was pleased to be back in France, at Margaux, where he had worked for 20 years before his time in California. I asked what food he most craved when he returned to France. “The bread,” he replied, without hesitation. “A crusty baguette… it’s just different here.” I told him I agreed, and that I felt the same way about chocolate chip cookies. It’s impossible to find good ones outside the U.S, I explained. Just as I realized that I was using my time with Philippe Bascaules to discuss baked goods, we were summoned to lunch.

We descended to the former kitchen. The formal dining room is too stuffy, Mentzelopoulos told us, and doesn’t promote relaxed conversation. A fire blazed in the giant hearth, complete with a spit for roasting entire lambs or pigs. In the center of the vaulted room of golden stone was a round table, laid with crystal wine glasses, tightly packed flower arrangements and delicate china of green, gold and white, all atop a pristine tablecloth embroidered with silk leaves. This room may be the more casual, relaxed dining space, but it dazzled nevertheless.

I took my place at the table between Madame Mentzelopoulos and her son, Alexis Leven-Mentzelopoulos (he goes by Alexi). His sister, Alexandra Petit-Mentzelopoulos sat across from us. Because the two of them were young, beautiful, thin and rich, I hoped just a little bit that they would be haughty or in some other way unpleasant. Instead, they proved to be quite down-to-earth and charming, and as fluent in English as in French (and goodness knows what other languages). Alexandra later asked me for my card. “I want to know the best place in Chicago for deep-dish pizza,” she told me, to my astonishment.

Alexis Leven-Mentzelopoulos and Alexandra Petit-Mentzelopoulos

I looked at the hand-lettered menu (which did not mention pizza, for better or worse) and discovered that we would be starting with the 2011 Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux, a 100% Sauvignon Blanc classed as a humble Bordeaux AOC (the Margaux appellation has no room for whites). Château Margaux has produced a white for three centuries, Madame Mentzelopoulos explained to us, starting when the château’s winemaker decided to separate the white and red grapes during vinification. Until then, most Bordeaux wines had been field blends of both red and white grapes.

It smelled spicy, with an undertone of tropical fruit. The wine felt lush and round, with creamy stone-fruit and tropical-fruit flavors, leavened with some focused green-peppercorn spice. A forceful but graceful wine, with a finish that was long and fresh. It worked beautifully with some crab salad topped with mango gelée. If you tasted this side by side with a Sauvignon Blanc from, say, New Zealand, you would never guess that the wines came from the same grape. Binny’s currently sells the 2015 Pavillon Blanc as a future for $140 a bottle. It’s steep, but if you have the funds, the wine is worth the money for a special occasion.

Foie gras stuffed chicken and 1996 Château Margaux

To pair with some foie gras-stuffed chicken, waiters poured us glasses of 1996 Château Margaux. Of this vintage, wine writer Jancis Robinson wrote, “You might call the 1996s classic, so long as you were sure that this would not be interpreted as skinny.” All the other sources I consulted also regarded 1996 as a very fine vintage for Cabernet Sauvignon in the Médoc, the left bank region where Margaux is located.

Aurélian Valance held up his glass and said simply, “This is Château Margaux.” He went on to tell us how this particular bottling was the first to give him a “wine emotion.” He loved it so much, in fact, that it inspired him to approach Madame Mentzelopoulos and ask if he could work at Château Margaux. She appreciated his enthusiasm and chutzpah, and gave him a job.

Madame Mentzelopoulos told us that “The tannins of Château Margaux are always very soft — you almost forget them.” That’s no mean feat for a wine composed of 82% Cabernet Sauvignon aged in 100% new oak (the rest of the blend in this vintage is 12% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot and 2% Cabernet Franc). “Sometimes people confuse the tannins of wood with the tannins of grapes,” she explained.

Wine.com currently sells the 1996 for $850 a bottle. What on earth do you get for that price?

I smelled the wine, redolent of dark cherries but with a wonderful freshness buoying them up. I braced myself — it’s not every day I try an $850 wine — and took a sip. The fruit flavors of dark berries and cherries felt pure and rich, and the wine positively vibrated in my mouth. The fruit rang like a bell, such was its clarity. The wine hummed on my palate, developing with great evenness and confidence. It moved with consistency, grace and firmness from one note to the next, and it still felt young, in spite of its age and in spite of it having been decanted.

Millésima’s photographer Frederic Lot in the Château Margaux winery

Involuntarily, I groaned and sighed. Madame Mentzelopoulos turned to me and said, with a twinkle in her eye, “You should be ashamed of yourself!”

I wish I could say that I responded with something like, “Madame, I am shameless!” or “Au contraire, Madame, it is you who should be ashamed!” But my mind was still aglow with the wonder of the wine, and witticisms were temporarily beyond my capacity.

It’s hard to believe that a wine that costs $850 a bottle could possibly be worth it. After all, there are perfectly lovely wines that cost $12. If you are one of the fortunate few with $850 to blow on a bottle, are you getting anything for your money other than hype and prestige? What makes Château Margaux so special that it can charge such a price?

It’s the finesse. The wine shifts gears in the mouth like an expert driver handling a finely tuned stick-shift racing car. That kind of experience comes at a price. Château Margaux is wildly expensive, yes, but it has the stuffing to back up the price. You can bet that if I were a millionaire, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy a case.

Philippe Bascaules, General Director of Château Margaux, discussing 2016

The 2016 vintage looks just as promising, should you be interested in investing in futures. The aroma of the château’s second wine, Pavillon Rouge, leapt from the glass, and I loved its cherry-pie fruit and sneaky tannins. The 2016 Château Margaux already felt lush and integrated, with rich fruit, focused acids and graceful tannins, capped with a fresh note of mint. And the 2016 Pavillon Blanc had all the tropical fruit and creamy stone fruit I loved in the 2011, plus an enticing note of popcorn and juicy green-apple acids. What a joy.

On our way to the winery to taste the 2016 vintage, Madame Mentzelopoulos drew our attention to a mosaic mounted on the wall. “This is a Roman mosaic, but it has the Greek name,” she told us. “I like that it’s Dionysus, and not Bacchus,” she continued. A few people, aware of the title of my blog, glanced nervously in my direction. “Dionysus is elegant, you see here,” she said, pointing to the lithe figure in the center. “Bacchus is fat and drunk and vulgar.” And very, very happy, I’d add.

The allée leading away from Château Margaux

Whether Madame Mentzelopoulos liked me or not is an open question, but my feelings about her and her wines are not in doubt.

Note: The lunch and wines at Château Margaux were provided free of charge, as part of the program for the Millésima Wine Blog Competition winners.

*Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but notice that the Krug somehow managed to feel crisp and rich at the same time, and that its bubbles were sublimely elegant. But for my money, I’ll stick with a lesser-known Grower Champagne.

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Vote In The Millésima Wine Blog Awards

17 January 2017

I received some terribly exciting news yesterday: Odd Bacchus is a finalist in the 2017 Millésima Wine Blog Awards! My post, The Most Unusual Wine of Gevrey-Chambertin, was one of three American-written pieces selected in the “Wine Travel” category.

To win the grand prize — a trip to Bordeaux! — I need your help and your votes. Follow this link to cast your ballot: https://fcld.me/lxW3td. You can find Odd Bacchus under the Wine Travel (USA) section.

I also ask that you take one more moment to share the link above in a post on Facebook, and encourage your friends to vote for me as well.

I’m in very good company, with Christine Havens who wrote a fascinating piece about one of my favorite wine regions, Hungary’s Tokaj, and Cindy Rynning, who wrote this fun post about California’s Livermore Valley, an area which deserves to be better known.

It’s an honor to share the title of finalist with these talented bloggers.

I treasure your support, and I thank you for your vote. To win a competition like this would be simply unbelievable.

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Top White Wines Of 2014

31 December 2014
An ethereal Wind Gap Trousseau Gris from the Russian River Valley

An ethereal Wind Gap Trousseau Gris from the Russian River Valley

For this idiosyncratic list, I chose whites that surprised me one way or another, and whites that exhibited impressive balance. When a wine’s fruit, acids and other flavors are tautly in sync, it can be an absolutely thrilling experience. Don’t settle for white wines that are simply innocuous and bland. There are too many beautifully lively bottles out there to waste your time with anything that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice.

The wines below represent a tiny taste of what’s out there beyond the giant industrial-sized brands found in every grocery store. These are wines with heart. They have to be, since most of the companies making these wines have minimal marketing budgets.

You won’t find all of these particular wines with ease, but if you see one that sounds particularly enticing, bring the description to your local wine shop and ask for something similar. A good wine clerk will send you in the right direction.

And now, in alphabetical order, the most memorable white wines I tried in 2014:

 

2013 ANSELMI CAPITEL CROCE

In 2000, Roberto Anselmi very publicly withdrew his wines from the Soave DOC, writing in an open letter, “I’m walking out of Soave and leaving it to its fate. Let it wear out its vital cycle, good luck to it, I want my freedom…”

Now bottling his whites under the broader Veneto IGT, Anselmi has used his freedom to the fullest. This 100% Garganega comes from a choice hillside vineyard rich with limestone. It had a sweet aroma with some spice, and a wonderfully refined texture on the palate. I loved its creamy fruit, focused ginger spice and long finish dusted with subtle minerals. Very classy.

 

2008 BARTA PINCE ÖREG KIRÁLY DŰLŐ 6 PUTTONYOS TOKAJI ASZÚ

The courtyard of Barta Pince

The courtyard of Barta Pince

Hungary’s Tokaj region became famous in the courts of Europe for its sweet aszú (botrytized) wines, such as this one by Barta Pince. This extraordinary wine from the Öreg Király vineyard has a whopping 257 grams of sugar per liter. Compare that to, say, Dr. Loosen’s 2006 Beerenauslese from Germany’s Mosel Valley, which has a mere 142 grams per liter.

With all that sugar, could it possibly be balanced? The aroma seemed promising — rich honey underlined by fresh mint. It tasted very, very rich, with honeyed fruit and dusky orange. Acids felt relaxed and slow, gracefully balancing out all the sweetness. Wow. I wrote in my notebook that this wine “feels wise beyond its years.”

 

2012 BRUNO TRAPAN ISTRIAN MALVAZIJA “PONENTE”

Istria, a triangular peninsula jutting off the northwest of Croatia, used to belong to Italy, and its food and wine has started to rival that of its former owner. This Istrian Malvasia (known locally as Malvazija Istarska)  had a memorably rich aroma which almost moved into caramel territory. Savory and a bit floral, this beautifully balanced wine had notably focused acids and an underlying note of salinity.

Michel Garat with Chateau Bastor-Lamontagne

Michel Garat with Chateau Bastor-Lamontagne

Unusual and very, very tasty.

 

2011 CHÂTEAU BASTOR-LAMONTAGNE SAUTERNES

The 2011 vintage happened to be a particularly good year for Sauternes, as well as dry white Bordeaux wines (it was uneven for reds). This assertion was strongly supported by a Bordeaux tasting I attended, where the Sauternes ranged from memorable to absolutely astounding.

My favorite was the dazzling Bastor-Lamontagne. It had a fresh and fruity honeysuckle aroma with nothing heavy about it. There was the rich and opulent character one expects from a fine Sauternes, but here, a rocket of minerality and acids shot right through the middle with electrifying focus. It rang like a bell; it was a taut violin string plucked in a clear pool of nectar. This château may not be Sauternes’ most famous or highly classed, but in 2011 at least, Bastor-Lamontagne crafted a thing of invigorating beauty.

 

Winemaker Gabriel Mustakis, with Cousiño-Macul’s Sauvignon Gris

2013 COUSIÑO-MACUL “ISADORA” SAUVIGNON GRIS

A pink-skinned mutant of Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris almost became extinct because of its low yields, but the variety “has an increasing following, notably in Bordeaux and the Loire,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, and it “has found itself quite at home in Chile,” Wine Searcher explains.

Cousiño-Macul’s Sauvignon Gris varietal smelled fun and citrusy, with notes of grapefruit and orange peel. The grapefruit carried through when I tasted this Chilean wine, which had very focused acids and laser-like spice. It tasted bright, zesty and cheerful, with ample fruit and acids well in balance. Not too shabby for a wine that typically retails for less than $14!

 

2011 ERZSÉBET PINCE LATE HARVEST KÖVÉRSZŐLŐ

Unpronounceable Kövérszőlő, also known as Grasa de Cotnari, almost died out in Tokaj during the phylloxera epidemic. But it was revived in the late 1980s and 90s, and a few wineries like family-owned Erzsébet Pince produce varietal wines from it. It had a fresh honeyed aroma, but despite its high sugar content, it did not feel at all syrupy. And not because of powerful acids — instead, there was a wonderfully light, ethereal quality to this wine.

 

2012 GRABEN GRITSCH SCHÖN GRÜNER VELTLINER SMARAGD

Inside Vienna's Palmenhaus

Inside Vienna’s Palmenhaus

“Schön,” which means pretty, is not an adjective in this case but the name of a vineyard on the far western edge of the Wachau Valley near the town of Spitz in Austria.

I loved this wine, which clocks in at a hefty 14.5% alcohol. It had a complex aroma of dried herbs, green fruit and even a hint of smoke. But when I tasted the wine, it burst with rich fruit, leavened by cedar and some focused gingery spice. It felt very decadent and exotic — perfect for sipping on the terrace of Palmenhaus, a regal café and restaurant occupying what was once the imperial palm house of the Habsburgs.

 

2012 JURAJ ZÁPRAŽNÝ PINOT GRIS

Tasting with Rado in the Národný Salón Vín

Tasting with Rado in the Národný Salón Vín

What a delightful surprise. This wine comes from Slovakia’s Južnoslovenská region, which is apparently “warm and sunny,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. It had an enticingly spicy, stony aroma and lush, full fruit on the palate. A shaft of gingery spice kept things well in balance.

I could easily imagine buying this by the case, if it were actually available somewhere (I tasted it at Bratislava’s Národný Salón Vín, a cellar in a rococo palace which assembles the top 100 wines of Slovakia, culled from a selection of some 8,000 bottlings).

 

2010 JUVÉ Y CAMPS RESERVA DE LA FAMILIA CAVA

You’ll encounter vintage-dated Cavas far more frequently than vintage Champagnes or Proseccos. This example includes the three traditional Cava grape varieties, Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel·lo, and it includes no dosage, the mixture of wine and sugar syrup added to most méthode Champenoise wines at the final stage of production. A dosage can smooth over certain flaws in a sparkling wine, in addition to adding some sweetness. Omitting it entirely is risky. As Juvé y Camps’ Export Area Manager Oriol Gual explained, “It’s like working without a safety net.”

Juvé y Camps crossed the tightrope with this wine, certainly. It had a surprising and very pleasant aroma of light caramel, popcorn and orange peel. Elegant and zesty on the palate, it exhibited prickly bubbles and notes of citrus and light toast.

 

Next up: The top reds.

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Bordeaux’s Most Underpriced Wine

1 February 2014
Michel with Chateau Bastor-Lamontagne

Michel with Château Bastor-Lamontagne

When wine drinkers see the word “Bordeaux,” most think of great reds, and very expensive ones at that. Especially in the wake of the widely heralded 2009 and 2010 vintages, demand for top red Bordeaux has never been higher. But sweet white wines are hardly as fashionable, especially in the United States, where we like our steaks beefy and our wines even beefier.

The softer demand for sweet white wines results in softer prices, which means that some of the greatest wines of Bordeaux are affordable for you and me. Instead of St-Estèphe and Paulliac, we need to look for Sauternes and Barsac. These wines need not be relegated to foie gras and dessert pairings — many have the acids and freshness to pair well with Thai and Indian dishes, which can be difficult to match with something drier.

But really, you may wonder, are the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac actually all that special? At the recent Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting in Chicago, I tried several remarkable Sauternes, including one with a laser-like beam of acids and minerals shooting through a gloriously rich nectar of honeyed fruit. That’s the 2011 Château Bastor-Lamontagne. It startled me, this wine, with its sumptuous flavor and pristine clarity, and I became even more startled when I learned the price: $30-$40 a bottle. Quite a difference from the stratospheric sums red Bordeaux wines fetch nowadays.

The price seems even more shocking when one takes into consideration the incredible amount of work and luck that goes into a Sauternes or a Barsac (or a Preignac or a Fargues, all of which can be classified as Sauternes, the term I will henceforth use to refer to the entire area).

The vineyards of Sauternes grow near the junction of two rivers, the key to their success. The Oxford Companion to Wine explains:

When, in autumn, the cool spring-fed Ciron waters flow into the warmer tidal Garonne, evening mists envelop the vineyards until late morning the following day, when the sun, if it shines, burns the mist away. This moist atmosphere encourages Botrytis cinerea, a fungus that attacks the grapes and causes them to shrivel and rot.

Shriveled, rotted grapes sound pretty terrible, but this “Noble Rot” reduces the water content of the grapes, concentrating the sugars. The fungus also chemically alters the grapes in many favorable ways, increasing aromas and complexity in a manner impossible to replicate by simply letting water evaporate from the grapes or pressed juice.

Chateau Lafaurie-PeyragueyNoble Rot does not usually affect a vineyard evenly, however, which means the châteaux most dedicated to quality must pick grapes by hand, picking only the bunches — or indeed only the individual grapes — that have rotted enough. In some unfortunate years, there can be so little Noble Rot that some châteaux simply skip the vintage altogether and hope for better conditions next time. As you might imagine, yields even in the best years tend to be quite low.

Fortunately, 2011 happened to be a particularly good year for Sauternes, as well as dry white Bordeaux wines (it was uneven for reds). This assertion was strongly supported by the tasting I attended, where the Sauternes ranged from memorable to absolutely astounding. There wasn’t a single dud, and believe me, I tried them all.

Even so, it pays to not go for the least-expensive Sauternes you can find. Some châteaux are more painstaking in their harvesting and winemaking than others. Ask your wine shop for a recommendation, or consider one of the Sauternes below:

2011 Château Suduiraut: This Preignac-based château ranks as a Premier Cru Classé, and no wonder — its vineyard adjoins that of the legendary Château d’Yquem. According to Directeur Technique Pierre Montégut, Suduiraut’s blend of 92% Sémillon and 8% Sauvignon Blanc has more freshness than Yquem, because whereas Yquem has some clay in its soil, Suduiraut has only gravel. And indeed, underneath the classic honeyed aroma, I detected a shaft of stone. The wine tasted very rich at first, but tightly focused gingery spice and broad orangey acids gave it admirable balance.

2011 Château La Tour Blanche: State-owned La Tour Blanche is one of Sauternes’ most important châteaux, not only because it produces excellent wines but because it serves as a school for the next generation of Sauternes’ vintners. But Sales Manager Didier Fréchinet assured me that the wine was crafted by experts, not students, and I have no reason to doubt his claim. La Tour Blanche’s honeyed white-fruit aroma had an appealingly intriguing undertone of something burnt. There was that wonderfully lush richness, but this lithe wine moved across the palate with impressive lightness, finishing fresh and focused with white-pepper spice. La Tour Blanche exemplified what I love about Sauternes — it manages the seemingly impossible feat of tasting deeply rich and fresh and lively all at once.

2011 Château Coutet: Aline Baly, who manages this Premier Cru Classé estate in Barsac with her uncle, related that Coutet’s first recorded vintage dates back to 1643, and that until the 1920’s, M. Lur-Saluces had his horse barn on the property (a connection with Yquem’s Lur-Saluces family is gold in Sauternes). The classic honeyed fruit Sauternes aroma had enticing orange notes and a pleasing waft of salinity. The wine tasted wonderfully lush, its richness leavened with some herbaceousness, notes of bitter orange and eye-poppingly zesty acids. Delicious. The charming Baly remarked, “As Anthony Giglio says, acids are the Zamboni of the palate,” and indeed they are!

Didier Frechinet of La Tour Blanche

Didier Fréchinet of La Tour Blanche

2011 Château de Rayne-Vigneau: Situated between La Tour Blanche and Lafaurie-Peyraguey (see below), this Sauternes tasted as fresh as a dewy spring morning. It had a surprisingly green aroma, and hovering over the rich, spicy flavors was something aromatic and exotic, a whisper of something like frankincense. 

2011 Château de Fargues: The ancestral home of the Lur-Saluces family, Château de Fargues uses “essentially the same fastidious methods as Yquem,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, an assertion confirmed by Directeur Général Eudes d’Orleans. This barrel sample (it won’t be bottled until June) felt incredibly plump, with notes of roasted peaches and minerals. It developed very slowly and deliberately on the palate, the sumptuous texture balanced by big, orangey acids.

2011 Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey: This château mixes in 1% of Muscadet in with the traditional Sauternes blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc. It must make a difference; a delightful freshness was overlayed on top of the dark honey aroma, and the wine positively sparkled on the tongue. The zestiest acids I’d experienced so far made this wine feel incredibly lively and bright, in spite of its deep, deep richness.

2011 Château Bastor-Lamontagne: As I described above, this Sauternes was dazzling. It had a fresh and fruity honeysuckle aroma with nothing heavy about it. There was the rich and opulent character one expects from a fine Sauternes, but here, a rocket of minerality and acids shot right through the middle with electrifying focus. It rang like a bell; it was a taut violin string plucked in a clear pool of nectar. I took notes on this exquisite wine, but it was unnecessary — there is no chance I’ll ever forget the 2011 Bastor-Lamontagne. This château may not be Sauternes’ most famous or highly classed, but in 2011 at least, Bastor-Lamontagne crafted a thing of invigorating beauty.

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