1997 and 1996 Sauternes

My extremely early look at Bordeaux 1998 sweet wines suggests that this was the third consecutive successful vintage for Sauternes and Barsacs.(Among the most promising wines I sampled in early April were Coutet, Guiraud, Rayne-Vigneau, Rieussec and Suduiraut.)But it's a futile exercise to make early judgments on these wines because in most cases the final blends have not been made; many are still hazy or have recently been sulfured, further complicating early tastings.Still, on my recent tour of Bordeaux I took advantage of an opportunity to taste a number of wines from the '97 and '96 vintages, the former approaching their finished states in barrel, the latter from bottle.I found a number of excellent wines, and a few that may prove to be outstanding.

For a successful Sauternes vintage, 1997 is atypical in that ripeness and concentration occurred through passerillage (dehydration of the grapes by sun and wind) more than through noble rot.Under the mostly dry conditions of the harvest, botrytis spread extremely slowly.But the wines have plenty of richness as well as very good levels of acidity (in most cases, higher than the acids of '98).Some insiders compare this vintage to 1988, but I'll wait until the '97s are safely in bottle to venture a comparison.1996, a more classic Sauternes vintage, featured a faster onset of botrytis.Fruit harvested in the middle third of October was particularly strong in noble rot and volume.Yet many of the better wines come across as tangier, more sauvignon-dominated, and occasionally higher-toned than their '97 counterparts owing to their botrytis component.Average yields at the two dozen most important crus classés were just over 21 hectoliters per hectare in '96, and barely 17 in '97.