2004 and 2003 Sauternes and Barsacs

With buying interest in Bordeaux's sweet wines currently focused on the 2005 vintage, the freakishly sweet and rich 2003s, with lovely purity of fruit and strong botrytis character, are looking better and better at their current price levels. In my annual Sauternes/Barsac tasting, I found the 2003s to be utterly seductive wines, most of them offering great pleasure already but the best of them possessing more than enough stuffing, not to mention very high levels of residual sugar, for at least mid-term aging. For fans of sugar-laden dessert wine, this vintage demands at least selective buying.

I also got my first in-depth look at good representative samples of the 2004s. This tricky vintage threatened to be a washout not long before the harvest began, owing to a mediocre July and a damp August that resulted in numerous vine maladies, including the beginnings of grey rot. The first picking was grim: for the better estates, this first trie, or pass through the vines, was really a nettoyage (or "cleaning-up"), allowing them the opportunity to discard bloated grapes and those affected by rot, split skins and other problems. The saving feature of the vintage was that the fruit that remained to be picked during favorable conditions in late September and early October was much better: cleaner, purer and with varying degrees of botrytis character. Not surprisingly, the ultimate quality of the wines depended largely on selection, and the best estates ultimately produced very little wine (typically 8 to 12 hectoliters per hectare). In style, the vintage is leanish to medium in weight, with average alcohol, average to below-average residual sugar, and good average acidity—somewhat in the style of 2002 but a bit less "northerly" and racy in character. At this early stage, the vintage rates as good to very good but not better than that.

I was also able to taste the majority of the young 2005s, but these wines, many of which were just finishing their fermentations, were extremely difficult to taste in April. The new crop of wines is clearly highly concentrated, but it is far too early to call this an outstanding vintage for Bordeaux's sweet wines—or to compare them to the 2001s. In the early going, the wines showed a bit less personality than I expected. And of course prices are generally high. Rieussec and Suduiraut raised eyebrows with their en primeur pricing, but in retrospect these prices look almost reasonable in light of subsequent prices for Bordeaux's classified growths. (Yquem opened in late June at the same nosebleed price as Cheval Blanc, with futures beginning at about $7,500 per case.) Those looking for relative bargains in '05 might consider Nairac, Guiraud and La Tour Blanche, three wines that appear to be potentially outstanding based on my early tastings. Climens was also potentially superb.