2011 Bordeaux: Sauternes

The wines of Sauternes and Barsac are spectacular in 2011.  In fact, they are by far the best Bordeaux wines of all in this vintage.  In 2011, these unique sweet wines are characterized by great freshness, upfront ripe fruit, and an easy-drinking quality that will give them immense early appeal.  But the best wines also have the acidity to age effortlessly. 

Also worthy of note is that overall quality is amazingly uniform in 2011:  offhand, I can't remember a Sauternes vintage with fewer disappointing wines.  There is also plenty of botrytis, though a touch less than in 2007 (the recent vintage 2011 most resembles), and therefore the best wines also possess considerable complexity.  In my view, since the beginning of the 21st century, only 2001 is clearly a better Sauternes vintage than 2011, although those wine lovers who like their Sauternes opulent may prefer 2009 to the 2011s as well.  But more than any of those other great vintages, the wines of 2011 are so fresh, crisp and balanced that they will not only be great to drink young but will also prove to be remarkably flexible with food--not just cheese, foie gras and desserts, but also everything from cold pumpkin soups to roast scallops with tropical fruit chutneys.

For exactly the same reasons that 2011 is a difficult vintage for Bordeaux's red wines (very early start; dry June and July; very wet, cool August; very dry and hot September and October), the growing season was nearly ideal for its sweet wines.  The weather conditions caused the earliest harvest on record at many properties and noble rot came quickly and swiftly, hitting what were very ripe grapes. 

June in Sauternes was characterized by some rainfall, unlike in the rest of Bordeaux, and so the grape vines suffered less water stress and the berries less dehydration than in the other appellations.  Also, though August was wet, it was much less so in Sauternes than it was in most of the rest of Bordeaux, with only the storms of August 23-26 causing some concern.  In fact, the only major weather snafu in Sauternes was a big hailstorm that wreaked havoc on parts of the appellation on April 25th. It struck mainly the southern part of Sauternes, especially the plateau of Lamothe (where Lamothe-Guignard is located, for example) and parts of Bommes (where La Tour Blanche is situated).  The hail also touched the vines of Guiraud and Filhot, and to a lesser degree Yquem and Clos Haut-Peyraguey.

The good news for wine lovers is that tries [harvest passes through the vines] were precise, and no wines that I've tasted are marred by aromas of grey rot or other off flavors.  Interestingly, due to the cool late July and August, the 2011 wines do not display an early-harvest personality, yet they are endowed with wonderful freshness and great acid lift.  Due to the hot September, the wines are also very sweet (almost all the wines are carrying the highest total residual sugar levels in recent memory), but the cool August helped preserve freshness and the wines do not come across as heavy or cloying.

In 2011, noble rot hit in essentially three waves.  The first attack took place in early September, and so the first harvesting pass was carried out on the 8th.  A few days later a huge wave of botrytis affected the vineyards suddenly, requiring very fast picking between September 18 and 25; two-thirds of the grapes were harvested during this week.  A series of last passes were done at some estates in early October, but these grapes were characterized by less fresh fruit flavors and aromas, and risked introducing a more roasted, somewhat heavy botrytis element. 

But none of the top estates waited too long to pull the trigger on bringing the grapes in. Timing the harvest right was easier than usual in 2011 because daytime high temperatures in September never fell below 30°C until after October 5.  So most estates picked earlier rather than later, and most finished by September 25.  As a result, estates brought in very ripe, sugar-laden grapes as well as some fruit that had not yet been fully affected by botrytis--in other words, berries that had not yet reached the roti (or very advanced) phase of botrytis infection.  It is this factor that gives the wines of 2011 a purer, crisper, fruitier personality than some botrytis-rich years like 2001 and 2007, the wines of which were often characterized by marmeladey or smoky botrytis.  In 2011, the botrytis is mainly tangy, spicy and clean.

Please note that I have converted the total acidity levels expressed in sulfuric acid units, the measurement commonly used in France, into tartaric acid units, which is the measurement of total acidity most often used around the world.