Focus on Sauternes

My coverage of Bordeaux great sweet wines is presented in two sections: First, I offer a brief report on the very promising '96 and '97 vintages, which followed several lean years that tried the souls of the proprietors of Sauternes and Barsac after the great trio of 1988, 1989 and 1990. I have provided preliminary notes on the '96s tasted from barrel on my most recent trip to Bordeaux in early April, as well as a few words on the '97s, which I viewed in their early form (final assemblages had not been made) at the same time. The second part of my coverage features notes on the splendid '88, '89 and '90 vintages, which I have revisited in some depth over the past year.

1997 and 1996. The sweet wines of 1997 suffered from the same uneven ripening that plagued red Bordeaux. But in this district growers are used to picking in a series of passes through the vines, or tries an expensive approach to harvesting that would have produced far better red wines as well. The first trie carried out by most chateaux at the beginning of September, was mainly used to eliminate less-ripe fruit and berries affected by destructive grey rot. The September weather was quite warm and dry, with virtually no rain until the second week of October. During this six-week period, botrytis spread very grudgingly. Once botrytis arrived, the grapes tended to become shrivelled (passerille quickly under the dry conditions and had to be picked very carefully. Most of the best fruit was harvested between mid-September and mid-October.

My early look at the partly assembled '97s turned up wines with generally sound acidity, an attractive floral character and an appealing lightness of touch. Some insiders have compared them in character to the '88s, a vintage that also featured some passerillage and a drawn-out harvest. But others say that '97 yielded more powerful, higher-alcohol wines than '96. In general, the semillon was fuller and more expressive than the sauvignon, and yields were very low.

Among my early favorites in '97, all of which hold out the potential for 90+ scores: the tangy, marmalady, powerful but refreshing Rieussec; the concentrated, pineappley, unusually expressive Climens; the juicy but large-scaled La Tour Blanche, with exhilarating aromas of apricot, quince, licorice and lime; the complex, full, faintly gamey Lafaurie-Peyraguey; and the intensely spicy but bright and seductive Rayne-Vigneau. Other wines that may ultimately prove to be outstanding are Coutet, Doisy-Vedrines, de Malle, Nairac and Suduiraut.

The 1996 sweet wine harvest was also a success, although here the early (particularly sauvignon) and latest pickings were best. Botrytis came so early in '96 that some fruit had already dried out by early September and had to be discarded. But the first trie in mid-September brought some excellent, rot-ennobled sauvignon blanc. The least impressive fruit was picked during the last third of September and first week of October, when rainy periods resulted in some dilution and loss of acidity. Proprietors forced to harvest a good portion of their crop during this period, or who were unwilling to eliminate these lots from their final blends, have generally been less successful in '96. (Selection was generally made easier by the relatively large size of the crop.)

But the botrytization process continued, and the Indian summer conditions that took over in early October helped to concentrate the grapes and bring superb ripeness. Fat, superripe grapes were harvested from around October 10 into early November. The best '96s boast superb richness but also show lovely bright fruit character and sound acidity, thanks in part to the high quality of the sauvignon picked in September and healthy levels of malic acidity in the grapes. Below, I have included notes on a number of '96s I sampled alongside the '97s at the beginning of April at the spectacular Chateau de Malle.

Current Sauternes pricing. Like most other very sweet wines of the world, Sauternes is a slow sell in today's marketplace. Some insiders believe that the category has not yet recovered from the very high opening prices asked for the '89s back in 1990. But, while Sauternes is not exactly cheap (and it's a far more expensive wine to make than claret), prices have trailed those for classified-growth reds. For most Sauternes and Barsac chateaux, opening prices for '97s are still lower than those asked for the '89s at the outset. Classified-growth reds, meanwhile, have soared to new highs. Thus, the most promising '96 and '97 sweet wines of Bordeaux would appear to offer reasonable value for their quality.

1988, 1989 and 1990. The unprecedented hat trick of superb vintages in '88, '89 and '90 has resulted in numerous outstanding wines. High quality was made possible to some extent by the success of the '83 and '86 vintages, which enabled proprietors in Sauternes and Barsac to actually turn a profit on their wines and make much-needed investments in cellar equipment and cooperage.

In theory, 1988 produced the lightest and most elegant wines of the trio. This was a very dry year; there would have been virtually no botrytis had there not been moderate rainfall on October 15. But at that point botrytis spread fairly quickly and helped to concentrate the grapes. The weather then remained favorable through the end of the harvest, and the last tries were the most successful. (Most chateaux began to pick in the last week of September and finished in early November, often doing as many as seven separate passes through the vines.) The '88s tend to be minerally, elegant and perfumed, with attractive flavors of fresh fruit and good brightening acidity. They are less honeyed and alcoholic than the '89s, and less powerful than the '90s, though there was generally a lot of solid matter in the musts. The best wines have wonderful balance, and this helps to explain why the '88s tend to be easier to taste today than the '89s and '90s. They are generally somewhat lighter than '89 or '90, due in many cases to a slightly higher percentage of sauvignon blanc in the blends (semillon yields in '88 had been held down by coulure).

1989 featured another dry September, with botrytis very slow to become established. Light rain on October 7 and 8 gave the botrytis a push, and though most chateaux had started picking during the second half of Septemer, the best tries were generally in mid-October. By then, the grapes were quite concentrated (the vintage favored the semillon, which can rot nobly with less precipitation), and grape sugars were as much as a full degree higher than those of the previous year. Many of the wines tasted rather alcoholic, even roasted, in early tastings, seeming a bit blurry next to the '88s (and '90s). High alcohol made several of them seem rather low in acidity. It is only in recent years that they have shown their fruit character, and time is already proving that the best '89s have spectacular balance for long aging. While 1989 is perhaps the least consistent vintage of the trio, the very best examples are among my favorites of the period. Barsac seems to have done especially well in '89.

1990 witnessed an early rush of botrytis following rain on August 22 and 23. The grapes were already physiologically ripe, and as the noble rot spread quickly grape sugars soared. Some properties began picking as early as September 10! From the outset, these wines were extraordinarily rich in potential alcohol, with substantial solid matter in the musts that made some fermentations difficult. A number of estates intentionally used less-rich later pickings to bring down sugar levels, and facilitate the fermentations. Even today, many of these wines show an almost chewy texture, and a tactile suggestion of phenolics. While the best wines possess all the components for future greatness, many are extremely unevolved, even monolithic, and will need many years to come into harmony. The best of these wines will be classics, but there will also doubtless be disappointments. As a rule, the '90s are fairly high in alcohol and markedly higher in residual sugar than '89 or '88, and it will take many years for this sugar to be absorbed.

Most of the following wines were tasted last spring in the Bordeaux offices of Vintex, S.A., from fresh samples provided by the chateaux. The rest were tasted in recent weeks in New York. (Vintex Bill Blatch, incidentally, has become an unofficial ambassador for Sauternes, having done substantial business in these wines back to the early '80s; Blatch provided technical information on several of the following wines.)