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Not Classed, but Classy: Haut-Bergeron 1961-2019
BY NEAL MARTIN | MARCH 14, 2023
One of my New Year resolutions for 2023 was to glue more words into sentences about the most auric appellation of Bordeaux: Sauternes. True to my word, this entire piece was started and finished on 1 January, once the effects of the previous night’s libation had ebbed. Instead of a familiar classified growth, the spotlight shines upon an estate omitted from the 21 selected Classed Growths in 1855: Château Haut-Bergeron. There is a logical reason that I shall explain in the history insofar that the wine as we know it today had not really formed at that time. Nevertheless, vintages have impressed in recent years, and when flitting about Sauternes last April, I spent a useful couple of hours with the owners, who organized an insightful vertical tasting.
The story of Haut-Bergeron centers around several generations of the Lamothe family. The oldest documents mentioning their name date from 1756, when Pierre and Jeanne Lamothe purchased a scattering of small plots. However, these should not be considered the genesis of contemporary Haut-Bergeron, not to mention the fact that it predates Sauternes as an intentionally botrytis-affected wine. François and Catherine Lamothe succeeded them, then Jean and Thoinette, who started out as millers before becoming winemakers, and François and Françoise Lamothe, who also worked as clog-makers and wheelwrights. In 1820, the fifth generation of Célérin-Pierre and Jeanne Lamothe took over the holdings. They oversaw the construction of a bell tower, plus an expansion of vines, thanks to Jeanne’s dowry. These were located in the lieu-dit of Haut-Bergeron, hence their cru adopted that name. However, at this time, nearly everything was sold off in bulk. In 1881, their son François took over, and they established their own cooperage business to supplement income. In 1918, the holdings passed to their son Gaston after he returned from the Great War, aged just 18. Gaston married Fernande in 1929, whose dowry not only included further parcels but also the present château in Preignac. Around this time, they commenced bottling themselves, though Fernande had to tend the vines when her husband was conscripted in 1939 and made the vintages between 1942 and 1945.
In 1950, Gaston was joined by his son Robert, and they made further purchases in the communes of Bommes and Sauternes. Six years later, Robert’s wife Mady inherited five hectares of vines in Barsac (Domaine de la Fôret) that was incorporated into Haut-Bergeron. Finally, their parcels resemble those that constitute Haut-Bergeron today. Robert was deeply involved in the administration of Sauternes, creating the Maison de Sauternes in 1973 and serving as the president of the Sauternes union for over three decades. He was joined by his sons Hervé in 1979 and Patrick in 1989, the former more involved in the winemaking and the latter out in the vineyard. The next generation is already working alongside them, as Hervé’s son Léo takes the château into the future.
From the left: Léo, Patrick and Hervé Lamothe, pictured when I visited in April 2022.
Today, the family farms 35 hectares in Sauternes plus another 12 hectares in the Graves.
The parcels for Haut-Bergeron cover 20.82 hectares in the communes of Sauternes, Bommes and Preignac, with some neighboring those of Yquem and Climens. Vines occupy gravel, limestone and sandy soils in Sauternes and clay-limestone and ferrous soils in Barsac. The grape varieties comprise 85% Sémillon and 15% Sauvignon Blanc with an impressive average vine age of 60 years planted at 7,500 vines per hectare. There are plantings of Muscadelle, though technical sheets indicate that these have not been used in the Grand Vin for the last decade. Vines are replaced via massal selection with early-season removal of buds to control yields. Since 2006, they have been farmed sustainably, and since 2017, they have farmed one 2.10-hectare plot in Barsac organically that is bottled as Château Farluret. Usually, they employ four to six tris through the vines at harvest, with yields between 10 and 20hL/ha.
Bunches are pressed first pneumatically and then in an old hydraulic press; the juice is transferred by gravity into tank where it will rest overnight before clarification. It is then fermented in barrel and thermos-regulated stainless-steel vats before maturation in around 50% new oak for between 12 and 22 months, racking according to the lunar cycle and/or atmospheric pressure.
There is also a little-known special bottling that derives from a specific plot of Sémillon planted way back in 1896 on gravel and sand soils at the bottom of Yquem. This was inaugurated in 1996 and named “Cuvée 100”, each release named after the age of vines, ergo the 2010 included in this report is “Cuvée 114”. It is not dissimilar to Doisy-Daëne’s L’Extravagant cuvée since it is much more concentrated and laden with far higher residual sugar levels than regular Sauternes, the aforementioned 2010 loaded with 300g/L. It spends three years in 100% new oak, with just one or two barrels produced depending upon the growing season.
This vertical covered recent vintages from the late eighties with the addition of two special bottles at the end. The wine reconfirmed how Haut-Bergeron punches above its weight with impressive showings in vintages such as 2019, 2011, 2010 and 2009. There is a noticeable uptick in quality post-2009 as the wines achieve more purity and complexity, in no small part due to improvements in the vineyard husbandry. That’s not to dismiss those from the Nineties and Noughties out of hand, but they occasionally err a little close to Riesling in style, quite petrol-like, which is not what I always want in my Sauternes.
bottle of 1961 Haut-Bergeron was spectacular.
The penultimate bottle was the 2010 Haut-Bergeron Cuvée 114: super-concentrated and unctuous, no surprise given that it is loaded with 300g/L residual sugar. Success lies in the razor-sharp line of acidity that maintains freshness and neutralizes any heaviness in the mouth. It’s definitely worth seeking out if you have a sweet tooth. But the highlight that afternoon was unquestionably the brilliant 1961 Haut-Bergeron. Hervé Lamothe explained that such was the warmth and acceleration that the harvesters could not keep up, and it reached 30% potential alcohol. As a consequence, there is a whopping 300g/lLresidual sugar, and it only eked out four barrels. It is a fabulous, mature Sauternes with marmalade and raisin notes, supremely well-balanced with a compelling, tensile finish. You taste this, and you will find yourself wondering why Sauternes is so hard to sell.
There is no escaping the fact that Sauternes is a beleaguered appellation at the moment. The wines have never been better, but the salient fact is that wine lovers are just not drawn to sweet dessert wines; they have lost the habit of buying and cellaring them alongside dry white and reds. However, the winemakers strive on, and not just the famous names. Visiting Haut-Bergeron, the Lamothes are proactive in terms of marketing and communication. Most importantly, they deliver quality that surpasses some Cru Classés at a fraction of the price found elsewhere. While those that do buy Sauternes naturally gravitate towards names and classed growths, your palate might be pleasantly surprised by what you can find outside that select group.
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