Tag Archives: Sauternes

Book review: “From Yquem to Fargues” by Alexandre de Lur Saluces

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At the age of 82, Alexandre de Lur Saluces has written a book telling us of his trials, tribulations, and joys in the many years he has made world class wine in Sauternes.

d’Yquem à Fargues – l’excellence d’un vin, l’histoire d’une famille” was published by Gallimard in November 2016.
https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss/253-1422515-3899335?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=d%E2%80%99Yquem+%C3%A0+Fargues
Gallimard (one of the largest French publishing houses) only distribute the French version.
However, an English version does indeed exist, and can be ordered directly from the château :
www.chateaudefargues.com/librairie
or
https://www.chateaudefargues.com/en/bookstore/

This relatively short (175 pages), but many-faceted book is a very interesting and entertaining read. There’s even a section on “Sauternes in Literature”. It has a handsome royal blue and gold binding, as well as the crown all wine lovers will recognize from the labels of both Yquem and Fargues.

The book is divided into several parts: a forward by Natacha Polony (a French journalist and essayist of Polish origin), a preface by Marguerite Figeac (a professor of history at Bordeaux University), an introduction and a conclusion by the author, a postface by Jean-Paul Kaufmann (a journalist, writer, and noted lover of Bordeaux wines), and a series of appendices on various technical and historical subjects.

One is struck by Alexandre Lur Saluce’s modesty, candor, grounding in his rural environment and, of course, his deep sense of history. Château de Fargues has been in his family since 1472. He represents the 15th generation and has produced 48 vintages there…

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Château d’Yquem

The Lur-Saluces name will, of course, forever be associated with Château d’Yquem. This came into the family when Louis-Amédée de Lur Saluces married Joséphine de Suavage in 1785. At one time, the Lur Saluces owned some 700 hectares in Sauternes (over a quarter of the combined present-day area of Sauternes and Barsac), including châteaux de Malle, Filhot, and Coutet.
Alexandre de Lur Saluces was in charge of Yquem for 36 years, from 1968 to 2004. The sale of the estate to LVMH involved a long bitter fight, but this is wisely dealt with dispassionately and in summary fashion. That is not the point of the book.

Château de Fargues

Château de Fargues

What is the point then? In fact, there are several. The book is necessarily autobiographical (for instance, I was unaware that Alexandre was the 8th of 9 children), but also describes the renaissance of Château de Fargues and goes into considerable detail about the making of one of the world’s great wines: Sauternes. That is because Alexandre de Lur Saluces has always been a sterling ambassador for Sauternes as a whole, not just his family estates. He has clearly lost none of his sense of wonder at the transformation by Botrytis cinerea of grapes grown on a unique terroir to produce a wine like no other. And he is very concerned about the appellation’s future. He points out the danger of a proposed TGV high speed train line that would upset the region’s delicate ecosystem, decries the production of dry white wine at the expense of one of the world’s great sweet wines, and criticizes the lack of commercial support from Bordeaux négociants.  He also writes about matching Sauternes and food, a subject that often puzzles wine lovers.

One must admire Alexandre de Lur Saluces’ ability to rebound after leaving Yquem and invest his energy in the renovation and expansion of Château de Fargues, an estate that has gone from strength to strength. This is described in a lively way and illustrated with beautiful photos.

I would recommend this book by one of Bordeaux’s greatest figures to anyone with even a passing interest in Sauternes. It is informative, entertaining, thought-provoking, in easy-to-understand French, and full of anecdotes.

Yes, it is possible to visit 16 châteaux in Sauternes in one day!

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My friend, Suzanne Mustacich (journalist for the Wine Spectator and author of “The Thir sty Dragon”, a book about the Chinese market for Bordeaux) and I participated in the Portes Ouvertes on the 11th of November 2016.
Fifty-four châteaux opened their cellars to the general public for three days.
I have made some amazing discoveries on such occasions and met some fine people, so I frequently take advantage of the Portes Ouvertes.
A veteran of these “Open Days”, I know from experience that it is always better to go on the first day when there are fewer people.

So, we set off on a public holiday (Armistice Day) and began our visits shortly after 10 am. Our game plan was simple: to taste at a maximum number of châteaux without going on any tours. Why no tours? Simply because these go over much of the same ground and, to be honest, one cellar tends to look a great deal like another one…

Sadly, Sauternes is a wine that has been losing ground of late. The French market is anemic and people rarely serve it now as an aperitif – a traditional practice that always surprises and/or shocks English speakers. That means that Sauternes is currently considered in far too restrictive a way, as a wine to serve with foie gras during the Christmas season…
Furthermore, sweet foods (and drinks) do not have good press at the moment and many Sauternes are perceived as too thick and weighty. The appellation has an ageing consumer base and most producers do not have other types of wines (dry white, red) to fall back on.
The price of vineyard land has plummeted, and many estates are for sale.
Something has to be done, but what? Some estates are producing a lighter style of Sauternes and a cooperative is being created. The average vineyard holding in Sauternes is less than 3 hectares, so this will lead to improved technological capabilities and economies of scale. More controversially, some producers, such as Clos des Lunes, are making just dry white wines and are seeking to create a new appellation such as Coteaux Sauternais for them.

Anyway, here’s the rundown of our day. Obviously, it is not possible to do any sort of in-depth report with so many estates, so please think of this as a sort of road trip.
The Sauternes appellation covers 5 communes: Sauternes, Preignac, Fargues, Bommes and Barsac.
Barsac has its own separate appellation, but can also be sold under the name Sauternes. The choice is up to the producer.

Our first visit was to second growth Filhot, in the commune of Sauternes – a magnificent château in a beautiful setting. We tried their 2013 Zest, a light easy-drinking wine with zippy packaging and an attractive price. This was followed by 2011 Filhot, which made a good impression. I bought a bottle of each.

Our next stop was at first growth Château Guiraud, also in Sauternes, one of the appellation’s leading producers. While we were not particularly impressed with the 2013 second wine (Le Petit Guiraud), the 2003 grand vin was aromatic, silky, and not as big and fat as one might expect. We had a long chat with Xavier Planty, who is also president of the local winegrowers association. He talked to us about the issues facing Sauternes at the present time as well as Guiraud’s organic winegrowing methods.

 

 

We went on to nearby Château Lafon (commune of Sauternes). While the wines were relatively inexpensive, they did not leave a lasting impression. We went from there to Château Raymond-Lafon (Sauternes) an estate well-known in the US. Although not classified, Raymond-Lafon is frequently considered on a par with the grands crus. We tasted the 1998 and 2009 vintages, starting with the older wine. This was rich, sensual, and long, but perhaps past its best. The 2009 was unsurprisingly more vital. The nose could have been more expressive, but the wine was lovely on the palate with a fine aftertaste.

 

 

Before lunch, we stopped at two premiers crus, both in the commune of Bommes: Sigalas-Rabaud and Rabaud Promis. Once forming a single estate, the wines have a very different flavour profile.

At Sigalas-Rabaud, we tasted the 2014 dry wine, La Demoiselle de Sigalas, as well as the second wine, the 2011 Lieutenant de Sigalas. Both of these were good, if unremarkable. However the 2007 grand vin was very elegant. The owner, Laure de Lambert Compeyrot, seemed pleased when I called her wine “ethereal”. “That’s what we’re aiming for”, she said.
Rabaud-Promis, on the other hand was foursquare, quite rich, and sweet. We tasted their second wine, Raymond-Louis, from 2013, which was rather cloying. The 2010 grand vin once again showed great richness, but had better balance, as well as subtle peach and apricot flavors. I bought a bottle. Just think: a 6 year-old first growth Sauternes from a fine vintage for under 25 euros a bottle. Sauternes can be tremendous value for money, especially when you consider their low yields and how far a bottle goes compared to a dry white or red wine.

Lunch was at the Auberge des Vignes in the heart of the thriving metropolis of Sauternes (population: 762). This traditional small restaurant specializes in meats cooked over vine cuttings. To save time in order to see a maximum number of estates, we had just one dish: entrecôte frites. This was delicious, reasonably priced (18 euros), and served quickly despite the fact that every table was taken.


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We continued our pilgrimage with a stop at first growth Château Rayne Vigneau in Bommes. This was acquired just over a year ago by Franco-American businessman Derek Rémy Smith. We sampled 2010 Madame de Rayne, the second wine, which was a bit simple and syrupy, and then the 2010 grand vin. The latter was much better, with subtle aromas of pineapple, ginger, etc. and a much longer aftertaste.

I have been a follower of Clos Haut-Peyraguey, another first growth in Bommes, for years because it was hugely reliable and not very well-known – and therefore not very expensive. The estate was purchased by Bernard Margrez in 2012 and I have only had the wine once since then. We started off tasting the second wine, 2013 Sypmphonie. This was balanced and soft, but lacked oomph. It reminded me more of a Sainte-Croix-du-Mont or a Loupiac.  We went on to try the 2014 grand vin. This had an interesting tropical fruit bouquet and good acidity on the palate. Unfortunately the sweet, luscious attack retreated into a shortish finish not up to first growth level.

 

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We next had a brief interlude at Domaine de Carbonnieux (Bommes). The wines there were very inexpensive, but unfortunately unworthy of special attention. It was a different story at the next estate, one of my favorite Sauternes, Château Haut Bergeron in Preignac. The Lamothe family have been making delicious wines there for many years. These are also good quite young and the second wine, Château Fontbride is nearly as flavorsome. We tasted the 2013 and 2011 vintages of the grand vin. I came away with 2 bottles of the 2010 and even bought 6 half-bottles of the 2015 en primeur.

 

We went from Haut Bergeron to Château Laville, also in Preignac. We enjoyed the 2011, but this estate also makes ones of the most weird and wonderful wines in Bordeaux, a late-harvest botrtyized blend of Riesling and Gewurtztraminer grown in the Sauternes appellation! I had picked up a few bottles last year and was anxious to come back for more. There can be no better wine for blind tastings. Who could ever guess its origin? Of course, it is sold as “vin de France” instead of Sautenes, but it’s a very fun and fascinating wine.

Stepping back in time, we went to Château d’Armajan des Ormes, located practically in the center of Preignac. The imposing and ancient château was largely rebuilt in the late 17th century. It belongs to the Perromat family, who also have large vineyard holdings elsewhere in Bordeaux. We compared the 2013 second wine (Ch. Le Juge) and the grand vin from the same year. These were old-fashioned in style and not especially noteworthy.

The next visit was to Château d’Anna in Barsac, a tiny 2-hectare estate with a correspondingly tiny cellar located. When I say tiny, the room where the barrels are kept and bottles stored must be all of 16 square meters! The wine is made by Xavier Dauba, cellarmaster at the Grand Enclos du Château de Cérons. 2011 Ch. d’Anna had a noticeably amber, coppery color and a rich ripe bouquet. The wine melts in the mouth with a strong botrytis character. An interesting, rare wine somewhat on the heavy side.

Resembling Château d’Armajan des Ormes architecturally, Château de Myrat in Barsac is an impressive structure. Second growth Myrat belongs to the venerable De Pontac family, who once owned Haut-Brion. We had a chat with Xavier de Pontac and admired his collection of pheasants and peacocks. We also tasted three vintages of his wine: 2012, 2010, and 2001. These were very Barsac in style: not as heavy as many of the Sauternes and with marked minerality on the finish. The 2010 featured fresh cutting acidity and the 2001 was interesting, but too old.

We then drove to second growth Doisy-Daënes, also in Barsac. This is the fief of the Dubourdieu family. Denis Dubourdieu, Dean of the Faculty of Enology and one of the great figures in Bordeaux, passed away this year and is greatly missed. The family’s complete range of wines was on show, but we focused on the Barsacs, enjoying the 2013 Doisy-Daëne (a good wine from a challenging year) and the surprisingly successful and youthful 1991 (Robert Parker gives one of his all-time low vintage ratings for 91 Sauternes: 70/100). The latter had a bouquet of crème brûlée and was also reminiscent of a Tokaj. It had a lovely long finish.

Our sixteenth (!) and last stop was just across the road at Château Gravas. I can hardly be objective here because I have known Florence and Michel Bernard for a couple of decades. This last visit was more of a social one, with a tasting of the light, but attractive 2013. The Bernards have a long tradition of welcoming visitors and they were thronged. There was a joyous atmosphere and this was a great way to end a busy, but fun and enlightening day.

 

Dinner at Château d’Yquem on 09/09/16

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The Académie du Vin de Bordeaux kindly invited me to dinner at Château d’Yquem last night (9th of September). I have visited the château on a fair number of occasions, but certainly never enjoyed a meal there, so I was really looking forward to this.
The château has three dining rooms and there were about 60 of us in the largest one.

 

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The meal started out with 2014 Y on the terrace. This wine has changed completely from when it was first introduced in 1959. For many years, the grapes were picked after the ones used to make Sauternes. Now they’re picked before. The 2014 (60% Sémillion, 40% Sauvignon Blanc, and no Muscadelle) was an ideal aperitif. Whereas Y used to be on the thick side and pretty much like a dry, or mostly dry Sauternes, the new generation Y is crisp, elegant, and seemingly on the light side. This 2014 is so enjoyable now that I wonder how it will change over time or if it actually needs to age. The oak is definitely unobtrusive.

By the way, Pierre Lurton explained that 2016 Y has already been picked and pressed. This year has been really odd weatherwise, with a rotten spring and early summer, but a long-lasting heat wave in September, with temperatures a full 10°C above the seasonal average on certain days. Problems with scorching have been encountered in the red wine vineyards…

 

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The first course (thon mi-cuit, gelée de gazpacho, avocate guacamole au citron vert, sorbet tomate-basilic) was accompanied by white 2012 Ch. Fieuzal. I’ve had a few premoxed bottles from this estate in the past, but when white Fieuzal shows well, it shows very well. It is one of those rare estates in Bordeaux where the white wine has better press than the red, and sells for much more. In any event, in all honesty, the Pessac-Léognac was better in my opinion than the dry Sauternes. It displayed great balance and a wonderful flinty aftertaste. The marked acidity seemed to fit in beautifully with the overall structure, and the oak influence was positive.

The second course (pigeon au foie gras, polenta au chorizo et piquillos, gaufrette safran, mousseline de cerfeuil) was served with two red wines, both of which I quite enjoyed. Incidentally, both were made by women who were present at the meal and who commented each other’s wines for everyone’s benefit.

Château Dassault is a Saint Emilion grand cru classé owned by one of the richest men in France (aerospace, etc.). The 2008 had a sweet, plummy bouquet with good oak and a very rich flavour with a velvety texture. I would only fault the overly obvious presence of alcohol on the finish. This was a strong wine that can use a little more time to show its best.
Château Phélan Ségur in Saint-Estèphe has long been a much-respected cru bourgeois (previously an “exceptionnel”, although this distinction has disappeared). The 2005 was classic claret with a lovely Médoc nose featuring graphite and violet overtones. The texture was silky and the aftertaste was long and assertive. I expected this 2005 to be more forward than it was. It wasn’t terribly closed-in, but clearly has good mid-term ageing potential.

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1955 Yquem was served with dessert (crémeux de citron, pamplemousse mariné au miel et citron vert, sorbet agrumes). The color is hard to describe, and people at my table agreed that the wine looked a little older than its years, with a mahogany and golden hue as well as a faint pinkish tinge. Although unspectacular, the nose was engaging with hints of mandarine orange, orange peel, and spice. However, the wine well and truly strutted its stuff on the palate, which was gorgeous. The texture was caressing, silky, and phenomenally sensual. There were flavors of crème brûlée and caramel as well as a host of citrus and tropical fruits (mango). I also found the unmistakable vanilla component that is a hallmark of Yquem to me – and which I do not attribute to oak. This vintage of Yquem showed good acidity and will of course live for decades to come, but it is as good as it ever will be in my opinion.

All in all, not a bad way to spend a Friday evening…

Sauternes: visits to 13 châteaux in a day

I’m a great lover of Sauternes. Even if I don’t drink it on a regular basis, I am rarely disappointed when I open a bottle. I took advantage of a Portes Ouvertes weekend on Saturday the 7th of October to go to Sauternes and Barsac with Jarad and Gabriel, two young American enologists studying vineyard estate management at Bordeaux Sciences Agro (ex-Enita). I love these occasions to learn more about Bordeaux, and inevitably come away with a few bottles for the cellar…
This trip was both intense and pleasurable. I say intense because we visited thirteen estates. While this is not a record for me, it makes for a very full day.
In fact, we visited 5 first growths before lunch!

We started out at Ch. Rayne Vigneau, owned by the Crédit Agricole. This is one of the appellation’s great estates that more or less went into hibernation for a number of years. There has been a major effort to improve things and this is clearly reflected in recent vintages. We tasted the 2008 Madame de Rayne, the second wine, which was an attractive commercial wine, but the 2009 Rayne Vigneau was in another category altogether and the best I think I’ve ever had from this château: a very stylish, classy wine. I came away with a half bottle.
Also on sale in their boutique was a rare and unusual gift set. This consisted of three bottles of wines from the Crédit Agricole estates (Rayne Vigneau, Grand Puy Ducasse, and Meyney) aged in barrels made from the rare Morat oak: http://www.indianwineacademy.com/item_1_500.aspx
After a short stop at the Maison du Vin in Sauternes to pick up a map of châteaux participating in the Portes Ouvertes and tasting their generic Sauternes, 2012 Duc de Sauternes (the less said, the better…), we went on to Ch. Guiraud, owned by the Peugeot family along with Olivier Bernard and Stéphane de Neipperg. We tasted the second wine, le Petit Guiraud, from 2013 which did not leave as memorable impression. However, the 2005 Guiraud was much better, even though the degree of bitterness on the aftertaste detracted from the overall impression. Viticulture at Guiraud is both organic and biodynamic. I find that Guiruad takes on a deep color fairly early in the game and that it is not always one for the long haul.
Next stop was at Ch. La Tour Blanche, which has also been a lycée viticole since 1911. This large estate has a fine track record and students there help make the wine. Seeing as there was a sizeable crowd by the time we arrived (you didn’t used to see large groups of Chinese, how times have changed!), we stayed only long enough to sample the 2011 vintage, which was one of the better wines of the day.

 

We could park the car and visit the following two “sister châteaux” on foot. Sigalas Rabaud has always been a dependable wine, and we were not disappointed with what we tasted. Although the 2014 second wine, Demoiselle de Sigalas, was not exactly earth-shaking, the 2007 grand vin was pure and delicious, with fresh tangy acidity to counter-balance the sweetness. The next door neighbour, Rabaud Promis, was no slouch either. The château always has plenty of things going on during the Portes Ouvertes, so there were artisan food producers selling their wares and special promotions for the wine. The 2010 Rabaud Promis disappointed me, but the 2007 had it all together, with a deep long aftertaste. No way I was going to leave without buying a bottle, especially at the special price (if memory serves me right, under 24 euros). This brings to mind two comments.
The first is that the 2007 vintage is lovely in Sauternes, which only goes to show how red wine vintages and sweet wine vintages in Bordeaux can be very, very different (1982 is famous example of this phenomenon).
The second is that Sauternes represents superb value for money. In fact, the prices are so low that many producers encounter difficulty making ends meet. Why the low prices? Simply because Sauternes has gone out of fashion to a great extent, and few consumers realize its wonderful potential as a “food wine”. In Bordeaux, Sauternes is frequently enjoyed as an aperitif, which freaks out my English-speaking friends, who mostly consider it a “dessert wine” – something which makes people cringe in Sauternes.

Having 5 châteaux under our belt by 12:30, it was definitely time for lunch. This was enjoyed in the barrel cellar of Ch. Gravas in Barsac. I have known the owners, Florence and Michel Bernard, for years, so felt very much at home here. The 20 euro meal was classic Southwest France: duck foie gras and warm rillettes, duck leg in a Sauternes sauce with potatoes cooked in duck fat (naughty, but oh so scrumptious!), sheep’s cheese from the Pryenees with cherry jam, and pastis from the Landes. We enjoyed 2012 Gravas with the meal.
Doisy-Daënes is just across the road, so we of course stopped there. There were plenty of people and a jazz band. The whole Dubourdieu range was on show, but we restricted ourselves to the Barsac, which was as good as ever.

Next stop was Château Coutet, where we were taken around in English by Franco-American Aline Baly. Coutet is definitely worthy of its reputation, as confirmed by the 2005 we sampled. Once again, the price was eminently reasonable: 45 euros for a 10 year-old first growth from a great year. The wine is distributed to the trade exclusively by Philippe de Rothschild.
Our next stop was Château Suduiraut where the 2005 shone. This was rather old fashioned in style, with beeswax aromas, unabashedly rich complexity on the palate, and a touch of “rancio”.
One of the best wines of the day.
We went from there to Haut-Bergeron, also in Preignac, which I am not alone in considering one of the best-value wines in Sauternes. It was therefore not surprising that the place was mobbed. We quickly tasted the 2012, which was up to our expectations and were then off again. This is the first year that I have not bought any wine there, but I already have a fairly good stock. It is worth noting that Haut Bergeron makes a less expensive, more early maturing wine called Ch. Fontebride that is just wonderful.

I was intrigued to visit a small (6-hectare) nearby estate, Clos le Comte. This was recently constituted and the quality is very encouraging. They make a rich easy-going wine called Cuvée Emilie, and a more classic one, with ageing potential named Cuvée Céline. Quite close by is Domaine de Monteils, a 13-hectare estate that has been in the same family since the mid-19th century. Their wine is good and their barrel-aged cuvée prestige even better. There was some discussion here about the proposed new TGV train line from Bordeaux to Toulouse that will cut through the Sauternes vineyards. Apparently, there is genuine concern about its effect on the delicate ecosystem conducive to botrytis. After a long legal battle, the right to build the train line was recently upheld, but now it appears that there is not the money to pay for it!

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The last stop of the day was at Ch. Laville whose dependable wine I have known for some time. I enjoyed both their first and second wines and came away with a bottle of each. But what really made my head spin (no, nothing to do with consumption of alcohol, I religiously spit) was to come across a late harvest Riesling-Gewurtztraminer blend produced in Sauternes! Of course, this is not entitled to the appellation, but not only is it very rare – dare I say, a unicorn wine? – but also quite delectable, with the zippiness and spiciness of its two main components. It will be an excellent one to serve blind one day when I am feeling particularly sadistic…
And so ended a wonderful day out that renewed my love for the mysterious and wonderful wine of Sauternes.