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.