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Sticky Fingers: The 2002 Sauternes Barrel Tasting

A surprisingly good vintage for the sweet wines of Bordeaux

James Suckling
Posted: July 2, 2003

Sure it's not 2001, but the 2002 vintage is a very good vintage for the top sweet wines of Bordeaux.

Thousands of people were melting in the heat of the exhibit halls at Vinexpo, the global wine fair held in Bordeaux every other year. There, I tasted almost four dozen barrel samples of Sauternes from some of the best estates in the region, including Climens, Guiraud, Rieussec and Suduiraut. The vintages covered were 2002 and 2001. All the wines were tasted blind at Château de Malle, a glorious 17th century château in the heart of the Sauternes district.

The 2002 vintage is surprisingly good, producing top wines with a fascinating balance of spice, sweet botrytis and bright, almost tart acidity. Many of the Sauternes reminded me of top-notch German eisweins due to their "sweet and sour" character.

According to winemaker Charles Chevallier, who makes Rieussec and first-growth Château Lafite Rothschild in Pauillac, the 2002 vintage was picked in three stages. First, estates harvested ripe, clean grapes that had bright acidity but were low in botrytis. Next, they picked slightly diluted grapes. And then at the end of October, they harvested perfect grapes that were rich and sweet due to a good concentration of noble rot. The combination of the first and third harvests gave the wines their special character. The top estates did not use grapes from the second part of the harvest.

"Wow!" said Chevallier as he tasted some of the 2002 Sauternes in front of me. He was licking his chops from the tart, sweet wines. "I like the acidity. You have a really lovely sweet wine, but then you have the acidity."

Xavier Planty, the manager of Château Guiraud, said that the young 2002s remind him of the 1988 vintage, but with brighter, slightly tarter acidity. I wouldn't go that far, considering the superb quality of 1988, but the 2002s were very consistent as a group.

My top wines of my tasting were Climens and Rieussec, which I scored 92—94 points, or potentially outstanding, on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale. They were both full-bodied, with medium sweetness, plenty of ripe fruit and spicy character, and excellent length. (See all of my tasting notes.)

Chevallier and Planty both said sales of 2002 Sauternes as futures have been slow since their release in late spring, even though prices have been cut by about 20 percent compared with last year's. Top 2002s, such as Rieussec, Climens and Giuraud, should end up costing $50 to $70 a bottle in U.S. retail shops when they first start reaching the market in 2005. The two vintners felt those prices were relatively reasonable in view of all the work they put into producing outstanding to very good wines.

Nonetheless, I don't see much use in buying 2002s -- either reds or sweet whites -- as futures, especially if you are American. First, the wines are not likely to increase in value before they are bottled, so you will be able to buy the wines for the same price when they arrive on U.S. retail shelves. Second, the U.S. dollar is at a low against the euro, negating even a price drop as substantial as 20 percent. The bottom line is that you should wait until they arrive in retail stores.

The 2001s are another story, however. If you haven't bought any yet, I would certainly do so. They are stupendous -- massive, rich and thickly textured with all the botrytis and sticky sweet character you could hope for in a top vintage of Sauternes.

After the 2002s, I tasted 18 Sauternes from the 2001 vintage, and I was blown away yet again by the great quality of the wines. I hadn't tasted them since March 2002, and they were as glorious as the first time. The top wines of the tasting -- which I again scored 95—100 points, or potentially classic -- were Climens, Guiraud, Lafaurie-Peyraguey, Rieussec and Suduiraut, along with Château de Myrat, which was even better than I remember from last year. These are classically proportioned wines in the style of 1989 or 1990, but perhaps cleaner, more modern then such past great vintages. (See all my notes from last year's 2001 Sauternes tasting.)

According to Andy Lench, the owner of Bordeaux Wine Locators, Inc., in Seattle, one of the biggest sellers of classified-growth Bordeaux in the United States, the 2001 Sauternes have sold incredibly well. "The top ones are almost impossible to find now, and prices have already doubled in the last year," he said.

After the tasting, both Chevalier and Planty emphasized during a lunch at the château how winemaking had improved in Sauternes in the past decade. "We pay much closer attention to everything, and we know better how to use sulfur than in the past," said Planty, who added that the wines were often "blocked" by the sulfur in the past, making them slightly dumb and thick on the palate when young.

The young vintages of Sauternes served at the lunch certainly underscored that point. A 1998 Guiraud and a 1997 Rieussec were both delicious to drink, showing full body, rich sweetness and a bright acidity. Years ago, I would have never thought about drinking and enjoying such a young Sauternes, but times have changed with the modernization of the wines.

"You couldn't drink Sauternes this young a decade or more ago," admitted Planty. "The wines were blocked by the sulfur. Today, you can drink Sauternes young or drink them old. They are modern wines altogether."

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