"Les deux meilleurs vins de Sauternnais …"
It's just a little something I sometimes whisper to myself, especially when tasting a tough vintage for Bordeaux reds like 2013. Sauternes is a magical wine for me. I consider wine an echo of sorts, an imprint of nature, guided by our hand. And Sauternes is the ultimate echo. The grapes are left to dangle long after others have been picked. If they're lucky, they rot and, in doing so, they flirt with disaster. They walk along a knife's edge, teetering between perfection and ruin.
Making Sauternes is painstaking. Instead of picking bunches, the vendangeurs pick berries. They don't harvest all at once, but rather make several passes, or tries, often over the course of weeks just to select those berries that are infected by the fungus Botrytis cinerea at just the right time. And then if the winemaker and his or her team does manage to bring the grapes in at the right time, there's less than the normal amount of juice from which to make a wine, since the grapes have shriveled.
Sauternes is the wine you wait for, the wine you truly gamble for. It's not about a Brix number or picking on taste. It's about the eye. It's about waiting and hoping and then moving quickly, while selecting carefully. It's speed and detail. It's extra work for a reduced amount of return. Get it right and the magic is magnified. Miss it and there simply is no wine.
Sauternes is the epitome of the saying "satisfaction delayed is gratification doubled."
So I was more than a little happy to be ending my round of visits over the last several days with stops at châteaus de Fargues and d'Yquem, the two estates I consider to be at the top of the Sauternes appellation.
Owner Comte Alexandre de Lur Saluces exudes old school, with his buttoned-up demeanor and professorial look. He still makes his wine in the old school way, as he did when he ran neighboring d'Yquem before being ousted 10 years ago—de Fargues is made in a ripe, tropical powerhouse style that gets a full 30-month-plus élevage, eschewing the modern trend to less élevage to favor a fresher, brighter style.
But look again. Lur Saluces' PDA buzzed constantly, and he's pretty nimble at answering what seems to be a barrage of incoming messages while also talking about his wine, his estate and his ongoing efforts to renovate the ruins of the château itself. He reminds me of the teacher you thought wasn't paying attention when his back was to the classroom, but you soon found out he hears everything. He's 80, but seems as if he's 20 years younger. Must be all the Sauternes he gets to drink …
Lur Saluces currently has just 37 acres of vines in production with the classic Sauternes 80/20 split between Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc in the vineyards (and the wine). François Amirault is his right-hand man in running the estate.
The estate itself is a dramatic setting, with a long, winding driveway lined with soaring pines that provide an arching canopy. As you approach, a large-scaled château built with stones the color of aged Sauternes—a perfect burnished amber—looms on a small hill. Behind it, a sloping gravelly bump sprouts gnarled vines.
Fargues is Sauternes history. The château has been in the Lur Saluces family since the 1400s. The vineyard was switched from red wine to white wine production in 1930 and the first bottle of AOC Sauternes from de Fargues was made in 1943 (thus the estate is not part of the 1855 Classification). During World War II, de Fargues was owned by Bertrand Lur Saluces, Alexandre's uncle, who was also managing d'Yquem. There's a reason these two small hills of vines produce the best wines in Sauternes: Fargues and Yquem are inextricably linked forever.
Alexandre de Lur Saluces took over the managing of d'Yquem in 1968 and ran it until 2004. Since 2005, he's been full-time at de Fargues. The result: In the six vintages released since the 2005, de Fargues has rated classic (95 points or better) in five of them. The not-yet-released 2011 could be the best yet.
Jump cut from history to today, and the difficulties of 2013 for the rest of Bordeaux were relatively beneficial here. Neither Sémillon nor Sauvignon Blanc is as affected by millerandage and coulure as Merlot, and so the yield was in the normal range. Humidity breeds rot, but here rot is welcomed. And as botrytis spread, the Sauternnais were liking what they saw, while the rest of Bordeaux fretted.
"July was warm, perfect, and August very nice," said Amirault. "We missed the hailstorms that hit the rest of Bordeaux at that time. Then September turned cool and fresh, which helped maintain the acidity. By the 15th of September, botrytis settled in and spread quickly and we began harvesting on the 26th of September. The rain alternated with windy conditions that helped botrytis continue and allowed for successive passes through the vineyards, and eventually we finished with the Sémillon by Oct. 21."
Those successive passes through the vineyard to select grapes at varying stages of infection are critical to Lur Saluces.
"The number of tries is important," he said. "Yes, you can have a vintage where botrytis spreads rapidly and you pick almost everything on the same pass. But we would prefer the gradual progression of botrytis because then it is developing on grapes as the grapes ripen progressively and that is where the complexity comes from. You can have several generations of rot affecting the same bunches and having different effects."
The Château de Fargues Sauternes 2013 shows explosive apricot, creamed mango and papaya aromas now, along with bitter citrus, lemon chiffon and merengue notes in the background for contrast. It's very long and racy, despite carrying lots of heft, with a long, golden raisin–infused finish. Youthfully raw, but very expressive and loaded with range, with the bitter citrus note giving it a terrific spine, it should eventually merit a classic rating when bottled.
It would be easy to devolve into hyperbole with such clear quality in the glass before him. But Lur Saluces takes a measured approach in comparing 2013 to previous vintages.
"It's similar to '99 for us because of the freshness and lively quality," said Lur Saluces, choosing a solid if not spectacular vintage to use as comparison. "2011 is a bit more complex and rich, while '13 relies more on freshness. '11 is a great year, it combines the richness of '07 and the purity of '09, the richness and purity. In contrast, '13 is a bit more accessible and fresher now."
Seems old school with a bit of modernity results in some balanced straight talk.
For background on this famed estate, you can reference my blog notes from my 2012 en primeur visit.
It was "long time, no see" for Pierre Lurton and me, as we had just tasted his 2013 Cheval-Blanc the day before. Lurton, 57, seems to have a different energy whenever I see him at d'Yquem. He's fully affable and engaging at Cheval-Blanc, and yet he seemingly bounds along with enthusiasm at d'Yquem (he splits his time between running the two estates).
Lurton is aided by Sandrine Garbay, 46, his maître de chai since 1994, along with technical director Francis Mayeur, 56, who has been at the estate since 1983. Mayeur often leads off the introduction to a new vintage at d'Yquem, and he's known for pulling out pages of graphs and charts. But his technical approach is just one part of the process here—don't count out the gut feeling one develops over 30 years minding a vineyard.
Mayeur's charts show that 2013 featured a stretch of weather from May to June that was among the coldest and most humid periods historically, setting the stage for botrytis. And then July through August was among the hottest and driest periods historically, allowing for full ripening. From there periods, of dry and wet alternated during September and October, allowing botrytis to spread gradually, while giving the vineyard a chance to rest in between waves of infection. All told, the d'Yquem team made four tries through the vineyard starting on Sept. 25 and finishing the 24th of October.
"Four weeks, four tries. A classic," said Lurton, beaming.
"It was a high-quality botrytis," said Garbay. "High-quality botrytis is when you have an infection, but then the infection is stopped by dry and windy conditions, so there's no gray rot. Then the next infection is a new infection, while the previous infection has stopped. The longer the development of a specific generation of the fungus the less desirable it is, because you lose the fruit and the rot becomes old and you can pick up flavors of mushroom or even iodine. The grapes basically oxidize on the vine. So having shorter periods and differing generations of infection is ideal."
Garbay compared the 2013 to the riper '07 vintage, as opposed to a racy year like 2011.
"It's a botrytis year," she said. "2011 is fresher in style, where 2007 is also a vintage clearly marked by the botrytis."
The Château d'Yquem Sauternes 2013 is a 70/30 Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc mix, a slightly higher-than-usual percentage of Sauvignon Blanc. Selection was severe, resulting in only 40 percent of the crop being used—one of the benefits of having a large array of vineyards from which to choose. The wine is lush already, loaded with mango, creamed peach and papaya flavors, as well as creamed melon and yellow apple fruit. The finish sports almond and meringue notes with a bright floral, chamomile thread as well. It has a youthful kick on the finish that should settle in easily enough during the élevage. The purity is undeniable, the length extraordinary, and it looks to be another classic in the making.
The contrast between d'Yquem and de Fargues is striking. Yquem is a palatial property, with 260 acres of vines, seven times as many as at de Fargues. Yquem has a gleaming new cellar with long barrel rows while Fargues' chai is housed in a converted barn. Yquem has a large 18th-century château where it receives visitors while Fargues is still putting back together the pieces of a medieval fortress destroyed by fire in the 17th century.
And yet they both share an entwined set of echoes, and as I drove away, ending my day, I couldn't help but whisper to myself, "Les deux meilleurs vins de Sauternnais …"