An overview of Sauternes Wines.
Considered to be one of the finest white wines in the world, Sauternes is located 50km south east of Bordeaux and has a total of 1900 hectares divided into 5 small appellations: Sauternes, Fargues, Bommes, Preignac and Barsac.
Rules of the AOC:
The AOC of Sauternes request that the wines need a minimum 13% of alcohol level and must pass a tasting exam, where they must taste as noticeable sweet. However there is no minimum rule about residual sugar left in the wines and it normally varies from 100 to 150 g/l.
The yields are extremely low, 25hl/hac are required, however many producers have yields as low as 15hl/hac and some cases even as low as 8hl/hac.
Sauternes and Barsac are the only region in Bordeaux besides the Medoc included in the 1855 classification. It has 1 Premier Cru Superieur - Chateau d’Yquem, 11 premier crus and 12 deuxieme crus and this classification is not reviewed since 1855.
Sauternes has a maritime climate and hail, frost and rain are the drawbacks that can ruin an entire vintage.
The appellation Sauternes is separated from Graves on its western side by the Ciron Valley.
The Ciron river rises from a spring in Landes in the east and flows north-west across Sauternes and further Barsac, ending in the Garonne river after 97km. In the autumn when the climate is warm and dry, the cooler water from Ciron meet the warmer waters from the river Garonne and generates a mist that start in the evening and persist upon the vineyards until late morning, helping the noble rot to develop on the grapes of vineyards in the region.
Another natural benefit of the region is a groundwater with a high level of water, not very usual, that maintain the vines healthy even during a drought.
The best vineyards are situated facing north east and this plays an important role in the ripening process of the grapes.
The soil in the region is mainly gravel, sand and clay based, and some properties have limestone or siliceous subsoil.
Work in the vineyards:
As standard in Bordeaux, most of the work in the vineyards are made with machines to reduce costs and speed up the work, plowing is done by tractors, pruning is first done by machine, than by hand, however harvest is 100% done by hand due to the difficulty of the work. Different then most chateaux in the left bench, Sauternes properties are relatively small, only 19 vineyards are over 20 hectares, 83 vineyards between 5 and 20 hectares and 159 under 5 hectares.
Wine making process:
The grapes authorized in the region are Sauvigon Blanc, Semillion and Muscadelle, the Semillion being the most sensitive to botrytis due to its thin skins, and the Sauvignon Blanc important to bring acidity and flavors to the blend, while the Muscadelle is less and less used. Some producers use also Sauvignon Gris a common clonal mutation from Sauvignon Blanc and also authorized.
The harvest goes from September until November in some cases, after the spread of noble rot (botrytis cinerea) in the vineyards. This is a type of fungus that removes water from the grapes, leaving behind a higher percent of solids, such as sugars, fruit acids and minerals. This results in a more intense and concentrated grapes. The berries may lose up to 50% of their original weight, mostly due to the Botrytis mould removing moisture from the pulp.
This fungus attack is caused by the humid environment brought by autumn mist that spread over the vineyards described before.
The pickers goes to the vineyards up to 9 times during the harvest, selecting only botrytized berries that are ready to be pressed to turn into Sauternes. Depending on the year, the noble rot will continue evolve through the autumn allowing the grapes to shrivel gradually and concentrate the sugar and acids.
Right after the grapes are harvested they are pressed in small pneumatic presses first for one hour or so with a low pressure, then this pressure is increasing and the extraction of the must continues up to 2 hours until the thick liquid is completely removed from the grapes.
Until the end of the harvest the pressing process can repeat itself up to 60 times, depending on the amount of grapes picked and the development of botrytis in the vineyards.
Then the must is transferred to oak barrels to start fermentation, normally each lot is fermented separately. The process of fermentation is slow, sometimes taking moths to finish, due to high sugar levels. Botrytis itself is an obstacle to fermentation since the organism yields botryticine, an antimicrobial substance which is thought to inhibit the action of yeasts during fermentation and also inhibit secondary fermentation in the bottle.
Techniques such as heat up the must are encouraged to improve maximum the fermentation. Ideally the fermentation will stop at 13% to 13,5% alcohol and residual sugar levels are from 100 to 130g/l. It depends on the producers choices to add or not sulphur to avoid restart fermentation or a second fermentation in bottle, amounts varies between 5 to 15%.
The ageing process takes 2 to 3 years in oak barrels to finish and due to evaporation almost 10% of the wine is lost, so top up is mandatory. Once every 3 months or so racking is made and some producers filter the wines, while other prefer other clarifying methods.
During my visit in the region Chateau Guiraud and Chateau Raymond-Lafon, received us and allowed us to taste their wines and know a little bit about their work in the region.
Chateau Guiraud is a 100hac, 1er Cru Classe property located in Sauternes and is the only first growth from the 1855 classification to be officially certify for organic viticulture.
The chateau produce 3 wines, the Chateau Guiraud, the Le Dauphin de Guiraud and the G de Guiraud (dry wine). Varieties are 65% Semillon and 35% Sauvignon Blanc. The fermentation and ageing are made in 100% new oak barrels for the first wine and the ageing process last from 18 to 24 months. The yields are as low as 20hl/hac and the average annual production is about 100.000 bottles.
The highlight of this tasting were the 1998 Chateau Guiraud and 2006 Chateau Guiraud.
2006 - Gold color, very pronounced fruity nose of apricot, orange, quince and jasmin, very fresh and high acidity and a orange peel bitterness towards the finish. The oak in this wine was still very pronounced, some coconut and vanilla aromas resulting from it, but it tend to blend well with time. It’s a high quality wine, versatile to pair with food due to its high acidity. It’s ready to drink now but still have a lot to evolve in bottle.
1998 - Amber color, pronounced honey and botrytis notes, less luscious but round and well balanced. Fresh, good acidity and a long finish tending to more herbal notes and less fruity characters. The oak here is well integrated. Also due to its good acidity will pair well with savory food, dessert, cheese and foie gras. Still has potential to age in bottle.
Chateau Raymond-Lafon is a 16 hectares state, not classified in 1855, located in the north of the sub region of Sauternes and belongs to the Meslier Familly.
The chateau produce two wines, the Chateau Raymon-Lafon and Le Cadet de Raymond-Lafon.
The blend is made with 80% Semillon and 20% Sauvignon Blanc. Fermentation and ageing are made in new oak barrels and the wine age 3 years before bottling. The yields in this Chateau are extremely low varying from 8,5 to 9 hl/hac and the average annual production is about 20.000 bottles. Two curiosities about this Chateau:
- Almost 12% of the wine is lost in the wine making process, because of racking and clarification process very complicated in sweet wine.
- During harvest the pickers go back to the vineyards up to 10 times to select the grapes.
We tasted the Chateau Raymond-Lafon 2005.
2005 - Gold color, and very pronounced fruity nose, mango, apricot, pineapple jam and honey aromas. It’s a luscious, rich wine, full body and long length. In mouth the wine show vanilla, caramel, honey flavors and a well integrated oak, but it lacks a little bit of freshness for my taste, although this is the style of the house. That will evolve in bottle for 30 years or more. This wine would pair well with dessert, foie-gras and Roquefort cheese, but not so well with food.
Special thank to:
www.nicks.com.au/ (Vintage School)
Top Picture by George Rose