12th February, 2014 by Ben Kennedy
In what direction does the future lie for the great sweet wines of Bordeaux? Is it in the East?
This week Château Guiraud hosted a soirée for the négociants and courtiers of the place to present a new label design for their newly-bottled 2011 vintage and generally communicate on the exciting project that is this Sauternes first growth. It was an impressive do in a docklands-warehouse-type setting with mood music and abstract projections, and the most cardiac-inducing canapé I’ve ever seen: deep-fried foie gras beignets. The star of the show, Guiraud 2011, was served en impériale by one of those snazzy gas taps.
I don’t want to seem ungrateful for such hospitality but it all seemed a bit bewildering to me, and over the top. The property now belongs to a trio of high-profile winemakers and one Robert Peugeot, who builds cars, so the evening’s budget is perhaps not excessive. The question on my mind, though, was this: can making sweet Bordeaux be profitable? Time was when Sauternes was the toast of civilised society, in high demand from New York to St Petersburg, but you have to go back almost 100 years for that, and things have changed since the belle époque. Europe and America have moved towards dry wines, to the detriment not only of Sauternes but also of other historic staples such as vintage port and madeira, and selling liquoreux has been the devil’s own job for decades as anyone who holds an allocation of Château d’Yquem will ruefully testify. So why would such a group of savvy and successful business people invest in a property like Guiraud in the 21st century?
Négociants who spend a lot of time in Asia and who follow the tours of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tell me how, at tastings in China, the Sauternes and Barsac tables are systematically mobbed by frenzied sugar fans, pushing and shoving to experience a few drops of the golden nectar. But these are the professionals, the buyers who are stocking their shelves to sell to the burgeoning hordes of consumers. What proof that the paying customers like the sweet stuff quite as much? For the time being, not very much.
We know that regional culture and the anatomy of the human palate can create very varying tastes around the world: for example, the recipe for Guinness brewed in Africa has always taken into account the preference for sweeter drinks across that continent. If Sauternes is a good match for foie gras, then China’s long-established love of duck liver should augur well for sales, so why should Sauternes not find its niche in China, despite the western preference for drier styles? I just have a lingering doubt, based loosely on memories of ‘historic fails’ in other fields, for example Betamax, or the Sinclair C5, both of which seemed like a great idea to many in the know. What I mean is this: Sauternes and Barsac are undoubtedly producing great wines yet sometimes that isn’t enough to ignite the flame of the consumer passion, and although the professionals in China might go mad for the stuff themselves, Chinese wine retailers don’t yet have the authority of our European merchants to advise drinkers to try new things. There is as yet little or no suggestion in the export figures to show that Joe punter over there is catching the botrytis bug in the same way, and I’m not sure he will.
Hey, I could be wrong, but given that many Sauternes and Barsac vineyard owners are now switching production to dry whites owing to doubts about the future of dessert wine sales, the jury is still very much out.