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Bordeaux 2019 by appellation: Sauternes and Barsac

The 2019 en primeur campaign is regarded as a surprising success. But its unique and exceptional character and its comparative brevity (with, at its height, 20 or 30 wines released each day) have posed significant problems for producers of Sauternes and Barsac. The market was looking elsewhere when these wines were released and even fewer cases than usual have been sold, writes Colin Hay.

Sadly there is nothing very remarkable about this; it is the product of a now well-established trend. For at least a decade now, arguably longer, Sauternes and Barsac have struggled to be make much of a market impact on release.

And it is not much of a secret that wines like Rieussec, despite widespread critical acclaim, can typically bought on the secondary market five years after the initial release for significantly less (if you are in any doubt, just have a look at Farr Vintners’ summer sale offering). That fact seems to have put consumers off Sauternes en primeur and one can perhaps understand why.

Why review these wines now, not least when many of them will not be bottled for at least another two years? Three reasons I think, in ascending order of significance.

First, Rieussec is hardly representative of the wider market for these wines and what holds for it (a wine that, for a long time, one had to purchase in order to acquire an allocation of Lafite and Carruades de Lafite) does not hold for the other leading crus.

Second, in 2019 many of these wines are really rather excellent – if perhaps a little unusual. And, third, Sauternes and Barsac deserve our support. Let me start with this final observation. Indeed, lest you missed it, let me state it again: Sauternes and Barsac deserve our support.

I suspect that I am right in thinking that most of you reading this piece (certainly most of you who have got this far) would admit to having something of a soft spot for the wines of Sauternes and Barsac.

When you taste these wines, I imagine, they tend to remind you of how much you like them … and you vow to yourself that you should drink them more often. But you don’t. And, as a consequence, you don’t buy them – certainly not en primeur – even if there was perhaps a time when you did.

If this short piece achieves anything, I hope it is to make you pause to reflect on this. It is not really about trying to convince you to buy 2019 Sauternes and Barsac en primeur – though we’ll come to that in a moment. It is simply about pointing out that if we carry on enjoying these wines only when they are offered to us or on the rare (typically festive) occasions that we put a bottle (or, more likely, a half bottle) on the table, then there will come a point where there will be none to put on the table.

And what should we make of these wines in 2019? They are fascinating, quite diverse and unusual in character. The summer was long and hot and there was relatively little botrytis. When it did arrive it arrived very late (in early October after quite a lot of picking had already taken place), in small quantities – but crucially, on already very ripe fruit. The result are wines that are very interesting and, at their best, quite profound.

The handful of wines made with good amounts of botrytis are quite exceptional. L’Extravagent de Doisy Daene is my wine of the vintage. It is extraordinarily dense, intense, sumptuous, exotic and sublime – the honeyed nectar of the Gods and the epitome of Sauternes voluptuousness. But there is hardly any of it (even less, I assume, than usual).

Lafaurie-Peyraguey has also made a very beautiful wine, on the basis of a most strict selection of 7 hl/ha – less than a glass of wine per plant! It is, in fact, very classical – perhaps the most classical of all the Sauternes enchantillons that I tasted. But it also has that signature lanolin note that I often find in the wines of this famous and fabulous terroir.

Suduiraut is very different, but at very much the same level. There is less evident botrytis character, but the quality of the Semillon is exceptional. The effect is to give us a wine that is very fresh, pure, and refined, with a glorious sense of tension and poise. It too is very highly recommended and it comes with a significant reduction in release price relative to the 2018.

Coutet and Rayne-Vigneau have both made stylish and engaging wines that are just a little different from their usual. Coutet is very rich and opulent, but it is also energetic, bright and sappy – a lovely balance. And Rayne-Vigneau has for me made the best wine that I have tasted here en primeur for some time – a study in harmony. Sigalas-Rabaud (100% Semillon in this vintage) is also a standout for me – another wine, like Lafaurie-Peyraguey, that is very true to its terroir – gentle, accessible, very fresh and very floral in character. All three are exquisite; all three very different from one another.

And, finally, we have the return of Doisy-Dubroca – a wine that has not been released since, I think, 2011, having been purchased by Denis Dubourdieu (of Doisy-Daene) in 2014. This, too, is 100% Semillon. It is, quite simply, fantastic, very distinct and just a little different. It is more vertical in the mouth than either Doisy-Daene or L’Extravagent, it has more evident botrytis than its neighbours and finishes on a lovely note of crystallised ginger. I found it shockingly moreish!

Wines of the appellation:                          Extravagent de Doisy Daene; Lafaurie-Peyraguey; Suduiraut

Outstanding:                                             Coutet; Doisy Dubroca; Rayne-Vigneau; Sigalas-Rabaud

Discovery:                                                 Doisy Dubroca

Quality/price ratio:                                     L’Esquisse de Domaine de l’Alliance

Colin Hay is Professor of Political Science at Sciences Po in Paris where he works on the political economy of la place de Bordeaux and wine markets more generally.

Detailed tasting notes

All tasted from samples supplied by the chateau unless otherwise stated. Samples tasted, at least twice, from Zalto, Grassl and Reidel stemware over a two-month period from early May to early July. Around 5% of samples were rejected as damaged and/or unrepresentative of the barrel from which they were drawn.

No grand vin made at:           Domaine de l’Alliance; Nairac

Wines not tasted: Climens; Doisy-Vedrines; de Fargues; Rabaud-Promis; Yquem

Clos Haut-Peyraguey (95% Semillon; 5% Sauvignon Blanc). Tasted at the UGC in Paris. Fresher on the nose. More lifted than Guiraud. Composed and elegant. A nice tension and harmony. Ginger and confit ginger, a hint of fresh mint. Jasmine and honeysuckle, mimosa too. Green tea. Pineapple. Grapefruit marmalade. Rich and comes across as very sweet – lacking much of a botrytis signature. Plenty of acidity – but it needs it. A very attractive sappy finish.

Coutet (75% Semillon; 23% Sauvignon Blanc; 2% Muscadelle). Tasted at the UGC in Paris. Gold. This was blended by Philippe Dhalluin of Mouton-Rothschild. Comes across, at least on the attack, as ultra-sweet. Little botrtyis to pull this back. But loads of acidity making for a delightfully energetic and bright and very interesting wine. Very rich. Candied ginger and tarte au citron. Sappy.

Every sweet note is compensated for by a lovely juicy fresh point of acidity (Coutet gets it name from the ‘cut’ of the knife-like acidity characteristic of its terroir). A racy tension fought out across the palate. Candied roses. Honeysuckle. Lime marmalade. Fascinating, if a little different.

Doisy Daene (100% Semillon; yields of just 15 hl/ha). This is purer and crisper than Coutet. Again, it comes across as very sweet in the absence of much evident botrytis. Rich and full across the palate, especially on the finish. Candied. Notes of candyfloss, peaches and cream, and then it turns a little more exotic and tropical – guava and passion fruit.

Doisy Dubroca (100% Semillon; just 200 cases; 14% alcohol). Tasted at a negociant in Bordeaux and then from a sample supplied by the chateau – subtly different, but very good, on both occasions. This wine has not been produced since 2011. The estate was purchased by the late, great Denis Dubourdieu from the Lurton family in 2014. It is contiguous with the other two more famous Doisy 2nd growths (Daene and Vedrines) and Climens itself and is well-situated on the limestone plateau of Barsac.

It is exciting to be able to taste this wine once again. This is excellent, not least as the style of the vintage really flatters the 100% Semillon (which is how the vineyard is planted). Without realising they were neighbours (I had to look it up) I find significant similarities with Climens (at least on the first sample). Lemon zest, lemon curd, tarte au citron, quince, pineapple and, with air, fresh coconut and crème caramel.

Ginger – grated and dried, but most of all preserved and crystallised (much more prominent in the second sample). And verbena. Slightly chewy (the limestone terroir). Nice roti notes from the botrytis, which is more apparent in this wine than any other Barsac that I have tasted in 2019. Fresh, energetic, almost crystalline; just extraordinarily fresh. Not massive, but with good intensity, concentration and delineation. Long and finishes, again, on a twist of ginger. It will be fascinating to watch this develop. Welcome back Doisy Dubroca!

L’Esquisse de Domaine de l’Alliance (85% Semillon,10% Sauvignon Gris; 5% Muscadelle; 125 g/l residual sugar). Tasted from a sample provided by Daniel Alibrand. This is lovely. No botrytis here and so there is no grand vin Domaine de l’Alliance in this vintage. This is neither the grand vin nor a second wine.

An interesting, lively and engaging Sauternes (from Fargues) with lots of natural freshness and a lovely richness that comes from the quality of the Semillon above all. Pineapple, mirabelle and lime, brioche, frangipane, meringue and caramel au beurre sale. Floral too. Fresh and engaging and a really lovely expression of the vintage. There is a sensitively managed and gentle balance here that is very attractive.

Of course it lacks the mid-palate concentration and intensity of grand vin Sauternes, but it is very interesting to taste this – one becomes more focussed on the delicacy, purity and sheer quality of the fruit. With botrytis this would have made an excellent Sauternes; without it, we still have a lovely and rather original wine that gives a wonderful insight into the quality of this largely unknown domaine and its terroir.

L’Extravagent de Doisy Daene (100% Sauvignon Blanc). Gold – surprisingly so, darker than any other wine in the vintage – Tutankhamun gold! Exquisite nose. Creamy. Very slow to release its glory. Really nutty. Almonds, frangipane and patisserie notes appear first – crème patissiere and almond croissant, then orange peel and lemon zest; but also notes of peanut brittle and caramel au beurre sale.

So impressively rich and intense. Mirabelle and kiwi fruit, pineapple, coconut, a hint of passion fruit and guava, passion flower and acacias too. Exuberant, sumptuous and fantastically complex. Ultra-viscous, like oil in the mouth. Infinite on the palate. Just wonderful. So balanced and fresh and acidic on the finish. Wow. Honeyed nectar; the gold of the Gods. Irresistible.

Guiraud (65% Semillon; 35% Sauvignon Blanc; certified biodynamic). Tasted twice, the first at the UGC in Paris; a second supplied by the property. Lychees. Lifted. Again lacks much botrytis character. Big, rich and powerful. Exotic – pineapple (the pineapple chunk sweets I adored as a child), lychees, pink grapefruit skin and pith, mango, ginger. A bit of a block-buster. Maybe not to everyone’s taste and maybe not up with the very best, but impressively rich and harmonious.

Lafaurie Peyraguey (93% Semillon; 7% Sauvignon Blanc; yields of 7hl/ha). Tasted at the UGC in Paris. Oh yes, this is wonderful. Immediately I am struck by the signature note of lanolin that tells me (or would if I couldn’t read the label) that this is Lafaurie-Peyraguey. It’s not there in every vintage, but it’s only ever present like this in Lafaurie-Peyraguey – a presence reinforced by the ultra strict selection. Lemon, lime, pineapple and tarte au citron (perhaps even tarte au pamplemousse rose), caramel au buerre sale.

Saffron and honeysuckle. Pure, lifted. This shows much more botrytis character than the other sauternes I have tasted and it gives a radiance, a balance and a complexity that few other wines have in this vintage. Roti notes and even, at this very early stages, a dusting of truffle. Marine/saline minerality. Racy, intense and very long. Finishes on preserved lemons. Brilliant.

Raymond Lafon (80% Semillon; 20% Sauvignon Blanc; yields of 8,5 hl/ha – one glass per plant; alcohol around 13,5% and potential alcohol of around 20%). Wonderfully situated with parcels in the communes of Bommes, Sauternes and Preignac and surrounded by the most illustrious neighbours – Yquem, Lafaurie-Peyraguey, Suduiraut and Rieussec. The property was created just too late to be included in the 1855 classification, but there is little doubt that this is terroir of classed growth quality.

Lovely quite classic nose of lemon zest, honeydew melon, apricots, pear and a little hint of spice and vanilla from the oak. An impressive wine, but the relative absence of botrytis makes this come across as very sweet. That said, there is certainly some botrytis here – indeed, a little more than most. Quite fresh, but I’d prefer just a little more balancing acidity. So whilst this is very fine, it is not for me quite at the level of the very best. 

Rayne Vigneau (76% Semillon; 24% Sauvignon Blanc; a bunch or two of Muscadelle). True to itself. One of the top Sauternes in this vintage that is quite easy to pick. Rich. Quite lifted and linear. Presents a palate of citrus fruits – yellow grapefruit, lemon and hint of lime zest, a little white peach flesh too; confit quince. Pure, precise and nicely focussed if perhaps not at this stage as complex as some. A lovely balance and freshness though and a little toasty roti note from the botrytis. Very little sense of oak. Not always my favourite Sauternes en primeur, but this is excellent.

Rieussec (very predominantly Semillon, well over 90%). Exotic and quite distinctive in this vintage. Orange blossom, passion flowers, guava and passion fruit; freshly cracked cardamom pods too – and persimmon. Tense and with a constant freshness but intensely sweet and with little evident botrytis. Oily. Only just enough acidity to cope with the sweetness and the richness, though some will adore this. A heady combination. Strikingly energetic and very interesting, but not necessarily to everyone’s taste.

Sigalas Rabaud (100% Semillon). Gentler and a little more elegant and restrained on the nose than many, with that signature Sigalas cornucopia of white and yellow flowers – jasmine, lilies, hibiscus and celandine. More focussed and lifted than many. Rich, but with a lovely freshness and a nice balance. The Semillon shines and a little hint of saline minerality brings additional precision, accentuating the sappy, juicy fresh fruit. Lovely. Finishes on homemade lemon curd. There are more complex Sauternes in this vintage, but this is very beautiful in its finely woven purity.

Suduiraut (94% Semillon; 6% Sauvignon Blanc; 14.1% alcohol; aged in 50% new oak; 130 g/l residual sugar; total acidity 3,7). Tasted from a sample provided by the chateau. Gorgeous. Lacks a bit of botrytis and needs air (quite a lot of it) to reveal its complexity – indeed, two days after opening this there was a lot more botrytis character.

And that is the issue and the paradox of this wine. Christian Seely says that there was not much botrytis – and one can see that. But what botrytis there was formed on wonderfully ripe fruit rather than developing earlier; and when that happens, a little goes a long way. The question is, how far? For me, the interaction (of botrytis on this fruit) is wonderful – if a little unusual. The balance between the acidity and the sweetness is nigh on perfect – the wine is just so tense and energetic. Difficult to assess the long-term potential, but worth a punt, surely?

Wonderful depth and richness from the Semillon. Pineapples chunks. Lanolin. Ginger – confit and a scratch of the fresh grated stuff too. Lemongrass. Tarte au citron and toasted brioche. A touch of orange blossom and jasmine. A heady cocktail! Each time I return to it I like it more. Very engaging. You just want to follow it over its long journey to maturity.

La Tour Blanche (90% Semillon; 9,5% Sauvignon Blanc; 0,5% Muscadelle). White gold. Rich. Roti. Grated ginger and white flowers. Peaches, apricots, pressed and candied lemon, preserved ginger too. Figs, even plums and hazelnut notes too. There is almost a hint of sur-maturite here – maybe they waited just a little too long? I need to re-taste this. Not entirely harmonious, admittedly at this very early stage. A wine I usually love; but I am not quite sure about this.

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