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Bordeaux 2021: Sauternes tasting notes

Every conceivable climatic challenge and source of pestilence was present in the 2021 vintage in Sauternes and Barsac – however where the wines were made (and many sadly weren’t), there were some utterly brilliant wines, write our Bordeaux correspondent Colin Hay. Here are his tasting notes in full.  

A note on the ratings

 This year, for the first time, I have decided to provide an indicative rating for each wine alongside the published comment. All such comments and ratings are necessarily subjective (they cannot be anything else, when one thinks about it). I would urge you to look at the two together and, if anything, to privilege the comment over the rating. My aim is more to describe the wine in the context of the vintage, the appellation and recent vintages of the same and similar wines, rather than to judge the wine per se.

The ratings, of course, reflect my subjective relative preferences between wines. Your palate is likely differ from mine. I hope that my comments give you at least enough information to be able to recalibrate my ratings and, in so doing, to align them more closely to your palate. To give an example: if the idea of the ‘new classicism’ leaves you cold, you may well wish to discount the (typically high) ratings I have given to wines described in such terms.

2021 is, of course, a highly heterogenous vintage – and, consequently, my ratings span a considerable range (from the very high to the very low). I see little interest, either for the consumer or the producer, in publishing very low scores. Consequently, I have decided not to publish scores for wines that I have rated below 90 (here the range 89-91). Where no rating is published, the wine would have scored 88-90 or below.

Finally, élevage is likely to be very important in determining the quality in bottle of these wines (rather more so than in recent vintages). I am no soothsayer and cannot predict how that will turn out. All en primeur ratings should be treated with caution and taken with a certain pinch of salt. That is never more true than it is in this vintage.

  • D’Arche (Sauternes; 90% Sémillon; 10% Sauvignon Blanc; a final yield of just 1.5 hl/ha; 13.3% alcohol; pH 3.6; residual sugar of 121 gr/l; tasted from a sample sent to Paris). Pure. Lifted. Fresh and quite bright. Intriguingly complex aromatically, with notes of wild strawberry (interestingly) and strawberry-flavoured confectionary; dried bananas; juicy fresh pineapple; saffron and grated ginger. There’s a little lemon, too – a slice (without the ice) in an G&T perhaps. On the palate, this is quite dynamic and fluid with a good sense of forward momentum, but it’s just a little thin and dilute towards the finish. Fresh ginger and ginger ale, burnt sugar, caramel au beurre salé and toasted brioche, a little Asiatic pear and then pear skin and its slight granularity on the finish. Very pretty, likely to be very good value, but lacking the intensity and zingy zesty-ness of the very best. That said, when I come back to it, there’s a lovely purity and crystallinity here (I notch up my rating). 91-93.
  • Bastor Lamontagne (Sauternes; 55% Sauvignon Blanc; 45% Sémillon; 13% alcohol; a final yield of 1 hl/ha; tasted twice, on consecutive days, at the UGCB press tasting). The first wine in the Sauternes flight at the UGCB tasting and it had everyone talking. It is exceptionally good, even for the vintage. The best I’ve ever tasted from Bastor Lamontagne. Apricots. Confit lemon. Ginger – grated and crystallised too. Lithe and dynamic in the mouth, with the palpable richness and concentration delightfully broken up by the intermittent release of bright acidity – like fireworks against the dark night sky. Vibrant, energetic, with lovely lemon curd and tarte au citron notes and a little fleur d’oranger on the finish. A brilliant success from this under-appreciated property. 92-94+.
  • Clos Haut-Peyraguey (Sauternes; 60% Sémillon; 40% Sauvignon Blanc; 13.7% alcohol; a final yield of 7.5 hl/ha; tasted twice at the UGCB press tasting). Classic first growth Sauternes. This is maybe a little less floral than it once was – and the wisteria that used to clamber all over the chateau buildings has gone too! There is a little more oak presence at this early stage than most. Nutty, with walnuts and candied walnuts, wisteria (of course!), candied white melon, angelica, marzipan and frangipane, ginger and tarte au citron. Very sweet but without any heaviness due to the sapid acidity – with little fire-crackers of freshness going off in the mouth like popping candy. Explosive. Great too. If a little shorter perhaps than some. 92-94+.
  • Coutet (Barsac; 75% Sémillon; 23% Sauvignon Blanc; 2% Muscadelle; 13% alcohol; tasted twice at the UGCB press tasting). Darker in the glass (in fact the darkest of the Sauternes and Barsac flight at the UGCB tasting). Cool, concentrated and a little closed at first – delightfully so. This is subtle, austere even and very beautiful. It’s also very Coutet – and an easy pick blind. Almonds, almond skin, frangipane, melon and a slight beeswax note, honey and honeysuckle. Fresh ginger and candied orange rind; lots of botrytis character. Open-textured, seems to float and glide, maybe not as concentrated as some, but there’s a lovely lithe subtlety to this. 93-95.
  • Doisy-Daëne (Barsac; 100% Sémillon; 13% alcohol; a final yield of a derisory 1.3 hl/ha; tasted twice at the UGCB press tasting). Sweeter, richer and one of the most unctuous in the UGCB flight (a reflection of the 100% Sémillon at least to some extent) but with brilliant freshness, lift and energy. We have real va-va-voom! Pears and pear Belle Hélène, lots of white flowers, pink grapefruit and zest, jasmine and mimosa and a little hint of candle wax. This is very tight and dense and compact on the palate, with the wine sticking close to its spine (unlike the more fluid and open-textured Coutet). Beautiful intensity and finesse and with a glorious crystalline texture – very Doisy-Daëne in that respect. Not quite at this stage the same complexity as the 2020. Ultra-sapid on the zingy finish. Wow! 93-95.
  • L’Extravagant de Doisy-Daëne. Not yet tasted and made in infinitesimally small quantities (around 1000 individual half bottles).
  • De Fargues (Sauternes; 80% Sémillon; 20% Sauvignon Blanc; 13.5% alcohol; a final yield of a tragic 3 hl/ha; tasted twice at the UGCB press tasting). The production here is, alas, tiny – with just a quarter of a glass from a vine. But this, the final wine that I tasted at the UGCB press tasting the Cité du Vin, is the best of them all – and I don’t just mean amongst the Sauternes flight. Rich and intense, viscous and quite saline (the one reinforcing the sensation of the other), if a little closed at first. So ultra-pure. Ethereal and Yquem-like in its harmony and complexity, its capacity to combine finesse and puissance. Wow. Profound, multi-layered and very compact. Pineapple, fleur de sel, candied melon, pink and red grapefruit, candied ginger, a very subtle hint of saffron, crushed vanilla seeds, beeswax and peach blossom (with something of its beauty too), confit lemon. The tear in the corner of my eye reminds me of Yquem 2015 at the same stage – and like Yquem one is acutely aware that there is still so much more to be revealed. This builds and builds on the palate, with more depth than breadth (it remains very compact with a well-defined core). So bright and fresh, despite the massive texture, density and concentration. It’s utterly divine, hinting at a very delicate and subtle form of perfection. Incredibly pure and utterly sublime. 97-99.
  • Haut Bergeron (Sauternes; 80% Sémillon; 20% Sauvignon Blanc; residual sugar of 130 g/l; a final yield of 7 hl/ha; 13.5% alcohol; tasted from a sample sent to Paris). Pale gold, with green streaks and highlights. A little closed at first, though in fact rather complex aromatically. Lime zest, saffron, blood orange, mandarin rind and a little suggestion of melted butter on brioche, with a hint of cinnamon. On the palate, this is quite broad on the opening. But, just as you are taking that in, there is a second wave and it opens further. That sounds impressive, but it actually serves to reduce a little the impact and intensity of the fruit on the mid-palate – it becomes slightly stretched. But that, in turn, seems odd, as this is very viscous and dense texturally and so covers the frame of the wine very well. In fact the issue is that we are missing a little sweetness (even at 130 g/l). It would help to knit this together a bit better. Pineapple, fresh ginger, lemon and lime, honey and just a little burnt caramel (just at the edges) and some grapefruit zest. Good, but not the ‘wow’ factor of the very best. 90-92.
  • Lafaurie Peyraguey (Sauternes; 93% Sémillon; 7% Sauvignon Blanc; a final yield of 5 hl/ha; tasted twice at the UGCB press tasting). Darker than most and, other than Rayne Vigneau and La Tour Blanche, the most intense of the UGCB flight. More saline and with incredible density and mid-palate concentration – almost too much in fact for me. This is very much the product of a conscious stylistic decision. Lafaurie-Peyraguey makes a lot less wine than it used to and has evolved towards a richer and more powerful style (more Suduiraut than Sigalas perhaps). I very much respect that, even if I have more of a subjective soft spot for a lighter and more elegant style. Confit melon, lots of citrus notes, less floral though and very sticky. Sapid and juicy on the intense finish (it needs to be), but just ever so slightly unbalanced – there is just a little harshness somewhere on the finish (the absence of which is the mark of Sauternes brilliance for me). Don’t get me wrong; this is staggeringly brilliant. And I simply adore the lime zest and the grapefruit pith that cuts like a rapier through the palate from the opening to the finish. 94-96.
  • Raymond Lafon (Sauternes; 80% Sémillon; 20% Sauvignon Blanc; 13.5% alcohol; a final yield of 10 hl/ha; tasted from a sample sent to Paris). Very pure and aerial on the nose. Seville orange marmalade, fresh ginger and ginger ale, burnt sugar, candyfloss, toasted marshmallow, caramel au beurre salé, butterscotch, toasted almonds, frangipane, confit quince and lime sorbet. And on the palate we find, additionally, caramelised grapefruit pith, with toffee apple and a little green tea, especially towards the finish. There’ so much acidity and so much sucrosity in the same mouthful – with all the tension and energy of the two. This is very impressive and very complex in a way, but this is not a wine of total harmony or balance; the finish I find just a little harsh, with an odd note of confit banana and there’s a bit of a dip in the mid-palate too. There’s lots I like here; but they don’t entirely cohere (at least not yet). 90-92+.
  • De Rayne Vigneau (Sauternes; 71% Sémillon; 28% Sauvignon Blanc; 1% Muscadelle; a final yield of 7 hl/ha; tasted twice at the UGCB press tasting). I wine on super form in recent vintages. I love this. Fresh pineapple, pineapple pressé and confit, with white melon. There are also loads of yuzu and citrus elements and a delightful salinity. A wine of great purity and precision, with no excess, no flourish and no flashiness. This is intense, viscous and richly textured, with a very pronounced core and spine. Passionflower rather than passionfruit, and jasmine and ginger; ginger ale too; and a little candlewax. Tense and poised. Though this is sweet and sticky it has brilliant energy and a zingy electric freshness too. The best I’ve ever tasted from Rayne Vigneau. 95-97.
  • Rieussec. Not yet tasted. This was produced but will not to be released en primeur.
  • Sigalas Rabaud (Sauternes; 85% Sémillon; 15% Sauvignon Blanc; 13.5% alcohol; a final yield of 10.5 hl/ha; tasted twice at the UGCB press tasting). Tasted after de Rayne Vigneau, this is much less obviously sweet, more svelte in texture and seemingly slender. But that’s a bit of a trap as there is a subtle game of smoke and mirrors going on here. For this is incredibly layered and deceptively deep, its considerable power beautifully disguised in Sauternes charm and a searingly fresh and brilliant acidity (that makes it difficult to appreciate the richness). In effect, this is so soft and gently textured on the one hand, and so electrifyingly fresh, that one can’t take in, at least initially, its richness and puissance – but it’s all there. Very authentically Sigalas – always the most essentially floral of the first growth Sauternes. Fabulously elegant, delicate and poised with great purity and precision, here with a shimmering, sinuous and crystalline mid-palate. If this were red we’d be in Margaux! Subtle and gorgeous with exquisite tension and balance. Above all, this has great depth and great disguise – it builds in the mouth and is almost infinite on the finish. It radiates total harmony. The best I’ve ever tasted from here (which is saying something!). 95-97+.
  • Suduiraut (Sauternes; 100% Semillon; 14% alcohol; 138 g/l of residual sugar; a final yield of just 0.9 hl/ha or thereabouts, with 6000 bottles produced from 80 hectares; tasted twice at Pichon Baron with Christian Seely and Pierre Montégut). I was apparently the first to taste this, in late March and then again just over a month later – with remarkably similar notes. This is truly wonderful and as good a Suduiraut as I have tasted en primeur – though I loved the 2019 too. It is incredibly concentrated yet immensely bright and energetic, with an explosive freshness. Lemon zest, tarte au citron, ginger, ginger ale, fresh ginger, confit ginger, peach skin, fresh pineapple and saffron. Unctuous, super-concentrated and yet wonderfully tense and brimming with energy. Rich. Bright, viscous, nice botrytis. Just 35 barrels. The concentration comes from the botrytis which arrived late on already perfectly ripe fruit, the grand vin selection coming mainly from the second trie (remarkably there is a second wine too). 96-98.
  • La Tour Blanche (Sauternes; 69.5% Sémillon; 22.5% Muscadelle; 8% Sauvignon Blanc; tasted at the UGCB press tasting). Honied and very true, once again, to itself – this is a vintage in which the first growths are all easily identified. A cross between Sigalas Rabaud and Lafaurie Peyraguey in a way. Floral and fresh with white flowers and lighter fruits on the one hand; but also rich and dense and sticky on the other. Texturally, this is sinuous too and it never drifts towards heavyness despite the considerable richness, volume, concentration and substance here. A lovely tension; this reminds me a little of the 2001. Beeswax and candlewax, apricots and melon, lemon and lime zest and that lovely pithy finish. Superb and one of the best ever en primeur samples I’ve tasted from La Tour Blanche. 94-96.
  • Yquem. Not yet tasted. This was produced (with a vineyard yield of 8 hl/ha – not that far from the norm of around 10-13 ha/hl). It will not to be released en primeur but, presumably, in March 2024.

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