Bordeaux 2022 en primeur: Sauternes & Barsac, ‘excellence but great diversity’
Sauternes and Barsac have suffered much in recent vintages, with terroirs that seem to be on the frontline of climate change impact. However our Bordeaux correspondent Colin Hay finds excellence and great diversity in this latest vintage.
Sauternes and Barsac are typically overlooked en primeur. They have suffered much in recent vintages. Their terroirs turn out to be very much on the frontline of the impact of climate change. And the intergenerational transmission of taste and preference has contributed to make their market position more and more precarious.
It would be good to think that 2022 marks a certain kind of turning point – and perhaps it does.
Yields are up, to just above the ten-year average, and part of the reason for that is better management of frost risk (with the more extensive use of aéolians [wind turbines] and the later pruning of vines the most important of the range of weapons deployed).
Sauternes and Barsac producers have also increasingly turned their attentions to the production of distinct, high-quality and often Sémillon-dominant, dry whites (which I will review separately). Whilst these have yet to receive recognition by the INAO as a separate appellation, they have already brought new interest and a younger generation of wine-lovers to the region. Crucially, they have done so without detracting attention from the sweet wines on which the reputation of these appellations was founded and will always be based.
For those wines, the 2022 vintage is fascinating and complex and one that is already dividing the critics. On paper, this is a potentially exceptional vintage with significant concentration of the grapes arising from late onset botrytis. But, partly as a consequence, these wines are almost too much for some, with almost unprecedentedly high levels of residual sugar requiring considerable compensating acidity. In some wines that is clearly present – these are truly exceptional and amongst the best wines I have tasted from either appellation in recent vintages. In some other cases it is clearly not present and these wines I find heavy, a little flat and almost tiring to drink. The tipping point between freshness and sucrosity is, of course, a very fine line and it is also very much a matter of personal taste (accounting for the difference between the critics in their assessment of these wines). But what is clear is that, for those who love their botrytis character rich and intense, this is an outstanding vintage and these wines very worthy additions to a list of en primeur purchases.
Though the results are potentially excellent, the growing season was not without its difficulties and associated anxieties. It ultimately rewarded the patience of those who were prepared to take the risk of waiting to pick until the optimal concentration of the grapes had been achieved after the late onset of botrytis and the slow return to the warm and dry conditions required to impart its signature on the grapes. But until the second week of October it was by no means clear that would even be a 2022 vintage for most producers.
The winter months were dry and cool and this was followed by a similarly dry spring in which temperatures remained relatively low. As elsewhere in the region, a dramatic rise in temperature ensued in May allowing budburst, flowering and fruit-set all to occur under essentially optimal conditions. Four nights of frost in early April (with the temperature at Climens in Barsac falling to -4.1 degrees on April 4) had producers sleeplessly pacing their vineyards once again. But late pruning, greater use of aéolians and the fact that this came early and with the vines still catching up after a cool spring meant that damage was restricted, highly localised and less severe than in recent vintages. The dry and hot summer and early onset of drought conditions allowed the grapes to attain full phenolic maturity in perfect health (with no losses to mildew or rot).
Thus, as Axel Marchal and his colleagues put it in their annual vintage report, “at the end of August, with the extraordinarily early harvest of the dry whites already completed in Sauternes, the grapes intended for the production of sweet wines were perfectly ripe, healthy and of good quantity” (my translation). But the conditions for the establishment of botrytis were still a long way off. A game of chicken ensued. Fearing that the botrytis would never come (and following the derisorily miniscule yields of 2021), some properties decide to pick only passerillé grapes to ensure that they had a harvest. Yet most of the leading properties crossed their fingers and waited, making only a small first trie (or passage through the vines) to pick un-botrytised grapes (around 10 per cent of the grand vin at Suduiraut for instance).
Fortunately, the rain returned in late September and continued into early October. This was fabulous for the establishment of botrytis. But now that the rain had come it wouldn’t stop creating a second anxiety – the arrival of winter conditions before the necessary desiccation and concentration of the grapes. Just when it seemed that all was lost, the sun returned and, with it and no less serendipitously, a drying wind from the South. Concentration was achieved very rapidly with picking teams racing through the vineyards to harvest highly concentrated and heavily botrytized grapes as acidity levels started to drop.
For those patient risk-takers who had held their breath for the botrytis to establish and ultimately to concentrate, then, the vintage is characterised by the high quality and purity of the botrytis which formed on fully ripe and already highly concentrated berries.
The overall effect of this, at the appellation level, is for average vineyard yields to return to normal levels (close to the ten-year average) – as Table 1 shows. Yet, unremarkably perhaps given the complexity of the vintage, they are also highly variable between properties. Whilst at Climens the final yield was a still paltry 7.5 hl/ha and at Suduiraut even less, at 7 hl/ha, Doisy Daëne managed to achieve an impressive final yield of 18 hl/ha.
|2018||2019||2020||2021||2022||10-year average||Relative to 10-year average (% change)|
|St Emilion (GC)||39.7||43.0||36.7||27.5||41.2||37.2||+10.7|
Table 1: Average vineyard yield by appellation (hl/ha)
Source: calculated from Customs data compiled by the CIVB Service Economie et Etudes
Residual sugar levels are also extremely high, though again variable, with Lafaurie-Peyraguey at a staggering 260 g/l, Suduiraut at 194 g/l and Les Dames de Bonneau at 189 g/l whilst Guiraud is at a rather more conventional 134 g/l.
The wines are fascinating and quite diverse in personality. For the reds this is very much a terroir-magnifying vintage, producing in general wines that reflect both their appellation and their distinct terroir. In Sauternes and Barsac that is far less the case. For with so much botrytis character and concentration, there are wines that I, for one, would find very difficult to pick blind. Their personality, in a sense, has almost been overwhelmed.
But we need to be careful here. For, first, those wines can be excellent even if not exactly in keeping with the style of an individual property. And, second, there are plenty of wines (including those with monumental levels of residual sugar) for which that is not the case.
Indeed, now that I reflect on it, all of the wines that I highlight below – but above all Climens, de Fargues, Sigalas Rabaud and Suduiraut – taste as only they can. Indeed, in some respects most interesting of all is Clos Haut-Peyraguey. For this is a wine that tastes like it used to taste a decade ago. In 2022 it seems almost to have re-found its terroir typicity that I have missed a little in recent vintages.
In short, there is excellence but great diversity in this vintage.
Highlights in 2022
Best of the appellation:
- Climens (97-99)
- L’Extravagent de Doisy-Daëne (96-98)
- De Fargues (96-98)
- Suduiraut (96-98)
- Doisy Dubroca (94-96)
- Sigalas Rabaud (94-96)
- Bastor Lamontagne (93-95)
- Clos Haut-Peyraguey (93-95)
For full tasting notes, click here.
Please click link for db’s 2022 en primeur vintage report, along with appellation-by-appellation reviews (links updated as they become available) on Pomerol, Saint-Émilion, St Estèphe, Pauillac, St Julien, Margaux, Haut-Médoc, Listrac-Médoc, Médoc, & Moulis-en-Médoc, and Sauternes & Barsac.