Clever title, no? A group decision on the coach, though I’m not sure many people were hoping for a detailed chemistry lesson, and luckily Tim wasn’t planning on delivering one.
We drove south along the toll road through Graves, spotting the odd vineyard among patches of woodland and maize fields. Our overview of ‘Noble Rot’/’Pourriture Noble’/’Botrytis Cinera’ took us straight back to terroir. But here there’s more to it than gravel.
Just about every year, the weather in Sauternes encourages a fungus called Botrytis to form on the grapes still on the vines. Overnight mists, caused by the cool Cirons River meeting the warmer Garonne create the right level of humidity to start the process, the spores in the environment land on, and their mycelium penetrate, the grapes, creating tiny holes through which moisture escapes. However, as things warm up during the late summer/early autumn days the humidity is dispersed and the fungus’s efforts remain noble rather than rotting. Without the warmth and sunshine the rot would take over, and the grapes would be covered with the same grey mouldy stuff that you’ll find in a poorly tended fruit bowl.
Under the good conditions the grapes shrivel, and the sugars within them become more and more concentrated. While the fungus does consume some of the grapes’ sugar, the water loss is such that the sugar concentration increases hugely, and as a result of the fungus’s activity, tartaric acid is converted to glycerol and gluconic acid, leaving the these sweet wines with a more oily mouthfeel and softer (though not lower) acids, and distinctive tastes including dried apricot, beeswax, caramel, even ginger.
The process happens grape by grape, and in Sauternes and Barsac, which command the highest prices, that is how they are harvested, grape by grape, with many ‘passes’ through the vineyard before the entire crop is picked. The average yield for such sweet wines in Bordeaux is around 25hl/ha (half that for dry wines made from the same grape varieties). The best Sauternes producers make a glass of wine per vine (versus one bottle/vine in quality dry wines in Bordeaux). Across the Garonne, the wines of Loupiac, Cadillac and Sainte-Croix-du-Monte do not enjoy such high prices so can’t afford harvest in this way, and are therefore picking whole bunches with an ‘average’ level of rot, creating a sort of vicious circle of lower ‘quality’ and lower prices that they cannot break out of.
Half of the group started the day at the highest of the high end of pricing: Château d’Yquem. Occupying the highest point in Sauternes, its 110ha of vineyards surround the pretty château, with its beautifully kept garden. Everywhere was immaculate and decorated incredibly tastefully – this is after all owned by L(ouis)V(uitton)M(öet)H(ennessy), who have invested further in an estate that was already deemed incomparable in the 1855 classification.
Our glamorous guide, Jessica, explained that while in 2017, when Tim had last visited, the harvest had been well under way by this point in September, this year they were still waiting for sufficient moisture in the air (even after the deluges of recent days). 80% of the vines are Sémillon, 20% Sauvignon Blanc, they are replanted after 70 years (we saw some baby ones very near the château). A half day’s picking (grape by grape) is vinified as a batch, and only included in the final blend after it has matured for 21 months in new oak. Wine that doesn’t make the cut is sold to LVMH employees in France, and in 2012 no Château d’Yquem was made at all. My equality antennae started twitching when she explained that the workforce, two thirds of whom are women, are assigned duty by gender – men use machines, to trim leaves at the top of the vine for example, whereas women do manual work such as leaf thinning.
Once we had walked through and admired the winery (see picture at top for the spiral staircase to the barrel cellar), we tasted in their prestigious tasting room. Their dry white, Y d’Yquem, a blend (in 2017) of 75% Sauvignon Blanc and 25% Sémillon is made from a bunch taken from each vine, and it tasted fabulous – creamy texture, complex flavours, and a long finish. And only €145/bottle compared with the 2016 Château d’Yquem itself (€350/bottle), which was very very lovely.
Luckily for us, our afternoon visit (the groups swapped after lunch) allowed us to taste some also very very lovely wines at about a fifth of the price.
The two groups came together over lunch at Château Guiraud, which is literally next door to d’Yquem. This is one of the oldest estates in Sauternes, and the first Premier Cru Classé to be certified organic. Its founders were both Protestants and Republicans, not the most popular flavours of the month in the early 18th Century, and steered a distinctive course, including adopting a black label to honour Napoleon Bonaparte and the Republic when he died.
Our lunch was a courgette and mascarpone amuse bouche, sturgeon, then cod with broad beans and a strawberry tarte. Dry white to start (see below) and their second sweet wine, Petit Guiraud, with dessert – perfectly matching its lovely fresh delicate taste.
The estate is now owned by four local Bordeaux friends, who handily have surnames like Peugoeot. It is entirely organic, no pesticides have been used since 2004, and they are proud of the biodiversity in their vineyards, and their organic garden (our vegan tour member enjoyed some of the 482 varieties of heritage tomatoes for his first course). 98ha of vines are bounded by forests, roads or the village, and they are on a hill so suffer no drift of sprays from other estates.
Constance, our very knowledgeable guide, explained that harvest would start that afternoon, and would continue for two months. We had had the 2018 dry white wine, G de Guiraud with lunch, and Constance explained that because of hail in July they could only make the dry wine that year, so much of the crop had been destroyed, and it being too risky to wait to see how the Botrytis would develop.
We tasted the flagship Château Guiraud (barrel fermented, and matured in new French oak for a further 21 months) from 2016, 2009 and 1996, and personally I liked the 2016 just as much (am I too unconfident to say more than?) the morning’s d’Yquem, while the older vintages demonstrated brilliantly the evolution of these luscious wines – still fabulous acidity, but increasingly complex tropical fruits, marmalade/dried fruit and almost black treacle characters on the palate. The lovely image of a bunch of grapes shows some of the fruits one might be reminded of. Guiraud is widely available in the UK, so I didn’t buy any at the estate but I intend to when I get back.
This was our final full day of tastings so we were glad lunch had not been too enormous. Back in Bordeaux we headed over to Le Glouton bistro, which was perfect for our mood – relaxed, casual and flexible. Some of us just had one course and others (including me of course) had three.