1999 and 1998 Sauternes

Bordeaux producers of sweet wines missed out on the region's millennial celebration in 2000. While a few chateaux in Sauternes and Barsac brought in small early tries of high quality, most still had the bulk of their fruit hanging when it began raining on October 11. This time, their patience was not rewarded: the rains more or less continued until the following spring, and few chateaux are likely to offer significant quantities of high-quality sweet wine from 2000.

But Sauternes and Barsac enjoyed a successful string of vintages from 1996 through 1999. On my spring tour of Bordeaux, I tasted a large group of the highly promising '99s shortly before bottling, followed by the finished '98s. Notes on these wines appear below.

My first in-depth look at 1999 turned up a powerful group of wines with considerable potential. Most properties in Sauternes and Barsac began with higher grape sugars than in '98. A small trie through the vines in early September brought in unusually fruity, floral semillon; during this first phase of the harvest, most growers eliminated underripe fruit as well as grapes that had been damaged by the humidity of the summer. Following intermittent rain from mid-September through October 4, the bulk of the harvest began in late September, and at some estates continued into early November. The later passes through the vines produced musts especially rich in sugar, with strong levels of acidity as well. As a vintage, 1999 is characterized by rich, pure fruit; the wines also appear to have higher levels of residual sugar than the '98s.

However stellar the '99s prove to be, the international market for Bordeaux's sweet wines continues to be moribund, with the strong interest in the 2000 reds further deflecting attention from Sauternes and Barsac. In many cases prices hikes for Bordeaux's sweet wines since the late '80s have not even kept up with the underlying inflation rate; '99s are generally no more expensive than '98s. For fans of these wines, the best examples from both years offer a very good buying opportunity.