Focus on Sauternes/Barsac

Below are the results of my early April tastings of the powerful 2001 sweet wines of Bordeaux, as well as a set of barrel notes on the surprisingly good 2002s. But first an early word on 2003. Although I was able to taste a broad selection of the young 2003s in early April, most samples then were only approximations of the final blends and were far too young to assess. But it was already clear that 2003 will prove to be a very strong year for Sauternes and Barsac, and quite possibly monumental. Many insiders are already describing the 2003s as combining the power and richness of 1990 and the finesse of 1989. Obviously, any comparison between the new vintage and these two earlier years is high praise indeed, even if premature.

Late in the hot summer of 2003, a period of steady rain on September 7 and 8, followed by light rain over the next few days, triggered a rapid outbreak of botrytis on fruit that was already ripe and high in sugar. After cleaning their vines of any bits of grey rot, virtually every estate in Sauternes and Barsac harvested quickly during the second half of September without the need, or the time, for multiple passes through the vines. Warm breezes from the southeast facilitated the spread of pure botrytis and also resulted in further concentration of the grapes through passerillage (shriveling of the grapes by sun and wind), which had already been underway in some sites as a result of the scalding heat of August. (Barsac had received a bit more rain during the summer and thus its wines are characterized less by passerillage.) Potential alcohol levels soared under warm harvest conditions, and some estates harvested their ripest fruit ever, and in record time.

Acidity levels in the 2003s are generally low, and at the outset some château proprietors feared that their wines would be ponderous. Complicating matters was the fact that the highly concentrated musts were often tricky to vinify. Residual sugar levels in the wines are huge: typically between 150 and 200 grams per liter, vs. 90 to 150 for the 2001s. According to Bill Blatch, whose négociant firm Vintex has long been a major player in the Sauternes market, "roughly speaking, the 2003s have 25% more sugar and 25% less acidity than the 2001s." (Of the samples I tasted at the beginning of April, La Tour Blanche was highest in residual sugar, while Suduiraut was lowest in acidity.) But at the beginning of April, the very young 2003s were pure, smooth, rich in fruit and opulent, yet managed largely to avoid heaviness. Despite their obvious concentration, however, their pronounced sweetness made it difficult to get a feel for their underlying structure and the nature of their botrytis character in early April; I look forward to following these wines in barrel and in bottle. Some of my early favorites included Coutet, Guiraud, Nairac, Rayne-Vigneau, Rieussec, Sigalas-Rabaud, Suduiraut and La Tour Blanche (I did not taste Climens). I also liked Arche, Doisy-Daëne, Doisy-Védrines, Lafaurie-Peyraguey, Lamothe-Guignard and Myrat.

The vintage to focus on today is 2001. These are wines to buy and lay down, not wines to consume young. The 2001 Sauternes show more acidity and power than the 2003s; in fact, most of the 2001s were broodingly closed in early April, even awkward to taste. The better wines are likely to need 10 to 15 years in bottle before they harmonize and should be very long-lived. The 2002s, which seemed rather delicate a year ago, have even more acidity than the 2001s, but less power and volume. They are characterized more by their finesse and class. In contrast to the harvest of 2003, much of the sweet wine harvest in 2002 occurred during a period that featured very chilly nights with a cold wind from the northeast. Many of the 2002s showed a lot of free sulfur in early April, which suggests that they have stable material and are evolving slowly. These elegantly styled wines should make lovely aperitifs and also prove to be flexible at the dinner table. My preliminary scores may prove to be conservative.