Writing about the wines of Bordeaux, I feel perennially obliged, before airing opinions, to quote Plato's Socrates, who said, 'If I know one thing, it is that I know nothing.'
My experience with the greats of the region is more or less reflective of my interest in them. Not that I'd ever turn down a glass of Petrus or what-have-you. But with such a teeming diversity of fascinating wines from less commercialised regions all much more readily available for study, it rarely seems with the effort involved to approach Bordeaux. There's a velvet rope of pure hassle and expense around the good stuff: purchasing it is out of the question, and most tastings that present it - especially the public tastings - are insufferably stuffy and boorish affairs, quite far removed from the "dudes hanging out with bottles" template of the most enjoyable tastings.
It's a happy coincidence that the wines of Bordeaux I find most interesting from an aesthetic standpoint - white Bordeaux and Sauternes - are in general slightly more approachable. Good examples of both wines present unique, opulent flavor profiles found nowhere else in wine, but with the exceptions of Château d'Yquem and Haut-Brion, neither wine category receives anywhere near the attention of the region's reds. One encounters the opposite problem: rarely finding the wines, let alone several at once to facilitate comparison. So when I learned my friend the prolific food writer Sophie Brissaud was to lead a tasting of Sauternes at Spring Boutique last winter, I found myself, for once, genuinely exciting about a Bordeaux tasting.
Brissaud, who I first encountered via her excellent blog, has authored sixteen books on various culinary topics, and produced several others in collaborations with notable chefs. She fell in love with Sauternes, I'm told, during research for her book "Grands Crus Classés: The Great Wines of Bordeaux with Recipes from Top Chefs of the World."
The production of Sauternes, from varying proportions of Sauvignon, Semillon, and Muscadelle grapes, famously involves botrytis, or 'noble rot,' the fungus which raisinates grapes on the vine, causing their sugars to concentrate and promoting development of the wine's distinctive flavours. But the process entails relatively low yields (25HL per hectare on average, with some celebrated estates yielding half that figure), and popularity of sweet wines has declined significantly over the course of the last century, with most drinkers - even here in France, a fact that continually surprises me - considering the whole category a kind of grannyish horror.
Brissaud has taken up promotion of Sauternes as a pet cause. None of the estates we tasted were paying her in any way, as far as I know. She just genuinely enjoys allowing people the opportunity to discover that there's great profundity to be found in Sauternes' sweetness, and that it's not necessarily frightfully sweet to begin with.
Château Lamothe-Guignard's 2004 struck me as notably mushroomy on the nose, which made for a pleasantly necrotic contrast to the palate's masculine, lightly tannic nectarine sweetness. The wine is produced from 90% Semillon, with 5% each of Moscadelle and Sauvignon; average vine age is 34 years.
My favorite wine of the tasting was perhaps more classic: Château Doisy-Daëne's 2004, which stood out for the amplification of its aromas, and for showing more secondary flavours than the others we tasted.
Acid was seamlessly integrated, supporting a lovely peach-cream / antique shop accord, rounded off with a light grassiness. Doisy-Daëne's Sauternes is notable for containing no Muscadelle - it's 89% Sauvignon, the rest Semillon. The 16ha estate has for the past 80 years been part of the Dubordieu portfolio, presently run by Denis Dubordieu and his sons. The estate also makes a very nice dry Bordeaux Blanc from Sauvignon that I've tasted on other occasions.
Given the theme of this blog, I was very interested to taste Château Guiraud's 2002, as they're one of just two estates in Sauternes practicing biodynamic viticulture. But for whatever reason this bottle wasn't showing; aromas were mute, and while the palate was impressivly persistent, it displayed little more complexity than the standard apricotty opulence.
Brissaud provided very helpful technical notes to accompany each wine, replete with varying accompaniments for each. These latter suggestions, I must admit, I found a little much: 'long roasted meats' or 'iodised shellfish,' for one; 'Thai cuisine,' for another. Such absurdly precise advice become comprehensible only in consideration of Brissaud's chief aim, which is to restore Sauternes' place at the dinner table, during dinner itself. In this respect - and this applies very widely - the pairing suggestions function semantically somewhat like the verbose descriptive signage at a Whole Foods supermarket. It's there to lend vocabulary to a potential consumer for use in convincing him or herself to purchase.
I can't argue with the success of the technique (one sees a variation of it here in France, in the punning labels Monoprix puts on its house brand items). But I'd submit that overly detailed pairing suggestions have the unintended, deleterious effect of causing consumers to fuss endlessly about precisely which breed of duck or which regional Chinese cuisine to pair with their wine, time that would be better spent drinking and conversing. If food writers can teach the public simply not to pair Sauternes with ice cream, but rather with foie gras or shellfish or Asian food, they will have already succeeded admirably.
52, rue de l'Arbre Sec
Tel: 01 58 62 44 30
Bordeaux, town of puns
Notes on Graves from Château Méric
Valerie Guérin of Domaine Les Milles Vignes at Spring Boutique
Blandine Chauchat of Mas Foulaquier at Spring Boutique
A terrific profile of Château Doisy-Daëne @ TheWineDoctor
A profile of Château Lamothe-Guignard @ TheWineDoctor
A good lengthy article on Sauternes production @ DiWineTaste