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Sauternes: the great sacrifice

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Producing Sauternes is a noble venture – one that often brings more risks than rewards. Gavin Smith talks to three of the region’s leading producers about the perils of crafting the world’s most sought-after sweet wines – and why it’s worth it

Sauternes might be the most distinctive wine on the planet. Its combination of power, unctuosity and aromatic complexity is unparalleled. These extraordinary wines consistently compete with the finest wines made anywhere in the world.

But unlike most wines of the world, Sauternes’s journey from vine to bottle is a tumultuous affair. Typically, over half the crop is sacrificed in order to reach the heady levels of complexity the region is famous for. The journey from berry to bottle is one of the most fascinating molecular transformations and one of wine’s greatest miracles. Bérénice Lurton of Ch. Climens describes the process “as a sacrifice, death and resurrection all in one. It is like the rising of the phoenix,” she says. “Within the process of the grapes’ destruction is the ability for transcendence and transmutation into something else, something beautiful.”

Every Sauternes vintage is a rollercoaster ride of unknowns – one that would leave most vignerons at the end of their tether. “All the rules you know about wine production: forget about them,” Lorenzo Pasquini – who recently arrived at Ch. d’Yquem – says. The grape’s reaction to its terroir, to humidity, to the process of noble rot: it’s all a gamble and, often, a gamble you lose.

No one understands this game of chance better than Bérénice Lurton. The crop at Ch. Climens has been decimated in the last few years. She hasn’t made a sweet wine of any volume for five vintages in a row. Frost has become the biggest threat of late, completely wiping out the most recent 2021 crop as well as 2017. The severity of the damage to the vines in 2017 encroached on 2018 too, where coulure (poor fruit-set) and mildew also dwindled production to zero. In 2019 it was the attack of the drosophila fly that destroyed almost the entire crop, and in 2020 it was hail’s turn to wipe out production. No one in Sauternes is left untouched by the risks involved.

Once – and if – your crop survives, there are several key elements to a successful vintage in Sauternes. Pasquini thinks it is best to think of Sauternes as having two ripening phases per season. The first is like any other wine region: the maturation of the grapes. The varied terroir here plays its role. The gravel and clay soils at Yquem, for instance, are vital in reducing the vigour of the vines, naturally producing small bunches of concentrated fruit. Pasquini remembers being taken into the vineyard to try the grapes when he first arrived at Yquem. “It was just incredible how tasty they were,” he says. This concentration is an essential part to the finest Sauternes. At Ch. Doisy-Daëne and Climens, it is Barsac’s limestone soil, which brings added florality, salinity, freshness and aromatic complexity to the final wine.

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This first phase of ripening will determine the style of vintage (rather than the final quality). Lurton describes how 1997, 2002, ’04 and ’07 were all dull summers in Bordeaux; while not great for the region’s reds, they were incredible vintages for Sauternes. The cooler temperatures produced a brighter, more acidic style with great tension. The development of botrytis following this was a great counterbalance, adding richness, intensity and aromatic complexity. “But it doesn’t have to be a cool vintage in Sauternes to be a great one,” says Lurton. Dry, sunny years like 2005, ’09 and ’15 produced a richer style of wine – with botrytis only adding to the opulence and richness of the year.

Once the grapes have reached maturity, and only then, do vignerons pray for botrytis to arrive. “The botrytis plays two roles,” says Ch. Doisy-Daëne’s Jean-Jacques Dubourdieu. “Most famously it is known to digest the skin of the berry and this allows for the water evaporation from the berry, and therefore concentrates the sugar in the grape.” But Dubourdieu believes its second role is just as important, but less well known. “The botrytis causes a chemical reaction in the berry. As a way to fight the botrytis, the berry produces precursor aromatics in the grape. Depending on the maturity of the berry when the botrytis arrives, this directly affects the concentration of aromatic precursors produced.” The magic number for Dubourdieu is a potential alcohol level of 13%. “If the berry is at this level of maturity, it can produce up to 50 times the number of aromatic precursors than less mature grapes.”

Once the botrytis sets in, the vignerons then pray (and there is a lot of praying) for another dry period in which the grapes can further concentrate under the effects of botrytis. This is where the wind – a key feature of Sauternes’s microclimate – becomes vital. The wind can quickly concentrate the grapes – but, depending on the varying exposures and terroirs within the region, different styles of botrytis aromatics and flavours develop adding even more complexity to the wine. “Having more botrytis grapes to choose from, creates more flavour complexity in the final blend,” says Pasquini. This is, in many ways, Yquem’s greatest asset – with 113 hectares under vine. In some vintages, quality botrytis might only be successful in one part of the vineyard, but in a great vintage there is opportunity to blend the different botrytis styles from across different microclimates for a more complex expression. This is what brings such variation in style from château to château, and vintage to vintage.

Production in the last few years has been on a worrying sliding scale. The sacrifices made seem to be greater with every vintage. For a winegrowing region whose fortunes are so much in the hands of Mother Nature, is Sauternes at risk? Is there a danger that we will lose the unique conditions necessary to make these unique sweet wines?

For Dubourdieu, the warming climate has, on the contrary, brought many benefits. Firstly, the grapes much more often reach 13 degrees potential alcohol before botrytis sets in, meaning there are more years in which he can craft “great” wine. His biggest concern, however, is that the climate is pushing the onset of botrytis later and later. “The 2020 is a perfect example of this,” he explains. “The grapes had reached significant maturity by the end of August, but botrytis didn’t arrive until mid-October.” The dry, warm, sunny September held off any onset of botrytis. “The danger of this is if botrytis comes too late, there won’t be enough power from the sun to concentrate the berries through the all-important evaporation process. Also there is the risk of the acidity dropping too.” Beyond mid-October, if no botrytis has formed the whole vintage could potentially be lost. Fortunately this hasn’t yet been the case, but 2020 came close – and it could become more of a threat in the future.

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The vines at Ch. d'Yquem

“For now, the issue is quantity, not quality,” says Dubourdieu. “The increased levels of mildew in the summer, the hail and the spring frosts – these are our concerns.” Sauternes has had a long line of great vintages, however volumes have been decimated. Whatever the appetite in the market is, there is very little Sauternes available from the most recent vintages. There’s often a question over the appeal of these luscious wines – but Sauternes production is so limited that its audience can only ever be small. Yquem, Climens and Doisy-Daëne all describe themselves as guardians of this unique craft, rather than vignerons feeling commercially pressured to produce a drier style in greater volume. They know that for many wine enthusiasts drinking Sauternes is not a regular occurrence – but they want it to be one of the most memorable wine experiences of their lives when they do. And that’s the magic of these wines.

Despite the low volumes, Pasquini, Dubourdieu and even Lurton are optimistic about Sauternes’s future. Quality has never been better and they’re in a long-term game: they look at yields over 20-year, not five-year, cycles. There is a new buzz coming from a rise in tourism in the region, while the spirits industry’s recent interest in Sauternes barrels for cask finishing is yet another alternative income (with old barrels selling for five or six times more than they bought them for), not to mention the publicity – bringing Sauternes to a whole new range of potential consumers.

Unfortunately, 2021 is looking like another miniscule vintage for the region and that’s even before botrytis has arrived. But not even this dampens Dubourdieu’s mood: “If you want to control everything, you certainly wouldn’t be a vigneron. As a vigneron you learn to live with uncertainty.” For Lurton, “Living with such uncertainty keeps your feet on the ground.” As the region continues to develop, their experience of uncertainty and necessary sacrifice, Lurton believes, means Sauternes “will never lose its soul”.

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