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- 03 May 2017 -

Sauternes Study Trip: Part III - Sauternes

As soon as I arrived in Sauternes, I can’t help but notice how the few opening lines of the tour always started with the host telling me where they are situated in conjunction with Chateau Y’quem. In brief, the Premiere Cru Superieur Chateau Y’quem sits on the highest spot of the appellation “this little hamlet” as they refer to it…. surrounded by all the other Premiere Cru Classe in the Sauternes appellation. The dialogue with regards to the correlation between soil structure and the wines also became more detail.

My first encounter of this shift was in Chateau Sigalas Rabaud where I was hosted by the vivacious and enthusiastic Laure. I was overwhelmed by her passion for her family chateau and her beloved wines, well I may be a little biased as the moment the car pulled to the front gate of the property, I was greeted by the most friendly Labrador which kept following me like I was his long lost family member!

I arrived in the chateau in the evening, this is the smallest of the Premier Cru Classe but no less formidable and spectacular in its own right. The warm glow of the evening sun shone over the vineyards which were planted on a slope with a Southerly aspect, famously termed as the Terrasse de Sauternais. I can’t help but noticed the size of the gravels and round stones which were the size of half my palm intermixed with clay and silica. It was clearly noticeable the weather had been kind to them, they had not suffered the extent of frost damage as their neighbours in Barsac.

The wine cellar was equally impressive, reflective of Laure’s art history background and her time working in the Louvre in Paris before she studied in the prestigious winemaking faculties of Montpellier and Bordeaux and later returned to the family business as a winemaker and manager of the chateau. Beautiful paintings adorned the wine cellar, this one with the nuns at harvest is my favourite.

This is a woman who is constantly looking around the corner for betterment of the estate and chasing perfection for the wines whilst keeping abreast of the voices in the market. Under her leadership, they have instilled practices to preserve the biodiversity of the vineyards and its surrounding environment. Those with a keen eye for colour will notice how the colour of the capsule compliments that of the label and the glass for each bottle on their own and blends in the whole “look and feel” of her entire wine portfolio. To me it is the perfect marriage of timeless elegance and modernity. Her latest creation, a culmination of ten years of trial and error is Le No. 5 de Sigalas, a no sulfites sweet wine of 60g/L RS which for any wine student out there will appreciate the challenges in how the team guard against the risk of oxidation in the winemaking process. This wine is light in body and drinks like a rose which is the overriding objective Laure had in mind in its creation – a wine which can be drunk during the meal as opposed to a traditional dessert wine which most restricts the pairing  only for the last course.

As we retire into the family home to start our supper, Laure was kind enough to offer me a seat at the dining table with a view of Chateau Y’quem standing proud and firm sun-kissed atop its roofs as the giant sun bids au revoir to welcome  nightfall. We are just some 500m away from the Grand Dame.    

P.S. The No. 5 paired like hand and glove with the lightly spiced Chicken Korma we had for dinner. I was in 7th heaven, can’t think of a better way to end the evening, I just hope I would have a dream of the dinner again so I can relive my experience one more time!

       

I started the next morning bright and early in Chateau Suduiraut, the jewel in AXA’s wine portfolio. As I pulled up to the entrance of the chateau (there were quite a few mind you, took a while until I eventually got to the right one) I can’t help but marvel at the grandeur of the establishment. The gardens were the creation of the designer of the Versailles. I say no more!  

I had always remembered the wines of Suduiraut as one of the most intense, powerful and concentrated. Pierre the winemaker tells me their yield is 15hl/h which is less than 10 hl/l of the legal minimum mandated by the appellation; they also harvest their grapes at 20 brix which the typical would be around 16. Botrytis onset had never been a problem for the chateau, the key is ensure there is enough acidity and freshness to balance the sweetness.  It was a real treat to have Pierre offer a guided tasting on the flavor evolution of the Sauternes from sweet to savoury with the emergence of saffron and umami notes such as mushroom and truffle.

I can’t think of a better start of the day, we are now 10:30am in the morning after the first tasting….onwards!

We are off to Clos Haut Peyraguey, neighbor of Chateau Suduiraut, also close to Chateau Y’quem  (as the marketing lead Clara proudly pointed out). I was also reminded that 4 out of 8 of their vineyard parcels were actually connected with Chateau Y’quem. It was a bit of a climb up to the vineyards which stand on the highest point of the appellation in the commune of Bommes. Clara explained the soil is made up of gravel, sand and clay, she picked up a gravel and enticed me to grab one in my hand and notice how warm it gets with time.  It did get rather warm and I am embarrassed to say I left it in my coat pocket thus I have now misappropriated a gravel from the chateau…Whoops!

The estate seemed more quaint and sweet compared to the gargantuan Chateau Suduiraut. It has one of the smaller vineyards compared with its neighbours in the appellation but that has no correlation to the quality of its wines. It is now owned by Bernard Magrez who bought it from the Garbay family back in 2012. Clara tells me he still comes by the property periodically. From the way how the property is managed and the amount of investment which had been poured in, I am looking forward to the prospects of their wines!  

Literally a stone’s throw away from Clos Haut-Peyraguey is Chateau Rayne Vigneau…well not quite that close as the driveway leading up to the main entrance is rather long, windy and grand!   I had the pleasure of meeting the winemaker and Director Vincent Labergere in Beijing last November in a wine tasting where we  paired his wines with Chinese food. It was a pleasure to see Vincent again, this time in his turf. He is known for his kind and modest demeanour, he took over as the lead winemaker when the chateau was acquired by Tresor du Patrimoine from Credit Agricole.

It was not surprising these vineyards are also in close proximity to Chateau Y’quem. What I didn’t know is Vincent told me when he first arrived at the chateau, he was reminded by some of his neighbours of the amazing terroir and potential of Rayne Vigneau. I subsequently learnt that back in 1867, the well-known wine broker Daney ranked the chateau above Chateau Y’quem! 

“No pressure Vincent!” We laughed aloud…  

Rayne Vigneau is the 3rd highest in the appellation and sits right at the center of a single block vineyard of 84 hectares, planted on Garonne gravels and clay, and wait for this -- apparently there had been revelation of precious stones! Unfortunately the vines at the foothills of the slopes did not escape the fate of the frost, there were some 30% damage to the vines.

 

The sheer size of the cellar was impressive and one of the larger ones in the appellation. I felt a bit like a deer in the headlights following Vincent as he meandered amongst rows of wine barrels in the cellar drawing wines for me to taste. I just marveled at how could he remember which barrel contains which wine made from which grape(s) of a corresponding row in the vineyard!

The creativity of Vincent and his quest to increase the awareness of sweet wines in Sauternes is exemplified in the creation of this display which came to life as he lit up all the bottles at the touch of a switch.

Lunch was spectacular, a bit grand given there was just Vincent and myself in this massive hall and a long dining table. I was glad we were not sitting at either ends otherwise I may have to borrow a loud speaker! As the chateau is owned by one of the biggest producer of the foie gras business in France, I knew that was a banker in the menu!  The meal was exquisitely paired with their dry white, second wine and Chateau Rayne Vigneau. What I can always sense from his wines is the acidity and freshness in the finish. As Vincent reminds me, “The focus is not the sweetness but the complexity, the sweetness is just something which comes as part and parcel for the development of noble rot”

My last visit in Sauternes could not be more different and pleasant as I visited Chateau Lamothe Guignard.  

The vineyard sits atop one of the largest points in Sauternes, overlooking the Cirons River. One part of the grapes are planted on gravel soils whilst the others on the chalky gravel slopes of the Cirons Valley facing North and North-West. The estate was acquired by Philippe and his brother Jacques Guignard since 1981, it used to be part of the much larger Lamothe estate which has since been split into three chateaus.

Philippe reminded me of a craftsman, someone whose energy and focus was so completely and utterly devoted to his vineyards and his wines. Aside from being the winemaker for this chateau and the other family property Clos du Hez in Graves (where he makes a white and a red), it was obvious during our conversation how closely involved he is with every step of the viticulture from tendering the vines to harvest. A perfect gentleman whose calm and collected demeanour really stuck in my mind as he showed me his wines patiently one by one with a commentary on his winemaking but not a word about their taste profile until I have had a chance to taste them and offered my own thoughts. Following which, the proud creator smiled, beaming with proudness and shared his winemaking philosophy behind each wine…

As I wrap up the miraculous trip, I am reminded of the story of the Black Swan. Botrytis infected grapes are ugly looking things. As you handle these grapes, there are often insects and all sorts which had made its way into the rotten grapes. Pierre told me one should always taste a rotten grape which had been infected by grey rot vs. noble rot so one knows the difference and will never make the mistake of picking a grape bunch infected by the wrong virus. But hey, that’s gross!

Like many good things in life, it’s worth waiting for. The transformation to beautiful decadent liquid gold is so worth it…. for me, nothing quite compares to the magic in a glass of Sauternes.     

 

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; Green Spain Part I