Exploring Bordeaux 2023: The Timeless Allure of Sauternes

By | 3 May 2024


Simon Field MW

In his latest dispatch from the Bordeaux 2023 en primeur tastings, Simon Field MW reflects on the evolving challenges and enduring rewards of Sauternes.

François Amirault has supervised 40 harvests at Château de Fargues. All have been different, with the past, he affirms, providing few signals to the future, at least when it comes to the vagaries of making fine Sauternes. 2023 was the year of the death of Alexandre de Lur Saluces, owner of de Fargues and, before that of Château d’Yquem. A tree has been planted in front of the medieval donjon and a limestone plaque commemorates one of the region’s greatest champions. The slightly melancholic atmosphere is heightened when François reveals that he is to retire this year. We joke about differing retirement ages in our respective countries, and he suggests that President Macron was right to raise the pensionable age and ought to do so again. There is no analysis of whether or not Sauternes itself is moribund.

What makes Sauternes challenging, according to Amirault, is the variable which it adds to the already unpredictable winemaking canon, namely the onset of botrytis itself. What fascinates him is the correlation between phenolic maturity and the meteorological coincidence of rain, mist, humidity, and sunshine, all difficult to forecast on their own, let alone in a sequence preferable to the onset of that most glorious of vinous oxymorons, noble rot. It happens every year, yes, but each year is different, sometimes dramatically so.

Looking at the harvest today compared with 20 years ago, a significant difference is the requirement to harvest speedily once botrytis sets in. In 2023, the onset was both uniform and early, occurring in the first week of October. According to Jean-Jacques Dubourdieu at Doisy Daëne, it was “a massive attack”, requiring fewer picking outings (les tries), with one or two essentially, leading to logistical issues in ensuring enough pickers. However, some properties, particularly those with a larger amount of Sauvignon Blanc, may have required preliminary tries. Generally, these were for passerillés (shrivelled) grapes rather than rotten ones, says Laurier Girandot at Coutet.

2023 saw a swift and intense harvest in early October, completed well before the heavy rains of the 18th. The yield was slightly lower than both 2022 and the ten-year average, but significantly more than the disaster of 2021, when a new appellation for dry Sauternes was keenly discussed. Read more here about the situation in 2021.

Simon Leporte at Lafaurie-Peyraguey finds this encouraging. Though he didn’t quite achieve the extraordinarily high residual sugar level of 2022, he was satisfied with the 180 grams from 2023. The year is being recognized for its robust structure, more in line with years such as 2005, 2009, and 2015, than the more “elegant” years like 2014 or 2011. There are many, like Laurier Girardot at Coutet, who prefer a more elegant, delicate style, with him stating his 2023 most closely resembles 2014. The distinguised Château Climens is another fine example, perhaps highlighting the traditional differences between Barsac and Sauternes in style.

Francois Amirault emphasizes the contemporary challenge in producing Sauternes due to grapes maturing early (mid-August), but necessitating a wait for rains and the onset of the rot. This delay, especially in the warm August of 2023, can result in skin thickening and degradation of malic and tartaric acids, which may affect both the botrytis attack efficiency and the wine’s subsequent profile, as well as achieving a successful residual sugar and alcohol balance.

This balancing act once again calls upon variables and explains the multiplicity of styles evidenced in what, prima facie and given the uniformity of the onset of the noble rot in 2023, would appear to be a fairly homogeneous harvest. Nothing is ever easy in Sauternes, and nothing is predictable. It represents, in every sense, an antidote to mechanization and “interference.” It is a source of endless fascination and, at its best, unparalleled pleasure. It is little wonder that Monsieur Amirault is not quite ready to retire after a mere 40 vintages at de Fargues.

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