Back in December last year I published an article on this blog that you can find HERE about the ways in which Sauternes and other Bordeaux appellations dedicated to the production of sweet whites are attempting to deal with a market that seems to increasingly eschew this type of wine. There’s not much point in going into rights or wrongs, or even the considerable injustice of this situation, since fashion and taste are akin to the fickle finger of fate: one can rile them, stomp one’s little feet in indignation, but one can hardly control them.
I prefer to look at an example that recently crossed my path and which illustrates two of the means that are being utilised in Sauternes to maintain sales whilst diversifying the types of wines being produced. This example comes from a classified first growth property in Sauternes, Château La Tour Blanche (see aerial shot above), whose wines are admirable and which also, unusually, also harbours an agricultural school for viticulture and wine-making. This school is owned by the French Ministry of Agriculture but is managed separately from the wine estate itself, which has 40 hectares of vines in production.
La Tour Blanche uses all three of the authorised grape varieties for its top Sauternes that carries the château name, and in approximately the following proportions: 80% sémillon, 15% sauvignon blanc and 5% muscadelle. Only the sémillon spends time in barrels before final blending. For some time now, they have also been producing a dry white wine, and this is a growing trend throughout the region. Most wine lovers will know of the « Y » from Yquem, and maybe also the « G » from Giraud, and there are growing numbers of similar wines being produced by other châteaux in the area. One of their problems however is that very few of them are able to command high prices since there is a kind of price ceiling that comes with the only appellation that they are currently allowed to use, which is Bordeaux. I imagine that I share with other wine professionals and some amateurs the conviction that it is the wine-maker who is responsable for the quality level of a wine, and not the appellation in which it happens to fall. But the market deals with the law of averages and it also stumbles under the weight of old-time prejudices.
The white Bordeaux of Château La Tour Blanche is called « Duo de La Tour Blanche », since it uses only the first two of the previously mentioned varieties, with sémillon dominating sauvignon blanc in the blend (65% to 35%). The colour of the 2016 vintage that I tasted is clear and bright and the aromas reminded me of white peaches with just a hint of lemon zest. It is refined and fairly discreet with a suave character that is clearly imparted by the sémillon component. This is confirmed on the palate, with a smooth feel and no hint of oak or vanilla flavours, even if the sémillon does spend some time in barrels that have previously contained the Sauternes. The finish takes it crispness from the sauvignon and the whole feeling is pleasant and well balanced. This is a good and refined white that could perhaps retail for close to 20 euros, but in fact its retail price is more like 13. Sauternes is surrounded by the Graves appellation, well-known for its dry whites as well as reds. It would seem logical to me that dry whites produced in what is an enclave within Graves should benefit from this appellation, and this would enable the prices to rise slightly if the wines are as good as this one. Maybe the powers-that-be will see sense some day, but things always move slowly on that front!
The second, and perhaps principal, action being taken by Sauternes producers to counter market disaffection for their wines is to freshen and lighten the style of their sweet wines. This is very clear in recent vintages when one compares these to older ones, and I do have a few of the latter in my cellar. Here is a note on Château La Tour Blanche 2011, which was a vintage heavily reduced by a hail storm in the spring, with, as a result, a yield of about 8 hl per hectare, which is half that of a « normal » year. Golden hue and a crisp, slightly smoke-tinged nose of tropical and dried fruit, plus hints of tarragon and fresh hay. It is as intriguing as it is complex! The palate is of course sweet, but never cloying, as the richly fruity character is refined and held together with some clear acidity that makes the palate finish with a lift, almost reaching dryness. Very drinkeable, as much as an apéritif as with dried or fresh fruit.
This stylistic shift is perhaps the most essential and convincing trend under way in Sauternes and similar sweet wine appellations these days. Converting consumers to follow the movement and adopt again these lovely wines will be the next challenge.