Wildfire and fine wine in the USA

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A valley of vines in full leaf with low-hanging white cloud. Colgin winery USA
Low-hanging cloud over the vines at Colgin. Edited from a photograph by Jason Lowe

In summer 2020, as the world reeled from the pandemic, another crisis blazed across the western USA. Instagram and Facebook lit up orange and grey as people shared images of devastating wildfires. Eighteen months on, we speak with some of the winemakers who lived and worked through that moment of climate chaos.

Amongst journalists, the phrase “ambulance chaser” is used to dismiss the wrong type of writer. Hacks who spend their time in pursuit of the most sensational story: dealing in shock; bypassing nuance; trading only in the hardest-hitting version of truth.

But the on-the-ground reality of the wildfires which swept across the USA’s western states in 2020 was shocking – no matter how you write it. A quick Google image search returns countless apocalyptic-looking scenes. These are pictures which are every bit as hard to look at as they are to turn away from.

At the time the fires burned, in the midst of the unfolding Covid pandemic, it felt like something was shifting in the balance of the planet. Had climate change passed the point of no return? Was this the future we’d all be facing if global warming continued unchecked? In the drama of the summer, these seemed fair questions. More than a year on – and long after the images of smog-clouded skies have disappeared from our Instagram feeds – the impact of the fires is still being felt.

And the legacy is a complicated one – especially for fine-wine makers. On the one hand, they’re forced to face the economic reality of a year where many of them couldn’t bottle a drop: a whole vintage was wiped out – and that has obvious consequences. But, on the other, they want to put distance between themselves and the ashes. Smoke-taint tarnishes reputations just as quickly as it ruins grapes.

Here, we speak with three eminent producers about their story of the 2020 vintage; about climate change, and about how – more than ever – they’re on a mission to convey sense of place in every drop of wine they produce.

A STATE OF EMERGENCY

On 18th August 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in California. At least 350 fires were blazing, sparked by a thunderstorm. The tinderbox conditions – created by a long heatwave and drought – were exactly what was needed for uncontrollable burning.

During the wildfire season, 1,779,730 hectares of land were hit. Temperatures were also extreme. In mid-August 2020, the National Weather Service recorded the highest-ever temperature on the planet, 54.4°C, at Furnace Creek in California. Further north, Oregon saw one of the most destructive years on record, with half a million hectares burned. The fires caused 42 deaths and destroyed almost 14,000 buildings across the western states.

In the fine-wine world, hectares of precious vines – nurtured through the growing season – were swathed in dank clouds of smoke just before harvest. And the timing couldn’t have been worse: plump and ripe, the grapes’ delicate skins absorbed the complex smoke compounds. The fruit simply couldn’t be used to make high-quality wine.

Even those producers who were fortunate enough to avoid the actual effects of smoke didn’t escape entirely: for them, there remain the challenge of selling wine made in a vintage associated with wildfire. “It was hugely destructive,” says Catriona Felstead MW, our Wine Buyer for the USA. “There were various vineyards lost, but beyond that, the big problem was the smoke taint. There were wines made in 2020, but, for many quality-conscious producers who had smoke over their vines, the only possible decision was to not make any wine.”

Larry Stone is CEO and Founder of Lingua Franca, a winery based in the Eola-Amity Hills in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. When we speak one dark February evening, he explains how 2020 wasn’t the first time they’ve been impacted by wildfires, but this time it was a different story. Despite the fact the fires were burning more than 100km away from Larry’s vineyards, strong, zero-humidity winds blew in from the northern Central Plains of Canada, carrying smoke and ash.

These arid winds collided with damp ocean onshore winds, pushing the smoke down into the vineyards. “The wind was so strong,” Larry says. “I’d prewatered my herb garden: it was dried out within an hour. Totally dehydrated – as if someone had taken a flamethrower to it. There was ash and soot everywhere.

“In parts of the Willamette Valley, it was the worst situation possible for about 10 days – right as harvest began. In this area, it was highly damaging to the quality of the fruit. There were little pockets that weren’t as affected. But I knew the harvest was lost. I didn’t even want to pick.

“The reality is, even if we had had a crop that wasn’t affected by smoke, the perception would be otherwise. People would have heard about these catastrophic fires, and wouldn’t want to buy the wine.”

In the hope that more fruit could be saved, Larry sent some borderline samples of Chardonnay from less-affected vineyards for laboratory analysis. “Sure enough, the precursors for smoke taint were so high that there’s no way in hell that even this Chardonnay that smelled and tasted good could not become spoiled,” he says. “Even if you can’t smell the smoke on the fruit, or in the juice, the taint can appear months, or even years, down the line,” Larry explains. “You just know that if you bottle it, it’s going to smell like creosote, so we threw it out. The sad thing is, it was a great harvest in the making. But it doesn’t matter what the economic hit is, we couldn’t sell it as our wine.”

It makes it all the more heartbreaking when you know the Chardonnay and Pinot picked before the fires are amongst the best wines Lingua Franca have ever made – albeit in tiny quantities.

Around 30 minutes’ drive north, mostly on Highway 153, you’ll find the Nicolas-Jay winery. Here, at the top end of the Willamette Valley, Burgundian winemaker Jean-Nicolas Méo and music entrepreneur Jay Boberg farm their Bishop Creek vineyard alongside 53 acres in the Dundee Hills. In summer 2020, fires crept within a couple of miles of their new winery, but the problem – as at Lingua Franca – was the smoke.

“The fire was east of Salem,” Jay explains over a Zoom call. “It started maybe 40 miles away. But it burned for two weeks, and destroyed around 120,000 acres. It was huge. “The Willamette Valley is an octopus – not like Napa, which is more of a snake – with these different canyons in the valley. So a big portion of the smoke was drawn up into the Willamette Valley.

Then there was an inversion layer: it was like someone put a frying pan on top and was holding the smoke down for around eight days. It was just crazy. “We’d harvested some Chardonnay already, and one block of Bishop’s Creek. If not for the smoke, we should have picked 50% of our fruit in those eight days. It was just terrible.”

At Nicolas-Jay, they were able to make some Chardonnay, and some rosé – the wine is produced without skin contact so the smoke compounds aren’t problematic. But as to the rest? For Jay, like so many other makers, it was a question of quality: “I’m sure there’ll be some fine wines made, but we decided that for us, it wasn’t worth it. Even if it was just a small risk that they were going to be spoiled or not representative of what our Pinot Noir should taste like. We just didn’t want to take that risk.”

Head around 950km south of Larry and Jay’s vineyards and you’ll find Colgin Cellars. Founded in 1992, this Napa institution has – over the past three decades – led the way in making wines that showcase not just beautiful fruit, but also incredible and nuanced terroir. From his office in the winery, Paul Roberts, Master Sommelier and President of Colgin, points out a dot on a hillside beyond the winery where, on 17th August 2020, a lightning strike set a fire that was to ruin the winery’s harvest.

“We had about three weeks of smoke; we made close to 100 different micro-ferments between all of our vineyards,” says Paul. “We’d made the decision that there were flaws in the wine. Then, in the second week in September, the smoke trapped a lot of heat, so suddenly it was 43°C.” There was no hope of salvaging the crop.

When you consider that Colgin had to write-off the entire vintage, Paul is surprisingly pragmatic. “Napa Valley makes the most consistently great Cabernet Sauvignon in the world. So we have a fire that burns and destroys crops? Hopefully that’s a once-in-50-year dynamic. The thing here is that we’re consistently able to make great wines. Outside of when we have these heat spikes – which we’ve learned to handle – we have very altruistic weather.

“As long as we don’t have fire and smoke, this is an amazing place to grow grapes for Cabernet Sauvignon and its brethren, our single-vineyard Syrah. Beyond that, it’s up to us to show how they’re all different,” says Paul. The story he, quite rightly, wants to tell about his wines is one of nuance, complexity and terroir.

THE ECONOMICS OF CLIMATE CHAOS

Practically, you’ve got to be in good shape to ride out a year when your income is kyboshed by Mother Nature. And, presumably, you want to be able to mitigate for future years when the same pattern could unfold.

Paul explains how, at Colgin, they were surprisingly prepared with a library of back vintages to draw down on. “Starting with the 2010 vintage, we began in earnest to hold back anywhere from 5% to 20% of the crop. In 2010, we held back 7%; in ’11 we didn’t hold any back because we made 50% less wine. In ’12, ’13, ’14, ’15 even though we’re in this horrendous drought, we were actually getting bountiful crops.

“And the goal was that we were going to start releasing those wines when they were anywhere from 15 to 20 years old. Who would have thought that we would need them as soon as we did? So in ’23 and ’24, we’ll tap into that repository of wine,” says Paul. Similarly, with no red wine to sell from the 2020 vintage, Jay and Jean-Nicolas will be releasing their library wines. “We’re depleting these libraries earlier than we had planned,” Jay explains. “We’ll be using ’15 and ’16 and ’17 not to fill the gap – because we don’t have enough to cover an entire vintage – but at least to get some wine to the UK market. And I think that’ll be great for those drinkers who are all about holding on to wines and dabbling in different vintages. I think it’ll be very interesting.

“You have to accept that fire is going to be a risk. And we can’t really get insurance in a meaningful way, so we just have to build it into our thinking.”

MITIGATING FOR MOTHER NATURE

There is no farmer more in tune with the minutiae of climate conditions, and changing weather patterns, than a grower of fine-wine grapes. They understand the impact of every aspect of place across even the smallest parcel of vines. They also understand the macro: the broader trends that are forcing them to adapt the way they manage their vines.

Jay, Larry and Paul make very different wines, which are entirely specific to their individual terroirs. But when we speak about whether they are adjusting their winemaking in the face of a changing climate, they all have a similar take on the situation. As farmers, they are already well (if not perfectly) adapted to their land; they’re equipped to ride out the known extremes that will come their way; and they’re pragmatic that not every weather event can be catered for.

In the Willamette Valley, a very precise series of climate conditions means that Jay and Larry are in a predictable and sympathetic spot for winemaking. “The Coastal Range is really what allows winemaking to happen in the Willamette Valley,” explains Jay. These mountains form a protective barrier between the ocean and along the west of the valley. “If the mountains weren’t there, it would never get warm enough to ripen grapes,” he says.

Then, there are the essential cooling night-time breezes: “The Van Duzer gap, a low pass in the mountains, allows damp, cool air to flow into the
valley at night-time,” says Jay. “This is what makes it so perfect for Pinot Noir: you’ll get days in the summer where it’ll be in the 90s, but at night it’ll drop by 40°F.” Jay makes a particular cuvée from the Momtazi Vineyard – at 750 feet above sea level, and right next to the Van Duzer Corridor, it is always last to be harvested because of the cooling air it’s exposed to. “It ripens much slower because of this, and it has a really unique flavour profile,” says Jay.

It’s not just in the Momtazi Vineyard that Jay is able to take advantage of current climate conditions. In 2019, he and Jean-Nicolas invested in land on the north side of the Dundee Hills. “The entire Oregon wine region was founded on the south side of the Dundee Hills,” says Jay. “Because it was there they could get the grapes to ripen. We’re on the very highest point of the northern side; and we’ve done that quite consciously,” he says. It’s a very tangible example of a producer bracing against the warming conditions to come.

When it comes to climate, Larry is quick to draw comparisons to his French counterparts: Lingua Franca’s vineyards are on the 45th parallel, the same line of latitude as the Rhône Valley’s Côte-Rôtie. While this means that the daylight hours are comparable, the overall climate is far cooler. “It’s why we get so much ripeness with lower alcohol levels,” Larry explains.

“We have more heat and sunlight than in, say, Burgundy. And higher daytime highs. But overall, we’re cooler in the mornings, and in the evening we’re colder. “The problem we have with climate change here is very mitigated,” Larry explains frankly. “The meteorological models for the Willamette Valley show that, over a 50-year period, we’ll have about the same amount of rainfall but the temperatures will rise on average 1.5 to 2°C. This is serious when we look at heat accumulation.” But from a wine-grower’s point of view, and specifically when it comes to Willamette Valley Pinot, it’s a different story.

Scroll back 20 years, when growers were trying to establish the reputation of Pinot Noir here, and the climate was on the cool side. “A while back, there were a lot of winemaking migrants from California – they thought Oregon was cool enough to grow Pinot. What they didn’t know when they came in the 1970s or in the late-’60s, was that it was actually too cold,” says
Larry. “But the climate has actually smiled upon Oregon and the Willamette Valley because it’s warmer. We’re still on the lower end of where you can
grow Pinot.

“So, we’re not going to be too warm for Pinot. Unless climate change is more extreme than we imagined five years ago – then, the whole world is going to be totally messed up. But I’m very hopeful. A few bigger wineries have moved in, because it is a great area. And I think they see the future.”
In Napa, too – where extreme heat is perceived to be more of an issue – Paul emphasises just how nuanced the climate picture is. Firstly, the weather patterns here run like clockwork. Rain falls between 15th November and 15th March. The winds begin to blow around 3pm, daily (“They’re coming from the southwest, from San Francisco Bay. And they’re actually providing moisture”), fog rolls in about 11.30pm. And it’s these unique, specific conditions that make for such incredible winegrowing.

“Our fog is actually a marine layer. It comes in at approximately 350 to about 500m. So, you’ll go to dinner, and you’ll look up and see stars. Then you’ll come out of dinner and it’ll be kind of cloudy above your head. And that’s the fog. It’s what’s really special about these hillsides. They’re getting the moisture and the freshness that comes through at night, so every morning we start with 100% humidity.”

It’s this exposure to fog, Paul explains, that dictates the size of the berries, the ripening patterns and the tannin levels. “We’re getting the unique nature of the hillsides: we can capture the freshness as the breeze comes though, giving smaller but not tiny berries, with a greater juice-to-skin ratio. So we can get structure and balance.”

But, in spite of Paul’s faith in the stability of growing conditions in Napa, heat and drought are an issue of increasing concern. “Because we’ve had fires, people think, OK, fires equal hot. Well, that’s true on a very basic level. But in 2021, for example: yes, it was the hottest recorded year in California history, except on the coast. Look at a map of California, and it shows red where it was very warm. And then, all along the coast, it shows blue: it was actually average or below average.

Because all the warm air was rising in the warmer Central Valley, we were getting these breezes in the fog. “In Napa, we’ve always had heat spikes. What we’re seeing is that the frequency of heat spikes hasn’t changed, but the intensity has. They may last a little bit longer: instead of one day or two days, they may be three or four days. And instead of topping out at 38°C,
now maybe they’re 40. So that’s been the dynamic of the change.” These heat spikes, at present, might be intense but they are manageable.

A decade of drought, though, is another matter. “We’re starting to see producers beginning to change how they farm,” Paul explains. “We’re still a relatively young growing region. I mean, the modern Napa Valley really didn’t start until 1966 when Robert Mondavi built his winery.” Initially, people followed the Bordelaise style of growing, using low vines, for example. “But we’ve realised our vines don’t need to be short. Because we have rocky soil, we get warm days. We don’t need them radiating heat at night. We need to raise them, so we get more airflow to cool the vines during the day.

“We’ve also evolved canopy techniques. Around 50 years ago, our canopies were big and bushy. They call it California sprawl. Then we did more trellising: there were producers who removed every leaf in the fruit zone. Our view was always that we wanted the fruit, but we still want that freshness, that perfume and that elegance, so we kept leaves in the fruiting canopy zone. And we’ve evolved in terms of our water usage.”

Paul has brought in technology to measure the sap flow in the vine: they are able to monitor at what time of day the greatest water loss is happening. This means they can limit irrigation, watering only when it will be most efficiently used by the vine. “I laugh when I look back at the old Institute of Masters of Wine training book,” Paul says, “It shows a picture of Californian
viticulture. And it’s basically a vineyard a picture of a large-scale, bulk wine producer in the Central Valley that has huge canopies and huge overhead sprinklers.

So people think we water all the time in California, and that we only water to make more wine. But it couldn’t be further away from the truth.”

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

Evolving canopy techniques and water management; careful vineyard selection; nuanced, terroir-specific winemaking: the picture painted by Larry, Jay and Paul is measured and sophisticated. These are producers who – vintage by vintage – are getting closer to their land and to developing their own best-practice techniques and responses to manage the climate
change around them.

Without a doubt, the biggest story here is of the incredible winemaking conditions, breathtaking geology and wines that – in spite of nature’s curveballs – express this remarkable place. Larry, Jay and Paul are all looking to the future and the potential of the next vintage, rather than dwelling on the past. Perhaps this is in a winemaker’s DNA.

As Larry philosophically puts it: “We haven’t had a bad vintage. The good news is that 2021 was a very good crop. Maybe not quite as good as ’19, which I think are the most elegant, probably the most thoroughly complex wines we’ve made so far.

“We’re in a great spot: the climate, the exposure, the temperatures and the soil: everything is wonderful. It’s not hard to make great wine here, if you have the right if you have an attitude towards terroir.”

For more on Napa and Oregon wines, listen to the USA episode of our podcast, Drinking Well

Category: Miscellaneous

Bordeaux 2021: five to watch

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A vine in a Bordeaux vineyard.
Photographs: Jason Lowe

With hundreds of châteaux releasing their wines En Primeur, it can be hard to know where to start. Here, Bordeaux Buyer Max Lalondrelle singles out five estates that should be on your wish-list for the 2021 vintage.

Château Nénin, Pomerol

The Ch. Nénin building overlooks part of the vineyard.
Ch. Nénin, part of the Delon family portfolio since 1997

The name “Nénin” dates back to the 16th century, but this is very much an estate worth watching today. The Delon family of Léoville Las Cases have made this one of the most interesting names in Pomerol. Jean-Hubert Delon long knew the estate’s potential before he bought it in 1997. And he quickly got to work, with major investment and renovation in the vineyard and the winery – replanting a huge amount of the vineyard to best suit the soils here. As a result, the wines are becoming a little less powerful and a lot more representative of the terroir than they have been in the past.

Today, there are around 25 hectares in production, about 14 of which are used for the grand vin; unusually for Pomerol, most of the plantings are in one continuous block. Trotanoy is a neighbour on two sides, and there’s a smaller plot near Le Pin. There’s a lot of Cabernet Franc here, the result of massal selection from Léoville Las Cases; the team believe this enhances the purity and elegance of the fruit. The use of new oak is relatively restrained, and there are experiments underway with alternatives including the use of glass vats (or Wineglobes to give their proper name), large oak vessels and terracotta.

There is Left Bank savoir-faire here, for sure, but Nénin today is true to its Pomerol roots. This is an ever-more precise and elegant expression of the appellation which possesses huge ageing potential as well as currently offering good value.

Château Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarrosse, St Emilion

Ch. Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarrosse as seen from below.
At Château Beauséjour, there is now a Duffau-Lagarrosse at the helm

This little jewel has long been recognised for the quality of its terroir; it has been a Premier Grand Cru Classé B since the first St Emilion classification. It’s hard to think of a more preferable terroir in St Emilion: almost half of the 6.8-hectare vineyard sits atop the limestone plateau, another half extending down onto the côtes.

When it was put up for sale in 2020, there was no shortage of ready and willing buyers – the owners of Angélus and Clos Fourtet among them. Competition was fierce; the French authorities were called upon to oversee the final decision. In the end, members of the Duffau-Lagarrosse family made a successful bid in tandem with the owners of the Clarins beauty group – to the tune of €75 million.

Following the acclaimed stewardship of Nicolas Thienpont and his team since 2009, the 2021 vintage marks a change in direction: Joséphine Duffau-Lagarrosse and Prisca Courtin-Clarins, both in their early 30s, now head up the estate. Joséphine has considerable winemaking experience outside the family business, having worked in California, Mexico and New Zealand, along with substantial experience in Bordeaux. Her return to the family estate marks a new and exciting chapter here. It’s for good reason that there’s such a buzz about this place; it will be fascinating to see how things unfold.

Château Le Prieuré, St Emilion

Ch. Le Prieuré, one of Max Lalondrelle's five to watch in 2021, is located not far from St Emilion.
This little gem is a short stroll from St Emilion village

At a glance, this St Emilion Grand Cru Classé may look like little more than a small cellar and a few outbuildings. But there have been remarkable things happening behind the scenes at Ch. Le Prieuré. Since 2020, this bijou estate has been under the same ownership as Calon Ségur. The Suravenir insurance group bought this and its two sibling properties (Vray Croix de Gay and Siaurac) from no less than Artémis Domaines, the owner of Latour.

The level of investment by the successive owners here has been incredible. That not one but two large fine-wine groups have invested so much here indicate just how much potential there is in this 6.24-hectare site. Much of the vineyard sits on the limestone plateau, near Trotte Vieille, with well-sited parcels dotted elsewhere. The vineyard has been certified organic since 2018 and the team follow biodynamic practices.

If the terroir weren’t promising enough, there is a top-class team in place. Vincent Millet oversees this and the other Suravenir properties; Technical Director Pénélope Godefroy has been retained by the new owners; and the legendary Jean-Claude Berrouet, long-time winemaker at Petrus, is the consultant. You’ll soon be hearing a lot more about Le Prieuré, of that there is no doubt.

Château Saint-Pierre, St Julien

Ch. Saint-Pierre is the smallest Classified Growth in St Julien.
The story at Ch. Saint-Pierre is one of perseverance

The story of Ch. St Pierre is one of perseverance. The property was ranked a Fourth Growth in 1855, though over the century or so that followed it was broken up into smaller and smaller parts – a legacy of French inheritance laws if ever there was one. Then-owner Henri Martin had patiently restored the estate to its original holdings by 1982, buying pieces of it back as and when he could. His son-in-law Jean-Louis Triaud, and Jean-Louis’s children, carry on the legacy.

At 17 hectares, this is the smallest Classified Growth in St Julien. What may look like a rather classic estate belies the modern approach here, informed by technology and logic. Infrared photography of the vineyard enables the team to meticulously plan out harvest schedules to the level of the individual plant. Viticulture follows a bespoke mix of techniques picked up from organics and biodynamics (“our own system”, says Jean-Louis), though they are converting to organics and have HVE-3 certification.

Advances in the winery have enabled much gentler extraction. Instead of pumping-over once in the morning and once in the afternoon, there are small, hourly pump-overs around the clock. Amphorae already play a large part in the cellar; Jean-Louis hopes to reach a 50-50 balance between amphorae and new oak barriques. Classic and stylish it may be but tired it is not – underestimate or overlook this stalwart at your peril.

Château Haut-Bages Libéral, Pauillac

Ch. Haut-Bages Libéral is next door to Ch. Latour.
Claire Villars-Lurton has made Ch. Haut-Bages Libéral one of the most dynamic estates in Pauillac

Claire Villars-Lurton and her husband, Gonzague Lurton, run no less than three certified-biodynamic Classified Growths in the Médoc. In Margaux, they have Durfort-Vivens and Ferrière. Further north in Pauillac is the fascinating Ch. Haut-Bages Libéral.

The 30-hectare property is next door to Latour; the two estates are the only properties in Pauillac with parcels of limestone soils, said to lend elegance and finesse in an appellation often known for power. Its location right on the Gironde estuary is one of the most preferable in the Haut-Médoc. Classified a Fifth Growth in 1855, Haut-Bages Libéral has a storied history. But it has really come into its own since 2000 when Claire joined the estate following the tragic death of her parents. Under her watch, the estate is making perhaps its best wines ever. The cellar, renovated in 2018, is home to 10 very striking diamond-shaped amphorae, made from Limoges porcelain.

I have long felt that Claire is one of the most creative and instinctive winemakers in Bordeaux. You can really feel this now in her wines. It may not be the biggest name in Pauillac, but Haut-Bages Libéral is absolutely an estate that you should be following.

Find out more about Bordeaux 2021 En Primeur.

Category: Bordeaux Wine

Why you should collect Sauternes

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When it comes to collecting Sauternes, the 2001 Château d’Yquem is top of most collectors' wish-lists.
Collecting Sauternes is about more than trophy wines, but the 2001 Château d’Yquem is nothing short of legendary. Illustration: Anje Jager

Barely one percent of the wine made in Bordeaux is sweet. But just a sip of a golden Sauternes or honeyed Barsac is enough to leave a lasting impression. Here, we take a look at the virtues of this luscious liquid – and why it should be a key part of your wine collection.

“I wish I had started collecting sweet Bordeaux sooner,” laments Account Manager Alexandra Gray de Walden. Well, better late than never. Bordeaux’s sweet wines are arguably its longest-lived, developing layers of complexity and depth for decades and decades. The best wines of Sauternes, Barsac and beyond “are eminently age-worthy,” Alexandra says, making them a seriously good candidate for laying down. “When you get to tasting them, the honeyed citrus-peel and blossom flavours, and that voluptuous mouth-feel are such an indulgent treat.”

So what is Sauternes all about, and what makes it such a good choice for the cellar? We looked to some knowledgeable friends from within and outside Berry Bros. & Rudd for their insights on collecting Sauternes.

First things first

In the world of sweet Bordeaux, one estate stands alone: Château d’Yquem. The only property to be ranked a Premier Cru Superieur in 1855, Yquem has captured the hearts and minds of collectors for hundreds of years. It occupies a privileged position, quite literally, at the highest point of the Sauternes appellation, boasting a complexity of different soil types. Owned for centuries by the noble Lur-Saluces family, the estate is now part of the LVMH Vins d’Exception portfolio, alongside Château Cheval Blanc, Domaine des Lambrays and Colgin Cellars.

Few wineries in the world are as fabled as Château d’Yquem. Photograph: Krystian Krzewinski

Yquem is certainly the pinnacle of Sauternes. And, evidently, its wines have made a lasting impact on our colleagues. Alexandra still remembers her first glass. “I was very new to the wine world and didn’t realise it was going to be sweet,” she recalls. “But the moment I smelt that honeyed, dried-apricot nectar, I knew it was something special. What really struck me was the freshness. Many people expect sweet wines to be gloopy and sickly. But Yquem always manages to retain the vivid, ripe-fruit flavours which are so refreshing. Sadly, I have yet to sample the fabled 2001.”

Fortuitously, our Wine Authentication Manager, Philip Moulin, has had that pleasure. The ’01 Yquem is “the only wine I’ve ever known that consistently renders the room silent,” he says. “I first tasted this one summer’s evening at a friend’s house; it was spellbinding. It’s one of the most ethereal wines in the world.”

If you weren’t fortunate enough to secure an allocation back when it was released En Primeur, you may be interested in picking up a case of 2001 Château d’Yquem with BBX, our fine wine exchange.

The reality of producing Sauternes

While Yquem is nothing short of a fine-wine icon, the reality of producing Sauternes is far from glamorous. Our colleague Clara Bouffard is a native of the greater region, having grown up in nearby Loupiac. Sauternes and its ilk are incredibly costly to produce, she outlines in an article on bbr.com. “For such a small percentage of Bordeaux’s overall output, a huge amount of work goes into making Sauternes,” Clara writes.

And so much of the process is out of the producer’s hands. The region is as prone to vineyard hazards and risks as anywhere in Bordeaux. And to produce its signature sweet wines is dependent on the development of botrytis cinerea, a fungus better known as “noble rot”.

It’s not exactly pretty, but Noble Rot is the key to making Sauternes. Photograph: Krystian Krzewinski

“Sweet wine production is by essence even more risky and unpredictable than any other agricultural work,” Bérénice Lurton, owner of Château Climens, says. For the rot to form and do its miracle work requires a delicate balance of natural factors to align just so – notably cool, foggy mornings followed by warm, dry afternoons.

Things don’t always go to plan, naturally. Where the rot doesn’t develop, or where it degenerates into grey rot, the quantity and quality of the crop are in serious question. And even when things do work out, the nature of noble rot means that grapes don’t ripen (or, rather, rot) uniformly. Teams of skilled harvesters need to pass through the vineyard multiple times. The task at hand is to pick individual grapes as and when they are ready.

And that’s before the grapes get to the winery. The alcoholic fermentation can be complicated, and the wines are aged for up to two years in barrel. Yet despite it all, writes Clara, “sweet Bordeaux is both undervalued and under-priced. A bottle (or half-bottle) of Sauternes or Barsac offers some of the best value for money in all of Bordeaux.”

Collecting Sauternes in 2021

The struggle to produce Sauternes has come into sharp focus with the 2021 vintage. Yields are always a lot smaller for these wines than for the reds and dry whites of the region. Officially, the maximum yield permitted in the appellations of Sauternes and Barsac is 25 hectolitres per hectare (hl/ha). In practice, it’s generally a lot less than that. The 2020 vintage saw an average of 12 hl/ha, which was down 14% on the year before.

Mark Pardoe MW, our Wine Director, believes he has recorded the lowest yield he has seen since first coming to Bordeaux in 1982, at Château Suduiraut. The estate, part of the AXA Millésimes group along with Château Pichon Baron and others, produced just 0.5 hl/ha in 2021. This equates to “less than 70 bottles of wine from a football pitch’s worth of vines,” Mark writes on our blog.

Yet while the volumes are tiny in ’21, the quality is outstanding. “The wines are superb,” writes Mark. “They have bright and pure aromas and are full of the tangy, candied flavours of botrytis…if you love the magic of fine Sauternes – and if you can find any – buy ’21 Sauternes.”

Find out more about Bordeaux 2021 En Primeur.

Category: Bordeaux Wine

Bordeaux’s second wines

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A selection of the most celebrated second wines in Bordeaux. Photograph: Krystian Krzewinski

Second wines are ubiquitous in Bordeaux today, but how did that come to be? Our Wine Director, Mark Pardoe MW, looks at the role of the second wine – and why collectors should pay attention.

The use of the term “second wine” has become second nature when talking about the great châteaux of Bordeaux. But our familiarity with these secondary labels is a relatively recent phenomenon. And the wines’ purpose has evolved with the changing Bordeaux market.

What is a Bordeaux second wine?

At its simplest level, a second wine is one made from fruit produced at a château that is not included in that property’s main wine (the “grand vin”). That wine may come from young vines that do not yet yield the necessary quality for the grand vin; from cuvées that have not reached the required quality for climatic or viticultural reasons; or from a particular plot of vines that has been habitually dedicated to a second wine.

Although considered a recent development, history shows that the First Growths were producing second wines in the 18th century. Whether they complied with the modern definition is not clear, however. The concept remained almost entirely disregarded until the 20th century. Even then, the most recognised examples were Les Forts de Latour, Carruades de Lafite and Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux.

It was not until the mid-1980s that second wines began to make progress. Now it is rare for a top château not to produce one. Second wines are not limited to the Left Bank; they also exist in St Emilion and Pomerol and for both Bordeaux’s dry and sweet white wines.

Why do second wines exist?

The initial purpose of second wines was clear. By using only the best fruit or wine available, the quality and status of the grand vin was protected. With the growth in popularity and price of the region’s best wines, it was important to keep quality high, to meet the expectations of the market and preserve the value of each château’s brand. In some extreme and very rare circumstances, the entire crop might be declassified to the second label.

Historically this could be, and often was, achieved by selling the unwanted production to a négociant. The négociant would use the wine in a generic blend; these transactions still sometimes occur. But over time it became clear to the châteaux that there were greater benefits to be had by retaining and marketing this “surplus” wine themselves.

The benefits of Bordeaux’s second wines

The first benefit is simply that it is more profitable to do so. The second has commercial benefits to both the producer and the consumer. It is implicit in the style of the wine that is not selected for the grand vin that it still carries some of the hallmarks of the vineyards from which it is produced.

By adapting vinification and maturation techniques, the château can produce a wine that reflects the grand vin, but in a style that is earlier to mature and available at a lower price to the consumer. This also means a better margin for the château than would be achieved as bulk wine to the négociant.

In a market where demand for the best wines remains high and the top châteaux will seek to manage supply, second wines provided them with a compelling opportunity. Second wines allow the pursuit of quality to remain paramount. And they also open the door to a market looking for wines for earlier drinking. Those buyers might not be willing to pay the price for the very best names and yet hanker for a taste of what makes those names so desirable.

Types of second wine

Over the past two decades, second wines have become increasingly refined. They are no longer the offcuts from the main attraction, but wines made from high-quality raw material, handled in a way to accentuate these more appealing aspects. This is done by a greater selection of fruit (some châteaux now even have third wines); more gentle extraction and maturation; and defined styles based on specific blends of grape varieties.

While the objective may not be to make a “mini-grand vin”, there are significant brand-awareness benefits in linking the name of the second wine to that of the château. Most second wines echo the name of the grand vin. Examples include Pagodes de Cos, Blason de L’Evangile, Le Petit Cheval and so on. Château Lynch-Bages has seized the analogy exactly with its Echo de Lynch-Bages. These wines deliver the pedigree and finesse of their grands vins in a more forward and accessible style, but without mimicry.

Distinctions

But a distinction must be made between that style of second wine, and those that are entirely, or principally, the product of a specific vineyard. Les Forts de Latour and Carruades de Lafite are based on specific parcels of vines within each estate, although a small proportion of declassified grand vin might be added. Such wines are not modern, custom-designed blends but proper expressions of individual terroirs.

Clos du Marquis is not a second wine at all, coming from its own distinct vineyard. Photograph: Krystian Krzewinski 

Some second labels even transition. For years, Clos du Marquis was considered the second wine of Château Léoville Las Cases. Although most of the blend came from the Clos (a parcel of land overlooked for classification in 1855), some declassified wine was added. But his belief in the plot’s intrinsic quality was such that Jean-Hubert Delon took the decision in 2007 to create an entirely new second wine, Le Petit Lion, and leave Clos du Marquis unadulterated and free to express its pure personality.

The appeal of second wines

For the consumer or collector, the attraction certainly lies in the opportunity to sense the spirit of the famous names of Bordeaux without the price tag. It is commonly said that second wines should be bought in the best vintages, because of the expectation that nature’s bounty will be more widely spread across both the first and second labels. This is not without basis. When we say there aren’t any really poor vintages in Bordeaux anymore, that applies to second wines too. They now have a personality and purpose of their own – and carry the brand of the château. A poor second wine can damage that reputation as effectively, and earlier, as a poor grand vin.

Some second wines have achieved such recognition that they are collectible in their own right, especially those of the First Growths and many Super Seconds. The canny collector should be tempted by regular and not necessarily great vintages, as the latter will carry a premium. Furthermore, look for the châteaux whose reputation is on the rise. In addition to the famous names, consider second wines like Baron de Brane from Château Brane-Cantenac and Petit Bécot from Château Beau-Séjour Bécot. But there are many others.

The essence of a second wine is the opportunity to enjoy vicariously the glow of the grand vin. Do not expect it to offer the longevity of its big sibling, nor its complexity. Greater terroirs will offer more of both, however, especially those based on wines from specific vineyards. But in its modern incarnation, a second wine mostly exists to offer accessible pleasure within the veneer of some of Bordeaux’s greatest reputations.

Find out more about Bordeaux 2021 En Primeur.

Category: Bordeaux Wine