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Sauternes 2012

Thoughts of Bordeaux 2012 are now filtering through to my frontal cortex. It’s only a few days before I leave for my assessment of the vintage; this year I have allocated eight days to the tastings, more than I have in any previous primeurs visit. And chatter about the vintage is building on blogs and Twitter; although the official tastings are next week, some very influential critics like to go out a week or two in advance, and this year thanks to a clash between the primeurs tastings week and judging for the International Wine Challenge, both next week, the judges – dozens of well-known British names and no doubt many from overseas as well – have chosen to go out to Bordeaux this week instead (or perhaps not to go at all, in a few cases).

I think the region with the largest question mark hanging over it at present is Sauternes. Partly this stems from my knowledge of the weather as harvest approached, as I was in Bordeaux during the run up to the picking in early October. It also comes from news that has filtered out of the region since then, and in that case I think it can be difficult to tease out those decisions based on qualitative concerns, and those that are more to do with marketing and pricing.

From a qualitative view the growing season was hampered by relative drought through July and August (something of a surprise after a miserably wet and cool spring). The dry weather meant no botrytis, and this was still the case until the end of September, when the first smatterings of botrytis rot appeared. It spread over Barsac better than Sauternes I am told, but it was not the great sweep of noble rot many would have hoped for. In addition, there was little time for concentration of the mould-affected fruit before the rains came in October. Obviously I will provide more detail in my subscribers’ report when I return, but for the moment this is my understanding of the vintage.

Château Rieussec

For this reason we might expect some châteaux not to declare a vintage, either skipping it all together, or declassifying into a second wine. Nevertheless, there was plenty of skepticism when Pierre Lurton of Yquem announced that there would be no 2012, about which I wrote here: Yquem 2012: Time for a Second Wine? Many expressed the opinion that this was purely a commercial decision, based on a need to bolster desire for the 2011, a better wine which should achieve a better price, and which was not released en primeur by Lurton because of the perceived character of the vintage, which I imagine would perhaps hamper sales. It wasn’t long before Charles Chevalier took the same decision on behalf of the Rothschilds, at Rieussec (pictured above). Neither estate would produce a 2012. Rieussec would produce only a second wine.

“So what?” you might ask. The problem is that if these are purely commercial decisions, they do unwarranted harm to the reputation of the vintage and therefore downstream sales of wines from other estates, where perhaps the books are even more delicately balanced than they are at Yquem or Rieussec, and where perhaps the wines are good, and worth buying.

Jean-Pierre Meslier of Raymond-LafonThis week, however, I learnt from Jean-Pierre Meslier of Château Raymond-Lafon that he too would not be producing a 2012 grand vin. Instead, like Rieussec, he would produce only a second wine. Jean-Pierre explained to me “We had tons of botrytis but the weather was often too wet at harvest time so we will not produce the very best in 2012.” He pointed out that this was not the first time this had happened (the same is true at Yquem – see linked post above) as he “produced no Château Raymond-Lafon in 1974” and “[v]ery little in 1982,1992,1993,1994,2000.”

This“, he concluded, “is the price to pay for excellence.”

This situation is clearly not cut-and-dried. It has been a difficult harvest, and Jean-Pierre has decided – on qualitative grounds – not to bottle a 2012 grand vin. As for the others, Yquem and Rieussec, I remain to be persuaded one way or the other.

I think what is important for me personally (and perhaps others too, although I do not dare presume to be in a position to tell other critics what they should or should not do) is to maintain a very open mind, and gather as much information as possible when in Bordeaux. I arrive Saturday and go straight from Mérignac airport to a tasting with Bill Blatch in Bordeaux. I have visits lined up to meet Jean-Pierre Meslier of Château Raymond-Lafon again, and also to taste through the barrels with Bérénice Lurton at Château Climens, which should give me a good guide to the real ups and downs of the vintage. I should also meet the wines at the négoce tastings on the Sunday, and at the UGC Sauternes tasting later in the week. So there should be plenty of opportunities to see what’s what. Then I can decide for myself, and for Winedoctor readers, whether these are likely to have been qualitative or commercial decisions. And, of course, whether or not we should be buying the wines.

More details on Sauternes to come!

One Response to “Sauternes 2012”

  1. Chris, I’m glad that someone is taking a sensible approach to the vintage. I have big doubts about Yquem’s agenda in this, not so sure about Rieussec, although their wines have long had trouble selling as well, the reputation damaged by the Lafite tie-in, the prices usually not reflective of the real quality in the wine as a result. The news from Raymond-Lafon, who make great value wines, is more indicative of a possible quality issue with the vintage though. Maybe? I look forward to reading your reports on the vintage, and have just subscribed to be sure of it! Keep up the good work, well worth the money IMO.