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Château de Rayne-Vigneau 1986

I'm nearing the end of my 2010 Bordeaux odyssey right now, with just one update left - concerning 2010 Sauternes - before I can sit back and relax, and enjoy the show as the wines are released at undoubtedly astronomical and unaffordable prices. With this unfortunate side of 21st-century Bordeaux in mind I've been using my regular Monday Weekend Wine slot as a Bordeaux antidote, featuring everything from Nantais vin de table to aged top quality Rioja.

But with only 2010 Sauternes left to go now, suddenly an antidote does not seem so vital. Whereas I might have difficulty constructing a valid response to anybody putting forth an argument that a good number of the red wines of Bordeaux are grossly over-priced, especially considering the uncertain en primeur environment within which they are sold, I think the opposite is perhaps true of Sauternes. The work here is labour-intensive, and because of the dehydration brought about by the botrytis the yields here are pitifully small (typically 10-20 hl/ha, although single-figure yields are not unknown; the legal maximum for the appellations of Sauternes and Barsac is 25 hl/ha). Compare this with what can be achieved with a vineyard full of red vines, where 25 hl/ha would be an extraordinarily low yield, and yields around 60 hl/ha are not only feasible but also quite legal. And yet the wines remain under-priced; Yquem might be expensive, but consider for a moment its place in the Sauternes hierarchy, and then look to see how it compares with similarly ranked red wines such as Ausone or Petrus or even the larger left bank first growths such as Latour. And lower down the range, all these wines are very fairly priced for what is involved in their production, and what glory can be found within the bottle. That doesn't mean we should all rush to buy en primeur of course; the examples of Sauternes where the post-release prices fall, in real terms at least, are legion. And mature wines can often be bought for a relative song. My point is that I don't think we should view this little enclave of Bordeaux and their wines with the same cynicism with which we may occasionally view their more claretty counterparts.

Chateau de Rayne-Vigneau 1986

And so, turning the table upside down today, today's antidote to Bordeaux is from within the region itself, from the Sauternes appellation. Ask anybody today to identify the most recent truly great vintage for Sauternes and Barsac and the response is likely to be 2001 (a vintage with which my cellar is fairly well stuffed, and which I have looked at fairly recently). But travel back in time ten years, before the 2001 vintage bore its fruit, and what would the response be? Some would perhaps opt for 1990, a safe bet as 1990 was great almost everywhere. Others might go for 1988 or 1989, remembering that this was a trio of excellent Bordeaux vintages. But let us not forget 1986, a vintage in which, as well as ferociously tannic red wines, there were a number of very good sweet whites. Looking back through Michael Broadbent's opinions of these vintages in Vintage Wine (Little, Brown, 2002) he rates 1986 as a four-star vintage, but of this week's wine, the 1986 Rayne-Vigneau, he writes "One of the best '86 Sauternes". Sadly I have only one bottle in the cellar, and I think 25 years of age (well, close enough to 25 I think) seems a reasonable time to pull the cork.

In the glass the wine has a moderate golden hue, not quite the "Tutankhamun gold" that Broadbent saw back in 2001 perhaps, but pleasing enough to the eye. The nose has scents of almond paste and apricot jam, with high-toned botrytis-tinged elements suggestive of barley sugar and rôti fruit, although presented in a middleweight rather than a luscious or hedonistic style, as might be suggested by the restrained hue. An appealing aromatic character overall, though. The palate is full and surprisingly weighty, moving towards the oily side on entry, with a lot of depth in terms of substance, texture and grip. This is bold, certainly savoury, spicy and substantial, rich with confit-dried fruit intensity, sweet and yet imbued with plenty of build and grippy structure. There is not so much in the way of acidity though, despite the lemony twist that sits alongside the denser fruit characteristics on the palate. This is a good wine, although perhaps rather straightforward and obvious; nevertheless there are plenty of positive points here if you look for them. Thinking of other recent 1986 experiences, this is comparable to the 1986 Lafaurie-Peyraguey tasted two years ago, although I have rated previous bottles much higher than the one tasted in 2009. So overall good....but not quite as good as it should have been; time to drink up the 1986s, perhaps. 17/20 (2/5/11)

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