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Le Sec de Rayne-Vigneau 2010

My notes on Bordeaux 2011 come to an end this week; as far as my communal reports go I only have my 'mopping up' to do, a rather fractured report which serves as a home for my opinions on everything from Castillon and Fronsac down to Entre-Deux-Mers and generic Bordeaux. As a consequence I didn't think it would be overkill to stick with Bordeaux this week, with a look back one year to Bordeaux 2010, especially as it brings our focus to bear on one of the more niche aspects of Bordeaux; the dry whites.

The production of white wine here is nothing new of course; white vines have been planted here just as long as the red varieties, although they were once much more common than they are today. In modern times our thoughts of white Bordeaux naturally turn to Graves, and its high-class enclave of Pessac-Léognan, but we should not forget the 'lesser' regions in particular Entre-Deux-Mers where white vines have also long been predominant. Even here the area committed to white varieties is decreasing though, as vineyards are converted away from white as cash-strapped vignerons look to exploit Bordeaux's cachet as a source of high quality (and expensive) reds. Sadly, I think in many cases this is the wrong decision; many of these terroirs are probably better suited to Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon than Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Across Bordeaux as a whole the trend in the production of dry white wines is therefore downwards, with white varieties now accounting for approximately 10% of the Bordeaux vineyard. Despite this, bucking the trend, managers at a number of highly-ranked estates have turned their attention to producing a white wine to complement their pre-existing portfolio. Classic examples are Monbousquet, part of the Gérard Perse portfolio, where a white wine, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris, complements the red. Cos d'Estournel is another recent convert, the white wine - marketed as Cos d'Estournel Blanc but produced from distant vineyards - having been shown alongside the reds for the first time (although this was not the first vintage, I hasten to add) at the 2011 primeurs. And of course Margaux has long churned out a white, Pavillon Blanc, alongside the red wines.

Le Sec de Rayne-Vigneau 2010

Predating these more recent developments, however, and also bucking the trend, are the dry white wines of the Sauternes estates. These are plentiful in number, and estates producing just such a wine include Yquem (Y, or Ygrec, depending on how much of a Francophile you are), Rieussec (R de Rieussec), Guiraud (G de Guiraud) and Suduiraut (S de Suduiraut). Does anyone else see a theme developing here?

That so many Sauternes estates should produce a dry white wine should not surprise us. The botrytis infections that - in a good vintage - sweep through the vineyard are not reliable nor universal. It may be that in some years there is a high proportion of ripe but non-botrytised fruit; some can be mixed in with the botrytised fruit, bringing much needed freshness and zip to the wines (especially in rich vintages, 2011 included) but what of the fruit that remains? The production of a dry white cuvée is the obvious answer. It may also be of benefit on a commercial level; common sense dictates that when you have such a hard time selling tiny quantities of inherently low-yield Sauternes, perhaps a financially stronger position might be obtained by producing much larger quantities of a dry wine, more suited to modern tastebuds, and selling it at an affordable price.

This is not to say, however, that these dry wines are just dump-buckets for unwanted fruit. Speaking with Christian Seely (of Suduiraut) recently, he explained his efforts to ameliorate the quality of the S de Suduiraut by altering the source of the grapes. The result of his investigation was something he had long suspected; the only way to push the quality of the dry wine any higher (it is already pretty good) was to use the very best quality fruit from the vineyards (i.e. cherry pick from the best plots of Sauvignon Blanc), thereby potentially detracting from the Sauternes. Clearly he wishes to ensure both wines are of the highest quality possible; it is a delicate balancing act, one which no doubt changes in every vintage. Nevertheless, I doubt very much the quality of the dry wine will take precedence over the increasingly pricy Sauternes from this estate.

This week's wine looks to another long-standing exponent of dry white wine production in Sauternes, Château de Rayne-Vigneau. There is a long history of producing a dry white here - back to at least the 1980s. The vineyards are planted on a large sandy-gravelly ridge and are dominated by Semillon. Nevertheless, as is often the case, the dry wine majors on Sauvignon Blanc, and in this case it is 100% composed of this variety. Tasting it, I find plenty of vibrant character on the nose here, with very much a Sauvignon feel to it (this was before I researched the assemblage). The fruit has a bright grapefruit and Sicilian lemon character, but it also has a nice polish to it that smoothes down the edges of these rather confident citrus fruit aromas. There's also a wild, herby edge, although certainly nothing suggesting any issue with ripeness. Happily these fresh and bold flavours are matched by a bright and crunchy acidity on the palate, slightly sour and defined, with a really pithy sense to the fruit. There is a good grip and bite, bringing freshness, a fine definition in the finish, and a long, savoury end to it. A very appealing wine. 15.5/20

There is only one disappointing aspect of the wine. And that's the fact they have given it the wrong name.

It so obviously should have been RV de Rayne-Vigneau. (30/4/12)

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