A Case of ‘Rotten Luck’ for the sweet wine producers of Bordeaux?

Château d’Yquem

Bordeaux produces the unique sweet wines made by the noble rot. Due to the precarities of this elusive fungus, it is rarely found elsewhere. These wines are unique and are amongst the world’s longest living wines.

The fungus is very fickle and only arrives with particular climatic conditions late into the Autumn, it is fragile and can be destroyed in one rainfall. Not only does it need humid conditions to arrive but the grapes need to then dry out in sunshine and dry weather.

The 20km radius of vineyards south of Bordeaux, with Château d’Yquem at its epicentre, produces the world’s finest sweet wines from the unique conditions that evoque the elusive noble rot.  These wines are the longest living wines in the world. They are picked painstakingly grape by grape and have the highest labour costs than any wine in the world. Yet they are not the most expensive.

When the cost of red wines has risen by five times since the 1980s (mainly due to speculation), the costs of the cream of these wines (the premier cru classés) have stayed stable.Why is this?

“We are not like the other Sauternes, we produce 20 hectolitres per hectare”, announced Laure de Compeyrot of premier cru classée Sauterne Sigalas Rabaud. “what less than the others?”Knowing that most red wine appellations in Bordeaux produce double that, I replied “No!”, she guffawed, “Much more! We are very lucky!”

It is well-known that in Sauternes the grapes are picked very late in the season, completely dehydrated and shrivelled from the ‘noble rot’ to give astronomically low quantities of the juice (if you can call the thick honey-like liquid that). The king of Sauterne, d’Yquem claims to produce only 9 hectolitres, on average though most in the appellation produce around 15 hectolitres per hectare.

The yield per hectare the crucial figure in a wine producer’s mind is quickly tallied up to arrive at the eventual number of bottles, the sales revenue – the all important income. Divided by another important figure, the costs of production. One very low, the other very high.The picking of this grapes is done intricately by hand, selecting the grapes one by one, passing through the same vines at least five times over several weeks.  The only way it can financially make sense is for the price per bottle to be high. For sweet wine (high in alcohol and sugar) the trend of consumption is against them and only the best-known have no problems to sell.

The owners of Sigalas, the de Lambert de Granges family for six generations, believe they have luck on their side. They do not sell this premier cru classe expensively and do so via ‘La Place de Bordeaux’ to 30 or so négociants.

Earlier Post on Sigalas Rabaud 2007 dating from March 2008, now confirmed as a top Sauterne wine from a top vintage!

2007 Sauternes: Tasting Nectar straight from the barrel

2007 Chateau Sigalas Rabaud, Premier Cru Classe

Pale gold with peaches and apricots, vanilla notes , honey and light butterscotch, citrus and honeysuckle. Complexity of flavours with wonderful freshness and purity of fruit flavor. Beautiful balance. Restrained and elegant with a very long finish.

It is a shame that sweet wines do not have more of a following in the UK. It is not considered ‘the done thing’ to serve a sweet wine at the end of the meal. Why not serve a sweet wine instead of a dessert? A liquid dessert. The French serve ‘vin liquoreux’ or moelleux (less sweet) as an aperitif. I prefer something dry or acidic to get my taste buds going before a meal. There must be a place for these wonderful sweet wines which do not taste overtly sweet due to the incredible ‘gamme’ of flavours and their high acidity. The producers in Sauternes want to promote enjoying their wines throughout the meal. Not having a sweet tooth, I would find this difficult. Why not leave them where they are best suited, at the end but lets not forget them. Perhaps sweet wines could become the trendy bottle to take to friends’ houses? Perhaps their promotional body could develop a single bring-a-sweet-bottle bag to promote it.

Monday 10th March 2008: Visit to Chateau Sigalas Rabaud, first growth in Sauternes to taste the newly made 2007 vintage. Sixth generation Laure Compeyrot received us at the property in the cold spring rain and wind. It was much cosier in the barrel cellar amongst the barriques of 2007 where Laure using a pipette drew out from a range of different barrels (represented different ‘lots’ from different day’s pickings) and we tasted their light golden coloured ‘nectar’. Noticed an incredible difference between the lots in terms of colour, flavours (from honey and butterscotch to honeysuckle and linden flowers, to fruit flavours of citrus , pear, peach and apricot) and varying levels of sweetness. They look for a sugar level of 21 degrees sugar in each lot when it goes in to the barrel at the beginning of the fermentation. This small first growth property (classified in 1855) of only 14 hectares is located on the hillsides of Haut-Bommes. Just behind it, the most famous imposing Chateau d’Yqeum can be seen. As always the terroir of the property (its soil, aspect, location) is key in determining its quality. Laure explained how her one of her ancestors ( not so passionate about wine) had divided up the original property ‘Rabaud’, selling the beautiful Victor Louis chateau with the less good north facing slopes keeping the ‘jewel’ parcel of the best vineyards (south facing and with the ideal gravel and clay soil) in the second half around the farmhouse. This is where Laure’s family and for the past two years, Laure herself make the fabulous sweet wine of Sigalas Rabaud.Having ripe grapes at harvest is very important when making sweet wine. The south-facing vineyards not only benefit from more of the sun’s rays but the vineyards ripen more evenly too. The gravel stones heat up during the day keeping the ripening process going through the night and the clay provides a little water (not too much) when the vine needs it. Laure explained that the property’s proximity to the River Ciron means that fog is a daily certitude every morning in the autumn. Coming from the warm area of the Landes, fog is apparently produced when it hits the cooler waters of the Gironde. This is key in encouraging the development of the noble rot Botrytis cinera on the skins of the ripe grapes which develops each year without fail in this ideal climate. Also the fact that the property’s vineyards are grown on slopes on an elevated piece of land means that there is always a wind to aerate and dry the grapes avoiding the development of the ‘wrong’ rot according to Laure.

Noble rot grows on the thick skins of the Semillon (85% of the vineyard) and the thinner Sauvignon grapes (15%). Sauvignon is always a little more difficult as the bunches are much tighter and so there is less chance for air to circulate and the ‘wrong’ type of rot can develop. This fungus punctures the skins of the grapes and feeds off the water concentrating the sugar and causing the grapes to shrivel. Not only is it a super-concentrator of sugar but it also imparts a honeyed twist to the citric and exotic fruit flavours in the grapes.The grapes are harvested grape by grape according to the development of the noble rot. The selection by the pickers in the vineyard is paramount in producing quality sweet wine. Only grapes that are shrivelled, and with white hair from the fungus (‘Ratatine, poilu blanc’) is what the pickers are told to look for and select even if it means cutting the grape in half using finely pointed secateurs! Each year the noble rot develops in different areas of the vineyard first. There is no pattern according to Laure. This year the harvest took over six weeks to be completed between 14th September and 9th November. Incredibly labour intensive.

The day’s pickings are pressed back in the cellars firstly be a vertical and then by horizontal press. The juice is then placed in a stainless steel vat and left to settle (‘debourbage’) overnight at the cool night’s ambient temperature. The juice is then pumped out leaving behind bits of skin etc into another vat, heated to about 25C and the fermentation process begins. Once it is well underway the juice is pumped into barriques. After three or so weeks the level of sugar is around 14% the fermentation slows down as the yeasts struggle and begin to die off. Leaving the wine on the lees gives further richness and roundness to the wine through a process called ‘autolysis’. Sulphur dioxide is added to ensure that fermentation is stopped properly and refermentation is avoided. One third of new oak barrels is used each year.

In February the important process of assemblage takes place where the different lots picked over the six or so weeks are tasted and selected (or not) to make up the final wine. Then the wine is shown to the wine trade in the ‘en primeur tastings’ of the world; tasted and critiqued! Sweet white wines are some of the best made in 2007 with this region beneftting best from the very sunny Autumn. Good luck Laure and the delicious 2007 Sigalas Rabaud.

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