With minuscule yields, astronomical picking costs, and falling prices the sums do not add up for many of the small independent producers of sweet Bordeaux, particularly when traditional demand for their wine is down.
The legendary sweet wines of Bordeaux, produced by the magical noble rot, were heralded in the past as some of the world’s finest and longest living wines, enjoyed by the very rich.
Today they can be bought at very fair prices. Due to the painstaking way they are made, their rarity, uniqueness and the fact that these wines are downright delicious, they should be astronomically expensive.
Is there hope on the horizon with exports up by 13% in 2011 with new emerging markets, a more modern marketing approach for these historical wines and a potential sweet trend with the younger generation?
It is the yield per hectare that is the crucial figure in a wine producer’s mind, quickly tallied up to arrive at the eventual number of bottles, the sales revenue. 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. This equates to one to two glasses per vine (in comparison to the production of an entire bottle per vine in red wine production). The maximum allowed is 25hl/hectare.
Divided by another important figure, the costs of production. When making sweet wine from noble rot, one figure is very low, the other very high. It calls for selective picking of the grapes by hand and the necessity to pass through the same vines several times ‘tries’. Today the price per bottle does not make economic sense for many producers.
The owners of Sigalas Rabaud, the de Lambert de Granges family believe they have luck on their side. Their south-facing slopes enable them to have yields of 20hl/hectare “We are very lucky!” says sixth generation Laure Compeyrot. This stoicism is very common. They are able to sell their premier cru classé, not expensively she admits, and do so through the ‘La Place de Bordeaux’ , the Bordeaux market place, to 30 or so wine merchants négociants, as do most of these sweet wine producers. It is a case in point, classified as one of the eleven premier cru in 1855, and well-appreciated by wine critics, it sells on average for 40€. It used to sell for double this figure five years ago.
Prices for Sweet Bordeaux left behind
Throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s the prices for the top noble rot wines just about kept pace with those of the red wines.
Then, a decade or so ago the price of red wines started to escalate on the back of Asian demand and speculation. The sweet wines missed out on this trend and their prices started to fall behind. Despite a run of good vintages in the 2000s (2001, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010) the pattern was set. All speculation focused on Bordeaux’s red wines. This was not helped by the fact that the health benefits of red wine were communicated widely by the Chinese government. In addition all sweet wines were banned in China until 2010 (with sulphur levels of over 250 mg/l).
During the 2010 En Primeur campaign you could buy nearly 3 cases of a top sweet wine such as Château Coutet or Suduiraut for the same money as a single case of red Château Pontet Canet, Château Montrose or Château Pichon Baron.
Even Château d’Yquem, the only Premier Cru Superior, does not come close. Prices for the 2009 vintage, rated highly for both sweet and red wines are around 1000 to 1500€ for the red first growths and only 700€ for Yquem.
Low prices for the past decade has had its effect
Château d’Yquem was sold by Alexandre de Lur Saluces in 1999 to L.V.M.H./Moêt Henessy, Louis Vuitton run by one of France’s richest men, Bernard Arnault. Since 1994 Château Rieussec has been owned by Domaine de Rothschild who also owns first growth Château Lafite. Château Suduiraut is owned by AXA the giant assurance company. Magnate Bernard Magrez this year bought first growth Château Clos Haut Peyraguey to add to his 21 other vineyard properties and to bring his Grand Cru total to four.
The land in this region represents good value for these giants used to the inflated prices of vineyards in the Médoc and in St Emilion and Pomerol. The going price for a hectare of Grand Cru Sauterne is between 35 and 100,000 €. A hectare of basic Grand Cru St Emilion vineyards sells for around 300,000 € per hectare.
These properties are big vineyards bought by organisations with established distribution networks and power, who skew the small world market for these wines. Château d’Yquem prices are rising at 476€, as are the multi-national owned Rieussec (66€) and Suduiraut (66€).
The price trend is downward for many of the smaller independently owned properties such as Doisy-Daëne (43€), Guiraud (53€), de Myrat (30€), Sigalas-Rabaud (40€).
It is a small niche market swamped by the big boys’ wines.
Dry White wines the answer?
Today there is a trend for the top Sauterne and Barsac producers to produce small quantities of dry white wines from their Sauvignon and Sémillon grapes, the same grapes that produce their sweet wines; Opalie de Coutet, La Demoiselle de Sigalas, and the originally called Y de Yquem, R de Rieussec, G de Guiraud, S de Suduiraut, M de Malle. Beautifully complex, but 100% dry these wines help the balance sheet and provide a wonderful complement to their sweet wines.
Olivier Bernard of Domaine de Chevalier last year bought a Sauterne property, Château Haut Caplane (now renamed Clos des Lunes) and is producing uniquely dry wine aimed at the Chinese market “until the crisis in Sauterne is over” .
Differentiation and Diversity
Other producers (not for the faint-hearted) try to differentiate themselves by growing their grapes organically such as Château Guiraud (53€) and Climens (average price is over 100€ here).
Uniquely Château Gilete ages its Sauternes for twenty years in airtight vats before selling their antique Sauterne. Most recent vintage is 1988, available vintages go back as far as 1947.
Open Chinese Market may lead to Sweet Wine Resurgence
Now that it is legal to import sweet wines into China (since September 2010) this untenable market situation should not last for much longer.
The sweet wines of Bordeaux suit the sweet and salty cuisine of Asia and the Chinese taste (ice wine is already very popular), though they currently represent a tiny fraction of the wine market there, the trend is growing.
It is mainly women who consume white wines in China. A rumour apparently circulating the Chinese version of Twitter, Weibo, claims that the sweet wines of Bordeaux aid the complexion. There is increased interest in Bordeaux’s sweet wines. Château Bertanon, in St Croix du Mont was recently bought by a Chinese buyer.
Lesser-known Sweet Appellations
If it is hard for the well-known appellations of Sauternes and Barsac, it is almost impossible with the current market conditions for the lesser-known sweet appellations. But there is more flexibility, maximum yields are higher (40 hl/ha) and they normally produce a range of wines including dry white and red to support the vagaries of producing sweet wines. Many are destined for the French market. The noble rot is even more fickle here and does not appear each year so they produce sweet wines from purely harvesting late when necessary. Styles are generally lighter and provide a good entry sweet wine for the younger generation.
Prices for these sweet wines are much lower and the trend is downward at the moment. Château du Cros Loupiac sells (retail price per bottle, averaged over all vintages excluding sales tax, http://www.wine-searcher.com) for 15€ and Château de Cérons for around 23€.
Château de Cérons – thinking differently
Owned by the Perromat family for generations, this property with its beautiful château produces its sought-after sweet Cérons, when nature allows, along-side its dry white and red wines. It makes a speciality out of older vintages. As Caroline Perromat explains “It is up to us to communicate to the new markets and to encourage the traditional markets to think differently. It is working, we even have a customer who likes to match the sweetness of our Cérons with the saltiness of oysters!”
New Marketing Focus
With the decrease in the demand of these wines from traditional markets, there has been a shift in the marketing focus of sweet wines as more approachable and flexible. Sweet wines today are more fruit-focused and less heavy than in the past with sulphur levels kept to a minimum. They can be enjoyed young and can age for many years.
No longer confined to its place before the meal or as a dessert wine. It is the many aromas of these wines (said to amount to no fewer than 56!) that are being celebrated and matched with a range of fusion dishes (for seasonal recipes see http://www.sauternes1855barsac.com).
Since 2009 the younger generation has been targeted via social media by an initiative called Sweet Bordeaux (www.sweetbordeaux.com) that groups the 11 sweet appellations. It has nearly 7000 followers on Facebook and organises aperitif evenings in France, the rest of Europe, USA and Asia.
A recent boom in sweet Moscato sales in the USA (up 80% this last year) driven by the younger generation indicates that is a sweet trend developing among the youth of today.
Bordeaux sweet wine specialist Bill Blatch concludes; “Frankly, I advise anyone to buy as much Sauternes as they can drink and afford. Old vintages or new, there has never been such an amount of good Sauternes available at reasonable prices”.
The hard work should soon be paying off and a Sauternes resurgence may well be on the horizon.
All prices quoted are retail price per bottle, averaged over all vintages, averaged over all markets, excluding sales tax – http://www.wine-searcher.com
Originally published for Gilbert & Gaillard International Magazine; January 2013
Sweet Wine Production in Bordeaux from Noble
Facts and Figures
Sweet Bordeaux: 11 Appellations on banks of Garonne, 30km south of Bordeaux
Left bank of the Garonne – Barsac, Sauternes and less known Cérons
Right Bank of the Garonne – Cadillac, Loupiac, St Croix du Mont, St Macaire
Production in 2011:
3% of the vineyard area of Bordeaux (3576 hectares)
1% of its production 82,000 hectolitres (with Sauternes producing 29,000).
Market for Sweet Wines
71% Exported: 1. Netherlands 2. United Kingdom 3. Germany 4. USA 5. China
Trend 5% down but export figures up 13%
What is so special about the sweet wines of Bordeaux made from Noble Rot?
Elusive Noble Rot (Botrytis cinera): Twenty kilometre radius of vineyards around the village of Sauternes.
It is a fungus that is fickle and only arrives with particular climatic conditions late into the Autumn when weather becomes less predictable and stormy. Not only does it need humid conditions to arrive (created by the mists as the cold waters from the River Ciron hit the Garonne River in the morning) but the grapes need to then be able to dry out during sunny, dry periods. This only happens in certain years. Otherwise it turns into grey rot, dreaded by all vignerons.
Although the sugar levels are high, there is a balance from the acidity in these wines. The noble rot punctures the skin of the grapes that enables the water to evaporate and the sugar and acidity in the grape to become super-concentrated. Sweet wines made purely from the concentration of late harvesting (‘passerillage‘) do not have the explosion of flavours of the noble rot ‘x-factor’ way beyond those of the primary fruit; acacia, honeysuckle, peach, apricot, mango, orange, grapefruit, fig, honey, marmalade, cinnamon and even almonds! Then you have the effect of the barrel that it is fermented and aged in which brings flavours of crème brulée, smoke, caramel and vanilla. Whatever your taste, whenever you choose to drink these wines, they are astonishing wines.
Good Value for Money
Compared to the other sweet wines of the world made from noble rot, Bordeaux’s sweet wines represent good value for money. Prices for Hungary’s sweet Tokay are substantially increasing following their suppression during the country’s history of communist rule. Prices for the sweet wines of Germany such as trockenbeerenauslese produced in minute quantities, are astronomically high.
What makes these wines so expensive to produce?
The progression of the noble rot fungus in a vineyard is erratic. Within the same bunch there are grapes that have been affected at different stages. It calls for selective picking of the grapes and the necessity to pass through the same vines several times ‘tries’. Although teams of the experienced pickers are pooled by neighbouring properties, labour costs are very high.
The grapes are only ready to be picked at the shriveled stage where the white mycelium of the noble rot can be seen clearly standing proud (‘ratatiné poilu blanc’). The ‘ripening’ can take several weeks. The experienced picker knows what to pick, what to leave for the next trie and what to discard onto the ground.