The clues were there. Fewer big gun proprietors stood behind the tables at this year’s Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting. Some château regulars to Covent Garden were missing completely. And the braying roar of excitement from the trade that accompanied the 2009 and 2010 in-bottle tastings was missing here, replaced by a low, gentle, pinstriped murmur, ‘What on earth are we going to do with this vintage?’ I’m exaggerating a little because there were some good Bordeaux reds from 2011 on offer at the tasting, though relatively few set the pulse really racing. The real joy in this vintage is amongst the whites, particularly the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac, and the dry whites from Pessac-Léognan, though that’s not much consolation for a region mostly concerned with red wine production.
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If anything 2012 Sauternes and Barsac is a little better than expected in what was an extremely difficult harvest in the region, spoiled by vintage rain. The very best wines are light yet with enough depth to make appetizing sweet wine that will be comparatively early maturing. A few are in a strange sort of purgatory, a half-way house position, between sweet styles and the off-dry, emphasizing the kind of all-or-nothing risk taking that Bordeaux’s bravest winemakers undertake here each vintage. There’s always the danger that you might get left high and dry in Sauternes [no pun intended] and some brave souls clearly have.
2010 lies in the middle of a trio of exceptional vintages for Sauternes and Barsac. The vintage has produced rich, sweet wines with lots of creamy botrytis but also plenty of zip. They will last the course but quite a few are already delicious. There is something beguiling and beautiful about the finest Sauternes and there are a bevy of fine wines to chose from in 2010, some of which remain close in price to their original en primeur offers, so there is much that is still affordable.
Usually get to posting notes on this region in the way you usually arrive at the wines, but I’ve shunted this region up the batting order for two reasons. Firstly, Sauternes and Barsac have made some of the most thrilling wines of the 2011 vintage, red or white. Secondly, it seems a bit unfair that they should always trail the reds, especially so in this vintage. Sauternes and Barsac are always appealing young, particularly during a week of tasting tannic, sappy reds, but defining their exact scale and grandeur feels tricky to me. Not this year. 2011 Sauternes is clearly in the same league as 2010 and 2009. It may even be the best year the region has had since 2001.