Today we departed from the usual Bordeaux tasting plan by spending the day in Sauternes. We began at first-growth Chateau Guiraud, where our private tour was an excellent introduction to the Sauternes-making process. In contrast with most Medoc tours, this one was much more informal and it was clear that the chateau wasn’t really set up for guests. This was A-OK with us as we were able to poke around all we wanted and have all of our questions answered.
We finished the tour with a six-vintage vertical tasting of the Chateau Guiraud Sauternes: 1996 (unrated), 1998 (89), 2000 (90), 2001 (96), 2002 (89), and 2003 (95)–what a way to start the day! The complexities and differences between each vintage were astounding. Guiraud uses exclusively the natural yeast on the berries which, when combined with the varying levels of sugar each year, makes for radically different fermentation durations each year. They also vary the proportion of semillion to sauvignon blanc depending on the quality of each varietal each season. Accordingly, the differences in style, taste, nose, and body between many of the vintages were tremendous. I was also amazed by how rich and dark Sauternes become as they age. The 1996, with the same varietal composition as the 2003, would not have been recognizable as the same wine.
After six glasses of wine and no breakfast, we really needed some lunch to sober up! We found a little restaurant near the town center and sat out on a terrace overlooking the vineyards. The food was wonderful and we took a nap in the car afterward. Refreshed and ready to go, we then made our way to the legendary Chateau d’Yquem, the only Bordeaux winery to receive the Premier Cru Superieur designation in the classification of 1855.
The Yquem tour was in French and was shared with three other small groups so I acted as translator for the rest of our motley crew. Unfortunately our guide really, really loved the sound of his voice and went on and and on, motivating us to zone out and discuss on our own.
Apparently Yquem uses exactly the same vinification process as Guiraud (and all the other first growths), so the question was raised, “What distinguishes Yquem to make it ‘Superieur?'” The answer was typically French: terroir. It was not just the quality of the terroir, though, which is shared by the other first growths. Yquem is the largest land owner in Sauternes by far and their parcels are spread throughout the region. This gives them significant soil variety, enabling them to choose the best grapes from different vineyards each year. So, if the year is hot and dry, they can favor grapes from vineyards that do better in hot, dry weather. If the year is cool and moist, they can favor grapes that thrive in such an environment.
The proof is in the pudding, or rather in the Sauternes. We tasted the Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes 2004 (97) and it was delicious. It was clearly very young but showed layer after layer of balanced complexity. Given the bottles of Yquem from the early 1800s lying around (and I thought 1996 was dark!), which are apparently still very drinkable, these wines are seriously built to last.
So, although the tour was much longer than it needed to be, the estate and the wine were beautiful. We then wound our way through Bordeaux to St. Emilion, where we would stay the night. Our B&B was a gorgeous chateau just outside of the city. It sat on a large property that included several windmills, one of which could be climbed for breathtaking views of the area. After some walking around the local vineyards, a refreshing dip in the chateau’s pool, and dinner in St. Emilion, we slept very, very well.