17 years in a row
by Bill Blatch
I was into the second year of my Bordeaux négociant business. The first year, 1982, I had got lucky with the red wines, buying as much of them as my feeble funding would allow and ended up doing well with them. So, what to do for the second year? The prospect of selling the ’83 Bordeaux reds in the wake of the ‘82s was not too bright…then someone said to me “There are some good wines in Sauternes”. Like many négociants at the time (and now), I had considered Sauternes to be the category at the end of the price-list that never really sold well but that you had to have, and I had not been paying much attention to it.
So one wintry evening in early 1984, I took myself down to Sauternes to see for myself. I had made an appointment with Pierre Pascaud, the manager and cellar-master at Château Suduiraut at 5pm. We started tasting round the barrels, and it was well into the night when I got out of there. In a matter of a few hours, I had become completely hooked, under the spell of this fabulously intricate and fascinating wine. This was the beginning of my total immersion in these beguiling wines, and I have never looked back since.
The ‘83s were marvellously rich and full-bodied, rather in the style of the ‘97s that were to come. But over the next few years, I then experienced the whole panoply of sweet wine styles from the light and fragrant ‘84s and ‘87s, through the fatter style of the ‘86s, and crescendoing into the fabulous trilogy of the tensile ’88s, the very complete ’89s and the richer ‘90s. This was the first golden run of Sauternes vintages and it coincided with a sudden revival of Sauternes drinking as an aperitif in Paris bars and restaurants. Since 1995, there hasn’t been one single off-vintage (quality-wise) until 2012: 17 years in a row: totally unheard-of in the whole 400 years of Sauternes’ history, culminating in a spate of very rich yet oh-so-fine vintages over the last decade, during which the levels of residual sugar have risen by half, not because of any wilful push towards extra sweetness by the growers, but because the fine autumns, with just enough rainfall at the right time, have been so propitious to the gradual evolution from sweet golden grapes to full botrytis and finally to total concentration of that botrytis. It has also been helped by the much greater attention to selection during the harvest. (In Sauternes, each bunch is visited up to 7 times as each fully botrytised grape is individually picked).
Besides the immense complexity of the wines themselves, I have always also been attracted to the region by the people themselves, with whom I have been closely working now for over 30 years (counting the 2016!). These are in some cases important landowners, with estates as large as the big Médoc properties, but more usual are the quite small holdings of 20 hectares or less. But, big or small, these are all, by necessity, humble folk, striving against all the odds and taking enormous risks to produce the best they possible can, sometimes in minuscule and totally uneconomic quantities. How must they have felt in 2000, when, just as the great Médocs were finishing a large and great vintage that would sell for record prices, it started raining hard just as they were less than a quarter through and had to leave the remaining ¾ on the vines? They just shrugged their shoulders and said “that’s the way it goes down here”.
I am often asked when do I drink Sauternes myself? And the answer is quite simply “very often” and “with whatever I happen to be eating (or not)”. My great pleasure is to try it with everything, As many wine drinkers are beginning to find around the world, for versatility, Sauternes can rival any dry white or red wine.