Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth is in France for his 2017 vintage Bordeaux barrel tastings. While there, he's visiting the châteaus of some of the region's top estates, as well as some up-and-coming new producers.
Wrapping up a round of visits during my 2017 en primeur tastings, I checked on two estates in Sauternes.
At Château de Fargues, owner Alexandre de Lur Saluces continues to march to the beat of his own drum, crafting arguably the most exotic version of Sauternes today, with the help of his son Philippe, who works as co-manager, and longtime technical director François Amirault.
While most other producers in the appellation, including the flagship Château d'Yquem, have shifted to a fresher, brighter style, Lur Saluces has stuck to his tried-and-true method, with a 30-month élevage that helps contribute to the wine's lush and hedonistic profile. The extended élevage means the vintage isn't released when the rest of the appellation's wines hit the market (on this visit I tasted both 2017 and '16 still in barrel) and the estate's fairly modest production can be hard to track down. (For more background, reference my 2014 visit.)
There's renovation and progress here to. The majestic medieval fortress that was destroyed in the 17th century by fire is being painstakingly brought back to life—a full kitchen and several dining and banquet rooms are now up and running for events. The cellar and vat room are being updated, including doubling capacity. That's needed since the purchase of 15 acres of vines bordering the estate (from two growers) bring the estate's total to 69 acres of vines when they are fully in production, "the first addition to the vineyards since 1472," jokes Philippe.
Production here is typically just 1,500 cases for now (that will increase with the new vineyards). But in 2017 only about 800 cases were made. Only a few vines were affected by frost, and the season was progressing well, but a heat spike in August followed, and things got tricky.
"We had ripe grapes very early, by the middle of August," explains Amirault. "But then September was quite cold, with both high and low temperatures below normal, and rain through the first half of the month which resulted in humidity every day. So we got the botrytis, but not the warm and dry conditions to get the concentration. Drosophila fruit flies brought some acid rot that was selected out."
"But then second half of September was ideal and into October. We began cutting off bad bunches and berries Sept. 26, and the botrytis from there was quick, so we had to pick quickly," Amirault continues. "We made only three tries in three weeks. If we waited too long the grapes would have been too concentrated, and trying to vinify with that much sugar is problematic."
Note: These wines were tasted non-blind. See the full 2017 Bordeaux barrel tastings report for more than 250 official barrel scores and tasting notes for wines submitted to Wine Spectator's blind tasting here in Bordeaux.
The 2017 de Fargues is its typical 80/20 Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc blend, aged in 50 percent new oak, a slightly higher-than-usual percentage as the barrels were bought in July when it looked like the yields would be twice what they wound up (typical is one-third new oak). The wine is very showy, with viscous apricot, peach and quince flavors that loll like just-warmed honey from the start through the finish. Light acacia, orange blossom and piecrust accents fill in on the finish.
The 2016 de Fargues, still in barrel, is showing much more definition now, with a racy green tea and ginger frame forming around the core of apricot, peach and quince compote flavors. The long, creamy and beguiling finish picks up toasted coconut and crème brûlée notes.
Sandrine Garbay presented the 2017 Château d'Yquem. While there was no frost damage here (Yquem sits atop a gravel hill, safe from low-lying cold air) yields are nonetheless low due to the drier vintage and smaller berries. The crop came in at a slightly lighter than usual 1.25 tons per acre, resulting in about 6,600 cases made (versus a typical 8,000-plus). The blend is a typical 75 percent Sémillon and 25 Sauvignon Blanc mix.
"It was warm and dry early so we were ahead, but then importantly a cooler second half preserved the acidities," says Garbay. "Then at the beginning of September, through the 16th, we got [2.5 inches] of rain. That was critical for the botrytis infection after the very dry season."
"The dry white was picked mid-August, about two weeks ahead of normal. And then we started harvesting botrytized fruit on the 22nd of September. The botrytis loves healthy ripe grapes and it moved very quickly, so we made only two tries," Garbay says. "We had great weather forecast for later in September, so we actually picked the best terroirs first so as not to get too much richness. And in the end, harvest was only three weeks long, very rapid for d'Yquem."
The wine, which has shifted to a fresher, purer style over the past decade, is remarkably knit and expressive already, with a stunning acacia and heather honey start giving way to a rich, creamy palate of starfruit, lemon curd, yellow apple and quince flavors. It has a gorgeous feel, lush, but with an inner freshness.