Helen’s blog

Thoughts and tastings from Helen Savage, wine writer.

Archive for November, 2012


Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

On 21 November, as heavy rain gradually gave way to bright blue skies, we were met by Suduiraut’s technical director, Pierre Montégut. Suduiraut, a Premier Cru of Sauternes in the 1855 classification is in the commune of Preignac just below the vineyards of Château Yquem. It was bought by AXA Millésimes in 1992.

The Vineyard

The soil of Preignac is typically gravelly, with quite large pebbles. This, says Pierre, is a major factor in the style of wine from the commune, which is less rich and unctuous than in the more clay-rich soils of neighbouring Sauternes and with something of a hint of the green freshness of Barsac, where there is more limestone. Suduiraut’s 92 hectares of vineyards are mostly on gravel around the château, but there are also two blocks on richer soil near Yquem. According to seasonal conditions, Suduiraut’s style can switch. It was more Sauternes-like in 2003, 05 and 09, but fresher in 2002, 07 and 11.

The blend in the vineyard is 90% Sémillon and 10% Sauvignon. There is no Muscadelle, which is better on clay. The main rootstock is 420A which is well adapted to soils with a high level of active calcium and is therefore ideal for Barsac, as is Fercal. 3309 is good for dry sites and 101-13 for fresher soils. The vines are trained on wires, but with up to four spurs on each plant. Pierre aims for 6 to 8 bunches on each vine and for small berries, which tend to produce more pure aromas and better flavours. The minimum potential sugar allowed by the rules of the appellation is 15%. Pierre likes to have at least 20%.

Over the past fifty years sugar levels have risen significantly. In the 1960s, a good level of potential sugar was deemed to be around 19 or 20%. In 2005 it was over 30%. The residual sugar in the great 1967 vintage was 90g/l, in 2005, 09, 10 and 11 it was consistently around 140-160g/l. There is now often more focus in very years like 2005 and 09 on keeping fresh acidity in the wine than in achieving roundness and sweetness, but botrytis always remains an essential element in the style of Suduiraut.

The grapes, he observes, are also riper now at the onset of botrytis. The picking team of 120-150 souls typically make three to five passes (tries) in the vineyard. The greatest number of tries was eight in 1988, but so many passes makes for a very expensive harvest. There is no sorting done separately in the winery. Quality depends on the pickers.

The cellar is, however, equipped for cryo-extraction, which makes it possible to block and exclude the less ripe berries if ripening is uneven. Pierre says that this is most effective if the potential alcohol is between 16 and 20%, but cryo-extraction inevitably brings a loss of yield. To produce one hectolitre of juice normally requires between 150 and 180 kg of botrytised berries; with cryo-extraction this rises to 220kg. But Pierre believes that it is a better alternative to chaptalisation: “I don’t change what nature gives, just block more.”

Vineyard practice at Suduiraut is on the cusp of organic and 25 hectares are managed fully organically, which in a difficult year like 2012 meant a significant crop loss of around 50%. Bearing in mind studies that have suggested that copper can diminish grape aromas, careful checks have been made on the level of copper in both dry and sweet wines at Suduiraut. Greater levels have been found consistently on those harvested earlier, without botrytis, for dry wines.

2012 has been difficult because although there was a good level of botrytis at the start of October, the sugars were diluted by rain and harvest had to begin before the botrytised turned to grey rot. The yield for the sweet wine was just 8 hl/ha.


Once in the winery the whole punches are loaded directly into a pneumatic press. The first pressing at 2 bars pressure releases 80 to 88% of the juice. The pommace is then loaded into a basket press which operates up to 9 bars and releases juice which is very sweet, very perfumed, with higher pH and glycerol, but a little les finesse. A pH of 4 or more is common with botrytised grapes, but 3.8 is the ideal if the wine is to age well.

The wine is then fermented in small oak casks, 50 to 60% of which are new for Château Suduiraut and less for the other two Sauternes made here: Castelnau and Lions. Light to medium toasts are the preferred choice. Yeast nutrients are often added to help finish the fermentation quickly. Pierre feels that a ten to twenty day fermentation is essential to maintain the purity of the fruit and to restrict the development of volatile acids.  Fermentation is then fully stopped, first by cooling the juice to kill the yeasts and then by the addition of sulphur dioxide – the higher the level of botrytis, the higher the level of sulphur. The aim at bottling is to have 50mg/l of free SO2. The sweet wine is usually racked after the mutage of sulphur dioxide. (Mutage is this instance does NOT mean adding alcohol as at least one other blogger seems to think!) Because the estate’s dry wine undergoes lees stirring in cask, it is not racked. After aging in cask for 18 to 24 months the Sauternes is fined with bentonite and sometimes also filtered before bottling. The other cuvées, Castelnau and Lions are aged for 12 to 15 months.

Commercial decisions

Pierre readily admits that making a profit in Sauternes and Barsac is difficult. The average yield for the first growths he estimates at 9 to 15 hl/ha and 15-25 hl/ha for the seconds.  To make money at Suduiraut he must achieve a yield of 15 hl/ha, but on four occasions over the last nine years this not been possible.

Production costs are high, including dry goods (bottle, cork, capsule and label), Pierre suggests the price of making Sauternes can vary from €9 to €26 depending on the vintage and the level of selection exercised in the vineyard and winery.

A major factor in achieving profitability is a successful en primeur campaign: 50% of Château Suduiraut is sold in this way and 25% of the other cuvees. Traditional sales on the French domestic market peak in the run up to Christmas, reinforced by the conviction that Sauternes is the perfect accompaniment to foie gras.

But Pierre is anxious to challenge some of the attitudes that pigeon hole Sauternes in an inappropriate way. “We need to show that Sauternes is not just sweet, but is wine with great complexity,” he argues. “We’re trying to combat ideas such as you can’t drink other wines after Sauternes; that you won’t get a headache if you drink it; that you don’t have to cellar it for twenty years: ideas that mean, don’t bother to open the bottle. It goes so well with cheese, especially blue cheese. Forget puddings with Sauternes it’s often not a good idea.” And as we discovered later that evening, with a selection of older vintages, it can be a fantastic partner for Sichuanese cuisine (my notes lack coherence – the evening at Bordeaux’s Au Bonheur du Palais  was rather splendid. Pierre believes that one of the best ways to get over the fusty old attitudes that dog Sauternes is to persuade more restaurants to offer it by the glass. Perhaps then those drinkers in France who consume just one glass of Sauternes a year (the national average, Pierre says), might be tempted to drink a second. Mind you, as half of Suduiraut’s sales are in France, that might not be such good news for the rest of us.

The Wines

Les Lions de Suduiraut 2010

The cuvée was first created in 2009 as a fresher, slightly lighter, more aperitif-style of Sauternes. The selection for both Lions and Castlenau is more often than not starts in the vineyard with specific parcels.

The wine is very fresh, with citrus and peach aroma and a clean, rich flavour (130g/l sugar) with a nice little twist of bitterness at the end.

Castelnau de Suduiraut 2010

Fatter and richer and more buttery, but less open and fragrant. A much richer, more exotic palate (135 g/l sugar)

Château Suduiraut 2010

Deeper colour, more obvious new oak and also botrytis with rich orange and apricot tones. Very powerful and complex with mouth-filling pineapple-like fruit and fine, balancing freshness (150 g/l sugar).

Les Lions de Suduiraut 2009

Much more evolved than the 10, and rather more peachy fruit. Quite a lot of botrytis and fatness, but just a little short.

Castelnau de Suduiraut 2009

Really quite closed, but ripe pineapple aromas emerging. A lot of botrytis, with quite a bitter finish.

Château Suduiraut 2009

A lovely wine: rich, powerful even a touch spirituous on the nose. A super-rich palate, bags of botrytis rounded off by class bitter marmalade notes

Château Suduiraut 1989

Fine old gold colour. The aromas is still wonderfully fresh – like ripe apricot with pain d’épices and real intensity. Drying just a little and very botrytised, but balanced by elegant acidity with a long honey, peach and apricot finish.


Monday, November 26th, 2012

I visited Pichon-Longueville on 20 November as part of a generous study scholarship awarded to Master of Wine students by AXA Millésimes. We toured the vineyards and winery with technical director, Jean-René Matignon who also conducted a vertical tasting, blind, of thirteen vintages from 1998 to 2010 before treating us to older vintages over dinner.

A bit of background

Château Pichon-Longueville was awarded second growth status in the 1855 classification of the Médoc. It is superbly situated in Pauillac overlooking Saint Julien to the south, and neighbours Châteaux Pichon-Lalande (from which it split in 1840) and Latour.

It has enjoyed a somewhat chequered history during the last hundred years. From 1935 until his death in 1962 Jean Bouteiller made many great wines. Jean-René talks with relish about any opportunity to re-cork them and considers the 1937 as perhaps the best old wine in the château’s (rather small) ‘library’ collection.

By the early 1980s, although some good wines were certainly made, the Bouteiller family had long since failed to maintain the high standards of the 1940s and 50s, to the point at which from 1982 to 1987 the grapes were harvested by machine: not a practice consonant with the level of rigorous selection needed to made great claret.

In 1987 the property was sold to AXA Millésimes who have since invested significantly in the vineyard and cellars as well as lovingly restoring the fine château itself, built in 1851.

The popular name for the property, Pichon-Baron, still persists.

In the vineyard

The vineyard is 75 hectares large and the average age of the vines is between forty and fifty years. The main balance of the vineyard is divided between Cabernet Sauvignon (65%) and Merlot (32%) planted on the distinctively Médocaine Guyot Poussard system with two short replacement canes and a two-bud spur below to supply the canes for the following year. This is well-adapted to Cabernet Sauvignon and helps restrict disease, especially eutypa dieback. There is also a small amount of both Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. Cabernet Franc struggles with water stress here. Jean-René points out that it really needs soils with higher clay content, but some of the clonal stock in Bordeaux is poor and has been improved in recent years by clones from the Loire Valley. Petit Verdot is also sensitive to water stress.

Gravels here are up to 2m deep. The younger gravels nearer the river are considered to be the better soils because they have more clay content, those further inland are finer, poorer and sandier. In times past it was traditional to add clay: to ‘marner’ the soil and improve it.

Around 2% of the vineyard is replanted annually. In the oldest blocks, about 4% of the vines die anyway each year. Research has been carried out to identify clones resistant to fan leaf virus. The preferred rootstock is 101-14, with 3309 used where there is most risk of water stress and 420A on the limestone- rich soils planted with Merlot at Château Pibran in the northern sector of the appellation adjacent to Pontet-Canet. Riparia was tried in the past but it failed to ripen the fruit adequately.

The most significant new disease risk is provided by Flavesence Dorée, which spreads very quickly and is difficult to control. The effect is green wood and loss of the crop. The vectors, a form of leaf-hopper, can be eliminated by spraying with organophosphates or organic pyrethroids, but Jean-René is worried that the latter present a health risk for his vineyard workers. It is also now necessary when old vines are grubbed up to treat the soil with insecticides and then to wait three to five years before replanting, a costly delay. Cabernet Sauvignon can suffer from magnesium deficiency, which leads to dry, brittle stems. Magnesium may then be added every two or three years in spring along with compost at a rate of 100kg per hectare.

Jean-René has practised integrate pest management since 2000. He is experimenting with organic viticulture on 5 hectares at Château Pibran, but is reluctant to extend the experiment to Pichon-Baron. One major objection is the high level of copper in the soil, which also limits the life of bacteria in the soil. Organic compost is, however, used generously: around ten to fifteen tonnes per hectare, per year, at a cost of €70 per tonne. It improves the texture of the soil and enables it to retain water better. Where crops are planted between the rows (rye grass and vetch) it can help to limit the migration of chemicals and help to effect their degeneration more quickly.

Over the years labour costs have risen in the vineyard as more labour intensive strategies have been adopted such as leaf plucking on first one and then, sometimes, the other side of each row. Jean-René estimates that twenty years ago one vineyard worker could look after 2.5 hectares. This has now reduced to just 1.8 hectares.

In the winery

A fine new winery was built between 1990 and 1992, designed by the Panamanian-born architect Patrick Dillon, around 50% of which is underground.

It is equipped with a new optical sorting machine (which cost €120,000). It has a capacity of 8 tonnes per hour and has made a huge difference to the quality of the wine: “Anthocyanins,” says Jean-René, “are the key to understanding the quality of tannin.” Prior to processing in the optical sorter whole bunches are sorted by hand and then the berries de-stemmed. 10 kg of berries at the desired colour profile are ‘shown’ to the machine to prime it. The high-quality of the optical sorter is such that Jean-René does not feel it necessary to use a top of the range, expensive de-stemmer, which he argues would also be more difficult to clean.

The cellar also boasts a reverse-osmosis machine, but this may only be used on must and not on finished wine. It can be helpful if the grapes arrive wet, or as for example in 2011, when the percentage of sugar in the Cabernet Sauvignon was a little low.

After fermentation, pressing is done mostly in pneumatic presses on a gentle, ‘crémant’ setting. A new basket press is also available, but Jean-René has not yet noticed that it offers any significant advantage.

Selected, cultivated yeasts are used: RB2 for Merlot to emphasise its freshness and fruit, Actiflor 33 for Cabernet Sauvignon, especially to reduce the level of volatile acidity. F15 is also used for both Merlot and Cabernet, though not as often as it was in the past.

Délestage (rack and return) is used daily for the first three days of fermentation, then regular, daily pumping over for the next twenty five days. Jean-René is also experimenting with a pre-fermentation cold maceration at 5C.

The grand vin is aged in 80% new oak and the second wine, Les Tourelles, in 30% new oak.

Regular racking is a defence against Brettanomyces infection, which develops on the lees sediment. Jean-René commissions regular bi-monthly microbiological tests to ensure that it kept under control. Racking otherwise takes place every three to four months. A custom-built machine delivers alternatively a mixture of steam and a high pressure water jet cleaning to each barrel. Fining with albumen also helps to reduce Brett. Another defence, says, Jean-René, is to seed barrels with lactic bacteria to speed up the malo-lactic fermentation: the wine is especially at risk from Brett when it is not protected by S02 before the malo takes place. The wine is filtered before bottling. Jean-René argues, “If there was no Brett there’d be no reason to filter – but we need to!”

Pichon Longueville 1998 to 2010 and a few older wines.

It was an extraordinarily helpful exercise to be invited to taste the wines ‘blind’. It enabled us to evaluate the quality of each vintage without the baggage of expectations. The order in which they were served was 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2005 2007 and 2009, but for ease as well as convention, my notes here are in reverse chronological order, along with notes on the 1990, 1988, 1986 and 1959 vintages, drunk later over dinner at the château.

2010     Very deep. Exciting, powerful, rich, sweet and spicy nose, with fantastic fruit in the mouth and a very silky texture – long, rich and ripe, with melting tannins. A remarkable wine.

2009     Also very deep. Sweetly ripe nose. In the mouth big and sweet, showing quite a lot of oak at the moment and quite high acid. Lots of structure.

2008     Deep and young. Quite a lot of new oak, but perfumed – fragrant and cedary. Sweet, perfumed fruit in the mouth, with fresh acidity and firm tannins. Good length. Elegant.

2007     Deep and quite young, but first signs of aging. Fabulous, opulent nose, rich and ripe – chocolate and cassis. Big and  balanced with lots of power and length. A big surprise, but then I Iooked back at my note from the IMW claret tasting (see below 12 November 2011). I liked it then too.

2006     Still deep and young. A big wine, but a bit closed. Firm black fruit, firm tannins and quite juicy acid. A bit short and angular.

2005     Hard to assess: the first bottle seemed raw, un-knit and tannic, with high acid; a second was very much better, with a rich, ripe, creamy nose, then a dense, rich palate, still with a lot of perfumed oak and considerable elegance.

2004     Some aging apparent. Lovely perfume – complex, gentle and elegant. Sweet, balanced plate, elegant and long but already maturing.

[a lot of green harvesting was necessary and ripeness came quickly]

2003     Quite deep, but also garnet-hued. A very appealing aroma of sweet perfumed fruit, but the palate is much chunkier than the nose suggests: sweet, chocolaty fruit, big, firm tannins and rather short.

2002     Deepish, but garnet edge. Big, spicy, chocolate nose. Big in the mouth too, with a lot of dry extract and a fine tannic structure. A little short.

[A lot of millerandage. Hard to de-stem]

2001     Still quite deep and not a lot of aging. Rich, ripe chocolaty nose with spice. Soft, sweet, full, still chewy and very long.

2000     Deep and young-looking, right to the rim. Sweet, pure fruit and quite spicy and complex. Fully mature, but sweetly ripe cassis fruit, with ripe tannins and good acidity.

1999     Aging, a marked garnet rim. Very evolved and mature, with sweet/balsamic notes and quite high volatile acidity. Sweet fruit in the mouth, but a hard middle and tough tannins. Short.

1998     Aging – a garnet rim. Open, spicy, rather Bretty nose. Sweet, but rather hard tannins and a bit short.

1990     Very good deep colour; slightly stalky and savoury with a green edge, but lovely length.

1988     Still big rich and complex, with wonderful fruit: cranberry and cassis. Very ripe, long and fine.

1986     Still deep and youthful, with lively, spicy complex fruit. Balanced, savoury and mineral on the finish.

1959     Clearly older. Quite a rich, balsamic nose, but beautifully scented. Still very rich in the mouth and surprisingly fresh, though with rather lifted acidity. Truffles. Mature – but what a treat!

[Jean-René’s birth year]