Rieussec rings the changes in Sauternes

The beautiful poor relation of the red Crus Classés of Bordeaux, Sauternes is desperately in need of imagination and inspiration. The owners of Châteaux Lafite and Rieussec are facing up to the challenge. Robert Joseph wonders whether others will follow their example.

New Look Rieusssec - with its replaceable stopper
New Look Rieusssec - with its replaceable stopper

Whenever anyone tries to explain the merits of the Place de Bordeaux distribution system to me – as a very intelligent French woman did this week - I simply ask them to look at the price of Sauternes and Barsac. As Jane Anson points out in her excellent new Inside Bordeaux platform, falling demand has led to their production shrinking by 24% in volume and 15% in surface area over the last 20 years. The price of these wines, she says, has not changed ‘in decades’. Having the fabled global network of merchants offered by la Place doesn’t seem to have done these estates much good.

I’m going to take a closer look at the Place – and the rationale behind non-Bordeaux wines being sold on it – in another piece. Today, I’m more interested in how Sauternes and Barsac are going to help themselves out of this hole.

The initiative of encouraging their service on the rocks as a ‘long drink’ in Paris bars and clubs does not seem to have achieved its objective. And switching to the production of dry wines, while helping the chateaux’s bottom line, does nothing for these appellations and their place in the traditional late harvest category.

The strategists at Château Lafite, owners of Château Rieussec have, as Anson discusses, taken a radically new approach. They have used packaging to try to adapt the way their customers view the product.

Instead of expecting them to pull the cork on a 75cl or 37.5cl bottle and consume the contents at one sitting, they have acknowledged that quite often, people only want a very small amount of this nectar, and that it has the convenient quality of surviving very well in a fridge for several weeks without any help from a Coravin.

Show stopper

So the new Rieussec bottle comes with a replaceable stopper – just like whisky. (Yes, I know you can reuse any cork, but that’s not the point; they’re not overtly designed for that purpose).

It has also been redesigned and looks nothing like any Sauternes you have seen, both in shape, the use of green rather than clear glass, and its minimalist label. Given Lafite's position in the Chinese market, it would be naive to imagine that the owners of the two brands have not tested the reactions to the new bottle in Shanghai and Beijing. In a market where white wine is still not valued nearly as highly as red, the dark package may well be a winning card. 

While ticking boxes for using recycled material (impossible with clear glass) the Rieussec bottle also deflects criticism for its weight by being intended to be reused by the consumer.

All I know is that I have far too many bottles of late-harvest wine that I cannot persuade dinner guests to drink at the end of a well-lubricated dinner. The thought – implied or stated - is that it’s not worth opening a bottle for the limited amount that will be consumed. The remodeled Rieussec addresses  that problem directly, in the same way that tawny port has done, by inviting one or two people to have a small glass from a vessel that is clearly designed for that purpose.

I’m pretty confident that this initiative will be successful, if only thanks to the stature of the people behind it and the following the brands has among its fans. But hopefully, it will be embraced by sommeliers and might just be an example for others to follow – or a nudge that will encourage them to come up with fresh ideas of their own.

Robert Joseph

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