In February 2014, Silvio Denz, owner and CEO of the glass firm Lalique, purchased the historic Sauternes estate Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey. The new owner quickly demonstrated his awareness of the commercial realities of the region, by announcing that his property would halve the volume of sweet wine production and invest in producing and marketing a dry white. “Sauternes has been in a crisis for the last 30 years and there is no easy way out – sweet white wine is unfortunately out of fashion today and dry white wine will be the beneficiary in terms of sales and cash flow for the time being,” said Denz.
Denz’s mission statement caused ructions in the conservative Sauternes community; some applauded his decision whilst others, including Olivier Casteja of Doisy-Vèdrines, voiced their discomfort with such a development.
“Sauternes is an area for sweet wine,” said Casteja. He is not alone in this view. Appellation Contrôlée regulations are no more ready to recognise the quality and individuality of dry wine produced here than in the red wine region of the Médoc; in both cases, it can only be sold as Bordeaux Blanc, the designation used for the region’s humblest whites.
The quality of dry Sauternes has historically been questioned. In his Grands Vins: The Finest Châteaux of Bordeaux and Their Wines, Clive Coates talks of wines with a “sweet nose” and a “hard, fruitless, sulphury palate”. Coates made an exception for Château Doisy-Daëne Cuvée Saint-Martin, the region’s first dry white, produced by Pierre Dubourdieu, who took over the chateau in 1949 and seems to have had an unusual relationship with its traditional wines. As Coates says, “One very forcibly gets the impression that…if it would be an exaggeration to say that [Dubourdieu] actively dislikes Sauternes – [he] is at least indifferent to it.” Dry wines were what interested him most and, uniquely in the region, they formed 70% of his production and were, in Coates’s opinion, “brilliant”.
Dubourdieu’s innovation rapidly caught on with illustrious neighbouring estates including Châteaux d’Yquem, Guiraud, Rieussec and Rayne-Vigneau, all of which introduced dry wines of their own – but in much smaller volumes. Most famous among these is Yquem’s Ygrec (‘Y’ in French) which was launched in 1959 and now sells for an average of €144.00 ($196.00) across all vintages on Wine-Searcher.com, compared to €393.00 for its classic sweet wine.
These prices are, however, very high for the region. The 20,000 bottles of Doisy-Daëne Sec that are produced almost every year sell for just €17.00, against €40.00 for the chateau’s Sauternes.
Despite this differential, producing a vin sec, from grapes picked before the Sauternes harvest, and at substantially higher yields per hectare, is not only a very profitable business, but one that serves to improve the quality of the sweet white. As Patrice Dubourdieu, who runs the estate today, points out, younger or lesser plots are reserved for its production. “In an ideal world, we would increase production to 40,000 bottles,” he says.
The emergence of dry
Another Sauternes owner who shares Denz’s and Pierre Dubourdieu’s affection for dry wine is Olivier Bernard, whose family owns and runs several Bordeaux estates. These include Château Olivier and Domaine de Chevalier in Pessac Léognan and, since 2011, a Sauternes property called Château Haut-Caplane. After rechristening the estate Clos des Lunes, Olivier has switched production to almost entirely dry wine and has stated that he wishes to increase the current annual output from 120,000 bottles to 300,000 in a five-year time frame. “Essentially, Sauternes needs more dry white in the region, it gives us another dimension and allows for great financial security until this crisis is over,” he says.
While a few top estates like Château Climens continue to resist the temptation to make dry wine, there is a dry ‘S’ de Suduiraut and even Château Coutet, which for many years denied the possibility of producing a dry style, released their version, Opalie, into the market in 2012. Château Guiraud is also looking to increase the production of its ‘G’ dry wines.
So what was once a marginal but useful sideline, is increasingly being viewed as an important commercial insurance policy by some estates. The disastrous 2012 vintage compounded matters; many estates such as Rieussec, Suduiraut and Raymond-Lafon didn’t release their grand vin and yields were dangerously low. Their one consolation prize was high quality production of dry whites in Sauternes, and indeed whites across the entire region were generally lauded for their quality.
But regardless of any discussion about the inherent quality of dry white from Sauternes, there is no denying the handicap of the Bordeaux Blanc appellation. Indeed, the issue of how the wine is labelled has become a subject of heated debate in recent months, with some producers requesting the right to use the Graves designation on their bottles. Entitlement to the AOC Graves, they feel, will further strengthen their products brand power and break through the price ceiling of the AOC Bordeaux Blanc appellation.
Leading the fight is Fabrice Dubourdieu, who is currently a member of the Conseil d’administration de Graves. Dubourdieu has started petitioning the council for the right to adopt the Graves designation for their dry whites, a process he concedes could take several years. “At the moment, we are encountering strong resistance from Graves producers who don’t want to take the political risk of voicing support for us,” he says. “But some growers are in favour, although they are naturally concerned about encroachments onto their territory.”
This controversial issue of essentially adding another facet to the appellation has naturally divided opinion amongst chateau owners, with some concerned that a rule change might lead to more producers marginalising sweet production in Sauternes. “Sauternes is one of the very best places in the world to produce sweet wines which are truly exceptional, and will always deserve more attention than any of the dry wines we would produce,” exclaims Bèrènice Lurton of Château Climens. Château Rieussec and Château Suduiraut declined to comment on the issue, with owners AXA Millésimes issuing a terse statement explaining that due to a ‘difficult’ 2013 en-primeur campaign, they would not respond to any press enquiries.
Other estates like Bastor-Lamontagne also remain wary of this development, insisting that increasing dry white production would be a mistake for the entire region. “In 2008 I started to make dry white, but it’s just a small production to test the market. Sauternes had admittedly rested on its laurels for far too long, but shouldn’t we now focus on making wines that are lighter and easier to drink, rather than attempting to re-brand?” owner Michel Garat asks. From an outsider’s perspective, Caroline Perromat, of Château de Cérons in the nearby appellation of Cérons says that: “Once [our] AOC was renowned for sweet wines; now they are a rarity as growers make use of the Graves AOC for their dry whites.” Cérons has also seen an increase in red production and Perromat warns against: “Sauternes producers walking down the same path and abandoning their historic style.” Céron sweet wines, however, have never enjoyed the prestige of Sauternes.
A good buy
It is, of course, highly unlikely that the Sauternais would be permitted or wish to convert en-mass to producing almost totally dry whites. However, the region must accept that an increased focus on dry production, at least for some châteaux, is likely to remain the status-quo for now. Today, most of the major estates now produce a dry style, although only Clos de Lunes and Lafaurie-Peyraguey have committed to making predominately dry whites. However, if the petition to classify Sauternes’ dry whites as Graves is successful, the number of estates joining their banner would undoubtedly increase. And from a cold, commercial standpoint it makes good sense; the global market is now responding well to the white Bordeaux category. In 2013, exports of dry whites rose by 53% according to the CIVB, with the UK now the largest market of dry white Bordeaux, commanding 18% of the total export market. Belgium, the U.S and even China showed good growth with 6% of exports now entering the Chinese mainland on the back of Bordeaux’s generic popularity.
Max Lalondrelle, fine wine buying director at Berry Bros. & Rudd, underlines the point that the quality of dry white from Sauternes’ estates has also improved immeasurably over the past decade, which has led to increased sales. “I would say that sub-€20.00 we now buy and sell more dry white wines from Sauternes domains than from other appellations - it’s a good earner for us. This is mainly due to the brand leverage and the still-affordable prices compared to the Graves equivalent,” he says. According to Xavier Planty of Château Guiraud, no reliable exact data on current dry production exists; output is simply included - rather than differentiated - in the overall figures for Bordeaux Blanc by the CIVB. However, he states that approximately 200,000 bottles on average per annum are made within the Sauternes appellation and labelled as Bordeaux Blanc.
Dubourdieu adds: “We posses an outstanding terroir in certain sites for dry whites, and production costs are significantly lower than for Sauternes; essentially, there is no good reason why we cannot make both.”
In light of the evidence presented, one might reasonably conclude that the arguments for pursuing a balanced duality of production in Sauternes are compelling. Sales of dry white can generate much-needed additional revenue for the region, provide an impetus for investment by attracting outsiders like Denz, and offer a useful insurance policy against the vagaries of botrytis-dependent wines. It doesn’t diminish the standing of the region’s sweet wines, on the contrary it should improve the quality of what remains. For Sauternes enjoys the unenviable status of being the only Bordeaux appellation that is not included within a larger generic region; an appellation that was, until recently, almost entirely devoted to sweet wine production. In a world where sweet wines are often consigned to a very occasional glass with dessert, this is an unsustainable and, indeed, undesirable position.
Edited by Robert Joseph