Valiant Bordeaux Blanc in a Tough Vintage

Today’s Story: Château Haut-Brion

I recently wrote about Château Haut-Brion when I reviewed the 2014 Le Clarence de Haut-Brion in November, 2020, so if your memory is quite sharp feel free to skip to today’s tasting notes below. If, however, you’d like a refresher you can read on for the history of this great estate.

Château Haut-Brion is a historic Bordeaux wine estate that traces back to at least 1521, and it was awarded First Growth (Premier Grand Cru) status in the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855. In 1533, Jean de Pontac acquired the land that would become Château Haut-Brion and he immediately set about renovating the vineyards and expanding the estate. He is also the owner who, in 1549, started building the château. Jean de Pontac was instrumental in each vintage under his ownership until he passed away in 1589 at the age of 101, though the estate remained in the Pontac family by passing to his son Arnaud II and then Arnaud II’s nephew Geoffroy. Geoffroy’s son Arnaud III took over during the early 17th century and expanded the château itself while doubling the size of the vineyards. He also used his political influence to extend the fame and reputation of Haut-Brion, particularly in England.

As the influence of Haut-Brion grew, particularly amongst nobility and the intellects of the time (including John Locke), Joseph de Fumel inherited the estate from his father in 1749. The estate’s influence took another leap when, in 1787, Thomas Jefferson visited the château and wrote with great admiration about the soils and wines of Haut-Brion. The rosiness ended during the French Revolution, however, as Joseph de Fumel was beheaded by guillotine and his holdings were divided. Over the next four decades or so, the estate changed hands several times.

In 1836, Joseph Eugène Larrieu purchased the estate and worked tirelessly to improve on the exceptional wines it was known for. His efforts were rewarded when Haut-Brion was awarded Premier Grand Cru status in 1855, though pain struck again through disease and political upheavals within the region in the latter half of the 19th century. In 1859, Amédée took over upon his father’s death and replanted the vineyards over time to deal with mildew. By 1873 when his son Eugène took over Haut-Brion, there was optimism which unfortunately proved futile when phylloxera struck with a vengeance in 1880. Eugène spearheaded a massive replanting of the vineyards yet again, this time using rootstock from North America that was resistant to the disease.

Jumping forward through multiple new ownerships, the Dillon family came into the picture during the early 1900s. The owner at the time, André Gibert, faced the need to find a proper owner for Haut-Brion with no heirs of his own. Clarence Dillon, a banker from New York, visited in 1934 and received notice on his way back to America he could buy the estate. The purchase was finalized in 1935 and the Dillon family remains the owner of Château Haut Brion to this day. This purchase by the Dillon family helped bring Haut-Brion to the modern age, with them first installing electricity, new plumbing, and renovating the cellars. Over the decades that followed leading up to current times, the family continued to improve the estate, modernized the winemaking process with a high tech vat room, and completely renovated the château with utmost attention to detail.

Château Haut-Brion today consists of 51 hectares of vineyards located in the Pessac-Léognan appellation of Bordeaux. Of the 51 hectares, 48 are planted to red varieties of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot while the remaining 3 hectares are planted to white varieties of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc. Situated across from Château La Mission Haut-Brion (which I wrote about recently as well), Château Haut-Brion shares the same gravelly soil of small quartz stones above a subsoil of clay, sand, and limestone. Following the same practices of their neighbor, all fruit is harvested by hand and then sorted before transferral to temperature controlled vats for fermentation. After two weeks, the vats are drained and the wine moves to barrel where it spends 20-24 months before bottling. Château Haut-Brion produces four wines: Château Haut-Brion, Château Haut-Brion Blanc, and two 2nd wines named Le Clarence de Haut-Brion (red) and La Clarté de Haut-Brion (white).

Today’s Wine: 2012 La Clarté de Haut-Brion

58% Sémillon, 42% Sauvignon Blanc; 14% ABV

The 2012 La Clarté de Haut-Brion is transparent pale gold in color. The medium intense nose showcases aromas of lemon, grapefruit, white peach, yellow apple, honeysuckle, dried herbs, chopped grass, white truffle, and wet stone. On the palate, I get medium intensity and notes of lemon, nectarine, grapefruit, dried pineapple, beeswax, chamomile, river stone, and saline mineral. This dry Bordeaux Blanc is medium-bodied with medium (+) acidity and a well-rounded mouthfeel into a medium (+) length finish.

Price: $100 (I paid $89). While not really a great vintage overall for Bordeaux, this was actually a very solid wine and showcases its age beautifully. I think the price I paid is fair given my experience, though I would probably seek out stronger vintages if I’m buying this bottling again.

Outstanding Bordeaux Blanc From a Sauternes Legend

Today’s Story: Château d’Yquem

Château d’Yquem is a very special estate, one whose Sauternes are coveted the world over and whose wines are some of my favorites to have tasted. I previously wrote about the 2001 Château d’Yquem, and am excited to return with their Y (Ygrec) bottling today.

Château d’Yquem has a very long, mysterious history that traces its roots back to the 15th Century. One of the most interesting snippets of this history, for instance, is that the estate belonged to the King of England during the Middle Ages! In 1593, however, southwest France again came under control of the French crown by Charles VII and has remained as such since. It was also this year that the d’Yquem estate came under control of Jacques de Sauvage, a descendant of a local noble family. Though some winegrowing practices and late harvesting existed at this time, the Sauvage family did not start building the château for several more years and then began the long process of assembling land for the current estate plot by plot.

Jumping forward in time, it wasn’t until 1711 that the Sauvage family fully owned the estate under Léon de Sauvage d’Yquem. Furthermore, under the rule of Louis XIV, Château d’Yquem received noble status. The magnificent estate switched hands yet again, however, in 1785 when Françoise Joséphine de Sauvage d’Yquem married Count Louis Amédée de Lur-Saluces, a godson of Louis XV. Sadly, three years later in 1788, the Count died in a riding accident but his widow took over management of the estate and quickly displayed her acumen by sustaining and improving d’Yquem. One of the most notable practices at d’Yquem was established under Françoise Joséphine de Sauvage d’Yquem, for instance, which is picking over several passes (sometimes picking one grape at a time). Another notable feat under this young widow is the admiration noble figures around the globe felt toward d’Yquem, including Thomas Jefferson who reportedly purchased 250 bottles of the 1784 vintage for himself and additional bottles for George Washington.

Romain-Bertrand de Lur-Saluces, a grandson of Françoise Joséphine, took over the estate and helped guide it through seemingly endless successes in the second half of the 19th Century. For example, d’Yquem’s wines became a necessity for the rich and powerful throughout Europe, Russia, and Asia. In 1855, Château d’Yquem was awarded Premier Cru Supérieur in the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855, the only Sauternes awarded this level. Times changed, however, as they always do with estates of this age when World War I came and the château transitioned into a military hospital under Eugène de Lur-Saluces (a son of Romain-Bertrand). Eugène’s son Marquis Bertrand de Lur-Saluces took over the estate following the war (he had served in the trenches) and he is responsible for much of d’Yquem’s strength to this day. For instance, Marquis Bertrand fought relentlessly to save the estate during the Great Depression, helped determine many legal aspects of the Sauternes appellation as President of the Union des Crus Classés de la Gironde for forty years, and was a leading proponent of château bottling to guarantee authenticity. His death in 1968 changed the tides once again.

Though Bertrand was childless at the time of his death, he took precautions and named his nephew Alexandre de Lur-Saluces manager of Château d’Yquem. Alexandre struggled at first through difficult vintages, a crisis in the Bordeaux wine trade, and an inheritance tax that almost forced the estate to fail, though his efforts were saved with the exceptional 1975 vintage followed by several more during the 1980s. Alexandre managed the estate exceptionally well until 1996 when a family feud exploded over his brother’s decision to sell part of his 47% ownership stake, thus in turn requiring LVMH Moët Hennessy-Louis Vuitton to step in and purchase 55% of the estate. Though under new ownership, Alexandre remained manager of the estate until his retirement in 2004.

Though I could go on and on about d’Yquem’s terroir, vineyards, and winemaking practices I will leave it here with the history of Château d’Yquem. I encourage you to take a deeper dive on their website here to truly appreciate what goes into a bottle of this sacred juice.

Today’s Wine: 2014 Y (Ygrec) d’Yquem

75% Sauvignon Blanc, 25% Sémillon; 14% ABV

The 2014 Y d’Yquem is transparent pale yellow in color with hues of straw and water white. This absolutely sings out of the bottle, dominated by a nose of white peach, tangerine, apricot, gooseberry, tropical citrus, honeysuckle, freshly cut grass, and beeswax. Meanwhile, on the palate, I get notes of pineapple, grapefruit, peach, lime, cantaloupe, white pepper, white florals, and wet stone. This is medium-bodied with mouthwatering high acidity and a velvety smooth mouthfeel into a long, seductive finish capped off with a touch of caramel (perhaps from the used d’Yquem barrels). Very hard to not gulp this down.

Price: $145. Though very expensive for a white wine, this is a great value in my eyes compared to the top-tier Bordeaux Blancs and other Sauvignon Blancs I’ve tried. This offers incredible depth, opulence, lip-smacking drinkability, and age-ability that is tough to beat.

Lovely Young Sauternes From a Historic Producer

Today’s Story: Château Suduiraut

Château Suduiraut traces its roots back to 1580 through the marriage of Nicole d’Allard to Léonard de Suduiraut. Though the estate was destroyed during the Fronde civil wars of the mid 1600s, the current château was rebuilt later on but still during the 17th century. During the late 18th century, the estate went to Jean Joseph Duroy, who was a nephew of the Suduiraut family, and it was renamed Cru du Roy. In 1992, AXA Millésimes acquired the estate and the company continues to focus on producing high quality Sauternes with traditional vineyard management and winemaking inspired by Suduiraut’s rich history.

The vineyards of Château Suduiraut total 91 hectares of which 90% is planted to Sémillon and 10% is planted to Sauvignon Blanc. The gravel and sandy clay composition of the soil proves poor for water retention and therefore the vines struggle, reaching deep for nutrients and focusing energy into smaller clusters of fruit. The soil acting in this way largely contributes to more concentrated and higher quality fruit. Come harvest, Château Suduiraut picks entirely by hand and sorts the grapes with great care due to noble rot (Botrytis Cinerea) as they become overripe. The great care and immense quality protocol requires up to five pickings during harvest season, oftentimes going vine by vine or bunch by bunch.

Today’s Wine: 2016 Sauternes

96% Sémillon, 4% Sauvignon Blanc; 14% ABV

The 2016 Sauternes is a beautiful, transparent deep gold in color. The captivating nose emits aromas of peach cobbler, apricot, orange marmalade, honey, savory herbs, florals, and vanilla. On the palate, I get notes of apricot, candied orange, pineapple, crème brûlée, caramel, ginger, and hazelnut. This wine is medium- to full-bodied with gorgeous medium (+) acidity and a long finish. While this drinks beautifully right now, it will certainly cellar nicely for at least another decade.

Price: $75. I think this is a pretty good value for Sauternes, and the $35 I paid for this half bottle was perfect both in price-point and for bottle size as a light after-dinner beverage. This is a gorgeous wine.

Perplexing and Fun California White Blend

Today’s Story: Dirty & Rowdy Family Winery

I previously wrote about Dirty & Rowdy when reviewing their 2018 Familiar Mourvèdre in Wildly Fun California Mourvèdre, but I will recreate their story below.

Dirty & Rowdy is a small, family-operated winery founded in 2010 by couples Hardy & Kate and Matt & Amy with the goal of producing minimal intervention “honest wines.” Known for their range of Mourvèdre bottlings, Dirty & Rowdy also produces Petite Syrah, Chenin Blanc, and blends that include a GSM and Semillon-dominant white almost all with 100% whole cluster native fermentation, either zero or minimal SO2 added, and no filtering or fining when bottled. Dirty & Rowdy sources their fruit from vineyards in Mendocino, Monterey, Contra Costa, El Dorado, and Amador Counties, with most vineyards organically farmed or at a minimum “responsibly” farmed and unique.

Today’s Wine: 2018 Familiar Blanc

55% Semillon, 16% Chenin Blanc, 15% Pinot Blanc, 10% Viognier, 3% Muscat, 1% Marsanne; 12.3% ABV

The 2018 Familiar Blanc is gorgeous medium gold/yellow in color and completely transparent. The delicate nose emits aromas of melon, peach, tropical citrus, white florals, straw, chamomile, and saline mineral. Once in the mouth, this easy drinking wine displays notes of pear, golden apple skins, lemon zest, grapefruit, honeysuckle, white pepper, stone minerality, and wax. This is medium-bodied with vibrant medium (+) acidity and a fully-rounded mouthfeel into a medium length finish. The wine is produced with 60% whole cluster and 40% skin native fermentation with no winemaking additives and minimal SO2.

Price: $30. Similar to my experience with the Dirty & Rowdy Familiar Mourvèdre I reviewed a few weeks ago, this is a thoroughly enjoyable and fun wine. Pair this with shellfish, roasted pork, or Manchego cheese.