In the summer of 1923 Lord Sebastian Flyte entices his friend Charles Ryder to escape the confines of Oxford and spend the day at his family’s estate. “I’ve got a motor-car and a basket of strawberries and a bottle of Chateau Peyraguey — which isn’t a wine you’ve ever tasted so don’t pretend. It’s heaven with strawberries.”
Evelyn Waugh, one of Britain’s most acclaimed novelists and author of this scene from Brideshead Revisited, was known for creating some of literature’s wittiest characters, many of whom had a glass of wine or a cocktail in hand. Waugh was a knowledgeable oenophile so his selections are both informed and precise, lending scenes that extra bit of authenticity. So why, of all the wines in the world, did he send his two main characters off on a picnic with a bottle of Chateau Peyraguey? It’s an intriguing choice.
Throughout Waugh’s stories you’ll find clarets, champagnes and burgundies, but his true passion was for dessert wines, a taste he acquired during his student days at Oxford in the early 1920s. In an essay titled “Drinking” he writes: “We tried anything we could lay our hands on, but table-wines were the least of our interests. We drank them conventionally at luncheon and dinner parties but waited eagerly for the heavier and headier concomitants of dessert.” Port, sherry, Tokaji, he loved them all. “We were not ashamed (nor am I now) to relish sweet wine. Yquem had, of course, a unique reputation. Starting to drink it in a mood of ostentation, I was led to the other white Bordeaux.” By that he means Sauternes, the luscious, golden, dessert wine made possible by a little gray fungus Botrytis cinerea, aka noble rot. Which brings us back to the Chateau Peyraguey. Waugh doesn’t send Sebastian and Charles under an elm tree with a bottle of Dom Pérignon or Romanée-Conti; they’re bestowed with sweet Sauternes.
But why Chateau Peyraguey? It’s an unusual choice since the wine hasn’t existed as such since 1879 when, following the death of the owner, a family squabble split the property in two and became Clos Haut-Peyraguey and Chateau LaFaurie Peyraguey. Given the fact that Waugh wrote the novel in 1944, long after rupture, what was he up to? There were plenty of other Sauternes chateaux he could have chosen. Did he simply use his creative license and shorten the name for convenience, or did he intentionally send his characters picnicking with a bottle that was a half-century old?
Plausibility for the latter comes in the next chapter of the book when Waugh endows Sebastian’s family estate with a wine cellar stocked with old vintages (which the two proceed to drink their way through the following summer). It’s a minor detail but a telling one that exhibits not only Waugh’s knowledge and taste in wine but also his skill as a writer. With a single bottle he encapsulates one of the book’s main themes. The scene is set in the aftermath of World War I when Britain is reeling from the loss of so many young men. The devastation has left no family, rich or poor, untouched and upended many of society’s traditions. Sebastian mourns this lost innocence and yearns for an earlier time. Here then, is a bottle from before the Great War, before the carnage, a golden, sweet wine still in possession of its youthful charms and virtue.
Of course, there is no way of knowing Waugh’s intentions, (he died in 1966). It is, however, still possible to have a picnic of strawberries and wine made from same plot of land as the Peyraguey. Clos Haut-Peyraguey and Lafaurie-Peyraguay are readily found in good wine stores and are an extraordinary value at $40 per half bottle. Both properties sit near the famed vineyards of Chateau d’Yquem, a half-bottle of which is never under three figures. This prime real estate earned the original Chateau Peyraguey the status of Premier Cru Classé in the 1855 Bordeaux classification, and the two current chateaux have been able to keep that same ranking. It’s one step below the top classification of Premier Cru Classé Superiore, whose sole occupant is Yquem.
Both properties have recently come under new ownership with promises to bring their wines to even greater heights. Clos Haut-Peyraguey was purchased in October 2012 by Bernard Magrez, who owns numerous wineries around the world, including Château Pape Clément, Château La Tour Carnet and Château Fombrauge. The 12-hectare vineyard is planted with 95% semillon and 5% sauvignon blanc on gravel, sand and clay. Wine destined to become the grand vin is fermented in oak and then aged in oak barrels (50% new) for 18 months. The winery’s long-time cellar master, Anthony Defives, continues to make the wine even in his new role as estate manager, so the style is unlikely to change dramatically.
The only vintage I was able to find in New York was 2005, a year with near-perfect conditions for both the dry reds and sweet whites. A long, dry summer, was followed by heavy rain in September, which is just what those tiny Botrytis spores needed to flourish. And flourish they did. Botrytis is one of the first scents to spiral out of the glass, closely followed by honey and caramel, dried apricots, and chamomile. A bright acidity keeps it light on the palate and is accompanied by flavors of caramelized pear, prunes and more honey. It’s a gorgeous, complex wine. Recent vintages to look for include 1995, 2002, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2011.
Lafaurie Peyraguey was acquired last year by Silvio Denz, who added the 36-hectare property to his collection of Saint-Émilion vineyards such as Peby Faugeres and Faugeres. He purchased the vineyard and its postcard-perfect chateau (parts of which date to the 13th century) from the French energy company GDF Suez, which had acquired it in 1984 and subsequently modernized the facilities, renovated the chateau and installed climate controlled cellars. Denz also owns the crystal company Lalique and had a special engraved bottle made for the 2014 vintage.
A bottle of Lafaurie Peyraguey from 2006 showed much less botrytis than the 2005 Haut-Peyraguey, but was a denser, more concentrated wine. It’s made with 93% Sémillon, 6% Sauvignon blanc, and 1% Muscadelle, fermented and aged in oak (40-70% new) for 18 to 20 months. Here the flavors lean more toward baked apples and quince, with dried figs, honey and caramel. The presence of oak was also more noticeable. The vintage had been a difficult one with many grapes spoiled by bad rot and very little Botrytis. Producers had to be vigilante in the vineyard to salvage what harvest they could. Such are the perils of making Sauternes. Given the challenges, this is still a very good wine, with enough acidity and concentration for it to age for decades. Top vintages include 2001, 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2009.
Don’t forget the strawberries.
Early April is the start of en primeur in Bordeaux, when many of the region’s producers open up their cellars to the world’s wine buyers and critics for an official first taste of barrel samples from the previous fall harvest. By all accounts 2013 was a difficult year for the dry reds, with none of the famed estates of St.-Émilion, Pomerol or the Médoc being spared. For whites, however, and in particular the famous botrytized dessert wines of Sauternes and Barsac, it was a stellar vintage. So, what exactly happened that made it such a great year for sweet whites? What does it take to turn out superb Sauternes and Barsac?
Whether white or red, good wine starts with healthy grapes. In Bordeaux, situated as it is along the temperamental Atlantic coast, so much of keeping grapes healthy depends on that most banal of all conversation topics: the weather. It is no small matter here though, where fortunes can change with the crack with a lightning bolt. And last year Mother Nature threw everything she had at the vines. A cold, wet spring delayed flowering until mid-June. As a result, pollination was spotty, with a lot of failed fertilization (coulure) and uneven fruit set (millerandage). Right out of the gate there was going to be reduced crop for everyone. For producers of sweet whites this was manageable since yields need to be low anyway (a maximum of 25 hl/ha vs 40 hl/ha for classed-growth reds). Reds too could have recovered from this, but storms and hail in late July/early August destroyed a good portion of the crop, while miraculously bypassing Sauternes and Barsac. What little was left of the red grapes was then beset by humid conditions that fostered the growth of mold and mildew. Of course, this was just what the white grapes for sweet wines needed.
The key ingredient, and what distinguishes the dessert wines of Sauternes and Barsac from those made from late-harvest or dried grapes, is the unsightly, ash-like mold Botrytis cinerea (noble rot). As the fungus spreads over the grapes its filaments pierce the skin, causing the water to evaporate, which in turn concentrates the sugars. As it works its way inside, it interacts with the grape’s contents, consuming acids, extracting tannins from the skin, and producing glycerol, which plumps up the viscosity. The wines are rich and unctuous with layer upon layer of complexity. Semillon is the principal grape used (80%) since its thin skins make it particularly susceptible to botrytis infection, and it gives the wine a rounder, fuller body and lanolin/honey-like notes. Sauvignon Blanc is used in lesser amounts (20%), mostly for its acidity, but it too will succumb to noble rot even though its skins are thicker. Muscadelle appears in minute amounts, but growers find that its grapey aromas, nice though they are, aren’t worth the trouble.
Getting botrytis to grow, however, is never a sure bet. Although its spores are present during the flowering stage, it’s not until early fall when the grapes have ripened that the fungus springs to life. But only under the right conditions: namely, misty autumn mornings followed by warm, sunny afternoons. Where these conditions happen most frequently is about 25 miles southeast of the city of Bordeaux, where the warm waters of the tidal Garonne River meet the cool, spring-fed Ciron. The difference in water temperatures creates nighttime mists that fill the surrounding hills of Sauternes and Barsac. With luck they’ll be burned off by the afternoon sun, further desiccating the grapes and keeping at bay the less-beneficent gray rot and other molds. This is precisely what happened last fall, except that humid conditions blanketed the entire region, infecting the red grapes with grey rot.
Of course, even when botrytis does take hold it doesn’t necessarily do so evenly. Since only fully affected grapes can be picked, harvesting must be done hand, usually with successive passes (tries) through the vineyard over the course of a few weeks. The area’s most prestigious producer, Chateau d’Yquem, has been known to make as many as 13 passes, which goes some way in accounting for the three-figure price tag for half-bottles of an off year. Here again the weather can wreak havoc while waiting for botrytis to develop. Rain at this time is particularly dangerous as it invites the growth of malicious gray rot and other molds, which would destroy the grapes entirely. Growers must constantly keep their eye on the forecast with their fingers crossed while they wait for this finicky fungus to do its magic.
It’s a risky, nerve-wracking business, and on average the winemakers of Sauternes and Barsac can expect only a few good vintages per decade. Just the year before, in 2012, conditions were so unfavorable to the development of botrytis (two months of drought followed by a downpour) that Yquem declared it would not be making its grand vin at all. Rather than risk its reputation, Yquem decided to take a $33 million hit. Millions of dollars lost to the vagaries of the weather.
Outstanding Sauternes/Barsac Vintages: 2011, 2009, 2005, 2001, 1990, 1989, 1988, 1986, 1983, 1967, 1962, 1959