How curious an entire year has passed since I last sipped various vintages of Chateau La Faurie Peyraguey with fellow journalists, under the delightful care of technical manager Eric Larramona, an attractive man in his thirties who looks a bit like a very handsome Clark Kent (you know, Superman) with dark hair, sleek designer glasses, enthusiasm, and sense of energy and fun.
This year was a difficult vintage, yet all is well in this gorgeously decorated 15th century chateau designed with Moorish turrets. Yet it’s the soil and aspect that is key here … the soil is clay and gravel and as typical in Sauternes there is a mix of young and old vines. It takes pickers between five to seven tries to collect the perfect botrytized grapes. To keep the acidity and freshness some non-botrytized grapes are used as well – it depends on the vintage.
Much work is done in the vineyard all year. From now (April) to July, Eric and his workers are occupied with turning the soil. Then when the vines grow leaves, they will remove some leaves to open the canopy and also allow the fallen/cut leaves to nourish the soil.
The soil is poor and therefore growth can be vigorous, so Eric and his team uses specific rootstocks such as 3309 and reparia to prevent vigor. Because most of the vines are Semillon, Eric also uses several different clones to create complexity in the finished wines. A key element though is a clone that produces small berries, as this is best for concentration in the botrytized grapes.
The wine is pressed and put in a tank overnight for settling. The clear wine is racked off and given three days to start fermentation naturally. If not commercial yeast is used to start it. As soon as fermentation starts the wine is racked into barrels, sixty percent new and forty percent a year old. The fermentation starts at 18 c and the heat of the fermentation brings it up to 24 — the temperature is controlled so it won’t go above 24 because the wine can lose aroma.
Fermentation can go between two weeks and more than a month … if it goes too long Eric will stop it either by lowering temperature of the cellar (the cellars are temperature controlled) or a small amount of sulphur.
At this point, Eric and his team discuss when to start battonage and how often to use this practice of stirring the lees each week. Then, they decide when to rack. This is an important decision. Eric tastes every few days, and when he feels the wine is closed, he has the wine racked to avoid reductive flavors. It is important not to rack too often because then the wine can become oxidized.
“Deciding when to pick can be agonizing, yes?” I ask Eric.
“It’s no use getting nervous because you can’t do anything about it,” Eric responds, explaining that very accurate weather forecasts remove some of the uncertainty about the threat of rain.
That night, fellow journalists and I gather in the gorgeous living room of the chateau for a tasting of several vintages of Chateau Lafaurie-Peyrageuy wine (including a topaz colored 1959) and a series of tiny dishes from top caterer Marc Demund.
The savory appetizers, which include a creamy mushroom soup, foie gras, crab curry) show the different ways sweet Sauternes can be paired with food. A very serious uniformed butler enters the room to pass these dishes with every course.
When we start the tasting (the bottles of liquid gold are tantalizingly placed on ice in an open glass container) I start with the youngest first, th 2005 which is a delightful blend of confected apricot and lightly powered sugar with incredible acidity and structure.
The 2006 also has excellent structure and high acidity, with the minerality shining through. I liked this vintage alot.
The 2007 has great balance and real character, it is the most complex and classical.
I find floral elements in the 2008 with a long finish and excellent acidity.
The 2009 is delicius with honey and floral elements … easily one of the most powerful. In this vintage Eric had to be careful not to have “heavy” wines.
The 2010 is very lively, showing great structure and length. Tremendous balance with excellent acidity and incredible freshness.
Now the 2011 is a barrel sample … next year I will give a full report!