1998 and 1997 Sauternes

Following a string of poor vintages in the early 1990s, Sauternes and Barsac have enjoyed four consecutive good to excellent years since 1996. The most recent vintage, 1999, promises to be very good, in the fruitier style of 1998 and enlivened by the ripe acidity that characterizes so many '99s from France. A freak storm in late August triggered an early outbreak of noble rot on grapes that were ripe but not overripe, and fruit picked during the first major trie in early September retained fresh fruit aromas and flavors. But the middle of the harvest, as in 1998, was plagued by rain. As in the previous year, the early and later tries in '99 were best, and the quality of wine ultimately bottled by each chateau will depend to a large degree on how much of the rain-weakened fruit they eliminated.

On my spring tour of Bordeaux, it was too early to taste the mostly unassembled young '99s, but I was able to taste the '98s shortly before bottling, as well as the finished '97s. Notes on these wines appear below. Although it is still early, it appears that 1997 is the most impressive recent vintage for the sweet wines of Bordeaux. In '97, the weather was hot and mostly dry from late August through early October, and the grapes ripened and concentrated as much through passerillage (dehydration by sun and wind) as from botrytis. In contrast to the more fruit-driven '98s and '99s, the botrytis in '97 was of the dryer persuasion, as it spread slowly and attacked grapes that were already shriveling: the wines are more roasted, more glyceral, more structured and powerful. Some insiders describe '97 as a larger-scaled version of 1988, or perhaps more like 1983. But virtually no one is yet willing to claim that any vintage of the late '90s is at the quality level of '89 or '90.

Incidentally, the international market for Bordeaux's sweet wines continues to be moribund, despite pockets of strength such as Japan. Early futures prices I've seen for the '99s seem downright cheap; the best of these wines may turn out to be bargains. Not all Bordeaux is expensive today.