1999 Sauternes/Barsac

The 1999 Sauternes, the newest crop of sweet Bordeaux wines in the retail market, may also be the most enjoyable vintage of the last several years. They can be savored right now, even though the wines have the structure for developing over the next couple of decades. The '97s are generally larger-scaled and perhaps ultimately more serious wines than the '99s, but it the '99s that shine today, thanks to their pure, fresh semillon character. The '97s, largely harvested during dry weather in September and early October following a tropical August, feature a combination of noble rot and passerillage [concentration of the grapes through dehydration from sun and wind], and tend to be a bit blurry around the edges at this early stage of their evolution. The '99s, in comparison, are a fairly fruit-forward style of sweet wine, with plenty of botrytis from grapes harvested after a humid, rainy period during the equinox. Production was low, sugar and alcohol levels are average, and acidities are healthy, in many cases higher than those of the '98s, which tend to be tight today. Today the fruit acids of many of the '99s make them particularly lively and captivating, but there also good thrust behind their early appeal.

Although the Sauternes market has gotten a shot in the arm from the enthusiastic early press for the highly promising 2001 crop of wines, prices for earlier vintages remain moribund: numerous '99s are scarcely more expensive today than the '89s were a decade ago. The downside, though, is that the wines are not easy to find in the marketplace: most of the major U.S. Bordeaux retailers I regularly survey for current prices stock no more than a couple of these wines. I tasted the following group of '99s from bottle in Bordeaux at the end of March.