Bordeaux 2010: The Sweet Wines

"The main difference in the sweet wines between 2010 and 2009 is that 2010 had very cool temperatures in August and September, thereby preserving freshness and overall acidity in the wines," said Xavier Planty, general manager and co-owner of Château Guiraud. "This characteristic is further accentuated in those wines that have more of a sauvignon presence." Added Pierre Lurton of Château d'Yquem: "I particularly like the fact that there is a lot more botrytis in 2010 than people realize."

Cool spring temperatures got the vines off to a late start and they remained behind schedule during the flowering and for the rest of the growth cycle. A period of heavy rain in mid-June hampered the fruitfulness of the vines and reduced sauvignon blanc yields in particular. Large diurnal temperature variations in September enabled the grapes to retain high acidity, which is necessary to prevent sweet wines from cloying. On the other hand, the very warm and dry conditions that held through much of the summer (July especially; August was slightly cooler than average) led to very healthy, thick-skinned grapes that did not make life easy for Botrytis cinerea, the fungus also known as noble rot that adds an extra dimension to the world's best sweet wines.

There was essentially no rain between August 5 and September 5. Rainfall eventually arrived on September 6, 7 and 8, and this precipitation kick-started the development of botrytis in the vineyards. Consequently, most of the selective picking of grapes for Sauternes and Barsac began mainly in mid-September, but the botrytis mostly developed slowly, as two extremely cool spells from September 16 through 30 and from October 13 to 28 slowed down the ripening process. And although there was more rain than usual in October of 2010, the precipitation was concentrated into short intervals, leaving 24 rain-free days that allowed the harvest to take place under very good conditions.

Most of the estates began their first pass through the vines, or trie, in early September, in most instances a very small harvest of sauvignon grapes. There was a second--and in some instances a third-- trie a few weeks later, but the cool temperatures prevented a massive outbreak of noble rot, and generally prevented the development of shrivelled grey and brown grapes at the rôti stage of infection, which gives the smoky, marmaladey quality to sweet wines (the stages of berry ripening, in increasing order of dehydration and botrytis involvement, are sain, doré, pourri plein, pourri plein confit and rôti). After rain fell on October 4, warm easterly winds launched widespread development of botrytis as well as concentration of the berries via passerillage, which necessitated picking very quickly. In the end, roughly 80% of the harvest took place on the weekend of October 23 and 24. Yquem, for example, picked so much fruit that it established a record for total volume of grapes harvested in a single day.

Charles Chevallier, the technical director and general manager at Lafite-Rothschild, owner of Rieussec, told me he had to bring in pickers from Lafite and Duhart-Milon to help out at Rieussec. "It felt strange," said Chevallier. "There I was standing in front of the teams of pickers having to explain what to do, since the people who regularly work at the other two properties really didn't have any experience with grapes affected by noble rot."

On many estates the pickers were sent out into the vineyards a fourth and even a fifth time, but the quality of the 2010 vintage rests with the grapes picked after mid-October and particularly on the key weekend of 23/24. In the end, the 2010 wines are in fact quite marked by noble rot, but this quality is present in a purer, more delicate form on what are turning out to be lighter, very stylish wines. In 1997 and 2001, by contrast, when the wines were extremely rich, thick and sweet, they often showed an almost roasted character from copious amounts of smoky botrytis.

The overall style of the 2010 sweet wines is highly polished, taut and elegant, with bright acidity, which makes the wines seem less sweet than they really are (most wines average between 120 and 140 grams per liter of residual sugar). But, overall, 2010 cannot match 2009 for sheer opulence. The best wines are pure, focused and precise, with plenty of lemon and orchard fruit aromas and flavors, but without the very sweet, tropical fruit character of vintages like 2001. I especially enjoy the overall sense of refinement offered by the 2010 wines. One noteworthy aspect to these wines is that although they are sweet, thanks to their bright acidity they'll double as very fine aperitifs, as well as being perfect matches for more complicated dishes such as pumpkin soup or grilled scampi with citrus sauces or chutneys.