Stand and Deliver: 2001 Sauternes


I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey and Moonraker when I was about eight years old. It was clear which was the cinematic masterpiece: Moonraker, obvs. The 1979 Bond outing stars Roger Moore armed with his Walther PPK and hilarious one-liners, features a bevy of beautiful women and a seven-foot baddie with metal teeth, and culminates with an epic laser battle in outer space.

It’s everything you want from a movie. What did Kubrick offer? Grunting apes lobbing a bone into space, an onboard computer named HAL that just needed Control+Alt+Delete to remedy its murderous inclinations, and a nonsensical ending that doesn’t feature a single laser or massive explosion. People laud the film for predicting the future in terms of technology, aeronautical engineering and so forth. But Kubrick failed to foresee that 2001 would yield a fecund vintage in Sauternes. 

I remember tasting the nobly affected Sauternes at primeur. There was a buzz around them. The 2001 dry reds were initially viewed as inferior counterparts to the 2000s, but the 2001 vintage was redeemed by sensational sweet wines crowned by an imperious 2001 Yquem. That wine demanded 100-point scores and eulogies lest you be ridiculed by fellow wine writers and banished from Sauternes for eternity.

Twenty years on, this is an opportune moment to reassess the 2001 Sauternes to see how they are shaping up, not least because I have always been more cautious in my adulation. Did I underestimate them? Was I being mean? Was my judgment of wine no better than my judgment of film? It was time to find out. Together with Bill Blatch, patron saint of Sauternes, I undertook a horizontal tasting in the region during my stay in June 2021.  

The Growing Season

For a summary of the growing season, readers should refer to my Bordeaux 2000 vs 2001 article, where you will find details of the season up until harvest.

The first tries into the vineyard in September yielded predominantly bright and fruity Sauvignon Blanc that had benefited from the previous month’s heat and showers. Botrytis growth was inhibited by cool temperatures in September, but sporadic showers in early October, followed by a warm spell (25–26°C) on October 12–17, provided perfect conditions. Around three-quarters of the crop was picked during this period. Then there were showers on October 18–23. Châteaux who waited were rewarded with a third period of botrytis and very rich musts. The fermentations tended to stop earlier than usual, engendering Sauternes that had less alcohol and more sweetness that counterbalanced the extra gram of acidity. 

The Wines

This Sauternes tasting is one that I have undertaken a couple of times since bottling. I understand that mine is a contentious view, but I have always felt that the 2001s were a little overhyped. This is principally because the adulation heaped on the 2001 Yquem implied that the entire region produced wines of equal caliber. Yes, the vintage is bejewelled with some excellent sweet wines. However, it’s not quite the shoo-in that you might expect.

Let’s broach that 2001 Yquem first. Readers should note that this was the only non-participant in my tasting with Bill Blatch and was instead sampled at the château alongside other vintages. The 2001 harvest commenced on September 27–28 after 30mm of rain led to an explosion of botrytis. Grapes had already reached 20% potential alcohol by this time. Following another 17mm of rain on October 3 that caused concern among the winemaking team, ideal conditions returned and picking recommenced on October 10 on a parcel-by-parcel basis, the mandate being to pick berries before sugar levels got too high. Picking paused on October 20 after rainclouds returned, and then a fourth and fifth trie took place after October 23, though these grapes were discarded because sugar levels were excessive. 

The 2001 Yquem came in with 150gm/L residual sugar and total acidity of 4.5gm/L, while alcohol was 13.6°. I have accumulated over a dozen notes since I first encountered the 2001 from barrel, and it is unequivocally a remarkable Sauternes. Limpid in hue, it has an intensity that knocks you sideways, delivering dried honey, quince and Seville orange marmalade notes plus just a touch of saffron that comes through with time. The palate is all about the crescendo of flavor, starting out almost understated at the beginning, then building toward a multidimensional finish with hints of crème caramel in the background. I did notice that this bottle became spicier with aeration. Yeah, it is a fabulous wine that I have scored a perfect 100-points in the past. Ironically, I was not quite moved enough to award that magical three-figure score at the château. It flirted with perfection rather than defined perfection. However, another bottle that had been decanted was poured at a lunch in London a few weeks later. Lo and behold, that almost imperceptible additional tension, what I sometimes refer to as that “shimmer in the glass”, was enough to persuade me that this was a perfect Yquem. Putting numbers to a side…the bottom line is that this is a remarkable wine that will outlive us all.

Are there challengers to the supremacy of Yquem? Not really, to be honest, although Suduiraut and Climens produced exceptional wines in 2001. Other wonderful contributions include the Aszú-oriented Château de Myrat, an excellent gingerbread-tinged Raymond-Lafon and a hedonistic La Tour Blanche. There are some where I expected more fireworks – for example, the Château de Fargues (one of my favorite châteaux), which, like several others, just misses some tension toward the finish. Likewise, the 2001 Lafaurie-Peyraguey does not have the panache of recent vintages, and in fact, I found more complexity in the 2001 Clos Haut-Peyraguey. And some of the lesser Sauternes are looking a little more advanced at 20 years old than I would have anticipated.

According to the script, I’m supposed to hail the 2001 Sauternes and let superlatives rain down. Nothing would have given me more pleasure. However, while it is an extremely good year for Sauternes, I challenge these 2001s to show what they can do against the 2005s or stellar 2009s, for example.

I will leave you with one anecdote. I remember debating the virtues of the 2001 and 2005 Rieussec while tasting the latter with former estate director Charles Chevalier a few years ago. When I impudently opined that I preferred the latter, he laughed and disagreed, then fetched a bottle of the 2001 Rieussec. He insisted that we conduct the face-off blind. Guess which one he liked better? (Hint: It wasn’t the 2001.) So, I was not completely off the mark. But then again, I am the person who preferred one of the cheesiest Bond movies ever made to a bona fide classic of 20th-century cinema.

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