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Sauternes: My liquid love story

Is there one particular wine that made you fall in love… with wine I mean?

Often people who love wine will have one particular epiphany moment they remember and it can be fun to ask people about theirs.

A good topic of conversation in fact if you ever find yourself intimidated by a wino - (#Vintimidation?!).

I feel like my journey was more of a death by a thousand (pleasurable) cuts than one particular Coup de Couer.

I’ll always have a crush on Sauternes though, because of a very special experience we had there some years ago.

During a long weekend in Bordeaux, we didn’t visit the famous Chateau d’Yquem - (is it even possible?) - but we had the absolute honour of meeting Count Alexandre de Lur Saluces himself at his own estate, Chateau de Fargues.

The Lur Saluces dynasty were the proprietors of the genuinely iconic Chateau D’Yquem for many years and as a 15th generation member of his illustrious family, he is some major wine royalty. If you look closely at bottles of D’Yquem from before (I think) 2007, you’ll see the name Lur Saluces written on the label as part of the delicate layering of design elements on the bottle.

I will never forget it. Driving up the hill to the imposing remains of an old medieval fortress, to be met by this stately gentleman at the winery door. I had sent an email in my best French (read: google translate) and wasn't actually sure what to expect, but it didn't take long to realise we were about to have a one-of-a kind experience. It was a Sunday so it was just the three of us, and he showed us around with so much grace and enthusiasm.

I remember him showing us the little tiny scissors and dainty baskets they use to make several painstaking passes through the vines, seeking out the minuscule yields of nobly-rotten grapes. For Domaines that do not compromise on quality I think that, literally, half of the grapes end up left on the vines. Down into the cellar and through the winery itself we continued, where some of the equipment was brought from D’Yquem itself - he proudly mentioned he thought his winery probably shared yeast cultures with the winery of D’Yquem. Like a starter culture if you will. (This is a fascinating concept and probably worthy of a blog of its own - the idea of native yeasts not just in the vineyard but a particular yeast culture, a secret sauce, living in the winery itself, playing perhaps an under-appreciated part in our perceptual experience of ‘terroir’.)

After showing us around, he opened a bottle from 2005 and stood with us to taste it, with as much enthusiasm as if he were tasting it the first time too. He obviously took pleasure in watching our faces and reactions as we experienced this liquid mind-explosion. I can still taste it in my mind now. Truly some kind of sorcery, grape juice transfigured into pure drinkable gold. Naturally, we wanted to buy some, not least because it's the polite thing to do (it's not as if he was charging a tour fee!) but alas- we couldn’t. His secretary was not there (it was a Sunday and we’re in France; cue a gallic shrug) and he didn’t know how to work the card machine. He is a Count after all. So, instead he sent us home with the rest of the opened bottle and we left totally elated, knowing already that we’d just had one of the best wine experiences on our life.

My killer buying tip for Sauternes:

So, if you’re a fan of sauternes, the luscious but refreshing golden, apricot, marmalade, honeyed description-defying elixir, then you will know about Chateau d’Yquem. You’ll also know that bottles sell for hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds a piece. Chateau d’Yquem has a formidable reputation (in part thanks to Alexandre's stewardship). It is the only estate from the appellation of Sauternes (and thus the only dessert wine producer) to be bestowed with the famous First Growth Classification of 1855.

But. There is an essential thing to remember about the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux. The 1855 Classification is to Bordeaux what nepotism is to British Parliament. A meritocracy it is not. The Chateaux enjoying First Growth status can ensure high sales prices and therefore top quality in a virtuous cycle. But it means you can find incredible value by disregarding the dogma of the classifications. Chateau de Fargues has no classification whatsoever. But it’s made by the same guy - with the same philosophy, but with a powerful underdog mentality (Lur Saluces was actually pushed out of D’Yquem, so now he competes with the powerful brand he once built) to create the very finest Sauternes there is. And not to mention the intriguing idea of perhaps the same yeast cultures at play as those that alchemise the hallowed drops of D'Yquem….

I mean come on....

Chateau D’Yquem - £269/bottle (ex tax) on average.

Chateau De Fargues - £75 /bottle (ex tax) on average.

So, if you like Sauternes, keep your eyes open for Chateau De Fargues, you might just fall in love and find yourself with a cheap date


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