Chateau Coutet – When is it right to drink Sauternes?

2007 CoutetWhen to drink a wine is always a difficult question. With sweet wines it is even more difficult than usual. The preservative effect of their sugar content is such that they can be exceptionally long lived and makes the potential drinking window extremely long. It is not so much a question of the year in which to drink them but the decade.

The British approach to this dilemma is to put them away at the back of the cellar and forget about them. The French, who regard the British compulsion to cellar somewhat eccentric, have far fewer qualms about opening them early on.

When it comes to Sauternes, who is right?

We got a chance to put the matter to the test earlier this week with a fascinating line-up of wines from Ch Coutet, presented by proprietor Aline Baly. The youngest wine we tasted was 2008; the oldest 1989. Would a wine with less than 5 years in bottle be anywhere near ready?

All the wines turned out to be eminently drinkable. The 08 was very young, admittedly, but it had a very fresh character of fruit that made it more refreshing than you would think possible for Sauternes. Aline called it aperitif wine; and a pretty special aperitif it would be too! The 2007, a much more serious proposition given the exceptional quality of the vintage, might have been expected to be closed – but it was already delicious, even though it clearly has a very long life ahead of it. In fact it was the ‘wow’ wine here, with amazing finesse and super fine balance. The older wines of the line-up (97 and 89) – though very good – were not so much more impressive as of a different character.

The other benefit of a relatively early tasting such as this is that it allowed the distinct characteristics of each vintage shine through. In Sauternes, vintage variation is made even more complex than the rest of Bordeaux by the additional variables arising from noble rot – it can occur at different times, to different extents and then at each property tries can occur at different times. The 2007’s remarkable freshness is partly due to the fact that, unlike in some other vintages, botrytis hit ripe, but not over-ripe, grapes.

Our thanks to Ch Coutet for a very informative tasting.

2008 Coutet

“Pale gold with green tinges. Moderately intense nose with more green fruit character than elsewhere. Lightly floral. Quite lean on the palate with very firm acidity. Very fresh, with limey citrus character, and less obviously sweet than other vintages here. Lighter and less substantial but very refreshing.” FINE+RARE

2007 Coutet

“Pale gold. Subtle, perfumed nose. Very pure on the palate with delicate flavours of white flowers and honey. Lovely brightness of fruit. Not in any way heavy. A touch of minerality. Not as exuberant as some of the others here but has a finesse that sets it apart. Excellent.” FINE+RARE

2004 Coutet

“Medium gold. Quite intense on the nose with white flowers and honey. Bigger and stickier than the 1997 with golden syrup character on the palate though still good freshness of fruit. Beginning to develop with marmalade and almost a petrol note.” FINE+RARE

2002 Coutet

“Deep golden colour. More intense on the nose than the younger wines with more obvious mushroom botrytis character. Broad and quite opulent. Showing quite a lot of development with spice and treacle notes. Just lacks a bit of freshness on the finish.” FINE+RARE

1997 Coutet

“Pale gold in colour. Moderately intense nose. Very fresh and fruity on the nose with honeysuckle and orange peel notes. Quite light on the palate and not overly sticky. Very clean with vibrant citrus fruit and perfectly integrated oak. Still young with only a touch of spice indicative of development. Lovely now but also a long way to go.” FINE+RARE

1989 Coutet

“Pale amber. Intense nose; rich and developed with toffee and gingerbread. Sticky and relatively full bodied. Earthy, spicy edge. Has softened a little with time but retains freshness. Quite a different style to the younger wines.” FINE+RARE
We were also lucky enough to taste the first release of the dry wine from Ch Coutet, of which only 250 cases will be made:

2010 Opalie

“50% Sauvignon Blanc 50% Semillon. Quite intense on the nose. Fresh, quite green fruit; not especially floral. Nicely weighty on palate with a bit of oiliness of texture. Quite neutral with grassiness coming through towards the finish. Not enormously complex but well balanced.” FINE+RARE