Sunday, February 23, 2014

Wine of the Year: 2004

Château Rieussec
Issue: December 31, 2004

Château Rieussec
Sauternes 2001 100/$80

Sauternes, the sweet white wine from France's Bordeaux region, is one of the greatest and longest-lived wines in the world. Yet it remains undervalued by many wine lovers. Perhaps it's because sweet wines in general are out of favor these days. Or because people don't know what foods to serve with them. Whatever the reasons Sauternes has been neglected, it's time to get excited about this wine. A classic vintage, a benchmark château, a perfect bottling: That's why this year's Wine Spectator Wine of the Year is the 100-point 2001 Château Rieussec.

The 2001 Rieussec is a phenomenal wine any way you look at it. It's hyperconcentrated, with layers of flavors that deliver an array of mineral, honey and pineapple with accents of dried spices. It's full-bodied and very sweet, yet a vibrant underlying acidity gives it wonderful agility on the palate. This is a wine for long-term aging, but it will give great pleasure when drunk young as well.

"It is one of the greatest wines ever produced at Rieussec," says Charles Chevallier, the estate's director.

Chevallier also runs Bordeaux first-growth Château Lafite Rothschild, as well as châteaus L'Evangile and Duhart-Milon. All four properties are owned by Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite). Chevallier began working at Rieussec in 1985 and was appointed director of Lafite in 1994. His dedication to detail and his diligent team delivered what could be the greatest modern Sauternes ever produced.

The 2001 vintage for red Bordeaux was in general very good to outstanding in quality, but not extraordinary. For Sauternes, however, 2001 was classic in quality; I rate it 97 points.

"The 2001 vintage was exceptional quality in Sauternes," Chevallier says. "It's often the case in a less-than-exceptional vintage for reds, that it is a superb one for Sauternes, and this was the case in 2001."

Rieussec employed about 70 workers to harvest the grapes in 2001.

They made four different passes (known as tris in French) through the vineyards to select the best grapes. Chevallier says that the grapes had ripened to perfection before being attacked by the noble rot, Botrytis cinerea. (The rot, crucial to making Sauternes, concentrates the sugar in the grapes.) The vineyards are planted mostly to Sémillon (222 acres); the remainder is Sauvignon Blanc (17 acres) and Muscadelle (7 acres).

"What was really exceptional in 2001 was the Sauvignon," the director notes. "Of course, it is a small percentage of the wine, but it gave wonderful aromas and acidity to the Rieussec 2001. [The wine] is high in alcohol and very rich in sweetness, but it has the acidity to age quite well."

Rieussec is made like many other top Sauternes. After the grapes are picked, they are quickly pressed. The ultrarich juice is placed in vats for about 24 hours to allow some of the solids to fall to the bottom. The juice is then racked to new 225-liter barrels and fermented for one to three weeks. Once fermentation is finished, the new wines remain in barrel for about five or six months before being blended together. The blended wine is then put back in barrels and is aged another 18 months or so. One hundred percent new French oak is used in the aging. The wine is usually filtered before it's bottled.

Rieussec made an impressive 12,500 cases of Sauternes in 2001. The wine originally sold for about $40, as futures in 2002. It sold for about $80 when it was released in the market in bottle earlier this year.

The wine was great from the earliest stage of its life, showing fabulous balance between superbly rich, sweet fruit and lively acidity. It is a perfect example of modern Sauternes; the wines are made with more precise control in the vineyard and cellar, resulting in lower amounts of sulfur. This enables them to be enjoyed earlier, yet doesn't impair their ability to evolve well in bottle. It's not unheard of for bottles of Sauternes to be 150 years of age and still be very good to drink. I believe this Rieussec will live for decades.

Considering such aging potential, you might ask, "When is the perfect time to drink the 2001 Rieussec?"

"I either drink it very young or very old," says Chevallier. "That means that I drink it all the time."


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