A consistent bright spot in 2011 is the sweet wines of Barsac and Sauternes. Both areas excelled, with a slight edge to Barsac, whose limestone soils generally provide wines of greater freshness and cut, a character that marries well with the style of the vintage.
Botrytis cinerea, or noble rot, attacked early and quickly in 2011. The beneficial fungus, which attacks the skins of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, the area's two most important varieties, shrivels the grapes and concentrates the remaining juice. Because of its early arrival and fast spread in 2011, it affected grapes that were fully ripe yet still retained lots of natural acidity.
"A good noble rot in Sauternes is a fast noble rot," says Denis Dubourdieu, owner and winemaker at Château Doisy Daëne in Barsac. The Château Doisy Daëne Barsac L'Extravagant 2011 (99, $425/375ml) and Château Doisy Daëne Barsac 2011 (95, $50) beautifully exemplify the vintage's racy, fresh profile. The L'Extravagant bottling is a rare cuvée, not made in every vintage; in 2011, it comprises 50 percent Sauvignon Blanc, a higher-than-usual amount for the region's sweet wines. (A typical Barsac or Sauternes is 80 percent Sémillon, 20 percent Sauvignon Blanc.)
There are 28 sweet wines from the 2011 Barsac and Sauternes vintage in this report, with nine earning classic scores and an additional 15 earning outstanding marks, a superb overall showing. As a whole, I rate the 2011 Barsac and Sauternes vintage 97 points.
"For me, to have great Sauternes you need perfect ripeness and, immediately after, the development of noble rot without waiting," says Xavier Planty, director and co-owner of Château Guiraud, echoing Dubourdieu's hypothesis. "We got that in 2011, with ripeness, then humidity and noble rot, and sun and wind for concentration. The wines have tension, acidity and freshness of fruit."
The Château Guiraud Sauternes 2011 (97, $50) is a large-scale wine, with gorgeous almond cream, apricot, ginger, mango, piecrust, papaya and toasted hazelnut notes all seamlessly layered and lined with finely textured acidity for balance and freshness through the finish. Château Guiraud is the largest estate in the appellation, making the wine among the easiest to find.
The 2011 sweet wines easily best those of the more powerful, tropical-style 2009 and 2010 vintages, and are on a level with the classic quality of the 2001 harvest.
"The vintage's strength is not so much in its richness, but in its energy and vibrancy," says Bérénice Lurton, owner of Château Climens, whose Barsac 2011 (97, $115) is one of the stars of the vintage, rippling with creamed pineapple, persimmon and white ginger notes against a backdrop of orange blossom.
Other top bottlings include the Château d'Yquem Sauternes 2011 (99, $400), which leads the way overall, showing a lush, caressing feel and loads of mango, papaya and guava notes before picking up the vintage's telltale freshness on the finish, where fig, orange blossom and persimmon accents kick in. The Château Coutet Barsac 2011 (97, $70) is the best bottling yet from the Baly family, which has reestablished this château as one of the region's best sweet wine producers.
Lovers of sweet wines can buy almost blindly in this vintage: Other delicious wines come from Châteaus Suduiraut, Doisy-Védrines, Clos Haut-Peyraguey, Raymond-Lafon, La Tour Blanche, de Myrat, Nairac, Rayne Vigneau and Lafaurie-Peyraguey. Only two top estates have yet to formally release their 2011s: Château Rieussec and Château de Fargues, whose Sauternes 2011 earned a barrel rating of 95-98 points.
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