Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Sauternes Vertical at the Embassy of France in Washington DC with Wine from Château Raymond-Lafon and Owner Jean-Pierre Meslier, France/US

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller with Jean-Pierre Meslier, Château Raymond-Lafon, at the Embassy of France in Washington DC.

The Embassy of France in Washington DC, USA, hosted a special tasting of Sauternes wine from Château Raymond-Lafon, with owner Jean-Pierre Meslier.

Making Sweet Wine

Normally, wine is dry: the sugar, naturally present in grape juice, is transformed into alcohol and carbon dioxide by the action of yeasts during fermentation - the sugar content of the must declines and eventually disappears, while the alcohol content builds up. Fermentation, however, stops naturally, when the alcohol has reached a certain level – around 15%.

Pictures: The Embassy of France in Washington DC

Thus, any sugar that is still in the must at that point of fermentation remains in the finished wine and makes the wine sweet. But this happens only under very special circumstances. Even in hot climate countries, the sugar that is in the grapes at harvest disappears completely as a result of fermentation. Thus, normally, wine is dry. But there are many ways for making sweet wine.

For an overview, see here:
Normally, Wine is Dry. But there are Many Sweet Wines in the World. How is Sweet Wine Made?

Sweet Wines and Noble Rot (Botrytis Cinerea)

Botrytis cinerea is one route to take. Also known as noble rot, Botrytis cinerea is a fungus that under the right conditions attacks already-ripe grapes, shriveling them, concentrating the sweetness and acidity. The grapes end up looking disgusting but they make profound sweet white wines. The sugar content of the grape is exceptionally high at the time of the harvest and Mother Nature is unable to ferment all the sugar. Thus, natural sugar remains in the wine and makes the wine sweet.

Picture: Annette Schiller, Ombiasy Wine Tours, with Jean-Pierre Meslier, Château Raymond-Lafon

Noble sweet wines made on the basis of noble rot are produced in a number of countries. The most famous ones are the Sauternes in France, the Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese in Germany and in Austria, the Austria Ausbruch and the Tokaji from Hungary. No doubt, the first noble rot wines were created by accident - both the Hungarians and the Germans have similar stories of how the harvest was delayed for some reason, but the over-ripe grapes were vinified anyway and then the resulting wine found to be delicious.


The Sauternes region is located 40 km southeast of the city of Bordeaux along the Garonne river and its tributary, the Ciron in the Graves section in Bordeaux.  Similar but less expensive and typically less-distinguished wines are produced in the neighboring regions of Monbazillac, Cérons, Loupiac and Cadillac.

Picture: Map of Bordeaux

The source of the Ciron is a spring which has cooler waters than the Garonne. In the autumn, when the climate is warm and dry, the different temperatures from the two river's meet to produce mist that descends upon the vineyards from evening to late morning. This condition promotes the development of the Botrytis cinerea fungus.

The Sauternes wine region comprises five communes— Barsac, Sauternes, Bommes, Fargues and Preignac. While all five communes are permitted to use the name Sauternes, the Barsac region is also permitted to label their wines under the Barsac AOC.

Sauternes is made from Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle grapes.

In years when the noble rot does not develop, Sauternes producers will often make dry white wines under the generic Bordeaux AOC.

Sauternes and Barsac 1855 Classification

Along with their red counterparts of the Medoc, the sweet white wines of Sauternes and Barsac were classified in 1855. The system has just two tiers - Premiers Crus and Deuxièmes Crus - although within the higher ranking Yquem is accorded special recognition with its rating as Premier Cru Supérieur.

26 properties were (and remain) included in classification of 1855. Chateau Raymon-Lafon was not included, because it came into being in 1850 only. And so the estate went unclassified, and naturally it remains so to this day (and is not included at the annual UGC en primeur tastings).

Chateau Raymond-Lafon

Raymond Lafon, a mayor of Sauternes, was the first owner of Chateau Raymon Lafon. In 1972, after years of neglect, the Raymond-Lafon vineyard was purchased by Pierre Meslier, at that time regisseur (Technical Director) of Yquem, who began gradually restoring its brilliant reputation. Pierre Meslier retired from Yquem in 1990. Today the next generation - Marie-Françoise, Charles-Henri and Jean-Pierre - is in charge: Marie-Françoise as manager, Charles-Henri looking after production and Jean-Pierre – who I met at the French Embassy - handles sales and public relations.

Over the years the Raymond-Lafon estate has grown considerably, from a starting point of 3.5 hectares to a more significant 18 hectares today, of which 16 hectares are currently planted to vines, all sandwiched between the vineyards of Suduiraut, Lafaurie-Peyraguey and Yquem. The grape variety distribution is 80% Sémillon and 20% Sauvignon blanc of vines with an average age of 35 years.

The average annual production is 20,000 bottles.There is also a second wine named Le Cadet de Raymond-Lafon, previously named Chateau Lafon-Laroze.

Jean-Pierre Meslier

Jean-Pierre, although French by birth, has spent much of his recent life working as a wine merchant in San Francisco. "I was only fourteen when my father acquired Château Raymond-Lafon and we all were thrilled about this new challenge. I studied in a law school for a few years, then I came back to take care of the family business. I was young and I was looking for tough challenges, so I decided to open a US subsidiary and move to San Francisco, where I lived from 1990 to 2005; it was a fantastic experience and the United States became my second home! "

Pictures: Jean-Pierre Meslier, Château Raymond-Lafon with Claire Morin-Gibourg, who organized and moderated the tasting

The Wines that Jean-Pierre Poured

Château Raymond-Lafon, Sauternes 2005

Light golden in the glass, notes of jasmine, white peach and oranges on the nose, "a big vintage" Jean-Pierre said,"with a large yield", also rather "big" in terms of the style of wine, rich, lightly roasted sweetness on the palate, good acidity leading up to an intense finish.

Château Raymond-Lafon, Sauternes 1995

Amber yellow in the glass, lemony, honeyed, oaky noset, nicely aged with rich, luscious flavors on the palate, good acid core, although only very little evidence of botrytis.

Château Raymond-Lafon, Sauternes 2007

"It was hot weather in October that made the vintage", said Jean-Pierre Meslier, light golden in the glass, an exotic bouquet of tropical fruit, pineapples and mellons, rich on the palate with lush, velvety, ripe fruit flavors on the palate, good substance in the finish.

Château Raymond-Lafon, Sauternes 1997

Amber yellow in the glass, sweet and floral notes on the nose, the palate is dense with a fine bitter and pleasant character coming in at the end.

Château Raymond-Lafon, Sauternes 2009

Ligth golden in the glass, very expressive, with yellow fruits, plum and peach notes on the nose, soft and rich palate with notes of fresh honey, bright, tingling, minerally energy in the finish.

Château Raymond-Lafon, Sauternes 1999

Amber yellow in the glass, notes of mango and citrus fruit with an almond edge on the nose, lovely weight, with rich apricot-botrytis notes on the palate, lovely and appealingly bitter finish.

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