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Sticky wicket

Published:  23 July, 2008

When the Bordeaux growers admitted over recent years that they were in crisis, the Sauternes producers must have given a wry smile. They have always been in crisis, fashioning a wine that is universally admired but rarely purchased.

In 1995 Anne-Marie Facchetti-Ricard inherited the charming Chteau St Amand, which sells its wine in Britain as Chteau La Chartreuse. My father used to say that one day there was a possibility that the wines of Sauternes would disappear. I'm beginning to think he was right.' Another grower, who owns a second-growth estate, didn't conceal from me that his cellars were full of stock from the last decade. As for 2004, I've hardly sold a single case.'

There are numerous reasons for this calamitous state of affairs. The first, and most unalterable, is the cost of production. Conscientious growers wait for botrytis to attack their vines, and then pick by selective harvesting. This is prolonged and expensive. A Mdoc vintage may take three weeks; a Sauternes vintage can take two months. The maximum yield is 25 hl/ha for Sauternes - and around 60 for the Mdoc. But few Sauternes properties ever attain the maximum yield, and those that do often produce horrid gummy wines that fill the supermarket shelves at low prices and drag down the region's reputation. Sometimes bad weather, as in 2000, means that over half the crop remains unpicked; in sodden 1993 many chteaux bottled no grand vin at all. In 2004, a difficult but quite good vintage, the yield at first-growth Chteau Suduiraut was a miserly 4 hl/ha.

Yet the prices don't reflect these high costs and pitiful yields. A bottle of second-growth Sauternes sells in Bordeaux shops for around e30; a more prestigious first-growth will sell for around e45. Other than Yquem, only Chteau Climens obtains consistently higher prices: e75 for the delicious 2002, considerably more for the 2001.

Another difficulty is that consumers don't know what to do with Sauternes. Other than the lightest styles or vintages, the wine is simply too sweet to be a satisfactory aperitif. It works well with foie gras or sweetbreads or blue cheeses, but otherwise its role on the dinner table is limited. And these days, with the gendarmerie lurking, breathalyser in hand, at every roundabout, few guests will risk a valedictory Sauternes after a good meal.

The commercial plight of the Sauternes producers was captured during Vinexpo on the stand of ngociant Bill Blatch of Vintex. One morning he presented almost 20 2002s for tasting; another morning he presented a range of older vintages from 1996 Yquem to a clutch of 2001s. I tasted every single wine, and there was scarcely a dud in the group. But the reason the wines were there was that Blatch, one of the few ngociants with an urge to sell Sauternes, was keen to offer the wines to his clientele. He has stock, probably too much stock, as do the chteaux.

Sorry though one has to be for the producers' plight, especially since the quality of the wines has never been better, they are in some measure responsible for the situation. It seemed appalling that there was no Sauternes stand at Vinexpo. True, there was a tasting one morning in a private room, but Bill Blatch was doing the job the syndicats should have been doing.

The plain truth is that the marketing of Sauternes is a joke and always has been. There is no marketing of Sauternes. There are, ludicrously, separate syndicats for Sauternes and Barsac, which to most consumers are indistinguishable. Nor do the classed growths like to work together with the bourgeois growths. When I put all this to Mme Facchetti-Ricard, she sighed: But the trouble is we have no money for promotion.'

Nonsense. She may not have much spare cash, but this is hardly true of AXA Millsimes at Suduiraut, LVMH at Yquem, Lafite-Rothschild at Rieussec, the Balys at Chteau Coutet, or the Suez company at Lafaurie-Peyraguey which has just spent a fortune restoring the chteau. If the sweet wine producers of the Burgenland, whose sales had slumped to zero after the 1985 Austrian glycol scandal, could recover brilliantly within a decade, then what excuse could the Sauternais offer, with their centuries of history and renown? With few exceptions, the labels are poor, 75-cl bottles (rather than more practical smaller sizes) dominate, there is no joint promotion, and, in the absence of dynamic local leadership, the growers have a fatalistic attitude that could turn their cries of woe into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The problems of Sauternes are genuine and long-term, but they are exacerbated by the fact that most producers seem incapable of joining forces to devise a sensible plan of action that would remind an indifferent consumer base of what they are missing.