Visiting Château Coutet

James Molesworth travels to one of Bordeaux's sweet-wine leaders to explore the freshness and precision of Barsac

Excerpted from James Molesworth’s Jan. 7, 2011, blog post

When it comes to Bordeaux, I have a bit of a sweet tooth. I love Sauternes. So much so, that my colleagues Thomas Matthews and Alison Napjus kept the Sauternes flight until the very end of my tasting of finished 2008s—the carrot, to keep me focused on the 400 some-odd reds. You know, the wines the region is really known for.

But while the reds get the glory, the sweet wines are just as good. More vintage variation obviously—they rely on Botrytis cinerea, or noble rot—which doesn’t come every year. And when it does arrive, by shriveling the berries it reduces yields, so large estates by land size—say 75 or 100 acres—wind up producing maybe 5,000 cases in a good year. It’s not the best economic model in an industry known for turning big fortunes into small ones.

But after finally getting through my tastings, and then another week’s worth of visits around the Médoc and Right Bank, I finally headed down to Sauternes itself. There are really two parts to Sauternes as a whole—Sauternes the appellation itself, and its neighbor, Barsac. People use Sauternes as a catch-all for the wines from both AOCs, and Barsac producers can even put Sauternes on their labels. While I understand the marketing need, it’s a shame if they do, because there are major differences between the two.

Barsac generally comprises clay and limestone soils, while Sauternes features more gravel. The resulting wines are obviously very different: fresher, brighter citrus flavors in Barsac versus richer, more tropical fruits in Sauternes. And for me, no winery epitomizes Barsac’s freshness and precision more than Château Coutet. My GPS decided to take me in through the back door of the estate, and as I stood outside a small chained entrance with a small house where about a dozen barking dogs were making a racket, I called Aline Baly for help.

Driving around the big walled vineyard, I pulled up to the more substantial front door, replete with tower and flagpoles. “You’d think people wouldn’t miss a 13th century fortress with a large tower,” said Baly with a laugh. “But they always seem to.”

Aline’s grandfather bought the estate in 1977, “on a dare,” as Aline likes to say. “The family was in other businesses at the time, and my grandfather was looking for a retirement property, when his friends told him he wouldn’t be able to manage this. And if you tell my grandfather he can’t do something, well, that’s all the motivation he needed.”

The Baly family considered the vineyards to be in pretty good shape, but they invested there to start. The vineyards are planted primarily to Sémillon, with about one-quarter Sauvignon Blanc and a drop of Muscadelle. Today, with 95 acres of vines, Château Coutet is producing about 4,100 cases a year. The varieties and parcels are fermented separately in barrel, and different lots are brought in over several weeks as the botrytis takes hold in the vineyard.

“Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle are thinner-skinned and botrytis can hit them fast and they can degrade quickly, so there you have to move fast. Sémillon takes its time,” said Baly, who noted that there were 30 different lots in the 2010 harvest.

Baly, 30, worked for four years in the bioscience industry before deciding to move to France and work at the family estate two years ago (the family is Alsatian in origin but has strong ties with the U.S.). “It was the first job I had that didn’t bore me after a year,” she said. She decided to stay and has just finished moving from Bordeaux to the château itself. When some additional renovations are complete, she’ll have her own side of the house, separate from her affable uncle Philippe, who runs the day-to-day operations and has been at the property since the 1990s.

When I first meet Philippe, he’s in work boots and a jumpsuit. He gives a firm handshake, says a quick hello and dashes off with a clipboard in hand and two workers following him. From there we head into the vineyards, where the winter pruning is underway. (Watch the accompanying video as Aline Baly talks about cover crops in the vineyards.)

After a tour of the vineyards, we walk through the barrel room, joined by Laurier Girardot, the young maître de chai who started at the estate in ’09. Fashioned from a former stable, Coutet has one of the longer barrel rooms in the region, a dramatic 110-meter long room with 800 barrels laid out in single-stack rows. When we head back inside, Philippe returns, this time in a formal suit and tie and dress shoes—an impressive quick change. As we sit down to taste a few vintages, it’s clear that Aline and her uncle are very close. She teases him about his taste in art and decor in the château; he keeps asking when she’s going to get married.

The Château Coutet Barsac 2009 shows what the wine is like before it is fully formed. It’s primal, with plantain, green plum, verbena and pear fruit and an almost brisk finish. It’s super long though, with great cut and should flesh out as it ages over the long term. It’s clearly a classic in the making. “We picked 80 percent of the fruit on the second trie [or pass through the vineyard],” said Aline. “The botrytis was so fast in ’09 and the grapes were so ripe to begin with, so it was a quick harvest. The final wine is from fruit only from that pass, so the purity factor is really high,” she said.

The Château Coutet Barsac 2007 is a young, fully formed wine, with lots of lemon zest, orange, honeysuckle and acacia notes. It’s rich and powerful, but stays bright and pure, with a dash of pineapple on the finish adding length and definition. “It’s that pineapple note that’s always there in the beginning,” said Baly. “And then the ginger notes is what develops over time.”

From the hot ’03 harvest, the Château Coutet Barsac 2003 shows a more tropical side, atypical for this estate, with mango, creamed peach, fig and glazed pear notes and a long, lush finish. The Château Coutet Barsac 1997 is a classic, pulling together mature hints of marzipan and maple along with the estate’s typical lemon and orange zest notes and a long persimmon-filled finish. There’s just a hint of ginger as this wine is still in mid-development, and has a long life left.

It was a fitting end to my first official run through Bordeaux, finishing with some dessert wines. But the producers in Barsac and Sauternes realize they need to change that culture a bit. Struggling for recognition and battling against the perception that a sweet wine at the end of a meal is too much, Baly and others have worked to show how the wines pair well with food—foie gras of course, but lobster and shrimp as well, along with veal and pork dishes. And they’d like to see people using the wines as aperitifs just as much as finishing a meal with the wines.

All of which gives me an idea—maybe I’ll start my next trip in Bordeaux in Sauternes, rather than end there …