Here's the last in a series of trip journals, covering an afternoon Jean-Marc and I spent tasting the 2005 vintage of Sauternes and Barsac with the Tari-Heeter family of Chateau Nairac. I hope some of this proves interesting...
It was Saturday, my seventh and final day of tasting with Jean-Marc. Today, we would head south to Chateau Nairac in Barsac for a tasting of roughly twenty-five Sauternes and Barsacs, almost all of which were from the 2005 vintage. As a sort of preparation, I read from Steven Brooks’ book on the subject during the drive – constantly checking facts with Jean-Marc, who seemed to know about all there was to know about Sauternes. Jean-Marc was passionate about Sauternes, the wines, the people, and the economic situation that is slowly strangling many of the properties. Sauternes is an expensive wine to make, with producers like Nairac making about the same quantity as Lafleur in Pomerol. When made with care and concern for quality, the cost per bottle is several times higher. Unfortunately, even in the best of years, market demand is not powerful enough to produce a price consistent with the toil that goes into the bottle. Many, it seems, do it more for love and tradition than promise of financial gain.
We arrived at Nairac, an aging but thoroughly beautiful crème colored chateau set just outside the sleepy town of Barsac, on a crisp, cobalt-blue Saturday morning. Our host, Nicolas Heeter-Tari greeted us warmly and led us to the dining room where he quickly got down to business, laying out the first flight of 2005s. Nicolas took great care to ensure that we were comfortable – and, after exchanging just a few pleasantries, Jean-Marc and I were ready to dive in. We had plenty of time this morning and Jean-Marc was going to use this as an opportunity to give me a lesson in tasting Sauternes. I was eager to learn. While Sauternes is nothing new to me, tasting it at such a young age was intimidating.
With our red wine tastings, the focus was always on the quality of the tannins. Here, Jean-Marc wanted me to focus on the quality of the sugar. The perfect Sauternes melts in the mouth, giving a silky smooth tactile impression, rather than one of power or structure. This natural melting sensation is a product of botrytis and, at its best, is only found among wines that are made with thoroughly and cleanly botrytisized grapes. Jean-Marc looked for almost-mushroomy scented botrytis, for signs that the sweetness came from drying or cryoextraction, and for signs of dirty, less-than-noble rot. He wanted to see a balanced, silken feeling rather than a red-wine-like impression of structure and power. Grace over brute force, it seemed to me, was what Jean-Marc was looking to find.
As usual, this was not a blind tasting. The first three flights lacked any clear super-stars – the wines were generally clean and fresh but also fairly simple at this early stage often offering up little more than aromas and tastes of fruit cocktail. A couple of early wines were worth noting. Chateau Myrat, with its beautiful floral nose and luscious mouthfeel, was a surprising treat. Having had this from several vintages in the past, I wondered if the finished product would be as exceptional. Our second Doisy-Daene sample of the week was interesting. My initial impression that this was not nearly the profound wine Suckling suggested in his 95-100 point tasting note was confirmed. The wine is very nice and it has an interesting jalepeňo note that reminded me of a Michel Bailly Pouilly Fumé I recently tried.
As we moved on, the hit rate improved dramatically – Coutet, Lafaurie-Peyraguey Rieussec, Suduiraud, and la Tour Blanche were all varying degrees of outstanding to my simple palate. And, in particular, I enjoyed Guiraud, Nairac, and Clos Haut Peyraguey for their elegance, beautiful aromatics, and silken palate presence. The latter two in particular were simply stunning wines.
At the end of the tasting, Jean-Marc and I spent some time trading notes and comparing favorites. Nicolas joined us for a moment, then asked if we would like to have a blind tasting of the 2001, 2002, and 2003 Nairac. We left the dining room so that it could be prepared for lunch and moved over to another part of the chateau. This reading room, filled with antiques, family paintings and pictures was a reminder of years long past. Nicolas arrived with the three bottles and Jean-Marc and I tasted, alone again, as Nicolas left to build a fire in the kitchen.
This was a casual exercise and I left my notebook in the other room. But I have a vivid memory of the wines and the impression they left both relative to each other and to the 2005s we had just tasted. Neither of us had difficulty identifying the wines as each played to the vintage stereotype. The 2001 was recalcitrant – seemingly all wound up around a core of deep and zesty fruit. The 2002 was lighter and more elegant – the quiet sister, if you will. And in 2003, Nairac produced a most extraordinary and deeply luscious wine – one with amazing depth, outrageous aromatics, and melt-in-your-mouth satiny texture.
As we concluded, Nicolas confirmed our ordering of the wines and joined us for a taste. While I loved both the 2001 and the 2003, I slightly preferred the understated nature of the 2001, with all its power and energy giving the wine lift and life. The 2003 was a hedonists dream, and the preference of both Jean-Marc and Nicolas. On any given day, I might just have easily preferred it. This led to a general discussion on vintages and preferences. Jean-Marc suggested, and Nicolas clearly agreed, that 2001 was a bit hyped in Sauternes and Barsac. Nicolas went on to say that the sugar levels in 2003 were off the charts – often as much as 30% - 50% higher in 2003 – with most wines retaining the sense of balance so crucial to the enjoyment of these wines. The 2003 vintage seemed to be held in high regard as a freak occurrence – one not likely to be repeated for some time.
The inevitable redirection to 2005 came with the now-obvious suggestion that this new vintage combines the best of 2001 and 2003. From 2001, we have a sense of elegance and energy. From 2003, some (but not all) of the flamboyance, power, and richness is evident. I very much fell in love with many of the 2005s.
For lunch, we were graciously welcomed by the entire Tari-Heeter family, including Nicolas’ very lovely and charming sister Eloise, his wife and beautiful baby girl, and the warm and witty family matriarch, Nicole Tari. With the first course, spinach wrapped turbot filet, langostines, and asparagus tips, we sampled three delicious wines: the 1996 and 2002 Nairac and the 2002 vintage’s delicious second wine ‘le Esquisse de Chateau Nairac’. The pairing of a lighter vintage Barsac, such as the 2002 second, with the Turbot was perfect and one I hope to recreate in my own kitchen.
Nicolas took care of the second course himself – perfectly prepared local veal from Bazas, grilled in the chateau’s enormous kitchen fireplace over Semillon cuttings. As I toured the kitchen, I couldn’t help but think the same preparation was put together over cuttings in that fireplace two hundred years ago. As we sat down, Nicolas poured a bottle of 1996 Palmer that reignited a long-held fear that Bordeaux looses a little something on its way to the States. It was easily the best 1996 Palmer I had ever tasted. Fromage followed, along with a plate of beautiful and deeply flavored local, first-of-the-season strawberries and fresh crème – a simple and faintly sweet cheese resembling mascarpone. The locals have a special name for these strawberries – something is so quintessentially French. In America, we’re lucky to get tasty strawberries, let alone small, evenly colored, wild looking things that taste like berry essence. They were a great match for the 2003 Nairac and the perfect finale to an amazing day.
Leaving Nairac, I felt as though I had created a memory that would be relived with every future vintage of now sentimental-favorite Barsac, Chateau Nairac. It will be a great pleasure if I can one day return the hospitality when the family visits the States. Jean-Marc took me back to my new hotel next to the airport. I was ready for the modernity of a working internet connection and CNN-international, which offered a first view of the news I had missed over the past week. Not surprisingly, the world hadn’t changed nearly as much as I had.
Thanks for reading.