Once upon a time, many of the most expensive wines in the world were sweet. Champagne as we know it, with its fine bubbles and crisp, linear, dry style, was not in vogue. Instead, it had noticeable residual sugar, and probably tasted more like Moscato d'Asti, the lightly sweet sparkling wine from Italy, than the Brut non-vintage champagne that we are familiar with today. It wasn't only sweet champagne that was popular around the world, but all sweet wines.
About 100 years ago, people had a greater sweet tooth when it came to wine. The list of the greatest, most expensive wines in the world was not monopolised by reds as it is today, but included the best late-harvest wines from Germany and the unctuous golden Sauternes made from botrytis-infected grapes in Bordeaux.
I have been in Bordeaux for the past two weeks and spent a day in Sauternes and Barsac, speaking with the producers whose yield per hectare would make most winery owners cry. 'We had a generous year in 2011,' says Berenice Lurton, proprietor of Chateau Climens in Barsac. 'The yield was about 20 hectolitres per hectare. We usually have much below that.'
To compare, a first- or second-growth chateau will average 40 hectolitres per hectare; that is among the properties adhering to severe yield restrictions employing green harvesting, sorting, and so on. It is common in Bordeaux to harvest more than 50 hectolitres per hectare.
That means a first-growth Sauternes property, such as Climens, Guiraud or Yquem, will produce only half the quantity of a comparable vineyard size first- or second-growth chateau in the Medoc. Final quantity depends on weather conditions for Sauternes, more so than other wine styles because of the dependency on noble rot to set in. For example, no Yquem was made in 1992 because of terrible weather conditions. If you see a 1992 Yquem, you can be sure it is a fake.
Between 1991 and 1995, Chateau Guiraud bottled a little more than 10,000 cases of wine. That is the same quantity it would produce in a single good vintage. In 1991, Guiraud made no wine because of frost; in 1992, only 1,500 cases were produced; in 1993 no wine was produced because of excessive rain. In 1994 and 1995, Guiraud produced 4,500 cases each year.
Owner and winemaker Xavier Planty seems serene and calm this year, given that he lost 60 per cent of the total crop to hail last year. At the end of April last year, a devastating storm with hailstones the size of small golf balls destroyed vineyards across Sauternes. 'Every year is a challenge,' says Planty, who has been making Sauternes for nearly four decades. 'In 1984, we had a typhoon-like storm with fierce winds in the first week of October, and we lost 80 per cent of the crop.' Planty remembers each vintage with perfect clarity. 'In 1985, we waited and waited for botrytis to set in. Finally, we harvested in December.' Makers of the first-growth Sauternes and Barsac sweet wines, classified in 1855, often mature their wines in a large percentage of new barrels for 18 to 24 months. The cost of ageing, holding stock and looking after the wine before it finally goes into the market is the same cost as for top red wines from Bordeaux. Yet prices have not climbed in the same way for these delicious sweet wines.
A 2010 Yquem for example, was released as futures in the market for around Euro420 (HK$4,267) per bottle (ex-negociant) last year, while first growths such as Chateau Lafite and Latour released at nearly double this price. It doesn't help that the next most expensive Sauternes are priced at less than half of that of Yquem, putting the latter in a stratospheric price category all on its own.
Pierre Lurton who manages this legendary property, said: 'It is tough for Yquem and Sauternes in general because there is almost no secondary market for Sauternes.' Prices do not increase much from the time the wine is sold as futures, to two years later, when it is in the bottle. What is the incentive to buy futures when you can buy the same wine at the same price two years later? Wines from Yquem are the only Sauternes that appear at wine auctions fairly regularly. Contrasted with the others, it clearly has a secondary market.
There are still those who are willing to take the risk for Sauternes. Robert Peugeot, whose family business includes Peugeot and Citroen automotive companies, decided to invest in Chateau Guiraud in 2006. When I asked Peugeot why he bought in when the trend seemed to be away from sweet wines, he replied. 'I wanted to buy a first-growth property, and Guiraud was available. It's not popular now, but imagine when the world discovers how wonderful it is.'
I don't seen any signs yet of people from Hong Kong or China moving towards sweet wines right now, but then, who would have predicted that China would embrace ice wine and become home to the largest ice wine estate in the world?