"Incredibly, companies specialising in Sauternes alone are virtually non existant. Luckily there is one man who has made it his mission for the last 30 years to know everything there is to know about Sauternes – and that’s Bill Blatch." (bordeauxgold.com)
Meet Bill Blatch
By: Ralph Sands, K&L Senior Bordeaux Specialist
Bill Blatch is a good friend and has been an instrumental influence at K&L Wine Merchants since 1985, when Clyde Beffa was first introduced to him in Bordeaux. Bill and his partners started a negociant firm called Vintex in the early 80s that quickly became famous for representing all the Cru Bourgeois and hundreds of other Petite Chateaux in the region along with the classified growths. Bill’s prime focus was his passion for Sauternes and the small non-famous producers with whom he worked hands-on to improve quality in the cellar and in the vineyard.
A visit to the Vintex offices to taste is truly a rite of passage into the Bordeaux business. The barometer of any vintage is the quality of wine made from top to bottom, and anyone who is anyone in Bordeaux shows up at the Vintex office to taste. It was there where I met the great Edmund Penning Roswell and the famous Robert Parker on the same day in April of 1990, my first day ever in Bordeaux. Starting with the most recent barrel samples and the past two vintages of each estate, you taste your way through hundreds of wines. This is real work and far beyond what most people can comprehend.
For decades during the April 'en primeur' week, Bill has lead a band of professional tasters from all over the world to each of the great classified growths to evaluate the new vintage. Bill's in-depth study of each year's weather pattern and his annual vintage report are legendary. He is surely one of the most knowledgeable people on the wines of Bordeaux--and especially the wines of Sauternes--in the world. Now semi-retired, Bill has just been commissioned by Berry Bros. in the UK to write a book on Bordeaux wine...a very smart move indeed!
For a video summary of Bill's recent tasting and report on the best values in 2009 Sauternes, a vintage he describes as one in which "everyone had a chance to create top quality wines," follow this link.
Q&A with Bill Blatch
By: Steve Greer | K&L LA Bordeaux Liaison
SG: Which is better for botrytis, Barsac or Sauternes?
BB: That depends. Generally Barsac is earlier to botrytise than Sauternes, sometimes just a few days, sometimes a week. So it all depends when the rainy/sunny days come; it's a lottery, it can go either way.
What are your favorite vintages?
For me, 01 is the best post-war vintage. It has that magic "lift" from the acidity, the botrytis complexity is oustanding and yet the weight and sweetness are very high. We had the Climens from magnum the other night. It was quite simply fabulous.
Are there differences in boytritis?
A cleaner boytritis? Very complex one this. Botrytis is a complicated thing. Very generally, the best comes quick and doesn't stay on the grapes for too long (as in 01, 03, 05 and 09). When the conditions are too dry and it gets blocked, it tends to give finesse (88, 02) and when too wet, if it doesn't deteriorate, usually provides heavier styled wines (86, 96, 12) but can get washed out (94, 00). As you know, there are various stages in its development: from golden grapes which develop botrytis blotches, then usually quite quickly to "pourri plein" (total botrytis) and finally, if this concentrates up nicely to "rôti" phase. This is the one that they look for, but sometimes have to settle for a bit of the rest. Recently (especially in 11), there has been a trend to temper the too concentrated "rôti" grapes with non-botrytis golden ones, with the advantage of providing freshness as well as sugar balance. In the old days, many picked a large proportion at "pourri
plein", another reason for the lighter wines of yore.
How is fermentation stopped?
Fermentation used to be stopped by just adding sulphur. Nowadays, it is usually racked off into refrigerated receptacles then put back in barrel, albeit with sulphur but as little as possible to keep the free sulphur level at its correct level.
How does residual sugar relate to/impact balance?
Since the late 90s, the big difference [now] is greater concentration, of course helped by warmer temperatures, but more than that by much better selection at harvest. Before the 90s, it was an effort to get up to 120g/l and it rarely happened outside of the great vintages. Since then, most are at 120 - 150 g/l. Since about 2003, when there were a couple as high as 190g, there has been a collective realisation that great Sauternes is a question of balance rather than opulence (hence the ridiculing of Parker and the Wine Spec at the time) and they now make efforts to restrain the sugar levels, either by wider picking at certain times, or by blending lighter lots with sweeter ones.
SG: What makes d'Yquem so special? Is it the yields and quality control (one glass of wine per vine) ...or the higher elevation the estate sits on?
BB: I think it's a whole combination of things that make Yquem so special. First, the vineyard is in a unique position dominating the valley from that big mound. Rieussec and Rayne Vigneau have similar commanding positions but not to that extent. From years of observing the botrytis's evolution in the fall, Yquem clearly benefits from the best air circulation dring the crucial final concentration process. Also, because of its very varied soil structure, and because the domain is so big, they can favor whatever class of soil is best for each vintage (eg + clay in the dry years, more gravel in the wet ones etc). Then of course, it's a question of having the luxury (because of the price of the stuff!) to select drastically, to have twice as many pickers, to have the best technical staff, and do whatever they like with low yields, then to have the best vertical presses (which cost a fortune), the best new barrels and just to have everything perfect. At vintage time, when everyone is scurrying around against the clock elsewhere, I have never seen anyone in a hurry at Yquem.
My very old Parker book doesn't seem to have the right yields on sweet wine producers. What is the maximum yield allowed in the AOCs and what is the average?
The maximum yield by law is 25 ho/ha, but most crus classés never get near that, except in very prolific easy vintages. Yquem rarely goes over 10. Most crus classés average at about 12-15.
How long can you leave a bottle open in the fridge?
Leaving bottles in the fridge depends a lot on the resistance of the wine. An off vintage, made from rain-sodden botrytis, with low acidity and lots of sulphur is a different proposition from a top vintage, totally healthy and clean from the start. The bottle I left that summer was a Doisy Daene, who has one of the brightest and cleanest-flavored wine I know, and he never has to use much sulphur. I think the message is, if you can't finish the bottle, never to worry about corking it up and leaving it for a week or two, whatever the quality. Sauternes simply doesn't oxidise or go flat like dry wines do. And if it's a great vintage from a fine estate, leave it for much longer...
For more information and videos about Bill Blatch and Sauternes, visit bordeauxgold.com.