Featuring a grape harvesting overview, together with seasonal array of the fine wine to thrill our palates, reduce our bank balances, or, perhaps, to make us a very sound investment.
As the month of August passes us by, many of us wonder—where did summer go? But be of good cheer, for one of the great upsides of late summer and early autumn is the great grape harvest and the promise of delicious wine to come. But the weather conditions remain a daily concern for vineyard owners at this critical time, many of whom welcome a drop in late summer temperatures that will help prevent accelerated sugar accumulation in their grapes.The grape harvest in France is a popular short-break holiday destination and the experience is usually a memorable one for wine lovers who want to experience the process.
For those of us who prefer to leave the harvesting to others and expend our energy pulling corks or perhaps laying down some great vintages for the future, the wine auctions at Sotheby’s always offer great opportunities to acquire exceptional wines. The mid-July sale in 2014 was announced as ‘Finest and Rarest Wines Featuring a Magnificent Bordeaux Collection’. This presented us with over 1,000 lots of first-rate Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhône as well as Champagne, Sauternes, and Riojas.
From the very first lot, the riches that the noble rot produces raised the hopes and aspirations of all connoisseurs and collectors who were present at the sale. Lot 1 was Château Latour 1982, Pauillac, 1er Cru Classé, and with Master of Wine and Sotheby’s leading wine expert Serena Sutcliffe’s tasting notes to go by, we could at least enjoy the description even if not the taste: ‘[bottles] excellent appearance, tissue wrapped. Post-sale in New York in 2011, from double magnum, an immensely spicy, aromatic bouquet led to that thick, enveloping, total succulence of Latour 1982. So sweet and ripe. Massive, yet gentle, wine that plumbs the depths of sensory perception. In 2013, again from this lovely large format, absolutely stunning. And from bottle, just so classy and aristocratic, rich and oozing structure and tannins that are now soft without losing any of their great impact. One of the all-time greats.’ The case of 12 bottles sold for £13,513.
Pomerol, a neighbouring appellation of Saint-Émilion, has some of the world’s finest small estates, and Château Pétrus is at the top of the tree. A case of the 1990 vintage went under Sotheby’s hammer for £28,200 (the high estimate having been £34,000). At this level of investment it is no surprise that every detail is carefully scrutinized and described for the benefit of buyers, as Serena Sutcliffe’s notes inform us: ‘ 2 levels just into neck, rest good, 1 label damaged in bottom right corner, 1 scuffed along bottom edge, all slightly wrinkled but generally very good appearance, several capsules slightly worn on top
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There is a deeper colour on the 1990 than on the 1989—denser. Incredibly opulent, plummy Petrus. Very voluptuous. Wonderful dried fruit flavours—almost Napa-like. Mocha and mint notes. Extraordinary, ultra-ripe plums and prunes taste. Atypical. Sweet aniseed finish. The great comparison is between this and the 1989.’
The sale continued with a roll call of the glories of the Bordeaux region being knocked down for between £3,000 and £14,000 per case of 12 bottles: Château Latour, Lafite, Margaux, Haut Brion…in fact all the notable names.
If you like sweet white wine with your foie gras or dessert, here, at lot 935 came the first of nineteen cases of the fabulous Château d’Yquem. This is the shining star in the firmament of sweet white wines and many will agree that the incredible richness of this particular Sauternes has no rivals. And yet, when compared with some of the aforementioned hammer prices, there were affordable riches to be had here.
Vintages ranged from 1975 (£750) through 2007 (£306). Serena Sutcliffe gave the classic 1975 Yquem vintage high praise: ‘Great “mystery” and class on the nose. Apricots too, which continue on the palate, with nuts, grapefruit, figs and sultanas. Stunning finish of coffee and figs which just keeps on getting better. The over-concentrated grapes of the year are still delivering extraordinary purity, sweetness and balance. This has much more fruit now than the 1967. Absolutely amazing—un-put-downable. This surges to the top in any vertical of Yquem.’
To finish where we started, with the harvesting of grapes, what delivers Yquem and other Sauternes their uniquely rounded sweetness and purity is, in large part, the late harvesting. A small team of just 150 or so experienced pickers are on call from September, with the harvesting sometimes not being completed until early December. Surprisingly, only the rotten grapes are picked, those completely affected by the noble rot fungus, so the pickers are spending often many weeks searching out the rotten grapes. Yes, Yquem is a very special wine and it ages well, too. So, from some of the prices realized in this sale, more than a handful of very satisfying purchases were made in the lower price range.