2004 Chateau Coutet Sauternes Chartreuse de Coutet

Hello friends. It’s that time of year. The sun sets by mid-afternoon. One strong gust sends leaves scurrying down towards earth. And those of us who love and hoard sticky wines are allowed to reveal our sick habit to friends and family.

It’s easy, when beginning to collect wine, to have some blind spots: categories where your buying is waaaaaaay out of line with your rate of consumption. That’s sticky wine for me. A shocking amount of my personal collection is devoted to sweeties, especially considering that we seem to open a number each year that is well within a two-year-old’s ability to count.

But this is the time of year to open those bottles. With stickies, a little goes a long way, which means the bigger the gathering, the more likely you’ll be to convince your guests that a sweet wine and a chunk of cheese to end the evening is a wonderful idea.

We’re lucky to live in a world with great diversity of sweet wines, but for me, there is a holy trinity within the category: Tokaji from Hungary. Trockenbeerenauslese from Germany. And Sauternes:

It’s no accident that all three of those are botrytis-affected wines. What most stickies have in common is that they come from extremely concentrated juice, and by that I mean juice with low water content. Now you can freeze that water content and press it out (ice wines/eisweins), you can lay the grapes out on straw mats and let them raisin as the water content evaporates (vinsanto), or, if you’re lucky enough to live in a place where, in only the right years, you get foggy mornings that encourage the growth of one particular type of fungus (botrytis cinerea) but sunny afternoons to discourage other forms of mold and rot, and that place happens to also have a labor force that can make multiple trips through the vineyard, picking only the berries or clusters affected by the noble fungus, well then, you get to make one of the most compelling sweet wines in the world.

The reason that botrytis-affected stickies reign supreme, from my perspective, is that they add as they take away. Freezing water, evaporating water; all that does is take away water. Now botrytis does take away water (it punctures small holes in grapeskins, through which much of the grape’s water content evaporates while the grape is still on the vine), but it also adds its own flavor. Identifying that exact flavor is tricky (honey, caramel, mushroom, yellow curry all pop up with some regularity), so we turn to more general adjectives: words like musty; lusty; carnal.

Now today’s Sauternes was not the scheduled feature for this particular day, but this is the time of year when opportunities arise, flicker, and disappear, so I wanted to act fast.

Why the urgency? First, tariff: Sauternes tends to be a high-end category (a split of 1998 D’Yquem goes for $150 at auction). Second, age: it is rare to access winery-aged, library Sauternes on these shores. Finding a Sauternes ten years past vintage is an unusual treat. Third, availability: Very few bottles were imported into Seattle, and they’re moving fast. No surprise, as we’re competing against every restaurant in Seattle angling to have a well-priced Sauternes on their dessert menu.

Luckily, we were able to get a hold on a nice chunk of wine for our list members to access, but we’ll need to place our order tomorrow morning, so please try to get your orders in by the end of the day. We’ll build in a buffer for latecomers, and if the buffer’s too big, well then, aw shucks, I guess I’ll have to add a few more sticky bottles to my ever-growing pile (fortunately, most stickies age forever, so I can continue deluding myself that there will be opportunities aplenty to get all of them opened).

Yikes. A dozen paragraphs in, and I haven’t even mentioned the winery name. I can see the large hook stage left, so I’ll try to wrap this up in time for all of us to get some productive work time in this afternoon. Chateau Coutet (located here) is one of a handful of First Growths in Sauternes, and one of only two in Barsac (Chateau Climens is the other). Barsac is the only village in Sauternes allowed to put their name on the bottle (producers there have options; they can label it Barsac, Sauternes, or Barsac-Sauternes), and they’re known for particularly high balancing acidity and high proportions of Semillon.

Coutet’s vineyards, for example, are planted 75% Semillon, 23% Sauvignon Blanc, and 2% Muscadelle. Chartreuse is Coutet’s second wine, but it’s not a barrel selection. It’s the same proportions as the Grand Vin (75/23/2) and raised with much the same care. The difference is that Chartreuse comes from the younger (15- to 20-year-old) vines of the estate.

As an introduction to Sauternes, this is lovely stuff. It begins with aromatics of marmalade, pineapple, alluring honey-fungal botrytis, and lovely top-notes of mint and fennel frond. The palate is rich, sweet, with a caramel-drenched marmalade core complicated by savory/leafy/tobacco notes. There is enough sweet intensity here that pairing it with another dessert seems like a bad idea. I’d aim for a cheese course instead, and it should include at least one blue cheese pungent enough to make you feel a little perverted for enjoying it. That is the perfect pairing for Sauternes, a ribald romp.

Please limit order requests to 12 bottles, and we’ll do our best to fulfill all requests. The wine should arrive in about a week, at which point it will be ready for pickup or shipping during the next temperature-appropriate shipping window.

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