Chateau Guiraud - organic Sauternes and a 1er Cru Classé from 1855
Updated: Mar 18
Don't think of Bordeaux like a red only region. It's also home to one of the most precious sweet wines on this planet - Sauternes.
A little natural phenomenon caused by Bordeaux's beloved Garonne and its' tributary Ciron set the ground for a very complex to make, a very expensive to buy and a very beautiful to age wine.
And if many countries have learned to replicate the 'Bordeaux-style reds', the Sauternes-style sweets will remain exclusively here as long as the mist does.
So let me introduce you to a winery that managed to become the first organic producer among the 1er Cru Classes of 1855. Let me introduce you to the ones who created the one of a kind Bordeaux white vine nursery to preserve from extinction and propagate 175 Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon varieties.
The ones who graft yearly 40 000 vines in their nursery and proud to have 482 varieties of tomatoes around their vines. Where biodiversity already took over the lead and ecosystems of flora and fauna are being created uninterruptedly, on their own.
A not only organic but a sustainable Sauternes is being born here in Chateau Guiraud.
The natural phenomenon of Sauternes
No, they don't add sugar in their wines (God forbid!). These world's most precious sweet wines require lots of tough work and investment. It's not a surprise that the number of chateaux in Sauternes is in decline. But let's return to the mystery of their sweetness.
Locals say that without Ciron there is no Sauternes. And that's just as much truth as that without Garonne there's no Sauternes either.
Garonne is one of the two signature rivers of Bordeaux's. Deep, powerful, merges with Dordogne to become the Gironde estuary, and then - the Atlantic ocean. Garonne's temperature fluctuates from 8 °C in winter to sometimes 30 °C in summer.
Meanwhile, Ciron, the giant's tributary, has quite stable temperatures, 12-15 °C all year round. Ciron joins Garonne at Barsac. There's only one unique period a year when the temperature of the two is drastically different, the grapes are at their ripeness, and the afternoons are warm and dry. And this magic (you can also call it morning mist) occurs in September.
The gentle hills of Sauternes and Barsac are covered with mist in the morning. Then in the afternoon dry and warm wind powerfully blows off all the humidity from the vineyards. So the berries go through two periods daily - the humid one, when Botrytis cinerea (the Noble rot, the famous fungus) thrives, and dry period -windy afternoons. Half of the day Botrytis does the job and makes grape skin almost disappear, it becomes so porous that in the afternoon the dry and warm wind evaporates most of the water from the grapes. This is how we achieve the spectacular concentration of Sauternes wines - aromas and flavours of Noble rot (mushroom, undergrowth, orange marmalade, apricot, honeysuckle, ginger) and luscious sweetness anywhere between 120 and 220 g/L.
The Sauternes Appellation System
The classification of Bordeaux's precious sweet wines happened during the famous Classification of 1855 that included the best chateaux of Médoc and just one from Graves (Haut-Brion). They were classified in five levels - from Premiers to Cinquemes Cru (1st to 5th Growths).
As for the sweet wines, there were two levels - Premiers and Deuxièmes Cru, while Chateau d'Yquem ended up in its' own elevated category, Premier Cru Supérieur, (as it was simply incomparable to the other wines). In total there were 27 chateaux classified - 11 First Growths, 15 Second Growths, and... Chateau d'Yquem.
While Sauternes is the name of the appellation, it's also the name of the village. Among all the wineries in this village, the highest qualified were d'Yquem and Guiraud.
History of Chateau Guiraud
Chateau Guiraud had many owners - passionate people whose kids weren't so passionate to continue the demanding wine affair :)
Pierre Guiraud arrives at the chateau in 1766. Coming from a wine merchant family he had the money but didn't want to do the same thing as his parents. He wanted to start his own winery. Pierre wasn't a typical chateau owner either - most of the neighbours were aristocrats, Catholics and monarchists. Him - a casual young man that came from a rich family and was a protestant. And he actually planned to emphasize this difference. His goal and obsession were to build a protestant chapel on the territory of the chateau.
Then his son took over and he was the one who worked the most on the label. Those times labels would be written with classical, curved English letters, while Chateau Guiraud switched to a straight and simple font that is known as Helvetica today. The label became black, the letters - golden. Chateau Guiraud has the oldest unchanged label among other classified chateaux in Bordeaux.
The third generation of Guiraud worked mainly on the technical side. It's basically their achievement that the winery was classified as First Growth during the 1855 Classification. In Sauternes village - the best after d'Yquem (guess who is their main competitor and who they want to overcome nowadays?)
This is where the period of sales and purchases starts. There were too many owners to list here but it seems like since 1983 stability has returned to Chateau Guiraud. In 1983 Xavier Planty was recruited by the former owner to manage the winery. He was a young man with several diplomas, including an enological one.
In 2006 Xavier Planty and three other men became co-owners of Chateau Guiraud. And most probably you've heard their names too - Robert Peugeot (yes, the CEO of Peugeot Investment Holding), Stephan von Neipperg (operates Château Canon La Gaffelière and La Mondotte, 1er Grands Crus Classés of Saint-Emilion) and Olivier Bernard (manager of Domaine de Chevalier, Grand Cru Classé de Graves in Pessac-Léognan).
Although all these men contribute to the growth of Chateau Guiraud enormously, Xavier Planty is the one who's been helping the biodiversity to take over the vineyards of Guiraud for more than 30 years. Now, he's half-retired (in wine you never fully retire) and his son, Luc, took over the management of Chateau Guiraud after his father. Luc Planty already has a son of his own, so the workers of the chateau hope for the recovery of dynasties at the estate.
Biodyversity and sustainable viticulture at Chateau Guiraud
If you allow nature to recreate itself it will help you to fight most of the diseases in order to recreate its' balance. This is the philosophy of Xavier Planty and us - conscious wine lovers that know - vine is only a part of an immense ecosystem that we should aim to protect.
So how do they achieved an abundance of biodiversity here:
Leaving lots of green spaces, herbs, flowers to grow between the rows, mainly in winter, as in summer they do indeed plough. Actually, they have 28 hectares of parkland, greenery and forest.
This flora attracts insects, that will attract other predators, so you're actually creating a new ecosystem step by step.
Hedges - basically walls made of plants, they have more humidity and less light, so it's again a different type of flora.
Pine trees - all around the vineyards.
Bird and insect houses in the vineyard to attract pollinators and let birds regulate the population of rodents naturally and again create a new chain of the ecosystem.
But that's not all. In 2001 Chateau Guiraud created a white wine conservatory in order to preserve the genetic heritage of white Bordeaux. Here 175 varieties of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc participate in mass selection - strains with the most unique and valuable characteristics are being propagated. Yearly Chateau Guiraud grafts 40 000 vine plants in their greenhouse. The aim is to preserve the diversity of grape varieties and ensure their disease resistance. Europe already saw a great extinction of grape varieties during XIX when phylloxera hit the continent. It's time to learn from our mistakes and work on prevention.
And if you want to understand to what extent they're into biodiversity here - it's only tomatoes that are represented in 482 different varieties in the gardens of Chateau Guiraud. The rest is not countable anymore...
The winery is engaged in organic agriculture since 1996 and was certified organic in 2011. They were the first chateau among the 1er Grand Cru Classes of 1855 Classification to become organic. But actually, they're way beyond being just organic, above all they pursue sustainability in viticulture on a global scale.
When I said making Sauternes is a tough job, I mainly meant vinification.
Let's imagine a typical day at Chateau Guiraud during harvest.
In the morning you are out with baskets to collect berries - berry by berry, manually, you're not cutting the whole bunch. Noble rot affects berries at a different speed, with different efficiency rate, thus daily two rounds are done and this will last until all berries are picked at perfect maturity.
Every time baskets arrive at the vat room they're immediately pressed. You can't store or delay botrytised berries. After the press, the juice is left to settle down for 12 hours at 6-8 °C - low enough to avoid the start of fermentation. It moves from the press down to the vats by gravity - they're literally underneath the vat room.
Then the first batch of oak barrels gets filled. This is Wine #1. Most likely, in the evening they'll bring in grapes for Wine #2, and so on and so on - until all the berries are harvested, pressed, settled and in barrels.
As you understand, this means that their Sauternes ferments in barrels - they're 30-50% new oak barrels. Selected organic yeast is added to start the fermentation - as I understood, it's quite challenging to rely on native grape yeasts with Sauternes. First of all, there's too much sugar and uncontrolled yeast may give up and stop fermenting at 5-7% abv. This is not what we expect from Sauternes where alcohol should reach the 13% abv.
Second, the production of Sauternes is very expensive due to not just manual, but selective manual harvest. Sometimes there're years when you can't make any Sauternes at all due to unfavourable weather conditions. So there aren't too many producers that are ready to risk their anyways risky noble sweet wine production and trust the native yeast found of grape bloom.
In 4-6 weeks the fermentation must be stopped. Again, another intervention, unfortunately. SO2 is added once the wine is chilled to stop the activity of yeast. Then the yeast is filtered. If all this, especially the addition of sulphur, is not done the wine will keep fermenting until 15% abv when yeasts will be killed by alcohol (and 15% abv is not what we want from a Sauternes).
Chateau Guiraud's Sauternes matures for 2 years in barrels in two separate stages. The first year all wines age separately, not blended. Once the right balance between sweetness, acidity, minerality and the signature chateau style is found wines are blended in tanks and now it's time for another year of maturation in barrels.
Besides that, the wine from each barrel during all this period is returned to the tank every 4 months as the barrels must be washed. Sugary environments are very prone to bacteria growth.
Vertical Sauternes wine tasting at Chateau Guiraud
I decided that there's no better way to understand a wine style than by doing a vertical tasting - so three amazing vintages of Chateau Guiraud below:
Chateau Guiraud Premier Grand Cru Classe Sauternes 1996 - a powerful wine, obviously, this is what a Premier Cru Classe becomes after 23 years of cellar ageing. A sherry-like colour, with cigar, figs, dry apricots, candied oranges and raisins on the nose. Lots of spices like cardamon, ginger, cinnamon, clove, dry herbs (something like a Moroccan mint tea) and undergrowth. The wine still has serious medium acidity, a long-lasting finish.
Chateau Guiraud Premier Grand Cru Classe Sauternes 2009 - the medium intensity colour gives us a hint of a more gentle wine. Still floral, but think of wilted flowers, honey, rich sweet blossom of acacia, caramelized fruits, marmalade. High acidity and a very decent long finish. This one was my favourite - a balance between a very mature, complex Sauternes and a very young one from 2016.
Chateau Guiraud Premier Grand Cru Classe Sauternes 2016 - a luscious wine that's more on the side of very sweet exotic fruits, rather than botrytis notes (if you're not such a huge fan of the Noble rot's earthiness...). Pineapple, mango, ripe Sicilian lemon, mandarin, lychee and a hint of almond on the finish. The acidity feels a bit lower than the 2009's, but I guess the sweetness-acid level will be more balanced in a couple of years when the fruitiness of the wine fades away and transforms to more complex notes.
The winery also produces a second wine - Petit Guiraud Sauternes and a dry white wine Le G de Chateau Guiraud.
It was the second half of October and many grapes were still hanging on vines waiting for the Noble rot to do the job. It was an amazing opportunity to observe the state of berries finally live, not from books. And seems like I ended up at the very best place to do so - outstanding wines with lots of history behind and a thriving biodiversity around.