Friday, 27 January 2012

The Laithwaite Sauvignon 2011

It’s that time of year again when we begin bottling the 2011 whites and first up as always is the Laithwaite Sauvignon Blanc. This delicate, explosively aromatic and zesty dry white is the most fragile of all the wines we make and freshness is the key to the success.

Ever since the day the grapes were harvested they have been kept in an inert environment where the wine avoids any contact with air at all costs. You can see just how quickly oxidation occurs when you cut an apple in half: within a couple of minutes it’s brown and the fresh aroma and flavours lost.

In the past, many delicate dry white wines from all over France suffered the same consequence and it is one of the main reasons back in the day that the most famous dry white wines were nearly always Chardonnays and usually came from Burgundy. Chardonnay is a much hardier grape and its riper, tropical fruit is more resistant to oxygen and higher ferment temperatures. However, this is all about Sauvignon Blanc; a very different beast indeed.

Our grapes are 100% from the Entre-Deux-Mers, a very interesting region with a long history of winemaking. However, as recently as the 1960’s, white grape vineyards were being rapidly converted to red wine production to make AOC Bordeaux (and Supérieur). White wine production has decreased ever since and is now about only one tenth of Bordeaux's total production.

However in these relatively recent times and pre 1980’s the white wines were also made differently. They were sweeter than today and if dry, the blend consisted of a high proportion of Semillon, a grape that is much like Chardonnay in respect of riper flavours and a better resistance to oxidation spoilage and high ferment temperatures.

Technology and winemaking education has therefore played a huge part in the success of the 100% Sauvignon Blanc dry white wines we are familiar with today, especially so in the Entre-Deux-Mers. The main factors – along with viticultural improvements – were quick night-time machine harvesting, inert presses, stainless steel vats, cooling equipment and bottling technology. Much of the knowledge of how to use these techniques came from winemakers in the new world, notably Australia and New Zealand. (Remember, it was one Tony Laithwaite who was the first to bring in winemakers from down under to make wines in France and whom he named ‘The Flying Winemakers’).

The Laithwaite Sauvignon Blanc was a fine example of putting these new techniques to work. The wine remains as popular as ever, now being made with help from the next generation of new world winemakers. Jean-Marc Sauboua (JMS) was the first winemaker to oversee the vinification in the early 1990’s and has harnessed the help of many new world winemakers over the years.

Today, JMS is still at the head of the project and the critical vineyard selection. Currently it’s James MacDonald from Hunter’s in NZ watching the ferments and finally another new world trained winemaker (me) responsible for the final blending and bottling.

I can only try to explain the sheer attention to detail and team effort required to get this wine into bottle – then to the customers – in perfect condition using rather industrial looking equipment. However it is this equipment that allows the wine to survive in perfect condition to the bottle and consequently to the customer, seeming almost impossibly fresh. When I taste the wine back in the UK some months after the bottling I can assure you it is the same as it tastes in the vat back in Bordeaux months before!

Today I have been back to all the diverse areas of the Entre-Deux-Mers to collect each part of the final blend, carefully moving them to the best bottling plant in the region 10kms away in Rauzan, just across the Dordogne from Le Chai.

My first stop was at Sauveterre-de-Guyenne, a small village that is known as the half-way point from the left to right bank. It’s situated on a hillock of chalky clay soil and the wines here have a flinty character and a broad palate. The stainless steel tankers were waiting for me and once the compartments were checked and filled with CO2 the wine followed.

I escorted the tankers to the bottling plant and soon continued on with the tankers to the second piece of the blend which comes from the tiny village of Espiet. Espiet sits centrally in the Entre-Deux-Mers and here the countryside is softened by its gentle limestone valleys and soils of clay on a thick, porous asteriated limestone similar to the subsoil of St.Emilion. This creates wines with pungent aromatics of grass and asparagus and a racy acidity.

With Espiet safely delivered and blended I left for the third and last part of the blend which originates in the beautiful village of La Sauve. Le Sauve is 29km’s from Bordeaux and dominated by the magnificent 11th century Benedictine monastery l’Abbaye de la Sauve Majeure. The mix of clay and gravel is unique and the wines have minerality with a richness of fruit on the palate unseen elsewhere in the region.

The 2011 Sauvignon Blanc will be bottled next week and the closure will be screw cap. This is the best way to preserve this type of wine and I promise you will not be disappointed. For us winemakers the final blend is as good as it gets and the three areas create a great balance. All that’s left is to try for yourself!


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