Sauternes – the longest-lived wine?

Old Sauternes at Hambleton

Great sweet white bordeaux may be unfashionable but it will have the last laugh. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. Tasting notes in Old, really old, Sauternes.

David Dugdale was a successful Yorkshire businessman who was mad about music but also got the wine bug in a big way. He died in 2010 but he left quite a legacy, a posthumous reward perhaps for Kate, his much younger widow, who in his last years made sure that he could enjoy outings to Glyndebourne, Wigmore Hall and the Royal Opera House just as much as he had done before he was confined to a wheelchair.

Their house in Yorkshire was built essentially to accommodate their burgeoning cellar, a cellar famous throughout the wine trade for its size and depth. I remember having a meal with the Dugdales in London in the 1990s during which they told us they were currently drinking Chablis from the 1920s.

He started buying wine soon after the second world war and by the 1950s was supporting one of his favourite wine merchants, OW Loeb in London, financially – not just because of the amount of wine he bought from them, but with a substantial loan, topped up when he became a director in 1961. For him, wine was fun, and an excuse to tour France with Loeb’s managing director Anthony Goldthorp, sniffing out not just the best restaurants but the finest producers to add to Loeb’s portfolio (which had started out being very German-based).

Four of the earliest additions to the Loeb list that resulted from his travels were the legendary Ch Rayas of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Armand Rousseau of Gevrey-Chambertin, Henri Gouges of Nuits-St-Georges and Louis Michel of Chablis. The equally starry Marquis d’Angerville of Volnay, Ramonet and Michel Niellon of Chassagne-Montrachet, Etienne Sauzet of Puligny-Montrachet, Paul Jaboulet Aîné of the northern Rhône and Faller of Alsace followed. And at the end of the 1960s, thanks to a tip-off from Charles Rousseau, the young Jacques Seysses’ Domaine Dujac, now another world-famous Burgundy producer, was added to this mouth-watering array.

The wines were great, management perhaps less so. Eventually, in 1976, Dugdale bought OW Loeb outright when the devaluation of the pound meant they were selling wines for less money than they had paid for them. Dugdale offset Loeb losses against his more prosaic gains in Yorkshire.

Small wonder then that his cellar was well stocked. Kate Dugdale is as much a music lover as her husband was and has been slowly working her way through the wine collection he left, and continuing to support the arts, particularly music. Many a musician has been given a revered bottle from their birth year that had long been stored under Yorkshire turf. And on her many visits to London, she is likely to be accompanied by bottles older than most of us can dream of, whose provenance is without question.

But she got a shock early last year. She sent me an email on April Fool’s Day which I knew was no joke: ‘I was having a sort out in the cellar and found loads of bottles of Yquem. Mostly quite old – we seem to have drunk the young ones … I’ll send you a list with the years.’

The email that that followed listed 24 vintages of the greatest Sauternes of them all, Ch d’Yquem, from the glorious 1975 back to 1899 if you please, plus many more sweet white bordeaux from the best addresses and from the famous 1967 vintage back to 1914. Apparently this treasure trove of what turned out to be at least 87 (mostly single) bottles in total had been hidden behind some metal boxes.

She decided that a day should be consecrated to tasting some of these wines with friends and asked Tim Hart, of Hambleton Hall on Rutland Water (scene of this recent exciting discovery), if he would provide the setting. He set a date of a quiet Tuesday in early November, so now all that was needed was to decide on a guest list (a combination of musical and wine friends) and which wines to taste.

Fortunately Nicholas Payne, the wine-loving director of Opera Europa, who qualified as an invitee on both counts, took matters in hand. (His banker son Oliver and his brother Sebastian, Master of Wine and chief wine buyer of The Wine Society from 1985 until 2012, were also invited.) I had already suggested that we taste mainly in the morning, when our faculties would be at their freshest, before a light lunch, and then sample a few wines before dinner.

Payne accordingly marshalled 32 wines from the collection into three flights for 16 of us to enjoy on a sunny day at Hambleton. We began with a selection he entitled ‘treasures from WW2 and its aftermath’, which went from a bracing Rieussec 1952 (the youngest Sauternes of the day) back to a 1943 Yquem, via completely glorious 1950 and 1945 Yquems.

His second flight was the biggest: 18 wines he described as ‘the golden post-WW1 decade, 1929 back to 1919 including the centenary 1921s’. One 1923 had suffered from cork taint and the other was oxidised. Yet we were able to wallow in no fewer than five Sauternes from the near-mythical 1921 vintage, of which Yquem was the star. Almost all the wines from the 1928 and 1929 vintages were also simply sumptuous, apart from a surprisingly disappointing bottle of 1928 Yquem. (The four 1922s in the Yorkshire cellar were held back from the Hambleton tasting so as to celebrate their centenary during another Sauternes-athon later this year.)

Three 1920s and three 1919s followed as Hart tried to hurry us up, conscious of a kitchen ready to serve us lunch and the need to reconfigure his dining room from its tasting room format. Below is the side table at the end of the morning.

Sauternes leftovers at Hambleton
Sauternes leftovers at Hambleton Hall, none younger than 70 years

You would think that we might all feel thoroughly sated, having tasted a total of 25 very sweet wines in less than two hours, but the reverse was the case. Because these wines were such high quality, so fascinatingly complex, and with the sweetness beautifully counterbalanced by appetising acidity, they were uplifting rather than sickening. They left the palate beautifully stimulated and refreshed even if, admittedly, eager to enjoy Hambleton’s Michelin-starred menu of consommé (the perfect antidote to a wine tasting), a cleverly seasoned carrot terrine and halibut.

Our early-evening tasting of ‘seriously old school’ wines was in a much less formal setting – the cosy bar rather than the airy dining room – so we were perched rather incongruously on sofas. But the wines were so astounding that I wouldn’t have minded tasting them in the car park.

The two 1918s and the 1914 were more relics than delights but both 1916s, somehow made in the middle of the First World War, were stunning. And the final two Yquems, 1908 and 1899, were truly out of this world, worthy of 20, or even 21, points out of 20 even though one was made when Victoria was still on the throne. Perhaps I need to not worry that today’s wine drinkers are in general unmoved by sweet wines. The wines will last long enough to entrance many a future generation.

Top senior Sauternes

I scored all of these at least 18 points out of 20 and in some cases much more.

1950 Ch d'Yquem
1945 Ch d'Yquem
1944 Ch d'Yquem

1929 Ch d'Yquem
1928 Ch Rabaud Promis
1928 Ch Lafaurie Peyraguey
1926 Ch Lafaurie Peyraguey
1921 Ch Rabaud Promis
1921 Ch d'Yquem

1920 Ch Climens
1916 Ch Rabaud Promis
1908 Ch d'Yquem

1899 Ch d'Yquem

Tasting notes in Old, really old, Sauternes. Some international stockists cited by but do investigate provenance and authenticity carefully.