On Wednesday I met with Alexandra Lemahieu, Assistant to Bérénice Lurton, the owner of Château Climens in Barsac. Barsac is the lesser known but equally majestic sweet white wine appellation, next door to Sauternes. And just like Sauternes, Barsac produces some of the finest botrytised, Semillon-based wine in the world.
The estate was founded in 1547 by Guirault Roborel. The origin of the name “Climens” is ancient French and means “terre ingrate” or “infertile soil.” Five families have presided over the estate; however, the recent history and eminence of the estate really begins in 1885. In 1885 Henri Gouonouilhou purchased the Château Climens. He was the director of one of Bordeaux’s most famous daily newspapers. Mr. Gouonouilhou used his influence in the media to boost the public’s recognition of Château Climens. Moreover, he used his wealth and hard work to increase the quality of the wine. The 1929, 1937 and 1947 vintages became legendary. Then in 1971 the Lurton family, owner of several famous Margaux estates, purchased Château Climens, and thus began the Lurton era. The family has done a wonderful job, continuing to improve on the already excellent quality reached under Gouonouilhou’s ownership. One specific step taken by the Lurton family was to remove all Muscadelle vines. Thus today the 30 hectare estate is composed of 100% Semillon, unlike most Sauternes estates that incorporate a small portion of Sauvignon Blanc. The Lurton family believes that they have found the perfect marriage between the terroir and the single varietal. They feel that incorporating a second varietal would only take from the purity, finesse and elegance that has been obtained with the Semillon grape. In 1992 Bérénice stepped in as owner and General Director.
Château Climens is classified as a Premier Cru, just below the loan Premier Cru Supérieur, Château d’Yquem. Nonetheless, many wine connoisseurs prefer the elegance and balance of Climens over the power, viscosity and opulence of a d’Yquem. As with most top wine estates, Château Climens believes that the magic of their wine comes from their terroir. The soil is composed of stones, a thin top layer of sand and clay, and a more dominant subsoil of limestone. All of this, plus the natural slope, reaching 70 feet above sea level, provides for excellent natural drainage. Furthermore, as with any botrytised wine, the weather is crucial. At Château Climens the mornings are humid with fog and the afternoons are sunny. This provides the perfect conditions for the development of the botrytis cinerea. And as we know… no botrytis… no wine. The average age of the vines is 35 years and one very distinguishing factor of the estate’s production is the low yields, averaging 12 hectoliters per hectare. In some years the yield can drop as low as 8 hectoliters per hectare. This makes for an intensely aromatic and concentrated wine.
Naturally harvest time varies; however, it will always start later than in most of Bordeaux. The typical harvest will begin anytime between the end of September and the end of October. From this point, harvest lasts around 4 to 6 weeks. In order for all of the botrytised grapes to be harvested, the estate will conduct between 5 and 6 runs through the vineyard, each lasting 3 to 8 days, to ensure that only the botrytis infected grapes are picked. During the entire harvest period each day’s harvest is sent to the winery where it will be vinified separately. The fermentation is controlled at 27 degrees Celsius and the typical fermentation will last between 15 and 21 days. Once the ideal level of alcohol is reached—typically around 13.5% ABV—the wine receives a thermal shock, quickly dropping the temperature down to 3 degrees Celsius, which halts the fermentation. Once the fermentation has been stopped, the wine is sent to barrel where it will be aged in 30% new oak for 22 months. During this stage it is very interesting to note that Château Climens employs 5 different sources for its oak barrels. This distinction results in a unique wine, coming out of each distinct barrel, especially considering that the wine will spend all 22 months in the same barrel. Thus technically speaking, as many as 210 different wines could be aging simultaneously during one vintage, if one considers the five different barrels and a 6-week harvest with each day being vinified separately. After the 22 months of aging, the tasting team will taste all the individual wines and decide on two separate blends. The first and superior blend will be destined for the first label, Château Climens. The second tier blend, although still high in quality, will be bottled as the second label, Cyprès de Climens. All in all about 30,000 bottles of the first label are produced annually and between 10,000 and 15,000 bottles of the second label are produced.
Here’s a quick interesting point of reference. Since the Lurton’s took over the estate, they have declassified 4 vintages, considering the quality to be inferior to that of a Climens wine. 1984, 1987, 1992, and 1993 were all declassified and sold off to local producers to be bottled as table wine.
Here’s what we tasted…
2002 Château Climens
Tasting Notes: 100% Semillon. Yield 9 hectoliters per hectare, 13.6% ABV, 145 g/l residual sugars, 4.4 g/l total acidity. A very elegant and aromatic nose with beautiful aromas of flowers, spice, dried apricot, pear, honey, pineapple, and almonds. A little cloying in the mouth, otherwise this wine has a good balance and acidity, with a full-bodied syrupy texture. There are flavors of pineapple, raisins, apricot, bitter honey, and bitter almonds. The lemony-orange finish is very long and supple.
Rating: 16/20 (WS 92-94)
Price: $40 USD @ Wine Spectator, current auction price