The Scholar of Sauternes: Château de Fargues 1947-2011

In pourriture noble infected conversation the other day, there was a remark that, and I quote, “Château de Fargues is the thinking man’s Yquem.”

I inquired what he meant. Surely this heretic could not be suggesting that Yquem is not non plus ultra of Sauternes, the king of kings. Rather, he asserted that whilst the quality of Château Yquem is incontrovertible, many automatically choose it by dint of status alone, because it is a personification of “the best.” To this extent every self-respecting top-end dinner is obliged to finish with a bottle of Yquem, the millionaire’s “sweetie de choix”, the Holy Grail for Sauternes connoisseurs.

Château de Fargues does not possess Yquem’s regal status, but it does enjoy a strong, loyal cult following, particularly among Sauternes aficionados who rightly respect it as one of Bordeaux’s bona fide greats. It is perpetually in the shadow of Yquem, not just geographically like Rayne-Vigneau, but as the lesser-known estate that for decades was owned by the Luc Saluces family. And while Sauternes crus such as Climens, Suduiraut and Coutet indefatigably promote their wines, well, that is not really the style of de Fargues. It does not hanker the limelight. It has always been more introverted than Yquem, yet is nearly always intellectual, scholarly perhaps. Moreover it produces profound wines with ruthless regularity.
Château de Fargues is steeped in history. Following the tasting at the property, Comte Alexandre escorted me around the august, imposing, ghostly castle that looms over the winery. Cardinal Raymond Guilhem de Fargues, the nephew of Pope Clément V whose nom de plume was Bertrand de Goth, constructed the castle in 1306. The exterior walls are intact but the barren interior is roofless after a fire in 1687 gutted what must have been a magnificent property. Unfortunately, decades’ of exposure are beginning to tell on the crumbling walls. However, Comte Alexandre has undertaken an ambitious, long-term restoration project and the right flank of the castle is being meticulously rebuilt to accommodate several habitable rooms, while the original brick flooring has been uncovered from underneath the detritus.

The medieval château implicitly suggests that like Yquem, viticulture has been in situ for centuries, but this is not the case. It was the decision of Bertrand de Lur Saluces in the early 1930s to plant white grape varieties within the 24 hectares of the estate entitled to Sauternes AC status, starting with 5 hectares and increasing it piecemeal until he only reached a total of 10 hectares some 25-years later. The maiden vintage of Château de Fargues was only in 1943 and the quantities were extraordinarily small. Under Comte Alexandre de Lur Saluces, the vines have been expanded to 15 hectares, though there are plans to convert a further 9 hectares of gravel-clay soils currently populated by pine trees. The vines consist of 80% Sémillon and 20% Sauvignon Blanc and now average around 35 years, with a planting density of 7,000 vines per hectare. Fertilizers are natural and come from the Bazas cattle.
At Château de Fargues, the aim is for around 20 degrees of natural potential alcohol, which equates to between 340 and 350 grams of sugar per liter. Yields are naturally very low, averaging 8 hectoliters per hectare over the last twenty years, the pickers undertaking several passes through the vines to seek out fully botrytized berries. The wine is fermented in oak barrels and aged entirely in new oak for three years and racked quarterly. There is no second wine at de Fargues although they occasionally make a dry white wine “Guilhem de Fargues” that is sold as Bordeaux AC.

Neil Martin - Dégustation à Fargues

The wines were tasted at the property in reverse chronological order, with the exception of the 1983 that was tasted at the Academie du Vin de Bordeaux dinner two days later, plus the 1947 and 1986 that were served at a light dinner that finished what had been a long day’s tasting in Sauternes.
What struck me the most about Château de Fargues was its consistency, to the point where I felt I was repeating myself in terms of adjectives. Picture in your mind an empty, cavernous concert hall and on an empty stage a pianist strikes a heartrending minor chord again and again and again…..

Neil Martin - Dégustation à Fargues

The bouquet is deep and intense, imbued with trademark marmalade and mandarin aromas that can be utterly intoxicating and with age, whiffs of adhesive glue. These filter through to the palate: unctuous and laden with botrytis that is expressed more at de Fargues than any other Sauternes I know. De Fargues is a pleasurable wine – after all, that is the first rule of the appellation – yet there is something thought-provoking about this wine; a Sauternes that encourages you to ponder in your glass before taking a sip.

There is little point in discussing each individual vintage over the last three decades because of the wine’s astonishing regularity and, for this, credit must be paid to estate manager François Amirault (pictured.) If it says “de Fargues” on the label, you are basically guaranteed a good time. If pushed, I would pick out the Château de Fargues 2007 as my pick of recent vintages, imbued with an effervescence that lifted it above other vintages, while the finish possessed a sense of roiling power that you could not help but admire. It was interesting to note how youthful vintages from the 1980s appeared – evidence that de Fargues matures at a glacial pace. As if to prove that, Comte Alexandre served the Château de Fargues 1947 blind, at a time when just 350 to 360 bottles were being produced. Long-term readers might cast their minds back several years when I was fortunate to taste the ’45 in London, perhaps still the greatest Sauternes to have passed my lips. The ’47 did not quite have the ethereal finesse of that elixir, but its precocity, balletic balance and intensity towards the finish were a wonder to behold.

Neil Martin - Dégustation à Fargues

The 1947 is virtually impossible to find, but readers should scan the lists of fine wine merchants to find this, the “Scholar of Sauternes.” Château de Fargues is not cheap compared to its peers, but there is something very special about this wine, an built-in longevity that rewards those with the patience to cellar it. The one problem with de Fargues is that it is so damn delicious in its youth that it can be nigh impossible to resist temptation. Perhaps in the future, once the castle has begun welcoming visitors, Château de Fargues will take another tentative step out of Yquem’s shadow and gain a wider following. But for now, this estate is content to simply produce exquisite Sauternes suffused with enigma. Long may that remain! The poor man’s Yquem will always leave you feeling richer.

– Neal Martin –