The Unique Style of Château Gilette Sauternes

“In the crisis of 1928, René Médeville had difficulty in selling the wine so he just kept it instead of selling it at a low price. Eventually he couldn’t bottle it until after the second world war,” Xavier Gonet says, as he explains the origins of Château Gilette’s unique production of Sauternes. “If you find an old bottle of Gilette – before the 1930s – it will have been made ‘the normal way,’ Xavier adds. His wife Julie, who is René’s granddaughter, took over Château Gilette in 2004 from her father, Christian.

“Gilette is a special type of wine,” Xavier says, “it never sees any oak. “We harvest by picking only botrytized berries – we wait a lot and usually I’m one of the last to pick. We try to pick late and have as few tries as possible”. After fermentation in stainless steel, the wine goes into 12 small concrete tanks for 18-20 years. It’s completely racked off to fill the tank—there are no lees. “Most people make a link between oxidation and aging, but the vats are completely filled so there is no oxidation. What happens in the vat is just like the difference between keeping wine in a magnum or bottle—the big vats are fruitier. When we bottle, we bottle the complete vintage.”

There used to be different levels of Gilette — dry, demi-sec, demi-doux, doux, and crême de tête. G was the dry wine but made in only three vintages, 1954, 1956, 1958. (This gave the idea to Bernard Lur Saluces to produce the dry Ygrec at Château d’Yquem.) The last vintage of the other cuvées was 1962. “Because we now produce only Crême de Tête, we don’t produce every year. It’s usually made 5 years each decade. At 10 hl/ha we get 6,000 bottles. Basically we try to sell  up to 3,000 bottles per year. Some years we don’t pick at all.”

“What you get with Gilette is the intensity of old vines, the volume, but the freshness of aromas. There is absolutely no oak in any of our Sauternes, Oak is not our style. (We think that) with oak you lose a little bit the purity and freshness in the wine. It begins a second life in bottle. Twenty years after bottling, the wines begin to express perfectly.” When we start the tasting, Xavier says, “All the wines will change in the tasting because they have never been in contact with air at all. Because this is an extreme reductive situation, they need a lot of oxygen.”

The tasting (fron row of bottles), with color darkening from 1999 (left) to 1975 (right)

We tasted from the current release (1999, bottled three months ago) back to the great vintage of 1975. The wines deepen and become more intense with age but always retain a remarkable sense of purity and freshness. They develop very slowly. Clearly just beginning its development, the 1999 seemed almost too young to assess by comparison with the extraordinary 1997. “1997 is completely different. It’s a very particular vintage, the smallest production of Gilette ever, only 40 hl, I needed a special tank. Frost reduced yields, the grapes were harvested in 2 tries, everything was perfect. It’s a very precise vintage,” Xavier says.

“1996 was a good vintage for reds, so there was more passerillage, it was a little bit too hot (for Sauternes). Each vintage is a photographic record of the year,” Xavier comments. It’s a fatter vintage, showing more like a conventional Sauternes, whereas in most vintages the 4.5 ha plot from which Gillette comes expresses itself in a lighter style more like Barsac.

Going back to 1988, you see the result of an unusual vintage that required 11 tries. It’s very pure and precise, but perhaps more overtly sweet than usual, so the 1981, which is not as sweet, givers a clearer sense of its flavor spectrum. The 1979 and 1975 move towards the broader texture of figs and dates, with impressions of bitter orange cutting the sweetness.

Tasting Notes

1999
Medium gold color. Some spices on nose. Viscous, honeyed, long aftertaste shows honey, coffee, caramel, marmalade, but fresher than you usually find in Sauternes. Some citrus on the finish. “1999 gave very pure results with good botrytis. It begins a second life in bottle,” Xavier says.    92  Drink -2042

1997
Slightly darker color than 1999. Quite a piercing nose with citrus to the fore. The freshness is extraordinary. “For me this is a legend,” Xavier says, “it will age for 80 years.” Spicy and elegant, quite reserved now, lots of coffee on the nose following through to the finish. Aftertaste tends to citrus, bitter orange, marmalade. Palate shows honeyed texture but very elegant impression. Elegance is not a word I often use to describe Sauternes, but this stands out in the tasting for its combination of sweetness, complexity, and freshness.    96  Drink -2050

1996
Deeper golden color than 1997. A little spice and marmalade and apricots on the nose; it takes about 30 minutes for the nose actually to come out fully. This is a fatter vintage and more like Sauternes as opposed to Barsac. A touch of bitterness on the finish, you might say bitter orange, some honey and marmalade, long, and finally that bitterness coming back.    91 Drink -2042

1988
Medium gold color moving towards caramel. Nose is quite restrained but promises elegance, with some tight, sweet, botrytized aromas. This shows fruit purity above all else, very tight and precise on the palate, with bitter orange, marmalade, candied fruits, spicy, notes of nougatine, apricots. Complex but precise, with coffee developing on the finish.    93  Drink -2040

1981
Deep orange color. Complex spicy nose remains fresh. Smooth and silky, pure and crystalline, with marmalade and bitter orange predominating on palate on finish. Shows more subtlety because it is not as sweet as 1988.    94  Drink -2042

1979
Quite deep caramel color. Sense of purity shows on spicy nose, follows to palate of apricots, marmalade, some figs in the background, very clean precise lines, sharply delineated, long bitter orange on the finish. Deepens in the glass and increases in intensity. Silky impression on palate.    95  Drink -2042

1975
Deep gold – caramel color. Rich impression of vintage comes through the usual tight expression of the chateau. Very fine and precise, bitter orange dominates the finish with hints of coffee, dates, and figs in the background, long impression retronasally. That sense of bitterness really cuts the sweetness.    94  Drink -2040

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