Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Last Night's Tipple

Costco is a very strange place. Nestled among the gigantic cans of tuna and the 32-packs of toilet paper is wine. Lots of wine. I think that I've read that Costco is the largest wine retailer in the United States, and it's easy to see why. They devote substantial floor space to it, and their prices are very attractive. And it's not just Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay and box wine dreck from Australia. They carry a number of well-reputed and distinctly uncheap wines. If you want to buy some Dom Perignon, for example, this is the place to do it. You're probably not going to find a better price. The most recent wine that makes me scratch my head and wonder how they got it is a 1996 Chateau Guiraud Sauternes.

When Sauternes was classified in 1855 in preparation for the Exposition Universelle de Paris (a parallel classification was done for the wines of the Médoc plus Haut-Brion from Graves), there were three groupings: 1 Premier Cru Supérieur (Yquem, then as now, is in a class by itself), 11 Premier Crus, and 15 Deuxièmes Crus. Château Guiraud, which was originally purchased by Pierre Guiraud in 1766, was one of the Premier Crus. Quality and standards change, of course, so it's a little bit ridiculous to pay too much attention to a classification that took place 153 years ago. Nevertheless, Guiraud is one of the well-reputed, reliable Sauternes producers. 1996 was ranked by various wine reporters as a very good but not excellent vintage in Sauternes. How is it that Costco got a few cases of 1996 Guiraud in 2008? Beats me. Maybe they picked it up from the secondary market for a song, or maybe Guiraud kept a stock of it unreleased hoping for higher prices and finally decided to dump it. In any event, since 1996, there has been one classic vintage in Sauternes (2001) and two excellent ones (1997 and 2003). Whoever sold Costco this Guiraud probably judged that there was no financial incentive to holding onto it for any longer. And so Costco acquired several cases of half bottles of 1996 Château Guiraud Premier Cru Sauternes, which it is currently selling for $28. That's really cheap for a First Growth Sauternes from a good year, and I bought a bottle to try.

Sauternes start out a deep gold color, and it tends to darken with age. This wine was almost copper-colored, so dark that I would have suspected that it had oxidized if it hadn't been Sauternes. It had a deeply honeyed nose, and on the palate it was honey mixed with lemons. This is a sweet wine, but it's not overpoweringly so -- not as sweet as Coca-Cola, for example. And the sweetness there is is balanced by the significant acidity, so it's not sickly or cloying. I liked this wine a lot. I might just go out and buy more. Really, really good, and not a bad value for Sauternes.

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