The lovely Chateau Rieussec vineyard, southeast of Bordeaux (photos courtesy of the winery)

It is the second wave of the French COVID lockdown—or, as the French call it, le confinement—and Olivier Trégoat, the Technical Director for Château Rieussec, Chateau L’Evangile, and Château Paradis Casseuil, all under the Domaines Barons de Rothschild (DBR) umbrella, is in France. I, most decidedly, am not. “We have no visits due to the confinement,” he says as we both lament the lack of travel. “My last trip was to Chile in March.”

Trégoat, known in his home base of Bordeaux for his Ph.D. on soil studies and his consultancy for several major houses, now oversees wine operations for DBR. The legendary wine family owns major properties around the world including the renowned Château Lafite-Rothschild, the Rieussec Sauternes house, and ventures in Argentina, Chile, and China. Trégoat has been heavily involved with Domaine de Long Dai for the past few years. 

As Technical Director, he has taken charge of Château Rieussec with an eye to changing how the wine world thinks about Sauternes, one of the most recognizable wine regions in the world, known for the noble rot that infects grapes at the end of the season. This botrytis fungus concentrates the grapes’ flavors, adding an aromatic layer to the wine’s nose and palate.

But Trégoat envisions something else. He wants to change the image of these wines from the fusty old “stickies” people only drink with foie gras or heavy desserts to something modern wine lovers might enjoy as an aperitif or with food. He wants to make wines people can open today, instead of waiting 20 years for them to come of age in their cellars.

Of course, aging these botrytized wines is the key to developing the intense flavors noble rot gives the fruit. So how to make that delicacy more accessible?

Trégoat is actively lowering the residual sugar in Rieussec’s sweet wines from the normal 150-to-160 grams per liter. “For sugar, we are trying to limit it now to 120 to 130 grams per liter but still keeping the aromatics of the noble rot,” he said. They can do this by stopping the fermentation process when sugar levels reach their target. The lower sugar levels should preserve the flavors of the botrytis without requiring the wine lay-down for two decades.

Efforts to lower the wine’s sugar levels began with the 2016.

Additionally, Trégoat is also actively working to promote enjoying these wines as aperitifs or with seafood or Asian dishes.

The 2016 vintage ushered in this new style of Rieussec although the residual sugar still clocks in at 143 grams per liter. The wine is brighter and lighter in body and color, yet still heavy with honey, apricot, kiwi, and a pop of unripe pear. But present are the unmistakable aromatics of botrytis, unusual in a 4-year-old Sauternes. Trégoat suggests trying it with baked oysters. I’d pair it with a sweet/salty mirin and soy glazed salmon or General Tso’s chicken. It would hold up to spice well.

It remains to be seen if this new idea will work for such a traditional wine region. It could be a risky move for one of the top “golden core” chateaux, whose vineyards border those of the storied Château d’ Yquem. But, as Trégoat says when he talks of changing the image of these wines, “I am not alone.”