The Wine Doctor – Château Coutet

6 février 2012

The history of Château Coutet dates back to the 13th century, hundreds of years before anyone even dreamt of planting vines on the then-marshy, now-prosperous Médoc. Some parts of the château (pictured below) date from that period, as is obvious from even the briefest examination of the property; these parts have thick walls of stone, towers and defensive castellations.

Out among the northern plots of the vineyard sits a dovecot which towers above the vines (pictured further down the page), also obviously ancient, dating from the same era. There has, however, been extensive augmentation and modification to the château over the ensuing centuries, including a 14th-century chapel, two 16th-century towers and a remodelling in the 18th century.

The most recent additions to the château have a somewhat finer appearance than the early parts, with shuttered windows, tiled roofs and witch’s hat turrets atop the 18th-century towers. Thus the château at Coutet is a dramatic blend of the ancient with the modern. In a way this is makes a good analogy for the family that run the estate and the wine that they make; there is no shortage of awareness of the heritage of the estate and its place within the Sauternes firmament, but add in a bright new generation in the shape of Aline Baly, currently taking the helm, and this estate is certainly one that is looking forward rather than back.

Coutet: A Potted History
Although those very early buildings still stand today, an integral part of the château at Coutet, little is known about the ownership of the estate during the first few centuries of its existence. Even the derivation of the name is obscure; it is possible that it relates to one of the original proprietors, although there is a suggestion that it is derived from a Gascon word for knife, reflecting the refreshing cut of the palate I suppose. The earliest records that exist take us to 1643, and indicate that the estate was purchased by local politician Charles de Guerin, and from him it passed to Jean de Pichard in 1695, and then in 1788 onto Gabriel-Barthélémy-Romain de Filhot, who also owned Doisy-Daëne and, of course, Château Filhot (which explains the striking resemblance between the Coutet and Filhot labels). I hope he made the most of his time at Coutet, because by 1794 he found himself at the wrong end of the guillotine, as did his wife, Thérèse Filhot Chimbaud. The Filhot estate, which included Coutet, was presumably divided up and auctioned off, as was the customary practice with confiscated property. Nevertheless, the Filhot name remained intimately associated with the estate, and within a few years it was back in their hands. Marie-Geneviève de Filhot, the orphaned daughter of Gabriel-Barthélémy-Romain and Thérèse, married Antoine-Marie de Lur-Saluces of Château d’Yquem, and by 1810 the political scene was sufficiently different for her to take possession of Coutet once again. Together she and Antoine-Marie owned not only Yquem and Coutet, but also Fargues, de Malle and nearby Château Piada.

The Lur-Saluces family maintained control of Coutet for over a century, but by 1922 production had dropped off significantly, perhaps as a result of the oidium epidemic of the mid-19th century, followed of course by phylloxera. The economic climate had also changed significantly, and through the 20th century the demand for Sauternes was to decline. At this point they decided to sell the estate, and it was taken on by the Société Immobilière des Grands Crus de France, who had acquired a number of significant Bordeaux properties, including Brane-Cantenac, Issan, Lagrange and Branaire-Ducru. Their tenure, however, was short, as after just a few years Coutet was again sold, this time to an industrialist named Henri-Louis Guy. Guy set about restoring and renovating, his refurbishment including the installation of the very hydraulic wine presses that he himself manufactured, but this came to an end when he died, bequeathing the estate to one of his two daughters, a Madame Thomas. A widower, she subsequently married a clergyman Edmond Rolland, who left behind his ecclesiastical career in order to wed her. Together they resided at Coutet and ran the estate with some skill, up until the point of Madame Rolland-Guy’s death in 1977. It was at that point that the current owners, the Baly family, originally from Alsace, took control.

The Baly Family
It was Marcel Baly that acquired the estate, although it has since been passed onto his sons, Dominique and Philippe, with the latter having the more prominent role. The vineyard was not in tip-top condition when they moved in, and the wines were certainly less than ideal, being rather lighter and more delicate than we would expect today. There was a lot of work required initially in the vineyard, with extensive replanting, and then also in the cellars. It was a decade before the benefits of their labours became tangible, and I have long been an ardent admirer of the 1989, which was one of the first vintages to show what this vineyard was really capable of.

In 1994 the Baly family signed a distribution deal with Baron Philippe de Rothschild SA, and so these days wherever you find Mouton-Rothschild you are also quite likely to find Coutet. One great benefit of this relationship, however, was that the deal included technical advice from the technical director at Mouton Patrick Léon. More recently it has been Philippe Dhalluin who has filled this role, and it seems to me that these two individuals should also take some of the credit for the continued improvement in quality in the wines of Château Coutet.

In more recent years Philippe Baly has been joined by his niece Aline, who was educated in the USA, including a stint at the Kellogg School of Management in Illinois, USA. As the current head of marketing and communications at Coutet she is increasingly the modern face of this estate, maintaining a hectic schedule of travelling and showing the wines before, I imagine, she will eventually settle at the estate and take over the day-to-day running of the property. In the meantime Philippe remains managing director, splitting his time between Bordeaux and Dallas where his family live, maintaining the very Anglo-French feel at Coutet. He is assisted at the estate by technical director Bernard Constantin, in the cellars by Laurier Girardot and in the vineyard by Luc Pays.

Vineyards and Vinification
This is a large vineyard, the largest in Barsac in fact; the entire estate amounts to 42 hectares, of which 38.5 hectares are committed to the vine; the estate is bisected only by a narrow road which runs up through Coutet, past Doisy-Daëne, and ultimately on to Climens on the distant rise. Here we are at a heady 12 metres above sea level, an almost mountainous altitude for this region, although not quite matching the 20 metres found at Climens, the highest point for the appellation. The vines are 75% Semillon and 23% Sauvignon Blanc, the remaining 2% Muscadelle, and there is an ongoing program of replanting in order to replace older stock, maintaining an average age within the vineyard of 35 years. They are planted on the usual Bordeaux rootstocks Riparia-Gloire and 420A with a density of 7500 vines per hectare.

As is typical of the Barsac vineyards the soils underfoot are a mix of gravel and the classic red clay of the appellation over a limestone bedrock rich in starfish and shellfish fossils, laid down when this was an ancient seabed. The yields are typically 9 hl/ha, the remarkably low figure the result of botrytis-induced dehydration of the fruit, with the number of tries reaching double figures in some vintages, although the average number during is six. Only 50% of the harvest finds its way into the grand vin, the remainder destined for the second wine or being sold off with that picked from the young vines, which in this case means those less than seven years old, particularly subject to exclusion. The fruit is pressed, using a traditional vertical press alongside and a more modern cylindrical machine. The fruit is then transferred to barrel, 100% new, for fermentation en barrique. The blending will typically yield a wine that is richer in Semillon than the vineyard might suggest, with this variety typically accounting for 84% of the assemblage, with 14% Sauvignon Blanc and 2% Muscadelle. In occasional vintages the amount of Semillon may be higher, up to 90%. The élevage will last for up to 18 months before bottling.

The most commonly encountered wine is the grand vin Château Coutet (up to 3500 cases per annum), followed perhaps by the second wine Chartreuse de Coutet (of which there are only around 400 cases each year). There is also a dry Graves, the Vin Sec de Château Coutet. The crème de la crème, however, is a super-selection named Cuvée Madame, only released in vintages of exceptional quality. This cuvée was created by Edmond Rolland in honour of his wife, the aforementioned Madame Rolland-Guy, and is the result of a very precise berry-by-berry selection in the vineyard, using only Semillon from two particular plots of vines, the fruit seeing a light pressing and fermentation followed by three years in oak. It is exclusive, with a production of perhaps 700 cases (in selected vintages only, namely 1943, 1949, 1959, 1971, 1975, 1981, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990 and 1995) and is priced accordingly. Interestingly there was once also a dry red, but this has long-since been discontinued.

Coutet: Tasting and Drinking
My opinion of Coutet is that this is now not only one of the leading properties in Barsac, but in all Sauternes. In this respect it is inevitably compared to Climens, which is after all just a few minutes walk up the road and which is the only other premier cru property located in the commune, and whereas prior to and during the first few years of the Baly takeover this would have been a poor comparison, today Coutet and Climens are undoubtedly turning out wines of comparable quality. The modern-day Coutet displays the fresh, racy acidity that is said to typify the wines of Barsac, more so than those of Sauternes, together with an ethereal, floral character in the best examples, and demonstrates that extra vibrancy and excitement that persuades me to buy as well as try. Bravo to the Baly family! (9/2/06, updated 19/6/07, 2/2/12)

Contact details:
Address: Château Coutet, 33720 Barsac
Telephone: +33 (0) 5 56 27 15 46
Fax: +33 (0) 5 56 27 02 20
GPS: 44.59499, -0.325648

Château Coutet – Tasting Notes

2010 Château Coutet (Barsac) 2010: A remarkable residual sugar of 169 g/l. There is lifted, rather minerally fruit on the nose here, honeyed, dense and yet chalky altogether. Great substance, very pure, polished, with a floral edge to the relaxed fruit character. A lovely grainy substance to the texture of the wine with a tight grip, surely denoting a wealth of botrytis substance here, with superb citrus tones over the top and vibrant acidity. Very dense and not short of length and character at all. This is a superb Coutet, one that is undoubtedly set for the long haul. From my Bordeaux 2010 primeurs assessment. 17.5-18.5/20 (April 2011)

2009 Château Coutet
Château Coutet (Barsac) 2009: A lovely freshness on the nose, with just a little hint of baked apple sweetness but above all a honeyed, beeswax-tinged vigour to it. The palate has all the delicious weight of the vintage, perhaps slightly more restrained than some, or at least it feels that way, balanced by a citrusy acidity and lovely touches of grip. There is a lovely harmony here, elegant and fresh at the same time. Overall, this is delicious, and promises greatness if given the appropriate time in the cellar. From my tasting of 2009 Sauternes at two years of age. 19/20 (October 2011)

Château Coutet (Barsac) 2009: Residual sugar 146 g/l. Fabulously vibrant on the nose, lifted and rather direct, much more so than many of the wines from neighbouring Sauternes, with an ethereal and crystalline character, plus nuances of star fruit and plum. Balanced texture, fresh and direct, with lots of composed substance. Intense purity and great elegance here, and also a seam of botrytis. Freshness too. Excellent. Surely one of the greatest examples of Coutet ever? From my 2009 Bordeaux en primeur assessment. 18.5-19.5+/20 (March 2010)

2008 Château Coutet
Château Coutet (Barsac) 2008: An elegant nose, with lemon-golden fruit, stylish and reserved. A light minerality, citrus intensity, fresh rather than botrytis-laden in terms of aromatics here. A lovely weight on the palate, quite substantial, honeyed but fresh, with a good grip at its core, supple and with a fine acidic tingle at the very tip of the wine although it is less marked than that with Climens. Great potential here. Just a slight fruit-pastille edge to the sweetness emphasising youthful passerillage. Fine potential. From my tasting of 2008 Sauternes at two years of age. 17+/20 (October 2010)

Château Coutet (Barsac) 2008: This has a fairly light nose, a little stony, and just a tinge of vanilla. Leaner in texture, a little more diffuse than I expected, with a solid composition underneath, and a little grip. Not the usual definition, weight or intensity here. A decent effort in a difficult vintage though. From my 2008 Bordeaux en primeur assessment. 15.5-16.5+/20 (April 2009)

2007 Château Coutet
Château Coutet (Barsac) 2007: A brilliant nose here, a touch more marmaladey botrytis richness than some, with sweet oranges and pineapple, all presented in a very bright and fresh style. The palate is just beautiful, elegant, just dancing along. There is richness as the nose suggested but it is wrapped up in a finely balanced. Superb. From my tasting of 2007 Sauternes at two years of age. 18.5+/20 (October 2009)

Château Coutet (Barsac) 2007: A fine, minerally, aromatic nose here, rich and intense, with lemon curd and apricot aromas. A fleshy beginning, thickly textured through the midpalate, but with good peppery acidity providing some balance. A lovely composition, intense yet nicely poised, and with a lively finish and sweet length. This is potentially excellent. From my 2007 Bordeaux en primeur assessment. 17-18+/20 (April 2008)

2006 Château Coutet
Château Coutet (Barsac) 2006: Beautifully fresh citrus fruits on the nose, pure and aromatic. Great substance here, really quite a fat texture, but underneath it all a minerally-chalky seam, giving a fresh and vibrant feel to it. Lovely substance leading into a sweet-sappy finish. Long. For the vintage I think this is very impressive. From a 2010 Coutet update. 17+/20 (February 2010)

Château Coutet (Barsac) 2006: A gentle, fresh, orange marmalade aroma here; it is quite dense, with a slightly high-toned element to it. Fresh, quite tight on the palate, firm, with a pastille-like intensity to the fruits. Nice acidity, and showing a little more botrytis than some of the other wines here today. With time in the cellar I think this might be a very nice wine indeed. From my tasting of 2006 Sauternes at two years of age. 16.5+/20 (October 2008)

2005 Château Coutet (Barsac) 2005: From a half bottle. The first of a large consignment recently added to the cellar; I will be drinking this for years! Mid-gold hue on inspection. The nose has elements of marmalade, bitter oranges, apricot and certainly the richness of botrytis. Fabulously rich, honeyed, impressive, full and broad and densely sweet and compact. Still quite primary but with deep fruit complexity, with notes of almonds. This will drink well for a very long time, but I think I will leave it for a few years before I open another. Very long. From a 2010 Coutet update. 18+/20 (February 2010)

2004 Château Coutet (Barsac) 2004: Very youthful on the nose, with aromas of honeysuckle and honey alongside some sweet and unresolved oak. The palate has a fat and creamy nature, with a well rounded and broad presence. Although rich it has elegance and freshness, defined by a nice backbone of acidity, as well as a lovely floral edge. This is really very good indeed and could well be excellent one day. From a Bordeaux 2004 tasting. 17.5+/20 (November 2007)

2003 Château Coutet (Barsac) 2003: A fine golden hue in the glass, promising in terms of appearance, although not an incredibly rich-looking wine. But that isn’t true of the nose, which is just fabulous, with beautiful rôti fruit, a blend of apricots, honey, freshly baked biscuits, coconut and sweet cinnamon-tinged pastries. Overall this has a fantastically seductive character, and the palate is no different, blending a great substance with a deliciously fresh acidity which carries the wine along into an amazing finish. Rich, full of slightly bitter beeswax notes and with piles of grip behind the sweet substance, this is just heart-breaking stuff. Smoky too. A remarkable intertwining of fresh acidity, vibrancy of flavour and rich substance. Very long. Superb wine. From a tasting of 2003 Bordeaux. 19/20 (June 2011)

1999 Château Coutet (Barsac) 1999: This has a lovely intensity and richness on the nose, and a ripe array of honey and honeysuckle to provide light and interest. Rounded, but fresh and deliciously broad, but with gentle flavours of a floral nature like those on the nose, with oranges, blossom and botrytis. A nice vein of acidity and a lovely finish and length. Overall very stylish and certainly of very high quality. And I suspect it will get better and better. 18+/20 (November 2007)

Vin Sec de Château Coutet (Graves) 1999: An expressive nose, with good fruit which has a slightly tropical character. Clean, fresh, limpid palate. Wonderful acidity, a tiny bit of grip, and a plush, rounded mouthfeel. A firm and fabulous length. This needs three or four years in the cellar, after which it should drink for decades. 16+/20 (May 2004)

1998 Château Coutet
Château Coutet (Barsac) 1998: More exuberance on the nose than I expected here, with marmalade richness from the botrytis and elements of smoke. Not so expressive on the palate, although it certainly has an appealing sappy and substantial character. Perhaps not the vigour and definition of a truly great vintage but this wine still has plenty of character and a fine seam of acidity giving it lift and life. Still fairly raw and primary at present though; it needs time. From a 2010 Coutet update. 16.5+/20 (February 2010)

Château Coutet (Barsac) 1998: Good vibrant fruit on the nose, displaying a pleasing level of botrytis too. Firm, with good quince fruit, and very good sweetness on the palate, with a barley sugar, sweet and smoky character. The acidity is fairly low, which gives it a very open, accessible, eager-to-please feel. This is an early drinker (like some other 1998s) and is approachable now. Very good. 16.5/20 (November 2005)

Chartreuse de Coutet (Barsac) 1998: The second wine. This was a year of moderate botrytis only, say Dominique Baly, and this shows through in the wine. Sweet fruit on the nose, with just a little botrytis. Acacia and floral notes on the palate; there is some botrytis here too but it adds little to the overall texture or impact. Although elegant it is still a little awkward and although approachable now it needs a couple more years to show its best I think.15.5/20 (May 2004)

1997 Château Coutet
Château Coutet (Barsac) 1997: A fabulous nose here, full of cinder toffee and rôti fruit, roasted caramel aromas and more. This is divine and very suggestive. One the palate it starts off fresh, a touch lean and reserved, but rapidly blossoms out to a full, creamy, textured wine carrying a complex array of flavours. The acidity is perfectly balanced, giving a subtle freshness. This is very fine. Every time I taste it this just gets better and better, as does my score. 19+/20 (November 2006)

Château Coutet (Barsac) 1997: Last tasted only a year or so ago. This has great concentration on the nose, with powerful aromas leaping up from the glass. Piles of botrytis on the palate, which is loaded with quince flavour. Fine, grippy style, with a great presence in the mouth, with superb acidity giving a much needed precision. This has wonderful structure, and is built for the long haul. Seems just a touch more impressive than my last tasting – perhaps an effect of putting this alongside the 1998. 18.5+/20 (November 2005)

Château Coutet (Barsac) 1997: A rich botrytised nose, and plenty of botrytis-derived sensuality on the palate too; this wine has real body, character and texture. It is firm and grippy, but has a plush, rounded mouthfeel, and the floral complexity one seeks also. A firm, fabulous length. This needs another four or five years, and will then drink for decades. 18+/20 (May 2004)

1996 Château Coutet (Barsac) 1996: Lots of high-toned honeyed fruit on the nose here. This wine has decent concentration and is quite appealing, which I find quite impressive for the vintage. It is rich, soft and rounded, with moderate acidity. Good depth of flavour. Attractive style and a very worthwhile effort. 16+/20 (November 2006)

Château Coutet (Barsac) 1994: Only a mid-golden hue here, certainly not a colour suggesting great concentration or mature complexity. The nose starts off rather tame, showing a little smoky fruit and also a little matchsticky note; this latter element largely blows off, although the wine never really shakes off a slightly volatile, painty aroma alongside the fruit. Nicely textured on the start of the palate, rather fresh, still with that matchsticky element here, but also the suggestion of something smoky, and a hint of volcanic minerality. Sweet, gently composed, with yellow pastille fruit. It has rather an anonymous finish. Quickly fades, seems rather muted at this point. Overall this is certainly not a great example of Coutet, but it was not a vintage that favoured the wines of Sauternes and Barsac. From a tasting of 1994 Bordeaux. 15/20 (August 2011)

Château Coutet (Barsac) 1994: A pale golden hue, belying the vintage. An appealing nose, offering up some scents of quince and oranges presented in a very sweet and bright style, although there is some volatility too. The initial impression is of a sweet, creamy wine with a decent substance, although through the midpalate and on subsequent tastes it is clear that this wine is a touch simple and straightforward. It is delicate, with a rather floral, chalky character. Not a bad wine, but a lightweight with a short finish. But this is all within the context of a weak vintage for Sauternes & Barsac. A good effort, I suppose. From a 1994 Bordeaux tasting. 15.5/20 (April 2007)

Château Coutet (Barsac) 1994: Not a great vintage for Sauternes, and my only previous experience has been Climens (enjoyable) and Yquem (dodgy). The 1994 Coutet has recently been dumped on the UK market. Pale hue. Rather simple but fruity nose, showing pineapple and candied citrus peel with a pleasing chalky, minerally depth. Sadly this doesn’t translate to the palate, which is rather light and certainly lacks the botrytis derived complexity of a great vintage. A little dilute through the midpalate. Smoky and a little sulphurous. In its favour it has sweet, somewhat tropical, fruit flavour, and fresh acidity providing a much needed sense of balance. Shows some fat on the finish, but this is rather short. It has faults, but it has good points too, and is available at a very low price. Drink now – although I have a couple more halves and I think I will leave these to see what happens with time. 15/20 (August 2005)

1991 Château Coutet (Barsac) 1991: A moderately intense colour. The nose has aromas of marmalade and quince. Lovely weight and texture on the palate, and very nicely balanced. There is, however, some dilution of concentration and flavour through the midpalate, although with exposure to air (24 hours) the palate fleshed out somewhat. There’s a savoury richness on the finish. A worthwhile effort for this disastrous vintage. Drink up. 14.5/20 (July 2002)

Château Coutet (Barsac) 1989: I have plenty of this vintage in the cellar, but what harm tasting it again with Aline Baly? A fabulously deep, burnished hue. Dense and minerally on the nose, and with a lovely soft and sappy presence on the palate, with the density of fruit and pure grit of a great vintage. The aromas and flavours of roasted oranges, quince and smoke. A superb wine with a long life ahead of it yet. From a 2010 Coutet update. 18.5/20 (February 2010)

Château Coutet (Barsac) 1989: A rich, burnished, orange-gold hue. The nose is delightful, classically rich botrytis, with a medley of aromas including oranges, sweet marmalade, toffee and a little high-toned complexity. Quince, overt rôti fruit, fabulous style. On the palate beautiful purity, richness and elegance. Rounded, polished, seamless and complete, very smoky in character, and showing more grip and intensity on the finish. Good but not overt acidity; this is really nicely balanced. Sweet, tangerine fruit length, that goes on and on. Excellent wine. What remained of this I enjoyed over several days, and it held up very well indeed. There’s no rush to drink up here, and I am glad of that; I have quite a few bottles left in the cellar yet. From a 1989 vintage twenty years on tasting. 18.5/20 (November 2009)

Château Coutet (Barsac) 1989: A gloriously rich, copper-gold can be viewed through the clear glass of the bottle, and once in the glass this intense display is hardly diminished. It suggests opulence, although the nose releases a measured array of aromas which lend hope that this will not be over the top. There is a vein of sweet oranges and marmalade, but also apricots and nuts, and that heady, quince-tinged rôti characteristic which is so difficult to describe but comes from the action of a good smattering of botrytis. The palate has an immediately apparent weight and a delicious, seamless presence on the palate, but also has a fairly smart acidity and even some grip towards the finish. A good, broad, sweet and creamy style, with a butter twist right at the end, and perhaps unsurprisingly a good length. Excellent. A 2007 Christmas wine. 18.5/20 (December 2007)

1983 Château Coutet (Barsac) 1983: Sampled from two half bottles, both with a lovely rich golden colour. The first showed rich botrytis on the nose, and a powerful, sweet palate. Good fruit acids. Notes of elderflower and acacia. This is the lighter of the two bottles, and it is very good. The second is better, showing even greater richness and power. Fuller and richer on the palate, more fat and weighty. Also has lovely, balancing acidity. This is lovely stuff. From a 1983 vintage twenty year on blind tasting. 18/20 (April 2003)

1981 Château Coutet (Barsac) 1981: Tasted alongside Château Rieussec 1981. A moderate colour. Sweet, racy, some botrytis on the nose. Very impressive palate for a lesser vintage; Lovely honey, quince, pineapple and citrus elements to be found, with firm acidity. Very good. 17.5/20 (July 2004)

1961 Château Coutet (Barsac) 1961: A rich, golden-orange hue. Roasted oranges and marmalade on the nose, rather bright, rather leafy and herby, but certainly a rich style. This has a nice, creamy character on the palate, fresh with decent acidity, but with those rich characteristics that were found on the nose. A good broad presence, fairly lively, attractive, a little grip to it even. Nice length. Very well put together, but more vigour and complexity would be appreciated. From a 1961 Bordeaux tasting. 16.5/20 (June 2007)

by Chris Kissack