Vinous – Come On Aline: Château Coutet 1943-2017

15 February 2024

“Come On Eileen” is the 1982 transatlantic, rabble-rousing chart-topper that, in my halcyon days behind the Technics 1210s, I played on countless occasions, usually sandwiched between “Blue Monday” and “The Lovecats”. Empty dance floor? No problem. Just deploy this Dexy’s Midnight Runners classic. By the time the piano glissando pre-empts that Celtic-tinged euphoric fiddle refrain, the dance floor would be thronging. And once you reached its bridge where the tempo grinds to a halt and rebuilds, one-and-all chanting “Come On Eileen” to whoever was dancing next to them with a nonsensical “Too-Rye-Ay” for good measure…well…the crowd was putty in your hands.

Who exactly was Eileen?

According to its composer, singer and maverick genius Kevin Rowland, his inspiration was never a single person, though, in the accompanying video, the sister of Bananarama singer Siobhan Fahey played Eileen. There’s a factoid for you.

Of course, “Come On Eileen” has nothing to do with Château Coutet. Rewatching the video,unless edited out, I cannot see any wanton consumption of Sauternes. I suppose fine wine didn’t exactly chime their vagabond attire, those shabby dungarees that Dexy’s sported at the time. But I am certain that if Dexy’s had done a French version, it would be named Allez Aline after the estate’s “young and clever” co-owner. Thinking about it, Allez Aline sounds even better than its English translation. Perhaps the other connection is that both wine and song elicit so much joy, one tasted, and one heard.

Toora loora toora loo rye ay!

Let’s continue with the article and delve back into Coutet’s history.


In the 14th century, Coutet was built as an English fortress known as a Salasse (or Salace). Its square tower continues to watch the daily comings and goings in the courtyard, though one assumes its incumbent occupiers no longer fear any attack.

“The square tower is typical of military constructions from the time of English occupation during the reign of Eleanor of Aquitaine,” Aline Baly explains. “A second tower, located in the property’s northern plot, is another example of that era’s architecture, and this landmark was originally built to breed pigeons and peacocks for the region’s Gascon lords. There is also a chapel designed in the 14th century, as well as two 18th-century towers on the northern façade of the château. The rest of the château’s living quarters are believed to originate from the 16th century.”

Parliamentarian Charles de Guérin, Lord of Coutet, first cultivated vines in 1643 when pourriture noble was an unknown and serendipitous phenomenon. Philippe Baly once suggested to me that viticulture might even stretch back to Gallo-Roman times since Sémillon was planted in the vicinity from the 4th century. Guerin passed the estate to his nephew Jean Le Pichard, another affluent political figure who owned Lafite in Pauillac; thereafter, his family members inherited Coutet. In 1787, Thomas Jefferson noted that the estate produced 150 tonneaux of wine and that its prices could achieve parity with Yquem. There’s a tagline for the marketing department at the time! Gabriel Barthelemy de Filhot, a cousin of the erstwhile proprietor and owner of the titular estate, purchased Coutet just one year later, but inconveniently, in 1794, his neck found itself on the wrong side of the guillotine. Curiously, there are no records of Coutet being sequestered and sold off by the French State. What is for certain is that through the marriage of Barthelemy de Filhot’s daughter, Marie-Geneviève, to Antoine-Marie de Lur Saluces, it became part of the family’s impressive portfolio of Sauternes estates that included de Fargues, Filhot, de Malle and of course, Yquem.

In the 19th century, when Sauternes’ wines were more coveted and illustrious than those of the aristocrats in Médoc, Coutet was one of the appellation’s most esteemed estates. The 1863 edition of Bordeaux et Ses Vins ranks the château at the top of the Première Crus ahead of its Barsac ‘rival’, Climens.
Coutet belonged to the de Lur Saluces family until 1922 when Romain Bertrand de Lur Saluces sold the estate to Henri-Louis Guy. His family hailed from Lyon and had built up a successful enterprise manufacturing hydraulic wine presses, so there was already a connection with wine. Guy had two daughters, one of whom was widowed early on in life. An old acquaintance,the abbot Edmond Rolland, oversaw her children’s education. They fell in love, and Rolland renounced his faith in order to marry, his ardor such that he created a special cuvée in her honor, “Cuvée Madame,” a 100-case crème de tête produced in selected years. Readers should click here for an article I published in 2019 about this rare Sauternes, and you will find one recent tasting note for the 2015 in this article. 

In 1977, Rolland sold Coutet to Marcel Baly. After a career in the military, Baly founded and ran a logistics and transportation company in Alsace for 30 years. He discovered Coutet through drinking with his wine-loving friends. According to his son, Philippe Baly, he simply fell in love with the land and its people, almost impulsively deciding it would be an ideal retirement project. Perhaps underestimating the commitment needed to run a Bordeaux château, he asked his sons, Philippe and Dominique, to lend a hand. The task might have been bigger than foreseen, though he never regretted the decision to buy the Sauternes property;on the contrary, he rued that he had never bought a vineyard earlier in his life. “He was dynamic, straightforward, a businessman with a personality and a love for challenges,” Philippe Baly once explained. “I don’t think there is another property that would have matched him better than Coutet. The style and estate reflect his personality, and also his Alsace roots, plus managing the estate provided an ongoing and fascinating challenge that got him up early in the morning.”

The family has continued investing in the estate and signed an exclusive distribution deal in 1994 with Baron Philippe de Rothschild SA. Dominique Baly’s daughter, Aline, joined Coutet in 2008 after graduating from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania and receiving an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management in Illinois. A self-confessed bookworm, her first job was not in a winery but a bookshop. I asked whether she thought that one day she would be corunning Coutet.

“I grew up in the Boston area and also lived in Hong Kong for a couple of years. I never intended to come to Coutet. To cut a long story short, my brother decided to pursue his motorcycle passion, and so my uncle and dad were keen to convince me to switch industries. It was not a hard sell after experiencing my first wine event in London in 2005. This event set the wheels in motion. Three years later, after obtaining my MBA, I arrived at Coutet to comanage the estate with my uncle. Today, I also work in a family group that owns and manages several 1855 Grands Crus Classés as Marketing and Events Director.”

I wondered how the decision-making process is conducted between Dominique, Philippe and Aline Baly.


Where does the buck stop?

“It is a collaborative effort between two generations. We are united in our vision of Coutet. We spend a lot of time communicating and discussing every aspect of the family business. My dad is very much the long-term strategy guy. Philippe is the operational and logistics expert. While I contribute my marketing and communication expertise. In my 15 years, we’ve never been in a situation where we don’t agree on the big picture and thus the decision that needs to be made. We do sometimes have a different approach, and so usually, whoever has the most experience gets to drive the process. But I have to say that my uncle has shown an extraordinary openness to the new generation’s methodology.”

What have been the major changes at the estate since she joined?

“Apart from introducing a new wine in 2010, Opalie de Château Coutet, our dry white, a major change at the estate since 2008, has been to proactively engage and interact with wine enthusiasts. We successfully communicate our savoir-faire, our excellence, our traditions and our love of Coutet with lobster and turkey. We reach many individuals, some already familiar with the estate and many others who are new to the sweet wines of Bordeaux.”

The Vineyard & Vinification

The vineyard consists of 38.5 hectares of vine, which makes it the largest property in Barsac. I asked Aline Baly if it has always remained the same.

“After the classification of 1855, several plots of Coutet were sold over time by the previous owners,” she replies. “One of our objectives upon arriving at Coutet in 1977 was to rebuild the original vineyard of that era. It took us several decades, but today, the vineyard is successfully reconstituted after acquisitions over time of all plots that belonged to the estate during the period of the 1855 Classification. The last plot to be purchased was in 2023. So today, we can indeed say that the vineyard is the same as the vineyard from 1855.”

I ask Baly to break down the vineyard in terms of soil type.

“There are eight different types of soil at Château Coutet: 0-20cm consists of a rather siltysandy horizon from alluvium of the Garonne (fluvial deposits), 20-50 up to 70cm is silt and red clay from the decalcification of the source rock and from 50cm to 70cm is limestone bedrock. Despite a core common to all of our soils, the inter-plot variability is very important. The limestone bedrock gives the mineral characteristic typical of our wines, while the cold soil gives the aromatic and gustatory freshness of our wines. Our particularity is our vivacity – as embodied by the estate’s name. Coutet comes from the word ‘knife’. The vivacity cutting through the sweetness of the wines.”

Coutet’s soil profile compares favorably to other Barsac estates with more sandy soil compositions. But it also means that Coutet’s is one of the coldest meso-climates within the appellation and, therefore, at risk of late spring frosts. The vineyard is planted with 75% Sémillon, 23% Sauvignon Blanc, and 2% Muscadelle, which have remained unchanged over the years. The key difference between Coutet and Climens are those rows of Sauvignon Blanc, its fellow Barsac, entirely planted with Sémillon. The average vine age is 35 years, and the vines are planted at 7,500 per hectare.

Aline Baly detailed the particulars of Coutet’s vineyard in terms of rootstock, husbandry and pruning.

“We are currently working a lot on our rootstocks. Historically, the 3309 Couderc was planted in Coutet. This rootstock works well to obtain quality and is a great match for young vines. However, we are considering using rootstock that is a bit more resistant to drought conditions, allowing our young wines to fare better during hotter temperatures. For more than 25 years, Coutet has used massale selection. This is possible with the existence of a common conservatory amongst the classified growths of Sauternes and Barsac, which allows the appellation to complete R&D projects. The average age of our vines is 52 years. Our oldest vines are 80 years old.”

“We never carry out green harvesting at Coutet. This is because the vines have reached an age when they produce lower yields and also because it would impact maturity levels before the attack of the Botrytis cinerea and, as a result, produce more acidity. We follow a classic pruning protocol using the Sauternes method. In recent years, we have adjusted our pruning period, starting in March, in order to minimize the risk of loss due to spring frost.”

With the exception of Climens, biodynamics is rare in Sauternes. It tips the small odds even further away from winemakers’ favor. I ask about this with respect to Coutet and whether they have considered applying Rudolf Steiner’s tenets.

“We are certified HVE. The potential high level of humidity present in the region due to our microclimate and terroir, since clay retains water, does add a layer of complexity when determining protocols. We take a sustainability approach to our work. We do what we need to do when we need to do it. No more, no less.”

In other words, it is just too risky.

The Harvest

In a previous interview a few years ago, Philippe Baly told me how his team of up to 80 pickers comb through the vineyard up to eight times per harvest. “We wait for the Botrytis to arrive,” Aline Baly tells me.


“And for sugar concentration levels to reach the ‘sweet spot’. What we observe is that there is usually a week to two-week period between the arrival of the Botrytis and the concentration levels we seek. We constantly observe the vineyard. There is a lot of experience and intuition at play. The weather is also a factor to consider. It is very important to have the ability to adjust rapidly, to be able to change as the situation evolves – to be reactive to the uncontrollable!”

Further to this, I enquire whether they seek a mix of botrytized and non-infected fruit to help maintain freshness and acidity and also if there is much difference between Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc in this respect.

“It is impossible to make a great Barsac without a significant proportion of Botrytis. The objective is to harvest with more than 90% of botrytized (or should I say ‘beau-trytised’)grapes. Sémillon is the optimal varietal for Botrytis due to the compact shape of its clusters, which allows ventilation and a microclimate conducive to noble rot. The Sauvignon Blanc will be picked first due to the higher risk of disease because of its thinner skin. As a result, we will not have the same concentration objective for this varietal. The Sauvignon Blanc will come into the cellar botrytized but of a lower concentration.”


Once the fruit is picked and transferred back to the winery in small cagettes, what is the approach in terms of sorting?

“The key is to sort the maximum as you pick the grapes, that is to say, directly in the vineyard.The harvesters are sorting at the very first steps of picking. This minimizes the risk of any contamination of healthy clusters from bad rot. The sorting table is simply to validate the work done by the harvesters. This process requires a lot of upfront training on all the different types of rots. A final visual inspection of the harvest during the filling of the presses is completed by the cellar master to have a precise idea of the quality of the lot, allowing us to take a custom approach to vinification.”

“We have three horizontal presses set for gentle pressing to optimize the levels of sugar and acidity. We start our fermentations in vats to allow better kinetics and lots that ferment homogeneously in barrels. Our protocols are in perpetual evolution according to the different vintages, but also according to our experience with past vintages.”

I asked Aline Baly for specifics about the élevage, which is 100% in new oak for 18 months.

“Our percentage of new oak has evolved in past years to adapt to each harvest. The quality of our oak barrels is a key contributor to our fermentation-in-barrel protocol. The complexity of the wine is given exclusively by the Botrytis, and we don’t seek a contribution from the barrel to obtain the wine’s expression. We have several coopers, exclusively French oak barrels with three or four rackings.”

Neal Martin