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Château Gilette – Sauternes' Great Anomaly (June 26, 2008)

In the pantheon of unrecorded heroes, a special place must be reserved for the primordial guy who had the temerity to eat the first oyster. Alongside him, of equal right to our homage, is that anonymous European winemaker who decided to make wine from rotten grapes.

The grapes weren't actually rotten, but latter-day science proved they had been attacked by a benign fungus called Botrytis cinerea. This "noble rot," as the French call it, generates spontaneously in warm, damp conditions during the fall. A mushroom-like growth perforates the skins of grapes and allows the water in the juice to evaporate. The resulting bunches look like bats hanging on the vine. But their wizened, raisin-like berries produce the world's greatest dessert wine because of the concentration of sugars and acids that occurs. If these grapes were fermented to dryness the wine would reach a staggering 20 per cent alcohol, but because of the residual sugar they remain at a hefty, mouth-filling 14 per cent.

The world's most expensive dessert wine is the legendary Château d'Yquem, the ne plus ultra of Bordeaux's Sauternes region. To give you some idea of Yquem's stature in the wine world, when the wines of Bordeaux were classified for the Paris Exposition in 1855, Château d'Yquem was accorded Premier Grand Cru status, the only wine in the Médoc and Graves to be so honoured. The flagship First Growth reds of the region, Châteaux Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Haut-Brion, were designated only as Grands Crus appellations (Mouton-Rothschild was only elevated to First Growth status in 1973). On release Yquem costs about $500 a bottle and when it ages – which it can do for decades – the price goes up exponentially. Two years ago a "library" of each vintage of Yquem from 1860 to 2003 came under the hammer in London and was auctioned off for $1.5 million. And if you want to see a complete vertical of Yquem from 1855 to 1990 you won't find it on view at the château – you'll have to go to The Wine Cellar at the Rio Suites Hotel in Las Vegas. This impressive collection has been valued at $2 million.

If Sauternes as a wine-making phenomenon is the ugly duckling of the wine world then its Cinderella must be an even stranger representative. I give you Château Gilette, a winery that defies convention and holds its wines in epoxy-lined cement tanks for twenty years or more before bottling. Most Sauternes wines are bottled within a matter of months after the fermentation has stopped. But Gilette is something of an idiosyncratic anomaly.

Like most traditions the concept of long-aging in cement tanks began as a financial necessity. René Médeville, the original proprietor of Château Gilette, settled outside the village of Preignac in the 1930s. The economy at the time was bleak and he only had a wine press and a few old oak casks. The sweet wines of Sauternes were not selling well and new barrels were too expensive to acquire. So Médeville decided that he would build concrete tanks, since large volumes of wine mature much more slowly than in oak barrels of 250 litres. By sealing the tanks to ensure they were as anaerobic as possible he could virtually leave his wines in suspended animation until the market came around. Médeville discovered that after four or five years in the tanks his wines had hardly aged at all.

Julie Gonet-Médeville

Julie Gonet-Médeville tells the story that when her grandfather went off to fight in World War Two he instructed his wife not to touch the wines until he returned home. The time in tank got longer and longer: the 1953 vintage remained there for 27 years. When Médeville's son Christian joined the winery in 1959 together they bottled the great 1947 vintage and held the bottles back for another three to five years before putting them on the market. The 1986 vintage was only bottled last year and the 1988 vintage was bottled in April this year.

The average production at Château Gilette from its 4.5 hectare vineyard of gravel and sandy soil is 500 to 600 cases a year, made from a blend of 92 per cent Semillon, 4 per cent Sauvignon Blanc and 4 per cent Muscadelle. Pickers go through the vineyard four or five times to harvest individual clusters of grapes that have reached the desired state of desiccation. Then each of the three varieties is vinified separately before blending. The fermentation can take anywhere from three months to a year.

Recently I had the pleasure of dining with Julie Gonet-Médeville at Chez Victor in Toronto's St. Germain Hotel. A menu had been prepared to match the wines by Executive Chef David Chrystian. Prepare to have your mouth water. The wines are rated out of five stars.

First course: Butter Poached Lobster and Scallop Terrine with Tarragon-scented East Coast Oyster and Creamed Leek Chowder, served with Château Gilette Demi Sec Sauternes 1954. This style of wine is no longer made but is still available for sale. It was bottled in 1972. (Deep orange in colour with a barley sugar and marmalade nose; off-dry, smoky, caramel flavour; full-bodied and rich with great balance. Very reminiscent of an old Tokaji. *****)

Second course: Veal Tenderloin with Roast Cauliflower, "Fresh Raisins" and Mustard Sauce, with Château Gilette Crème de Tête 1985. Crème de Tête is a designation for the top wine of the château that is not made every year. (Deep orange-gold; very fresh, minerally, not sweet but firm and powerful with burnt orange peel flavours and tangerine acidity; great length. ****½)

Third course: Whole Roasted Berkshire Suckling Pig with Cumin Flat Bread, Ciel de Charlevoix Cheese, Mint and Fennel Salad, with Château Gilette Crème de Tête 1982. (Bottled in 2000; floral, orange and honey nose; semi-sweet, burnt orange peel and barley sugar flavours with a cola note; lovely mouth feel. *****)

Fourth course: Confit Big Eye Tuna with Tempura Fried Epoisses and Jalapeno Polenta, with Château Gilette Crème de Tête 1983. (Orange, more deeply coloured than the 1982; rich, orange peel, toffee, coconut and sweet grapefruit nose; perfect balance with great length; lots of Botrytis flavours here but still very fresh. The wine of the night, although the match with the tuna didn't really work. *****)

Finale: Foie Gras Torcho Brûlée with Rhubarb Compote, with Château Gilette Crème de Tête 1979. (light bronze colour; high toned caramel and orange peel nose, minerally and mouth-filling; creamy and unctuous, medium sweet. *****)

Château Gilette wines can age further in the bottle, as the 1954 vintage I tasted showed, but to ensure the integrity of the wine the Médevilles open older bottles every 25 to 30 years, taste them, top up the ullage and recork them with new corks. The 1954 we had with the meal was recorked in 2004.

These wines, because of the way they are made and held back from the market, are not inexpensive. Vintages stores in Ontario are currently carrying the 1982 Crème de Tête for $139.85 for the 375 mL format. The 1985 Crème de Tête in the same half bottle is $123.95 and the 1954 Demi Sec is $266.75.




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