Wine is shaped by the weather, and every year is different. But aperitifs, vermouths, and other wine-based products rarely tell you which vintage you're getting on the bottle—you expect consistency when you buy Dubonnet or Carpano Antica from year to year. But Lillet has released a few vintage bottlings in especially good years for white Bordeaux wines, and one of those, 2009, has just reached the market.
The Reserve Jean de Lillet 2009 is made from single-vintage Sauternes (a blend of 80% Semillon, 15% Sauvignon Blanc, and 5% Muscadelle), mixed with orange liqueur flavored with Spanish sweet orange peels and bitter oranges from Haiti, plus 'a secret blend of fruit liqueurs produced in Lillet's distillery' and quinine. The blend is aged for 12 months in French oak barrels that are 225 liters. (Regular Lillet is aged in large oak vats ranging from 8,000 liters to 20,000 liters.) The suggested retail price for this bottling is $39.99.
The 2009 Reserve Jean de Lillet pours an orangey gold, and the flavor is markedly rich, toasty and honeyed. The acidity is enough to pucker your mouth a little and balance the heft of the stuff, but it's hard to pick out other individual flavors. Everything is mellowed and slid between the grains of the oak (and a touch of oxidation): orange peels, yes, and quinine to dry out the finish, but you could be lulled into thinking you're just drinking wine (at a potent 17% ABV). An ice cube opens up the flavors a bit, bringing out the orangey side nicely.
You can certainly drink it unadorned, but this stuff is good in a cocktail. Our favorite so far is totally easy: fill a glass with ice, add a hearty squeeze of lemon, and 2 parts Reserve Jean de Lillet to 1 part gin or bourbon. (We liked the slightly malty St. George's Dry Rye Gin as a partner for the special Lillet, and became pretty obsessed with a version of this drink made with Burnside Bourbon from Portland's Eastside Distilling.) The richness of the aged Lillet latches in to a richer spirit; you probably wouldn't go wrong with rum, either.
Have you tried this reserve bottling or previous years' editions? What did you think?