Sauternes. Gold of Bordeaux

wine cellar

The renowned Sauternes, the white pearl of Bordeaux, holds the prestigious title of being the finest sweet wine globally, and rightfully so. Despite the waning interest in sweet wines, Sauternes continues to maintain its esteemed reputation.

What contributes to the distinctive taste and elevated price of Sauternes?

It’s the combination of factors such as the Noble Rot Botrytis cinerea, the exceptional climate of the Sauternes region, and the meticulous efforts of the winemakers.

The flavor profile of naturally sweet wines, aside from their varietal characteristics, relies on the techniques employed to maintain a high level of sugar in the wine. You can find more detailed information about this process here. Producing high-quality sweet wine necessitates conditions that enable grapes to accumulate ample sugar, halting fermentation before all the sugar is consumed.

There are four primary methods for achieving such grapes. Each method involves extracting water from the berries to enhance the concentration of sugar and aromas, resulting in a unique additional aroma for the wine.

The most unusual, labor-intensive, and challenging method involves the use of Botrytis cinerea, also known as Noble Rot.

Interestingly, the mold fungus Botrytis cinerea is a common inhabitant of vineyards. However, among winemakers, it is known by two different names depending on the circumstances.

If Botrytis appears on the berries before they are fully ripe under rainy conditions, it destroys the harvest, earning the name Grey Rot, and winemakers combat it.

However, under rare circumstances, this enemy can transform into a valuable ally, known as Noble Rot. When Botrytis begins to grow on already ripened grapes, it can produce the base for the best sweet wines.

The development of Noble Rot requires a long, non-rainy autumn with sunny days and cold, foggy mornings. The fungus’s filament creates small holes in the berry skin, allowing water to evaporate and increasing the concentration of sugar and other substances. This process also imparts additional aromas of honey and tropical dried fruits to the wine.
Conditions for Noble Rot development do not occur every year, and not every vine or grape bunch is affected by Botrytis. Consequently, botrytized berries are picked by hand only, making wine from botrytized grapes rare and expensive.

Places with a unique climate conducive to the development of Noble Rot are exceedingly rare. As such, wines made from botrytized grapes are quite rare and can be counted on one’s fingers. One such esteemed location is Sauternes.

Situated south of Bordeaux in the vast wine region of Graves, Sauternes and its neighboring region, Barsac, stand out. Wine production in these areas, as in the entire Bordeaux region, dates back to the Roman Empire. However, until the 17th century, the focus was primarily on producing dry red wines.

During this period, England was the primary importer of Bordeaux wines, favoring dry clarets. However, in the 17th century, Dutch merchants turned their attention to Bordeaux. Previously dealing in sweet German wines, the economic decline of Germany during the Thirty Years’ War prompted them to explore alternatives. Recognizing the potential of the Sauternes region for producing late-harvest sweet wines, they introduced vines of white varieties, implemented German techniques, and by the end of the 17th century, Sauternes was renowned for its sweet white wines.

The production of late-harvest wines follows a traditional approach for crafting high-quality sweet wines. It necessitates a long, warm, and dry autumn. Ripened berries are left on the vines for several weeks, gradually losing water and increasing the concentration of sugar and aromatic compounds. To achieve grape treatment with Noble Rot, an extended dry and warm autumn is imperative. Specifically, Noble Rot wines are late-harvest wines with an added twist. In addition to warm and dry conditions during the day, morning cold fog is necessary to initiate the growth of Noble Rot. While some moisture is required, it must be limited to prevent the transformation of Noble Rot into Grey Rot.

The Graves region, situated on the left bank of the Garonne River, benefits from a long, warm autumn, much like the rest of Bordeaux. In addition to the Garonne River, the sub-regions of Sauternes and Barsac are blessed with the presence of the smaller Ciron River. The water of the Ciron River is colder than that of the Garonne, and it brings with it cold morning fog to the vineyards of Sauternes and Barsac. These fogs are crucial for the development of Noble Rot, making them essential for the production of these esteemed wines.

It’s not entirely clear whether winemakers in Sauternes used Noble Rot until the 18th century or simply made late-harvest wines. However, by the 18th century, the practice of Noble Rot was well-known among winemakers in Germany and Hungary (Tokay). Some documents about Sauternes mention a “secret technology,” suggesting that they may have been early adopters of botrytized grape.

By the end of the 18th century, Sauternes wines had gained fame worldwide. Thomas Jefferson, during a visit to Château d’Yquem, the most renowned estate in Sauternes, sampled the wine and declared it the finest French white wine. He promptly ordered 250 bottles of Château d’Yquem from the 1784 vintage for George Washington and himself.

Currently, the Sauternes wine region comprises five communes: Barsac, Sauternes, Bommes, Fargues, and Preignac. All five can produce wine under the Sauternes AOC. Barsac also has the option to produce wine under its own name, Barsac AOC. Barsac is situated on the west bank of the Ciron River, with different soils that yield lighter-bodied wines compared to the rest of Sauternes.

The classification of Sauternes wines differs from that of the rest of Bordeaux. They are divided into only two categories: Deuxièmes Crus (15 wineries) and Premiers Crus (11 wineries). Château d’Yquem, due to its unique prestige, holds the title of Premier Cru Supérieur. No other winery in the entirety of Bordeaux boasts such a high classification.

Sauternes and Barsac cultivate the same white grape varieties as other Bordeaux regions, but their proportion in the wine differs. The primary grape variety in Sauternes is Semillon, covering 80% of all vines. Semillon, with its thin skin, interacts ideally with Botrytis cinerea, yielding a well-structured wine with aromas of beeswax and apricots. This forms the foundation of Sauternes, complemented by Sauvignon Blanc, which contributes herbaceous aromas and the acidity essential for wine freshness. Occasionally, a small amount of Muscadelle and Sauvignon Gris may also be added.

After the grapes ripen, they remain on the vines for several weeks to allow Noble Rot to develop. In some years, however, Botrytis fails to develop at all. In such cases, the grapes are used to produce dry wine under the Bordeaux AOC, rather than Sauternes. While such occurrences are rare, they do happen. For instance, in 2012, Château d’Yquem did not release any bottles of Sauternes due to unfavorable weather conditions.

If rain occurs, Noble Rot can transform into Grey Rot, resulting in the destruction of the grapes.

Because Botrytis develops unevenly on the grapes, botrytized grape bunches are harvested in multiple passes over several weeks, with trained workers hand-picking bunches at the optimal stage.

The risk of losing the harvest due to weather conditions and the labor-intensive hand harvesting significantly contribute to the high price of Sauternes. Grapes need sufficient time under Noble Rot to lose water and accumulate a high sugar concentration. By law, the sugar concentration in grapes for Sauternes wine must be at least 221 grams per liter, compared to 162g/l for dry white Bordeaux.

This high sugar concentration allows for residual sugar to remain in the wine after yeast fermentation. While Sauternes must have a minimum alcohol content of 13% abv, the sweetness level is not defined by specific numbers. Experts assess whether the wine is sufficiently sweet and possesses other required characteristics to be considered Sauternes. On average, Sauternes contains between 120 and 220 g/l of sugar, making it a very sweet wine.

At a certain stage, the wine intended for fermentation is transferred to new oak barrels. Fermentation can last up to a year, as the high concentration of sugar inhibits yeast activity (typically, fermentation for dry white wine takes from several weeks to several months).

After fermentation, Sauternes is typically aged in new oak barrels for 18 to 36 months. Following this, the wine is bottled and continues to age in the bottles.

While Sauternes can be enjoyed when young, it typically benefits from aging. Depending on the vintage, Sauternes reaches its peak anywhere from 5 to 40 years after production. Some Sauternes wines can even age for up to 100 years, with older Sauternes exhibiting a richer and more complex flavor profile.

Young Sauternes displays a vibrant golden hue, which gradually deepens to a rich amber color over time.

The characteristic taste of Sauternes includes notes of honey, apricot, peach, ginger, tropical fruit, and spices. As it ages, additional notes of nuts and dried fruits emerge, contributing to its complexity.

Sauternes is best served chilled, ideally between 6-10°C (42-50°F). However, as Sauternes ages, it can be served at slightly higher temperatures.

Due to its rich and saturated taste, sweet Sauternes can be enjoyed on its own. However, it also pairs wonderfully with various foods.
The high sweetness and refreshing acidity of Sauternes make it an excellent accompaniment to dishes that are fatty, salty, mineral, or even spicy. Classic pairing for Sauternes is foie gras. Roasted chicken with creamy sauce, blue cheese, oysters, and spicy Asian cuisine also would be good choice.
If pairing Sauternes with dessert, opt for lighter options such as lemon tart or meringue to complement its sweetness.

Sauternes can be pricey, but you don’t have to break the bank to enjoy a good bottle. While Château d’Yquem can fetch up to $1000 per bottle, there are many other reputable chateaux offering quality Sauternes starting at around $30 for a 375 ml half-bottle (which is the standard size for Sauternes).

It’s worth noting that in the USA, there are sweet dessert wines labeled as “sauterne” (uncapitalized and without an “s” at the end). However, these wines have nothing to do with genuine Sauternes; it’s simply another attempt to capitalize on a famous name.

Discuss on FB