Bordeaux, with all of its history and association with royalty through the years, has one shining example that trumps the rest of the region: Sauternes. This famous dessert wine is the pinnacle of luxury, and its price shows this. But, what is talked about less is how this wine is made, and where it gets its trademark flavours from.
Sauternes: A Brief History
Located in the Graves area of Bordeaux, on the Left Bank, Sauternes has actually much less history than the rest of the collective region. Just south of the Médoc, Sauternes past is pretty murky.
While the region of Bordeaux became famous for its strategic port city and close ties with England, it was their red wine that put them on the map. Because of the way Sauternes is made (more on that later), not too many people were shouting it out from rooftops.
This secrecy led to Sauternes being quite a bit less known than the reds and even dry whites of the area. Also, trade relations between France and England had been established in the 12th century, making them hundreds of years older. The production of sweet wine in the area only started around the 17th century.
As the Dutch traders had drained the swamp in the Médoc and further south around this time, they also started looking into producing white wines. Somewhere along the line, they discovered some secrets to create an incredible sweet white wine that was totally unlike anything else.
Instead of distilling much of the cheap white into brandy, they preferred to keep these famous whites of the area. When word finally got out about how great the sweet white wines of Sauternes were, Germany and Hungary were already 100 years ahead of the times with their versions of it: botrytis affected wine, or noble rot. And, I shouldn’t have to tell you that this was a game changer.
How Is Sauternes Made?
Just off the shores of the Garonne river, with little tributaries snaking through that, Sauternes is located in a pretty strategic point. Bordeaux has what’s considered a maritime climate, which is known for its rain and moisture.
With cool and foggy mornings covering the vineyards and grapes in Sauternes, the afternoon sun comes out and dries it out. This moisture in the air promotes a fungus that is known as botrytis cinerea, or noble rot.
Oddly enough, this humidity and moisture creates a fungus that dehydrates the grapes: they shrivel up, losing moisture as it punctures the skins of the grapes. This causes sugars to concentrate in each grape, as it loses water weight.
When the wine is made, they are extremely dense and full of fermentable sugars. But, in the case of Sauternes, these sugars aren’t all fermented dry. Considerable amounts are left in the wine, making them sweet as honey.
So, while Sauternes hasn’t cornered the market on botrytized wines, they were one of the originals. Similar styles of wine are made in Germany and Hungary as mentioned before, with Tokaji in Hungary being the most famous.
Because the whole taste of Sauternes is relying on these shrivelled up grapes, it makes the variable and inconsistent weather patterns of Bordeaux even worse. Whereas for dry wines, both red and white, this weather is completely undesirable.
For Sauternes, you can’t have make it without. This creates a bit of a problem for some producers. In some years, very little to no Sauternes is made. When it is, there is a huge cost of manual labour: teams of people walk up and down the vineyards picking each grape bunch for optimal levels of noble rot.
They also can’t do it all at once: because different parts of the vineyard are affected at varying times and speeds, they need to make several passes through the vineyard, jacking the price up even more. Oh, and producers also need to oak age all of these wines, sometimes for several years. There’s a few more bucks.
What Does Sauternes Taste Like?
You might be wondering if the actual fungus alters the taste of the wines: sort of. While it does help concentrate the sugars, strengthening the flavours that are already there, it does also add another dimension in and of itself.
With Sauternes, you can expect a very thick and rich wine, but that is also very balanced due to elevated acidity (kind of like with Icewine from Niagara too). Because so much residual sugar is left in the wine, they were going to be lower alcohol, coming in around 10-11%.
As for flavours, you can look for:
Because of the huge concentrations of sugar, these wines are also able to hang out in your cellar for a long time. Great examples of Sauternes have been known to go over 100 years, so don’t be in a hurry to pop yours open. With these older examples, the fresh fruit will turn more candied and stewed, and the mushroom and earthy notes from the botrytis will show more.
Sauternes Food Pairing
The classic of them all. Foie gras is a specialty around these parts of Southwest France, and the intense sweetness offsets the rich foie saltiness very well. Whether it’s a thick slab that’s pan seared, or a pate that’s spread over bread for a high end snack, you can’t go wrong.
Another great pairing, blue cheese also works very well because of its very salty nature. The Sauternes brings another element into the pairing by clearing all the salt and fat away and replacing it with sugar. Take a bite, drink, take a bite, drink… you get the idea.
Another savoury dish, a sweeter honey glazed ham will bring out the rich fruit in a Sauternes. Far from a traditional dessert dish, this just goes to show how a seemingly one dimensional wine can handle things from cheese to hams.
Upside Down Pineapple Cake
And now for a more traditional pairing, sweet with sweet. You will find truckloads of pineapple flavours in Sauternes, so it makes sense to pair it with an old school classic cake like this. The cooked fruit flavours will match great with the wine, especially if it has a little age to it.