Are you aware of the superior quality and intricate production process of Sauternes grapes? If not, let Bristol Bar & Grille Master Sommelier Scott Harper share his insight into the history behind Sauternes grapes, along with a few Sauternes wines to try today.
Sauternes production process
How Sauternes grapes grow is the most amazing process. They essentially allow these grapes to rot on the vine. The Sauternes region, just south of the city of Bordeaux, has a special climate. This climate produces the perfect storm of conditions for Botrytis Cinerea or “noble rot,” which in French means “pourriture noble.” This process would be a disaster for vineyard’s producing dry wines.
The Ciron River creates fog. When a warm, dry afternoon comes after this cool humid condition, the growing stage of Botrytis begins. Botrytis is a fungus that essentially attacks the grapes. The mold pierces the skin of the grapes. This dehydrates and concentrates the sugars and flavor compounds. Wineries harvest only by hand and make numerous passes through the vineyards. This allows Botrytis to affect as many grapes and bunches as possible. This painstaking process, as well as the dramatic reduction in yields, drives up the cost significantly. However, it produces a wine of great intensity and concentration. A wine that is oozing with the flavors of honey, apricot, citrus, caramel and spice.
In 1855, the wines of Sauternes were classified. The sub region of Bordeaux, France within Graves produces some of the world’s greatest dessert wines. The classification of Sauternes is often overshadowed by the 1855 classifications of the best red wines of Bordeaux. In fact, many aficionados are unaware that Sauternes, despite being keenly aware of their superior quality, were classified at the same time. There are three levels to the classification: Superior First Growth (Premier Cru Supérieur), First Growth (Premier Cru) and Second Growth (Deuxième Cru).
The five villages that can label their wines Sauternes include Sauternes; Barsac; Fargues; Preignac and Bommes. Principally three grapes grow here. The most important is Sémillon. Sémillon comprises the majority of the blend. It also has a waxy or lanolin texture combined with honey and citrus flavors.
Sauvignon blanc is secondary. It lends the crispness, which keeps the sweet wine from being cloying. It also offers lemon and a slight herbaceous quality, accompanied by tropical fruits. Lastly, the muscadelle grape lends floral qualities.
Once the grapes are harvested, the wines are fermented. The fermentation stops, leaving copious amounts of natural grape sugar. This makes it a deliciously sweet wine. Often aged in oak to add complexity and flavor, these wines are capable of aging for decades. And in the most exceptional cases, they age even longer.
Sauternes wines to try: Château d’ Yquem
In the simplest of possible terms, Chateau d’ Yquem is legendary. While it’s one of the best Sauternes wines to try, it stands alone as the only superior first growth in Sauternes. The Chateau has produced wine for over 400 years and has the resources to simply not produce wine in poor years such as 1992 and 2012. Additionally, it will send its pickers through the vineyards over a dozen of times to pick only ripe Botrytis grapes. It is no wonder why a half bottle of the wine costs hundreds of dollars.
D’ Yquem will occasionally produce a dry white wine simply labeled Y. It is modestly labeled Bordeaux Blanc, and while I have never tried it, its reputation is excellent. After hundreds of years of family ownership, the luxury goods conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH) now owns Chateau d’ Yquem. Thomas Jefferson, while minister to France and before becoming President of the United States, learned of the great estate while in France. When he returned, he purchased the wine for himself and George Washington.
Tasting note on 1982 Château d’ Yquem
I have tried this wine twice, once in the late 1980’s and again in 2013. Both times by the generosity of a wonderful lady named Sandy. Sandy set the stage nicely with a delicious bottle of 1982 Chateau Mouton-Rothchild with dinner. The classic accompaniment, blue veined cheese, was served with the Sauternes. While the color was golden copper, the aroma leaped from the glass with favors of honey, caramel, apricot. It also included sweet citrus, fresh cream, vanilla and light baking spices. The wine on the palate was rich, sweet but not cloying, with bright acidity and a rich viscous texture. The finish was insanely long with all the flavors lasting in the palate for what seemed like hours. It was an absolutely incredible bottle of wine that stands as one of the finest dessert wines I have ever had the pleasure to try. Thank you, Sandy!
Additional recommended Sauternes wines to try:
Château Clos Haut-Peyraguey, Bommes (Sauternes) First Growth Sauternes.
Château Rabaud-Promis, Bommes (Sauternes) First Growth Sauternes.