Wine Profile: Sauternes
Sauternes is a dessert wine from the Bordeaux region of France. But if you’re thinking sweet isn’t really your thing and that sweet is the only thing this wine has to offer you’re missing out! The best examples of Sauternes are extraordinary because of their balance. Sweet yes, but also highly complex and a perfect mix of acidity.
BORDEAUXING ON SPECIAL
The Sauternes region is 25 miles southeast of Bordeaux nestled between two rivers. It’s these two rivers that help build these unique wines. The commune of Sauternes is the most famous region in this area and lends its name to the wine itself. However, there are 5 communes in this area that produce the Sauternes. Followed by Sauternes itself is Barsac and then the slightly lesser communes of Bommes, Fargues, and Preighac. Sauternes and Barsac are not only two unique places within the Bordeaux region, but they are also among the few regions in the world devoted to producing sweet wines. Most wines from this region, sweet or dry, are a blend of three grapes. They are predominantly Sémillon blended with smaller amounts of Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. All these varietals bring something important to the mix, but Sémillon is really the key to Sauternes.
DEATH TO YEAST!
Technically speaking, Sauternes is a late-harvest wine as opposed to a fortified wine like Port. A late harvest wine is left on the vine long after the standard harvest so that the sugars in the grapes concentrate. During fermentation, when yeast converts the natural sugars in the wine into alcohol, the yeast will eventually die once the alcohol level reaches a certain level. For standard table or dry wines, this isn’t usually an issue, grapes are picked with relatively low to medium natural sugars so the yeast is able to convert all the sugars into alcohol, leaving a dry wine. But with late harvest wines that have high amounts of natural sugar, the yeasts will usually die off when the alcohol hits around 18 or 19 percent. The remaining residue sugar in the wine after fermentation is what makes it a sweet wine. This sugar and higher alcohol level also act as a natural preservative. Meaning dessert wines can often age far longer than dry wines.
WHAT MAKES YOU SO SPECIAL??
However, Sauternes is not just any late harvest wine, it has something else that makes it extra special. That is Botrytis Cinerea or Noble Rot. And yes, I said rot. Botrytis is a mold that grows on grapes when they are still hanging on the vine under very specific conditions. You’re probably thinking that mold doesn’t sound too appetizing or like anything anyone would actually strive for on their grapes. For the most part in winemaking that’s true, but Botrytis is special. The mold settles on the skins of the grapes and actually punctures small holes in the skin. This allows the water to escape from the grape without affecting the fruit flavors or the acidity. Basically, it highly concentrates the flavors of the grape and adds a lushness and honeyed quality to the wine.
NOBLE IS NOT JUST FOR ROYALTY
Botrytis, while highly desirable, is also incredibly hard to control or predict. Botrytis only occurs during warm, wet weather and even then often settles on the vineyard in patches. That means that different bunches of grapes reach readiness at different times and must be picked individually in multiple passes through the vineyard. That’s why this region and these grapes are such a unique combination. The two rivers that surround the region help produce a specific climate that encourages the growth of Botrytis. Additionally, the Sémillon grapes have very thin skins, which makes it the ideal candidate for Botrytis.
NO MATTER HOW YOUR DRINK IT…
Drinking a glass of Sémillon is like sipping on liquid gold. It’s full of juicy fruit notes like apricot and peaches and tart citrus. All that fruit is wrapped in a cocoon of honey with notes of caramel, baking spices, and ginger. It’s warm and opulent and luxurious.
When it comes to pairing Sauternes with food, it’s important to point out that first and foremost, Sauternes is excellent all on its own. It’s a dessert in it of itself. However, there are some great food matches for the wine as well. In Bordeaux, there are two famous partners for the wine: Roquefort cheese and Foie Gras. Sauternes and Foie Gras is typically served as an appetizer where the honeyed flavors of the wine compliment the richness of the dish. Roquefort, a pungent blue cheese from the south of France, is another classic pairing, this time typically served at the end of the meal. A wine as rich and complex as Sauternes is one of the only wines that can stand up to the salty, pungent, funkiness of the cheese.
Savory pairings aside, Sauternes is a dessert wine and there are a number of desserts that pair will with it. Fruit tarts that incorporate some of the fruit qualities in the wine are always a great match. Anything with honey or caramel flavor is also a great compliment as it matches the honeyed notes in the wine. And of course, anything like cheesecake or custard or meringues are an excellent partner for Sauternes.