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Sauternes


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Chateau d'Yquem

Château d'Yquem produces the most highly esteemed sweet wine in the world. Photo by Benjamin Zingg. License: Creative Commons SA 2.5 Generic.

Sauternes vineyard

Yields are kept low in Sauternes to preserve the quality
of the wine...which also increases the price.
Photo by Bouette on Wikipedia.
License: Creative Commons SA 2.5 Generic.

Sauternes, a winemaking appellation composed of five small villages in Graves, has long been known as the magical region that makes the best sweet wines in the world. Often termed "liquid gold," the wines have flavors that have long gone unrivaled. With a big market for sweet offerings like Port, late-harvest Rieslings, and Alsace's various VTs and SGNs, Sauternes' domination of the sweet wine market is no easy achievement. Although the red wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy and the white wines of Burgundy and Champagne have often been challenged and trumped by competitors from California, Australia, Italy, and other regions, the Sauternes style of wine is rarely replicated anywhere else.

Time and again, buyers willing to spend the high prices commanded by Sauternes find it to be the best in the world for what it is. None of the good châteaux have any difficulty in selling out the admittedly few bottles they produce each year. Luscious and unabashedly sweet but also very powerful, Sauternes wines are given their flavor via a complex process involving a grape fungus known as botrytis, or noble rot.

The process is amazingly complex, counterintuitive, and, to the layman, seems at first magical. First, the grapes must become infected with botrytis. This first condition is not met much of the time; more often than not, yields in Sauternes simply must be put into usually undistinguished dry wines. When the grapes are infected, they must go through a complex process in which the grapes' residual sugar is intensified to an extremely high level. At the same time, the grapes' natural flavors and acidity are retained.

Harvesting by machine is commonplace now in most of the world, but virtually unheard of in Sauternes. The vines have to be carefully checked for a satisfactory level of infection, then carefully picked. Even in the best years, yields are a fraction of those of red Bordeaux vines. As a result, the Sauternes vintages become a collector's item almost immediately after they are bottled.

Semillon grapes

Sémillon grapes infected with botrytis. Botrytis, a fungus, is the "secret
ingredient" that imparts Sauternes' grapes with
their distinctive flavor and concentration.
This photo is in the public domain.

The complicated, expensive process continues as the grapes are vinified. Everything has to be done with the utmost caution in order to avoid disrupting the botrytis process. There is a great amount of oak aging. New techniques are attempting to reduce the expense of Sauternes vinification, but skepticism and the magic of the classical process makes any serious changes difficult to envision.

For still uncertain reasons, the Sauternes process only takes place in exactly those five tiny communes that form Sauternes AOC. Attempts to replicate the idea have been common, but they have largely failed at least in their attempts to surpass the original. And even as white wine's popularity has receded, those with the money to spend have little difficulty paying $100 or in some cases as much as $1000 for a bottle of liquid gold.

History

Although many parts of Bordeaux have a long history in production of world-class wine, and Sauternes is no exception, the technology used in production of typical botrytized Sauternes is relatively recently developed. No sweet wine was produced when wine was first invented, as producers had not yet developed any of the technologies used today.

For many years, the producers in Sauternes kept their usage of noble rot a secret. As the wines become more and more well-known for their luscious, completely unique flavors, they hid the winemaking techniques for fear that people would be scared to drink wines in which rot was involved in the production process. Eventually, the world came to know how Sauternes was produced. This probably took place sometime in the 18th century. Thomas Jefferson, a great fan of Bordeaux, mentioned Château d'Yquem as a world-class sweet wine even before he became president. As a result of the châteaux' secretive nature, it is not known exactly when the Sauternes noble-rot process was discovered and put into use.

It is clear that Sauternes has had a long history, which has been very different from the rest of Bordeaux. In the 1855 classification of Bordeaux, Médoc was the source of all but one red, but Sauternes was the source of all the whites. Yquem was singled out as a "superior" producer, and the rest of the classified châteaux were divided into two categories. Almost all of them are still producing prestigious wine. Sauternes was among the first classified French regions in 1936. Barsac was also made into an AOC and allowed to label their slightly sweeter, more powerful wines under the separate appellation of Barsac.

Since Sauternes' early days, technology has moved forward a great deal, but rivals of Sauternes are still almost completely absent from the wine world. This is a remarkable achievement considering the challenges made to red Bordeaux and both red and white Burgundy. Even Champagne and Port, two wines which sport a complex production process, have had rivals from other countries. But it really looks as if Sauternes has a monopoly on its style of wine that will not ever be challenged or even questioned.

Climate and Viticulture

Sauternes has the same maritime climate, with nearly perfect temperature and rain conditions, as all of Bordeaux. But yet many places in Bordeaux use Sauternes' methods of producing sweet wine, and none of them have yet rivaled Sauternes in depth, complexity, richness, or flavors. This can be directly attributed to the fact that Botrytis, the noble rot that infects the grapes used in Sauternes to impart such lusciousness, thrives especially in that particular cranny of the winemaking world.

Sauternes

A view of Sauternes with vineyards up ahead.
Photo by Olivier Aumage. License: Creative Commons SA 2.0 France.

Though the gravel banks of Graves are a big influence, mist is likely to be the most important factor shaping Sauternes' greatness. The villages of Sauternes lie on the bank of the Ciron, which is a small tributary of the Garonne river. The Garonne itself flows nearby, and due to the proximity of the two rivers and the difference between them in temperature, mist forms. The mist wafts over the nearby areas, greatly enhancing botrytis and protecting the grapes from other hazards.

Sauternes is superior to everywhere else in the world for the type of wine that it makes, and even very nearby areas such as Loupiac do not equal Sauternes even despite using similar winemaking techniques. The reason for this will probably never be explained, and could only be found by delving into the minutiae of the Bordeaux climate and slight differences from region to region. Explanation or no explanation, the magic of Sauternes has not yet been replicated outside of those precious vineyards, and probably never will be.

Grape Varieties

The low-yielding wine made in Sauternes is always made from a combination of the big three Bordeaux white grapes. These three are the same that are used in white wine, sweet and dry, all across Bordeaux.

Major Producers

In 1855, the red wines of the Médoc were considered to epitomize Bordeaux red wine, and but for Haut-Brion, only Médoc reds were included in the classification. It was decided, however, that Graves' white wine was the best in Bordeaux at the time, and Sauternes was picked for the separate classification of sweet white wine. Unlike the red wine classification, there were no exceptions from other places.

Yquem 1999

A 1999 vintage of Château d'Yquem, displaying its
characteristic rich golden color. Photo by Drmanu on
French Wikipedia
. License: Creative Commons SA 3.0 Unported.

Tasters singled out a "Superior Premier Cru," which even today is still considered to be in a class of its own:

Not everyone can afford Yquem, the ultimate expression of Sauternes, and better prices with similar flavors are offered by the "ordinary" 1ers Crus of Sauternes.

The more reasonably priced 2ers crus of Sauternes are also excellent:

Raymond Lafon

Vineyards at Château Raymond-Lafon, one of the top nonclassified châteaux of Sauternes.
Photo by Kassander der Minoer on Wikipedia. License: Creative Commons SA 3.0 Unported.

Although the classification has strictly set prices and quality for many châteaux in Sauternes and Barsac, there are a few others that are very much worth mentioning. One example is the pale wine of Château Raymond-Lafon. Very sweet, with a long finish and great intensity, Raymond-Lafon is probably the best traditional unclassified Sauternes. The prices are often around $50.

More expensive are the utterly untraditional and wonderfully controversial wines produced by Château Gilette. Instead of the typical oak aging, Château Gilette's wines are aged in cement barrels that prevent any oxygen from coming in. Decades later, they are released to the public at price premiums of $200 or often much more. For those who love its style, it's pretty much the only winery that does what it does with the Sémillon grape. They can be drunk immediately due to their extremely luscious but approachable nature, or aged for many more years.

Subregions

The term "Sauternes" itself is in need of some disambiguation. The winemaking AOC known as Sauternes consists of five villages which add up to about 23 square miles total. One of the villages included is also named Sauternes, and it is home of the most famous estate, Yquem. In the winemaking world, Sauternes will generally refer to the entire Sauternes AOC.

The five communes allowed to label their sweet white wine under Sauternes AOC are listed here:

Maison du Vins

A "house of wines" in Barsac.
Photo by Henry Salomé. License: Creative Commons SA 3.0 Unported.

While the subvillages are not hugely important, it is good to be familiar with them, especially Barsac. Although slightly different to the trained taster, Barsac's wines share almost all of Sauternes' general qualities. Wine labeled under Barsac AOC should be equally good as wine labeled under Sauternes AOC, although producers seldom brand their wine with the lesser-known handle.

Chateau de Malle

The visually stunning Château de Malle also makes leading wine in Sauternes. Photo by Benjamin Zingg. License: Creative Commons SA 2.5 Generic.