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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Sémillon: Sémillon takes on a specific characteristic of tropical fruit when in Sauternes, making for a luscious sweet wine with complexity and full-bodiedness rivaling some of the most intense red wines. It is much more low-yielding than Sauvignon Blanc, and also far more finicky, and as a result it is afforded more frustration and more respect in Sauternes. Without it, however, Sauternes would not be a standout in sweet wine. Indeed, most châteaux have plantings of 2/3 or more Sémillon, although the final percentage, due to its lower yields, can often be much less.
- Sauvignon Blanc: In dramatic contrast to Sémillon, Sauvignon is a workhorse grape all across France and into Australia, New Zealand, California and just about everywhere else wine is made. In Sauternes, the grape is secondary but very important. It can provide its power and distinctive citrus tang, with an earthy hint of green fruits, to sweet wines as well as dry wines. Its high yields and susceptibility to botrytis make it perfect for Sauternes use.
- Muscadelle: Although Muscadelle is usually planted in quantities of less than 3%, and some châteaux use none at all, it still is important in Sauternes production. It can lend its grapy flavor and delightfully simple essence to Sauternes production. Its popularity is sinking in Sauternes as well as most other places.
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.
Tasters singled out a "Superior Premier Cru," which even today is still considered to be in a class of its own:
- Château d'Yquem: No ostentatious wine collection is complete without a case (or 100) of Château d'Yquem, which is commonly considered the best sweet wine in the world. It is also a common "favorite wine" among tasters and wine professionals. It has held this pedigree for a long time, and a series of stellar vintages in the 21st century have continued to uphold the opinions of Yquem's greatest fans. The estate has been producing sweet white wine for at least 200 years now. The original owners were the Yquem family, but the château was lifted to its high pedigree when it passed into the possession of the Lur-Saluces family, whose name is on the label of every Yquem vintage. Thomas Jefferson also helped bring the estate to fame, by mentioning it in the writings of his tour of Bordeaux wine. The Lur-Saluces family has continued running the Yquem estate through thick and thin, keeping it up to date on winemaking technology. A very ugly dispute between members of the Lur-Saluces family took place when French conglomerate LVMH Group offered to buy them out. Eventually, LVMH purchased 55% of the estate for about $100 million. The purchase has only added to Yquem's reputation. For centuries, the Château d'Yquem name has ranked among the most well-known status symbols in the world of French wine, and it is one of the most expensive white wines anywhere; the prestige is amplified by the fact that vintages are not available until five years after their calendar year. The flavors that have been generally cited in Yquem are too complex to imagine, but tropical fruit, spice, cream, and honey are common ones. This amazing bouquet is packed into a full-bodied, intense, but luscious sweet wine with a finish lasting over a minute. The wines' sweetness can preserve them for 100 years or more, which trumps most red wines. Only excellent vintages are released, and demand for them is humongous, so Yquem's wine will never be approachable in price. In fact, in good vintages they can easily rise from their usual average of $300 or so, into an $1000+ stratosphere into which only the richest wine perfectionists can wander.
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.
- Château Climens: Based in Barsac, this château offers up flavors very different from most Sauternes. This could be attributed to its 100% Sémillon makeup, which creates a powerful tropical fruit bouquet without the full-bodiedness or complexity of some other Sauternes. Certainly, however, it is wonderfully sophisticated in good vintages. One such example is 2001, which Robert Parker lauded with an 100-point rating and praised spectacularly. In general, it is a reliable, solid Sauternes that is worthy of its Premier Cru status. The 2001 is $300, but most vintages are closer to $150.
- Château Clos Haut-Peyraguey: Very reasonably priced wine, usually costing in between $50 and $70 but often even in the 30s, this is a practical alternative for less wealthy wine drinkers. It equals the other Premiers Crus in the sheer intensity of its sweetness and flavor, but is not as consistent as some other estates. Good vintages such as the 1998, 2001, and 2003 have excellent aging potential and are very competitive in price.
- Château Coutet: This Barsac estate has been accused of lacking the sophistication of some other Premiers Crus, but its fruit-forward, less intense tendencies epitomize a more modern style of Sauternes. It still uses Muscadelle in its blend. With age, it can develop the more elegant Sauternes flavors. Prices are generally close to $50.
- Château Guiraud: Distinctive due to its unusual black label with golden-colored print, Guiraud also boasts extremely good flavors at reasonable prices. The wine's pedigree is quite impressive, showing 92+ vintages and ratings of 97 in the excellent 2005. The highly acclaimed '05 was complex enough to make #4 on Wine Spectator's 2008 Top 100 list. The 2003 also made their list. When its sophistication and versatility of flavor matches up to its power, the wine can rival Yquem. The best thing about Guiraud, though, is the price, which incredibly is less than $75 per bottle.
- Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey: Long aging is necessary to show that this wine rivals other Premiers Crus in elegance and intensity. Producers have decided to leave most of the wine's character up to Sémillon, making for interesting flavors. The 2003 ranked #6 on Wine Spectator's 2006 Top 100 list, exceeding fellow Sauternes Château Guiraud. Lafaurie-Peyraguey also prices their wine well, usually $70 or below.
- Château La Tour Blanche: Again costing around $70 (although sometimes more), La Tour Blanche can be well worth it due to its extremely long and unusual history and also a high pedigree. The 2001 vintage is outstanding, with a 97-point Parker score. Only good vintages are released, often showing complexity that requires aging to manifest itself as greatness.
- Château Rabaud-Promis: Modern Sauternes that has had difficulty since the 1855 classification and performs more like a 2er cru now. Unlike many Premiers Crus, every vintage is released, making quality investigation a must before purchase. As usual, the 2001 and 2003 are excellent. Somewhat less concentrated than its competitors, the wine is more approachable at an early age than many Sauternes. It rarely costs more than $50.
- Château de Rayne-Vigneau: Very affordable but obscure Sauternes estate whose wines can cost as little as $20. It releases every vintage, meaning that not all of them are good. Generally good vintages for the region, such as 2003, are usually a safe bet.
- Château Rieussec: Rieussec is probably the most serious Yquem rival. The 2001 vintage was rated 99 by Robert Parker, only a pip lower than his rating of the same year's Yquem. Although it generally does very well when aged for a few decades or longer, Rieussec's perfect layering and the complexity of its tropical fruit flavors are appreciable even when young. However, it is very thick and sweet, more so than many other Premiers Crus, and does not match up to Yquem in outright elegance. A cocktail of heavy tropical fruit, the wine mellows out and becomes unctuous and luxurious with age. Tip-top vintages can exceed $500, but usually the wine is under $100—still expensive, but better than Yquem.
- Château Sigalas-Rabaud: Once upon a time, this estate was one with that of Rabaud-Promis. But a nasty split caused both wines to decline in quality for years—recently, Sigalas-Rabaud has shown signs of a turnaround, and the untraditional, rather light-bodied wines can be good values at under $40.
- Château Suduiraut: This estate sits right next to Yquem and can be very similar. More and more, Suduiraut has a very high pedigree that is certainly worthy of its classification. The styles, when on good form, are much more overbearing than Yquem but display fundamentally the same flavors. Prices vary significantly depending on the vintage, but "bad" vintages (meaning the vintages not universally acclaimed in the area) can often be very good and are under $75.
Recognize the wines of Château Guiraud
by their distinctive black label.
Photo by Tomas Eriksson.
License: Creative Commons SA 3.0 Unported.
The more reasonably priced 2ers crus of Sauternes are also excellent:
- Château d'Arche: A hard-to-find, inconsistent option, but in good vintages it can provide an essence for around $40.
- Château Broustet: Obscurity is now plaguing this château, at least in America, where even wine superstores do not carry it. And yet the pedigree of the wine is sound, making it a good find.
- Château Caillou: Caillou, for some reason, is very low-priced, sometimes costing less than $30. In bad vintages it can be unexceptional, but in good ones, it shows a fruit-forward but nonetheless lusciously sweet style. Aging is not necessary.
- Château Doisy-Daëne: Most Doisy-Daëne is well-priced, high-pedigreed Barsac that can occupy 1er Cru status in the good vintages. Most of the time, the wine lacks the intensity of its competitors but makes up for it with a full bouquet of flavors. It is well-priced at $50 or less. In outstanding vintages, though, Doisy-Daëne becomes l'Extravagant de Doisy Daëne, which often costs 10 times as much. Limited production and high-quality wine makes for the high prices. Rich, full-bodied, and intense with loads of the usual tropical fruit flavors, it can be reminiscent of Château d'Yquem and a serious competitor. The 2001 is over $500, but might arguably be as good as Yquem.
- Château Doisy-Dubroca: Although good, this wine has sunk into obscurity since the Doisy split.
- Château Doisy-Védrines: Showcasing more intensity and concentration than even some Premier Cru Barsacs are known for, Doisy-Védrines neither falls into the extremely expensive nor bargain category. They can sometimes come up short on sweetness and fruit power, but even when they do can be well worth the $40-$50 price tag.
- Château Filhot: Planted since the 1600s, this estate carries great historical significance as the owner of the first vineyards in Sauternes. Thomas Jefferson noted it as being almost as good as Yquem during his visit, but during the late 19th and 20th centuries Filhot failed to keep up with the competition. Nowadays, it produces modern Sauternes lacking the classical full-bodiedness—a style which has both fans and critics. It is greatly affordable and in years such as the 2003 (less than $30), can exemplify modern, inexpensive Sauternes.
- Château Lamothe: An extraordinarily obscure wine that has a decent, inclining pedigree if you can find it.
- Château Lamothe-Guignard: Much less obscure than Lamothe, Lamothe-Guignard provides an excellent Sauternes on a much more moderately priced level. While it lacks the complexity of the more highly priced Sauternes, Lamothe-Guignard can make an excellent introduction to the traditional style of the appellation, with intensity, elegance, tropical fruit full-bodiedness, and zesty acidity. Even outstanding vintages such as 2001 usually don't cost more than $60, and less-hyped vintages can be under $30.
- Château de Malle: The gardens of this château, created by a member of the Lur-Saluces family, allude to Greek mythology. This is not to say, however, that they surpass the wine of Château de Malle in importance. Indeed, the excellently ageable wine produced at de Malle is often well priced. Full-bodied, layered, a bit on the strong side for new tasters but very well-made, de Malle wines are often in the $30-$45 range.
- Château Myrat: Although inconsistent, Myrat wine usually showcases traditionally good flavors with good sweetness. Aging can often reveal the true elegance. Recent vintages have shown significant improvement. Prices can be in the $40 range, not a bad deal for a well-pedigreed 2er cru.
- Château Nairac: This is a Barsac that has had a long history and is pretty reliable for a 2er cru. Right now, outstanding vintages are worth a slightly higher price, but the best wines to buy are the lower-priced futures.
- Château Romer: This one has become almost impossible to find since its high classification in 1855.
- Château Romer du Hayot: For Sauternes lovers that are on a budget, this wine can provide a bargain for less than $20. Although not widely available, it has an acceptable pedigree that has perhaps seen a bit of improvement lately.
- Château Suau: This is a solid, decently priced 2er château, but their wines are not widely available at most stores. One caveat is that this wine follows a light-bodied, less traditional style that may not appeal to classicist drinkers.
Doisy-Védrines is one of the leading second growths in Sauternes.
Photo by Benjamin Zingg. License: Creative Commons SA 2.5 Generic.
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.
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:
A "house of wines" in Barsac.
Photo by Henry Salomé. License: Creative Commons SA 3.0 Unported.
- Sauternes: Around 4.5 square miles total, the Sauternes commune surprisingly is home to only a few of the classified Sauternes estates. One of them, however, is Château d'Yquem, which is far and away the most prestigious, expensive, and well-known Sauternes. But Yquem is the only 1er cru, and only four 2ers crus are located in the Sauternes village: châteaux d'Arche, Filhot, Lamothe, and Lamothe-Guignard. A mere 586 people live in Sauternes, and by far its most famous attraction is the stately Yquem.
- Barsac: Barsac, about 5.6 miles square, is the only AOC that is also allowed to label the wine produced under its own name. This discrepancy has existed since 1936. The characteristics of the wine made here are notably different, showing flavors of a slightly lighter, less serious quality. Barsac claims many of the 2ers crus (Broustet, Caillou, all three Doisys, Myrat, Nairac, and Suau) but does not show quite as well in the 1ers Crus. Indeed, only châteaux Climens and Guiraud are 1ers crus from Barsac, although both are usually rated among the best Sauternes.
- Bommes: The smallest of the five villages at 2.2 square miles, Bommes has the most concentrated plantings and châteaux of any of the Sauternes villages. It lays claim to half the 1ers Crus (La Tour Blanche, both Peyraguey houses, de Rayne-Vigneau, and both Rabaud estates.) But there are no Bommes estates in the 2ers crus—an indicator of quality land.
- Fargues: The largest of the Sauternes communes, Fargues encompasses nearly six square miles of prime winemaking land. While it doesn't have as good wine as Bommes or Barsac, Fargues is home of Château Rieussec, which is very often a direct runner-up to Yquem. Both Romer and Romer du Hayot in the 2ers crus hail from Fargues.
- Preignac: Preignac is about five square miles and also has the largest population of the Sauternes communes. Only one wine made it into the classification, 1er cru Château Suduiraut. Some great unclassified Sauternes is also made here.
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.
The visually stunning Château de Malle also makes leading wine in Sauternes. Photo by Benjamin Zingg. License: Creative Commons SA 2.5 Generic.