Sauternes | The Home of Divine Sweet Wines

La Perle D'Arche Sauternes wine being poured into a wine glass

Sauternes is an appellation of Graves known for its intensely sweet, white, dessert wines .

Known for its flavours of dried apricot, caramel, butterscotch, honeysuckle, marmalade, ginger and toasted baking spices, Sauternes has a rich golden concentrated colour which darkens with age.

While there is no regulation on the amount of residual sugar that the wines need to have, there is a requirement of alcohol content. To be able to label your wine with Sauternes, the wines must have a minimum 13% alcohol level and pass a tasting exam where the wines need to taste noticeably sweet. 

How?

Botrytis cinerea, a fungus which gives rise to two different kinds of infections on grapes creates the intense sweetness in the grapes. The first, grey rot, is the result of consistently wet or humid conditions, and typically results in the loss of the affected bunches. The second, noble rot, occurs when drier conditions follow wetter, and can result in distinctive sweet dessert wines. 

In the Botrytis infection known as "noble rot" (pourriture noble in French) the fungus removes water from the grapes, leaving behind a higher percent of solids, such as sugars, fruit acids and minerals. This results in a more intense, concentrated final product. 

grapes and wine making room in Sauternes

Why?

Like most of the Bordeaux wine region, the Sauternes region has a maritime climate, which brings the viticultural hazards of autumn frost, hail and rain that can ruin an entire vintage. The Sauternes region is located 40km southeast of the city of Bordeaux along the Garonne river and its tributary, the Ciron. The source of the Ciron is a spring which has cooler waters than the Garonne. In the autumn, when the climate is warm and dry, the different temperatures from the two rivers meet to produce mist that descends upon the vineyards from evening to late morning. This condition promotes the development of the Botrytis cinerea fungus. By mid day, the warm sun will help dissipate the mist and dry the grapes to keep them from developing less favourable rot.

Production costs for this area's botrytized wines are comparatively high. The evaporation and fungus results in producing low yields, one-fifth to one-sixth of that in other Bordeaux regions. The berries are normally harvested individually from the bunch, with pickers going through the vineyards several times between September and November to ensure the berries are picked at their optimal points. The wine is then fermented in small oak barrels, further adding to the cost. 

Even with half bottles of the First Growths priced at several hundred dollars, these wines still have difficulties turning a profit, and in the mid 20th century, a string of bad vintages drove many growers in the region out of business.

In Bordeaux

Sauternes has a historic place as a first course wine. Indeed, it is customary to open a chilled bottle of Sauternes to serve as an aperitif. The bottle is attractively displayed in a bucket of ice, and guests are poured small amounts in appropriate glassware (white wine or digestif glasses). Fresh oysters are famously enjoyed with Sauternes in this manner. 

Further afield

Though Sauternes is a sweet wine, its brisk, palate-cleansing acidity enables it to pair well with many foods. It has become popular to serve with a celebratory turkey, and other similar pairings include chicken, duck, foie gras, terrine with caramelized onions, lobster or scallops. Other pairings include Asian dishes, and Indian dishes. (The reason is that the lively acidity of Sauternes contrasts with the sweetness of most Asian dishes).

Sauternes wines are popular as dessert wines, though this is a relatively new idea.

Should I decant a sauternes? 

Yes. Just like any other wine, Sauternes wines often benefit from some decanting. Exposure to oxygen can make the sweet fruit, blossom, jasmine, and citrus notes in these wines even more prominent.

Temperature:  While it is customary to serve sauternes chilled (around 6-10 degrees), wines older than 15 years should be served a few degrees warmer.

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