How to Find the Best Bottles of Honeyed Heaven

A journey through Sauternes


There are hundreds of sweet wines but if we had a survey to name just one, bet your bottom dollar that Sauternes would be top of the list. This famous French sweetie is served at posh dinner parties and top restaurants around the world, usually in those silly little ‘thimble’ glasses but hey, let’s talk about the wine itself for a minute. The Sauternes region is about an hour’s drive south of Bordeaux city, very close to the river Garonne at the southern tip of the Graves region. In these unique vineyards, Bordeaux’s main white grapes Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, (sometimes with a touch of Muscadelle), produce reputably the best sweet wine in the world. 
Believe it or not, the key to Sauternes’ quality is rotten grapes. To the uninitiated, they would go straight in the skip but to the winemaker they’re liquid gold. Getting technical, the rot is caused by botrytis cinerea – that’s ‘noble rot’ to you and me – it attacks and shrivels the grapes and in driving out the moisture produces intense sweetness, heady lemon apricot flavours and attractive honey overtones.  
The grapes are left on the vines into the autumn when mists, caused by the cool spring-fed waters of the Ciron River meeting the warmer tidal Garonne, envelope the vineyards to promote the growth of noble rot. The thin skinned Semillon grapes are easily attacked by the rot and give a waxy lemon character to the wines whilst Sauvignon Blanc chips in with its citrus flavours and typical crisp acidity, (that’s the stuff that makes your mouth water), so important to balance the wine’s natural, high sugar levels. Because the botrytis attacks individual bunches willy-nilly throughout the vineyard the pickers have to pass through the vineyard several times (tries) to pick the fully rotten grapes; an expensive, delicate and messy process.
For my anorak readers, the Sauternes appellation consists of 5 communes; Barsac, Preignac, Bommes, Fargues and Sauternes itself. Barsac is also an appellation in its own right which can be confusing. As a mate in my local wine bar queried, “If it’s from Barsac how come it’s called Sauternes?” The answer is ‘very French’. The rules say Barsac can be called Sauternes but Barsac can only come from Barsac. Don’t ask. I told you that it was ‘very French’! 
Sauternes was so important in the 19th century that when Bordeaux Medoc reds were famously classified in 1855, Sauternes and Barsac merited their own classification. Unlike the Medoc, which had five levels of classified status, there was only two levels in Sauternes; First Growth and Second Growth. Eleven chateaux were awarded First Growth (1er Cru) status whilst fifteen were classed as Second Growths. That said, when it comes to Sauternes, Chateau d’Yquem is considered to be in a class of its own. Mind you, at about £100 ($154) a bottle, class does not come cheap!  
The other Sauternes chateaux to look out for are Climens (Barsac), Suduiraut, Rieussec, Sigalas- Rabaud, Coutet (Barsac), de Fargues, Ch. Lafaurie-Peyraguey, Ch. Doisy-Védrines (Barsac), Chateau Partarrieu and La Tour Blanche. For the record, other regions in Bordeaux, like Cadillac and Loupiac, also produce sweet wines but none achieve the complexity, purity or balance of Sauternes.
As you can guess, First Growth Sauternes carries a pretty hefty price tag. “How much!”, my friend screamed when I told him that a bottle 1er Cru Rieussec could set him back about £50 ($75). Luckily I had a ‘sweet’ answer to hand. Rieussec, like several other chateaux produce a ‘Second Label’ wine; Carmes de Rieussec (Rieussec) carries a friendlier £25 ($40) price tag. 
The other second labels to look out for are Cypres de Climes (Chateau Climens), Castelnau de Suduiraut (Suduiraut), Le Cadet de Sigalas (Sigalas- Rabaud), Chartreuse de Coutet (Coutet) Chateau Partarrieu and Les Charmilles de la Tour Blanche (La Tour Blanche). 
With Sauternes losing favour in the global marketplace over recent years, to their credit, some of the region’s winemakers are looking to innovation to boost sales. Suduiraut for example, has created “Lion de Suduiraut”, a ‘new style wine for the younger drinker’. Technical Director Pierre Montégut gets the very best out of his varied granite, sand and clay soil vineyards to create his ‘Lion’ assemblage, (‘blend’ to you and me) that’s in the order of 90% Semillon and 10% Sauvignon Blanc. At about £20 ($35) this latest addition to their portfolio is less sweet, fresher and fruitier than the chateau’s traditional fare which, slightly chilled, makes for a cracking aperitif…. no matter how old you are!
So, with a Sauternes to match every pocket and taste there’s never been a better time to look again at Bordeaux’s sweet heart. Going back to the wine glasses, serve these wonderful sweeties in normal fine wine glasses not those silly little thimbles. You can then clock the incredible colour, swirl and sniff the amazing aromas ….. before quietly sipping a little bit of honeyed heaven.

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