Sauternes: An Everlasting Impression
There is much misunderstanding and lack of knowledge regarding Sauternes. The late harvested, sweeter wines of Sauternes have been copied throughout the world, many times with poor results as in the case of the the Sauterne (no “s”) made in the US, a sad copy of the noble Sauternes of Bordeaux. Also, while many oenophiles know the exact location of both Right and Left banks, there is little understanding as to where Sauternes is located or how it is produced.
Sauternes wines come from a combination of white grape varietals affected by Botrytis Cinerea, often referred to as “noble rot”. The wines are late harvested and become raisiny in texture and they gain enormous concentration in fruit, flavor and sweetness. Sauternes benefits from unusual climactic conditions: the Ciron river, (which is a tributary to the Garonne) meets the Garonne and the temperature difference between the two rivers (Ciron is much cooler) allows for a deep mist to develop. That mist covers the entire Sauternes area for much of the morning, allowing the fungus to develop and grow. Fortunately, in the afternoon, the mist dissipates and the grapes dry off. When that pattern is repeated daily, the grapes lose their water content and gain flavor concentration. When conditions are bad (no drying of grapes), there is the danger of the grey rot. Noble rot = very good, grey rot = very bad!
Sauternes wines are expensive to produce: there is always the risk of grey rot by leaving grapes on the vines possibly too long; also, the pickers have to make multiple passes through the vineyard to collect the grapes at their best (sometimes 8-10 passes!) There is also the matter of the extended aging time in barriques (18-36 months). To make matters worse, only a very small percentage of grapes picked make it into first wine, while others are sold as basic Sauternes and finally in some years the climactic conditions are not good for making Sauternes and wineries like Château d’Yquem don’t produce at all (it happened 10 times in past 100 years!).
Sauternes are blended from approximately 80% Semillon to 15% or so Sauvignon Blanc, with the rest generally coming from the addition of Muscadelle or Sauvignon Gris. Semillon brings structure, richness, texture and a profile of apricots and beeswax. Sauvignon Blanc brings to the table its freshness and acidity so the wines are not cloyingly sweet, and it adds herbal aromas to the mix. The best wines balance sweetness, concentration and acidity. Muscadelle, finally, adds fruity notes.
Overall Sauternes are known for their blossom and fruit profile, with honeysuckle taking over when the wines age. The color of the wines usually turn into a dark caramel amber, all the way to ebony as they get older. I recently sampled a Filhot 1904 and the wine was almost jet black with dark crème brulee taste deep in my palate. It is not unusual for Sauternes to last a 100 years or longer. Corks have a tendency to disintegrate after so long and you want want to have your wine recorked.
In terms of food pairings, or simply when to drink Sauternes, the standard marriage is with bleu cheese (particularly St Agur for the creamy ones and Bleu d’Auvergne raw milk for the slightly drier cheeses). It is also often served with foie gras (deglaze your pan with Sauternes, the taste is crazy!) or just have a sip with an orange or a mandarin or a young goat cheese. Do not make the error of drinking it with a dessert, unless you have a super sweet tooth, as you want your wine to be somewhat drier than the dessert.
Sauternes are produced in the villages of Barsac (which has the right to its own appellation and where wines are drier and somewhat lighter than in the rest of the appellation), Bommes, Fargues and Preignac.
There is a classification for Sauternes, including twelve second growths led in quality by Château Doisy Daëne and Château Doisy-Védrines. As to first growths, there are eleven altogether and the better ones are Châteaux Guiraud, Climens, Coutet, Rieussec (owned by the Rothschild/Lafite group), Suduiraut and my favorite 2001, Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey. Supreme atop the others is, of course, Château Yquem (or d’Yquem). It alone qualifies of “superior first growth”.
Best vintages are 1983, 1988, 1989, 1990,1995, 1996, 1998 and 1999. Superlative are 1997 and 2001, 2003. You should wait at least a few years to start drinking a Sauternes. When its color changes to a slightly darker hue is a good indication, you can think of popping that cork!
Unfortunately, Sauternes has not been so popular as of late: there seems to be disenchantment with sweeter wines and of the ones that are still prized by consumers, there is huge interest in wines from Monbazillac, Hungary’s Tokaji and Austria’s Trockenbeerenausleses. To me, Sauternes are not for every day and every meal. However, there is not one occasion when I tasted a Sauternes that I regretted. I hope Sauternes remains strong in our culture as I will always remember the lasting taste of that Lafaurie 2001.
Michel Thibault comes from a family of hoteliers in the French Alps. He has worked in Los Angeles at Ma Maison under Wolfgang Puck, and La Bella Fontana, inside the beautiful Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Eventually, Thibault moved to New Orleans and worked at famed Louisiana eateries Lafitte’s Landing and Commander’s Palace. Johnny Earles, of the eponymous Criolla’s restaurant brought Michel to Grayton Beach, where he later joined Chan Cox at Wine World.
Recently, Michel launched a new web site that offers an extensive wine list and a blog, with tasting notes, about his travels through wine regions. Follow him at Michel Thibault Wine.