Sauternes is undoubtedly the most famous sweet wine appellation in the world, and home to the much-celebrated Château d’Yquem, for many people the one wine they most want to taste in their lifetime.
This tranquil, undulating landscape, which lies at the end of the Graves region and about 50km south Bordeaux city, is crossed by many small streams which flow east to join the Garonne River; it is these which help to create the unique climate that generates the Botrytis Cinerea fungus, allowing winemakers to make great sweet wines. The autumn weather combines the still warm daytime temperatures with increasingly cool nights, and the moisture emanating from these Garonne tributaries like the Ciron or the Gargalle rises into the air, creating great banks of morning mist. These are dangerous conditions for red wine grapes, or if you are making dry whites wine, but perfect for producing sweet wines: the heat and moisture provoke a dark grey mould to grow on the Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon bunches which perforates the grape skins, draws out the water within and leaves the juice much higher in sugar than it would otherwise be. The Botrytis then continues to play a part after the harvest, as the unique flavours it produces serve to add remarkable depth and complexity to the wine throughout the winemaking process, which develop even in the bottle.
The best estates were classified as part of the 1855 Classification of the Médoc, and Yquem was placed firmly at the top, on a level of its own, as the only Premier Cru Supérieur. At that time sweet wines were in great demand in Europe and business had been good for a century or more. Since the 1980’s things aren’t looking so good for Sauternes, though, as the pendulum of fashion has swung more towards dry styles of wine, red Bordeaux has taken centre stage and wines from other regions and countries have found favour where Sauternes used to hold sway. So the appellation is having to adapt, almost to reinvent itself, especially as the cost of producing botrytised wines is so high (the yield per hectare here is a fraction of that in the Médoc, for example) that reducing prices to remain attractive is not a viable option.
Many estates are adapting by producing dry whites alongside their traditional sweet offerings, and this seems to be working. Others are marketing heavily to new markets in Asia where there is a belief that sweet wines work well with the varied and spicy flavours of the local cuisine, but few have managed to establish meaningful sales there yet. The fact remains that, whereas wine lovers might have enjoyed a bottle of Sauternes a week in past decades, the likelihood today is that the same type of consumers might pull the cork on one or two such bottles a year, and new customers are not that common. So belts are being tightened and new avenues sought, but reassuringly the quality of the wines remains, in the main, exceptional.
Our Sauternes Selection
|Château Fontaine, Sauternes, 2010|
|Château Fontaine, Sauternes, 2011|
|Château Barbier, Sauternes, 2007|