Now I can easily chalk up the reason that I have not really seen or heard any discussions about Sauternes to the fact that since I'm a relative 'newbie' to serious wine culture and the exploration of wine, I am simply not in the loop and surely wine bloggers and aficionados were, and are, talking about Sauternes. I looked online, in magazines, print and talked to some of my 'wine' friends and interesting fact arose. While there is some info and reference material, this is not a wine being overly covered or one that finds its name on the tips of people's tongues (no pun intended). Until now of course. So without further ado....
Sauternes is a perfect foil to savory and rich dishes. The classic pairing with foie gras is Sauternes; however, there are many wonderful alternatives, especially when foie gras is paired with a fruit. With today's complexities in the Sauternes being produced, Sauternes balances out the acidity of the fruit with the sweetness of the wine.
In the Beginning....
Wine expert Hugh Johnson has suggested that the unappealing thought of drinking wine made from fungus-infested grapes may have caused Sauternes producers to keep the use of Botrytis a secret. There are records from the 17th century that by October, Sémillon grapes were known to be infected by rot and vineyard workers had to separate rotted and clean berries but they are incomplete in regards to whether the rotted
grapes were used in the wine making. By the 18th century, the practice of using nobly rotted grapes in Tokaji and Germany was well known. It seems that at this point the "unspoken secret" was more widely accepted and the reputation of Sauternes rose to rival those the German and Hungarian dessert wines. By the end of 18th century, the region's reputation was internationally known: Thomas Jefferson was an avid connoisseur. Jefferson recorded that after tasting a sample of Château d'Yquem while President, George Washington then immediately placed an order for 30 dozen bottles.
There are five villages in the Graves region of Bordeaux that make this wine style - Sauternes, Barsac, Preignac, Fargues, and Bommes. While all five communes are permitted to use the name Sauternes, the Barsac region is also permitted to label their wines under the Barsac appellation. The Barsac region is located on the west bank of the Ciron river where the tributary meets the Garonne. The area sits on an alluvial plain with sandy and limey soils. In general, Barsac wine is distinguished from other Sauternes in being drier with a lighter body; currently more Barsac producers are choosing to promote the wines under their own name. In years when the noble rot does not develop, Sauternes producers will often make dry white wines under the generic Bordeaux AOC.
Productionwines, the grapes do not produce as much wine as normally harvested grapes due to their shriveled and concentrated state, thereby contributing to the high cost. To qualify for the Sauternes label, the wines must have a minimum 13% alcohol level and pass a tasting exam where the wines need to taste noticeably sweet. There is no regulation on the exact amount of residual sugar that the wine needs to have.
The botrytis spores are encouraged by the mist and the warmth around the vines. Once they attach themselves to the grape they begin a process of desiccation and they chemically alter components of the grape must. This process increases the concentration of sugars and tartaric acid. During fermentation, this stimulates the production of glycerol which imparts to the resulting wine high levels of viscosity. The fungus also has a dramatic affect on aroma and flavor compounds. This unique element of botrytized wines distinguishes them from other wines that derive their sweetness from fortification, drying or being harvested late. Historically the region would average three vintages a decade producing the conditions needed for the Botrytis cinerea to fully develop. The late 20th century has been more fruitful with an average of six vintages with the needed conditions. The production of Sauternes is very labor-intensive: harvest workers hand-pick individual berries that have been properly infected with the fungus. This may require several trips throughout the vineyard over a couple of weeks. The shriveled and nearly raisin grapes yield only a small amount of juice. It is not uncommon for an entire grapevine to produce only enough juice to make a single glass of wine. This contributes to a very small production, with most producers averaging 1,000-7,000 cases a year, and is the primary reason for the high costs associated with Sauternes.
The influence with the most impact on the resulting wine takes place in the vineyard, where the character and complexity of the botrytis-infected grape is set prior to wine making. At the winery, the grapes are treated as gently as possible during pressing. In the 1980s, the controversial and expensive pre-pressing process of cryoextraction was developed. During this process, the grapes are placed in a special cooling compartment where they are chilled for 20 hours. Grapes that are less ripe have a higher water concentration than riper, sugar-saturated grapes. During this cooling process, the water is frozen, allowing the pressing process to maximize the amount of concentrated juice that is produced. Traditionalists have contended that cryoextraction is an excuse for "lazy harvesting" and that it adds to the expense of Sauternes without necessarily adding to the quality. However its use has been steadily rising, especially in poor vintage years. Fermentation frequently takes place in oak barrels with the house style dictating the amount of new oak used each vintage. Some winemakers may choose to stop fermentation prematurely by the use of sulfur dioxide, in order to maintain higher levels of residual sugar. After fermentation the wine will be aged from 18-36 months in oak prior to release.
The annual production for the first growth is about 100,000 bottles. Some really bad years (1991 and 1993), no classified growth has been produced. The first growth is produced from 209 acres of Sauternes appellation vines.Only Semillon (65%) and Sauvignon (35%) are planted at Guiraud with a pruning "à cots" or "in fan" for the Millions and long branches for the Sauvignons. The average age of the vines is 35-40 years. Harvest is only done by hand picking in successive waves through the vineyard (2 to 7 selections), picking only the botrytised berries. A minimum of potential alcohol (20°) must be reached before starting the harvest.
Winemakers notes: The wine is great, complex, and exuberant. We feel very fine aromas of crystallized orange, exotic, mentholated, and few notes of ginger. The noble rot was very beautiful this vintage, the botrytis has a splendid purity. The finale taste is explosive, honeyed, with spices and so on. Retail: $69.00
I strongly encourage you to give these wines a try. Sauternes, the other white wine.
Sources www.delongwine.commulled-wine.jpg, www.quirkyqatz.com, www.wikipedia.org, www.wine.com, www.atkinsonadmin.com