Sauternes: the wines of the fog

In France, in the Aquitaine region, in the Gironde department, there is a commune called Sauternes, which is a locality that produces very famous sweet white wine and some dry white wines. They are made from botrytized grapes, that is, late harvested and partially raisined, which have been affected by a fungus, producing a sweet taste due to the loss of moisture, but without being cloying. 

Sun, grapes and fog are the ingredients that generate a unique wine of this area, and where the fog is very important, because at dawn the fog drops disappear thanks to the heat of the sun, affecting the berries where the vines rest. This humidity that is generated on the grapes develops a fungus called Botrytis Cinerea, although it is also known as noble rot.

In this way the grapes are partially raisined, which results in higher sugar levels in the grapes and wines with a very particular aroma. This is one of the few wine regions where this fungus is frequent, thanks to its climate. 

Let’s talk a little about the history of this Sauternes wine:

The story goes that it was the Romans who introduced this winemaking activity in the Aquitaine region, but it was really the English during the Middle Ages who were the first to consume this sweet wine. Later, in the 17th century, the Germans began their interest in white wines and for years they maintained an active trade with German wines.

Subsequently, these wines began to decline thanks to the great popularity that beer began to have. Then, the Dutch began to invest in the production of white wines from this region of Aquitaine, because they saw the opportunity that this would bring them; perfecting in Sauternes, a wine with the name of Vins Liquoreux. 

On the other hand, certain documents dating from the 17th century have been found, where it is mentioned that when October arrived, the grapes were infected by the famous rot, and then the workers had to separate the healthy berries from the infected ones; however, these documents were not complete, as they do not mention whether or not the botrytized grapes were used for wine production.

But time proved that they could be used. By the 18th century, both in Germany and in Tokaj, northeastern Hungary, they were already using this practice of noble rotten grapes. Then the reputation of Sauternes began to emerge, to the point of rivaling the dessert wines that were known; both Hungarian and German. 

What are the characteristics of this wine? 

  • Its color ranges from medium yellow or amber to intense gold, as it ages it darkens. In terms of acidity in the mouth, it is considered to be balanced.
  • It is an elegant wine and aging takes place over several decades. Its aroma is reminiscent of orange fruits, apricots and peaches, but also roses, orange blossom and honey. 
  • As for wine tasting, it is said that it lasts several minutes on the palate, although like any wine tasting it is also done with sight and smell; therefore, the place where the tasting takes place should be airy, illuminated, quiet and at a suitable temperature. The alcohol content of the wine is 13.5%.

With which foods or food pairings can we combine Sauternes wine?

  • The first thing to take into account is the temperature for tasting, which should range between 12 or 10°C, as this is the best temperature for the enjoyment of its sweetness. This wine can be drunk young or, if desired, left in a cool place for aging.
  • For pairing, it is combined with Roquefort type cheeses, white meats, fois gras, desserts, in general on all types of puddings, salads and stewed vegetables. All these foods, when combined with the sweetness of the wine, make a perfect duo. It can also be served as an aperitif with some nuts. 

What is the Sauternes winemaking process like?

Sauternes wine is basically made with Semillon grapes, but also with Muscadelle and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, although in smaller quantities. Let us remember that these grapes are affected by the noble rot fungus or Botrytis Cinerea, being partially raisined, thus originating the sweet taste and aroma so characteristic and distinctive of this wine.

As for the transportation of the grapes to the factory, it is done very carefully and in small volumes, thus preventing the different berries from breaking. Then, in some cases, they go directly to what is called pressing, without crushing. Then, to prevent the development of acetic or lactic acid bacteria or certain oxidations, SO2 is added.

As for the alcoholic fermentation process, it is a bit complicated due to certain substances it possesses and, of course, the sugar concentration level. Then, once it has obtained what is desired, it is placed in oak barrels to begin what is called the aging process; for a maximum period of 2 years. 

Then it is introduced with all the solid substances that have accumulated, also called fermentation lees, and for 3 or 4 months it is subjected to a batônnage. This means that every so often the dead yeasts or lees that have formed in the barrel are stirred with a wooden stick, and in this way we can benefit from the properties in general. 

Subsequently, after aging, it is clarified, stabilized and then bottled, to continue what is called reductive aging, which lasts a few years. From this moment on, its color changes, as well as its aroma, depending on the aging time. 

Grapes affected by the fungus Botrytis Cinerea

What are the best Sauternes wines?

  • The Châteua d’Yquem Lur-Saluces 1995. Its color is golden like gold, with a sweet aroma of honey, marmalade and orange peel. 
  • Also Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey 1999. Equally golden in color, with intense fruit aromas and a touch of honey. 
  • Following the list is the 1999 Château Suduiraut, with its golden color and aroma of sweet lemon, apricot jam and honey.
  • We also find the wine Cháteau D’Yquem 2009. It is considered the 5th essence of Sauternes wines, with exceptional sweetness and richness and very seductive aroma. 
  • The Prince de Saint-Aubin Sauternes 2014, with a golden but bright color and intense aroma of hazelnut, fruits and spices. 
  • But that’s not all; aged for 9 months in barrel and then another 9 months resting in stainless steel tanks, the 2014 Château Cantegril is a wine with a lot of minerality and sweetness. 
  • It is followed by the Château Suduiraut 2015. 
  • And finally, the 2016 Château d’Yquem, which has been aged in barrels for 40 months. 
Posted in Europe, France.