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Sauternes: Liquid Gold of Bordeaux

Ever wondered what to pour with that apple tart or ‘Gulab Jamun’ (Indian Dessert, deep fried dumpling soaked in sugar syrup)? Ever thought of surprising your guests with something extraordinary when they start looking fretfully for desserts after a long settling burp? If not, then Sauternes might just be the right thing to look for.
Sauternes, a village in the Graves district of Bordeaux, France, is renowned for its dessert wines by the same name. It is located to the east of the region,which allows it to enjoy a Maritime climate (warm summers and mild winters). The crop is constantly endangered by strong winds, hail, and even frost. The district is also surrounded by two meeting rivers that create temperature difference that cause early morning mist. This mist along with hot afternoons is responsible for the onset of Botrytis Cinerea, aka Noble Rot. The rot provides the wine its unique identity and a classy aroma-taste combo that is nothing short of being surreal. Sauternes is definitely the star of the commune, however, equally good Sauternes comes from its Barsac, Bommes, Fargues, and Preignac. Apart from these, the neighboring areas of Monbazillac, Cérons, Loupiac, and Cadillac also make commendable dessert wines.
Botrytis being the main focal point for Sauternes, the wine is made mainly from grape varieties that are easily affected by it. The fungus attacks the grapes and punctures them. This causes the grapes to shrink, as the water evaporates, which in turn gets chemically altered and components like sugar and tartaric acid get concentrated. This balance between high acidity and high residual sugar protects the wine from becoming sticky or clawing. The resultant wine made from these “infected” grapes is extremely rich and sweet. Think of it like a wine made from the concentrated juice of single berries, collected one by one! Tempting eh?!
Especially susceptible to Noble Rot due to its thin skin, Sémillon is the principal grape used for making this style of wines. Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle are also important. Every grape has something unique to deliver to the blend and the degree of infection may also vary. Semillon gives the wine its characteristic, richness, and flavor. The highly acidic Sauvignon Blanc- main grape for Bordeaux whites lends the wine its typical freshness and balances the rich and broad character of the wine. Muscadelle contributes the aromatics and its share in the blend is generally only up to 15%.
The production of dessert wines dates back to the late 18th century. The credit goes to the Dutch who used unusual wine making techniques that included the addition of sulphur in the fermentation barrel. Sulphur being antiseptic and carrying antioxidant properties provided protection to the wine from oxidation (natural spoilage leading to wine eventually turning into vinegar) and to block the excessive action of yeast on sugar. This would stun the yeast into dormancy and halt the fermentation process resulting in wine with high levels of residual sugar (natural fermentable sugar aka RS).
The golden delight does not come easy and the making is a tedious process with a huge amount of labour involved. Due to the fragile nature of grapes, they are hand-picked. This involves exhaustive manual checking and picking of every single grape affected by thefungus. This may involve more than just a couple of trips to the vineyard over the next few weeks. Some estate owners have to wait for long until the arrival of the noble rot. This act of patience is largely responsible for raising the costs involved as well as creating an essential difference between mediocre Sauternes and great Sauternes. The must weight, ripeness and degree of infection are some of the crucial aspects for a quality produce. The grapes are handled very gently during pressing, which is done manually or by machines. Fermentation takes place in stainless steel vats or tanks. Special yeast is required to act efficiently on juice which sugar-rich. The process is seized when alcohol reaches around 14% (legal restriction of minimum 13% to qualify). Moreover, the juice from the whole of the infected vineyard is enough to fill only a few bottles. This is another reason for the wine to be so exclusive and pricey. Sometimes nature’s consequences are not favorable and this leads to weaker growths or improper attack of the fungus which in turn may lead to inferior results (or no crop at all). In certain cases, extra sugar can be added to the wine in order to mask its inferiority. Once finished, the wine undergoes ageing in oak barrels for a period of about 2-3 years on an average and then bottled.
Sauternes enjoys and envying balance between high residual sugar, refreshing acidity, and the individualistic Botrytis character. Peaches, apricots, pineapples, honey, figs, caramel, and orange blossom are some of the classic notes of a well crafted Sauternes. It is best served chilled at 4-6˚C alongside your favorite dessert or even by itself. Foie Gras and Stilton (blue) cheese are classic pairings with Sauternes. Crème Brulee or caramelized tarts are also a famous match. Sauternes have great ageing potential and can improve easily for up to 50 years and more under cellaring conditions.
Sauternes is yet to carve a niche for itself in India. It is a wine which every wine aficionado longs for and tends to enjoy it more than the scrumptious desserts that may be served alongside at the end of the meal. With its magnificent taste of luscious fruits rich honey and dried figs, with its very elegant and long-lasting taste and its splendid gold color, it feels like one is indulging in a fortune worth millions.
In the 18th century Boredeaux merchants laid the famous ‘1855 classification’ that was based on the quality produce and export importance of the wines. This gave birth to a hierarchy, still followed today, and classified wines as Premier Cru Supérieur, Premier Cru, & Deuxièmes Cru. Chateau d’Yquem is the only one classified under Premier Cru Supérieur, highest certification. Other houses like ClimensCoutetRieussec, Suduiraut, Lafaurie-Peyraguey, La Tour Blanche, and Sigalas Rabaud are categorized under Premier Cru. Doisy-Daëne, Filhot, Nairac, and Lamothe Guignard come under the Deuxièmes Crus head. These houses produce exceptional wines and that too at a value-for-money, yet not cheap, prices.
So next time you go to a restaurant or a wine dinner, don’t shy away from trying dessert wines, especially one from Sauternes. For once you won’t be considered any lesser a connoisseur for giving in to your sweet desires. Santé!
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  1. Steve Webb says:

    Nice piece about what is one of the greatest wines in the world. What many don’t know, however, is that Sauternes is the most versatile food wine in the world. The Sauternais are just as likely to be found drinking it with oysters or roast chicken as with apple pie or foie gras and it is fantastic with most rich, spicy and oily/fatty foods. It is one of the few wines in the world with enough concentration to stand up to curries.

  2. jay sean says:

    still remmeber the taste of the yquem 1998

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