These days we all need a little extra sweetness to sweeten things up. Team WWX is strong advocate for perfectly balanced, expressive, complex wines coming with a mix of ripe stone and tropical fruit and honeyed notes. Today we feature one of the most renowned botrytised sweet wine styles in the world: Sauternes.
The magic of Sauternes happens when Autumn mists roll in surrounding harvest time. This is when the entire world turns gold. This is when Mother Nature shows us her interpretation of romance. This is when Mother Nature shows off her uninimitable alchemist’s skills. Locating at the southwest part of Bordeaux, Sauternes’ unique geography enables this region to produce one of the greatest botrytis sweet wines of the world. Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle are the three key varieties planted in this region. Covering around 2,000 hectares of land, the region of Sauternes can further be broken into five communes, of which all (Sauternes, Bommes, Fargues and Preignac) except Barsac lies on the eastern bank of River Ciron.
Of all communes of Sauternes, Barsac is the only one Sauternes appellation where producers can, at their own discretion, choose to label their wines under Barsac, without the mention of Sauternes. This arrangement recognizes Barsac for its outstanding wine quality, whilst also agreeing well with the distinctive style Barsac sweet wines present when compared against other communes. Barsac tend to give leaner, crisper, more elegant and nimble botrytised sweet wines; whilst Sauternes generally present opulent, broad-shouldered, rich and concentrated styles. The key contribution to such stylistic differences comes from different soil profiles. Whilst both sit on calcareous limestone subsoil, Barsac’s top soil sees a mix of sand and red and brown clay whilst that of Sauternes sees a mix of sand and coarse gravel. In terms of terrain, Sauternes sees more altitude variations than Barsac, and it is in the elevated areas on the ridge of Sauternes’ low hills where one can find the most ethereal, complex and intense versions of botrytised sweet wines from this region.
During Fall, warmer waters in River Ciron and River Garonne meet cooler landmass, covering the region with a blanket of late night, early morning fog; which eventually dissipate when sun comes up and warms the land during the day. On top of that, the generally colder waters of River Ciron guarantees the formation of fog as it meets the warmer River Garonne. These alternating visits and departures of moisture facilitate the development of botrytis cinerea, a beneficial fungus that creates tiny punctures on grape skins, allowing water to evaporate from berry pulp, thus ultimately concentrating sugar contents and flavours. Additionally, botrytis cinerea also introduces unique flavours, most commonly recognized as honeyed and wild mushroom characters, to the wine.
Sauternes’ production process is one of the most labour intensive in the world of wines. The best of clarets see vineyard managers scheduling block-by-block harvest to ensure optimal phenolic ripeness – and pickers are instructed to hand harvest bunch by bunch. Sauternes harvests require extremely skillful pickers to go into the vineyards several times and pick berry by berry, for they are to only harvest fully botrytised berries within each bunch. Chateau d’Yquem divulges that an average of 6 times (in French, tries) is required each vintage. A bottle of top Bordeaux claret can generally be made from the output of one vine; whilst for Sauternes, one vine’s output can only contribute to as much as a glass of wine. The laborious and highly skilled nature of Sauternes making is rewarded by the incredible complexity and ageability of these wines.
Sauternes used to enjoy a much higher level of demand and popularity in the past – by that, we mean about a hundred years ago. Fondly referred to as “liquid gold” among royalty and nobility, these botrytised sweet wines from Bordeaux used to ask for prices double or even triple that of First Growth clarets!
Whilst a lot of attention had been given to clarets classified under 1855 Classification, it is worth highlighting that the same classification has actually been compiled for botrytised sweet wines as well. 1855 classification for Bordeaux’s sweet wines saw a classification of 21 estates into 3 tiers. Chateau d’Yquem was singled out as the one and only estate worthy of being regarded the best among all. It was the sole recipient of the category “First Growth Superior” (Premier Cru Superieur). In year 1855, only 4 clarets made the cut to be considered First Growth-worthy, whilst for Sauternes, a total of 9 estates were crowned First Growth. As years go by, some estates consolidate, split or dissolve, thus changing the total number of classified growths to today’s 24.
Take a look at the full list of classified growths in Sauternes:
Chateau La Tour Blanche
Chateau de Rayne Vigneau
Chateau Sigalas Rabaud
Chateau Lamothe Guignard
Chateau de Myrat
Chateau de Malle