Apr 5, 2021
Of the greatest sweet wines of the world, those of Bordeaux – Sauternes and Barsac – may be the most famed. These small regions (covering just 2,217 ha/5,478 acres) and their 132 producers, make some of the world's most prestigious, long-lived and expensive sweet wines.
Located just 40 miles/65 km south of Bordeaux city, along the Garonne and Ciron Rivers, the AOC Sauternes includes the communes of Barsac, Sauternes, Bommes, Fargues, and Preignac. These areas are undulating, with a combination of soils and some elevations up to 240 feet. The Barsac AOC, which can also use Sauternes AOC, stands alone as the commune with unique character – it is distinguished by its limestone and sandy soils, which create lighter, more minerally and elegant styles of this beautiful wine. This area is flatter, but the Barsac has limestone soils, which make the wines taste as they do.
Both Sauternes and Barsac are made from a combination of three main grapes -Sémillon for structure, smoothness, and richness, Sauvignon Blanc for herbal aromatics and acidity, and a small proportion of Muscadelle, also for aroma.
The key to Sauternes, the thing that makes it stand apart from other sweet wines is the unique climate conditions that occur here regularly in the autumn most harvests. During Autumn mornings in Sauternes, the cooler Ciron River meets the warmer Garonne and condensation or mist forms, covering certain vineyards. These moist areas could be subject to grey rot (and sometimes are) but if those moist conditions are followed by drier, warmer afternoons, instead of grey rot, Botrytis cinerea forms. This fungus attacks grapes, perforating their skins and allowing moisture trapped inside to evaporate when this happens over a number of weeks, the result is a complex wine, that has aromas and flavors like apricot, mango, tropical fruit, honeycomb/beeswax, honeysuckle, hazelnut, almond, flowers, peaches, nutty, pears, orange, (new oak: vanilla, butterscotch), and has sweetness with strong acidity and a long finish. The best of these can age up to 50 years.
In terms of pairing, there are so many ideas that many don’t consider when thinking of Sauternes. Although foie gras is classic, the wine goes well with roasted chicken with thyme and herbs, oysters and seafood dishes, especially lobster and crab, spicy food with some sweetness (especially sweet and sour Chinese dishes, Indian dishes with heat and sweet, and Thai curries). Blue cheese and other salty cheeses are great, and Sauternes or Barsac should definitely be on the table for the Thanksgiving turkey – adding moisture, acidity, and sweetness to the mix. Traditionally, Sauternes and Barsac are also served as aperitifs, cold and as a welcome to guests as they come in (similar to Champagne).
Sauternes was part of the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux wines – they were the only whites ranked. There were 27 Cru Classes, 11 First Growths, 15 Second Growths, and Château d’ Yquem at the top of the ranking – a Premier Cru Supérieur.
Among these topics, we discuss the business of Sauternes, the decline in planting and sales, and do an overview of Chåteau d’Yquem, the most famed sweet wine in the world.
Ch d'Yquem, photo credit: Benjamin Zingg, SWZ, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons
We mention other top Château:
In Barsac: Château Climens, Château Coutet, Château Doisey Daëne
In Sauternes: Château Guiraud, Clos Haut-Peyraguey, Château Rabaud-Promis (underrated), Château Sigalas-Rabaud, Château Rieussec, and more.
A great deep dive into this interesting, classic region, this podcast gives you another tool to be well-rounded in wine!
HUGE Credit to Jane Anson's spectacular "Inside Bordeaux" book for making the research easy and fun!
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