Sauternes – not just for paunchy old men
By Giovanni Cambizaca
After last week’s article about natural wines, I heard from a reader who had sampled an orange wine while on a trip to Argentina. She thought the wine had a lovely bouquet, but no one in her group actually liked the taste of it. So this week, let’s get the taste of natural wine out of our mouths and instead enter into the entirely more delicious world of dessert wines, specifically Sauternes.
Dessert wines are currently a little unfashionable, consigned in our imaginations to be a drink for paunchy old men wearing dinner suits and smoking cigars. And that’s a shame, because, at their best, dessert wines can be uniquely satisfying.
Running through the middle of Bordeaux is the Sauternais region, home to some of the world’s best dessert wines, including Sauternes and the less well known Barsac. Producing these wines is complicated, expensive and it requires an exacting microclimate. Barsac and Sauternes sit on chalky ground between the Garonne and Ciron rivers. The two rivers have different temperatures, and this provides a microclimate with cool, foggy mornings and warm, sunny afternoons.
The damp mornings provide ideal conditions for the grapes to be attacked by a fungus, Botrytis cinerea, also known as ‘Noble Rot’. The Sémillon grapes of this region have very thin skins that are easily penetrated by the fungus, and this causes the grapes to dehydrate. By the time they are harvested, by hand, the grapes look more like raisins and have an intense sweetness. Noble Rot also adds to the flavor of the resulting wine, and sommeliers use words like ‘honey’ and ‘ginger’ to describe its contribution. Overall, Sauternes should have intense notes of apricot, butterscotch, caramel, coconut, mango, and citrus. Sauvignon Blanc grapes add a balancing freshness and acidity, and the relatively rare Muscadelle may contribute some floral notes. But it is the sweetness that you will remember, after all, Sauternes can have twice as much residual sugar as Coca Cola.
Sauternes makes a great dessert when sipped all by itself, but it is also surprisingly versatile when paired with food. Sauternes can shine alongside savory foods such as blue cheeses, foie gras, or a terrine with caramelized onions. Sauternes aficionados like to push food pairing to the limit, and Alice Waters at Chez Panisse once offered it as an accompaniment to entrecote steak. In Bordeaux, Sauternes is often recommended with lobster. I imagine medallions of lobster sautéed with shallots, the pan deglazed with Sauternes, and the juices drizzled over the lobster. I would be making that tonight if I had a bottle of Sauternes. Or a lobster.
Because of the dehydration of the grapes, the yield is very low, and an entire vine might produce only a single glass of wine. So you can imagine that these wines are not cheap. The very best Sauternes come from Chateau d’Yquem and are characterized by their complexity, concentration, and sweetness, which is balanced by relatively high acidity. With proper cellaring, these wines can age for decades, and the fruit notes will gradually fade and integrate more completely with the body of the wine. Recent Chateau d’Yquem vintage goes for several hundred dollars a bottle, although half-bottles are available to ease the pain. And if that’s still too much money, consider the Bergerac region, next to Bordeaux, where the excellent Monbazillac appellation offers a similar experience for a much more reasonable price.
Before I leave this topic, I think I should also briefly mention what was once the world’s most sought after dessert wine, the almost mythical Tokaji wine from Hungary. Galileo considered wine to be “sunlight, held together by water”, which is a perfect description of Tokaji. This topaz-colored wine, turning to darker shades of amber with age, is better known in the English speaking world as Tokay and is produced from some uniquely Hungarian grapes affected by Noble Rot. Historically, this wine was coveted by royalty, including Louis XIV and Catherine the Great, but more recently the state-run wineries of communist Hungary had little interest in quality, which declined precipitously. Now subject again to the bracing standards of the free market, quality is once more in the ascendant, and we may yet see Tokay regain its place in the wine pantheon.
Te enviamos un abrazo Giovanni, Maria Eliza, y toda la familia de Le Petit Jardin