Lessons in wine: discover the sweet magic of Sauternes

Jonathan Dart
Grapes infected with "noble rot"

Most of us would rank Bordeaux among the great red wine-making regions of the world and, with around 450m bottles produced there each year, we’re certainly not short of a drop. However, there is also a substantial following for White Bordeaux; Sauvignon Blanc fans would be advised to divert their attention from New Zealand for a moment and explore the wonderful wines of Graves, an unexplored haven of sweet wines.

The classic dessert wines include Tokaj from Hungary, Icewine from Canada (also produced as Eiswein in Germany) or if that isn’t sweet enough for you, then perhaps Trockenbeerenauslese. Try saying that after you’ve had a glass or two. There are many more wonderful examples of sweet wines but probably the most famous of them all is Sauternes, which most would also argue is the leader of the pack, yet has been neglected in recent years.

There are many ways to produce sweet wine, but perhaps the most highly regarded method is through botrytis, otherwise known as “noble rot”. This is a fungus which causes the grapes to dehydrate and shrivel while maintaining high sugar levels. A significant amount of the three varietals in Sauternes (Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc & Muscadelle) will inevitably be made into dry white wine, as only the grapes that have been sufficiently infected are ready to be made into liquid gold. These precious grapes are painstakingly handpicked so, not only is the whole process both labour intensive and costly, but production is invariably limited; it takes roughly an entire vine to produce just one bottle of Sauternes.

As with the rest of Bordeaux, Sauternes has very specific conditions, which are absolutely perfect for this much-loved wine. The best vineyards of Sauternes lie on the gravel banks of Ciron, a small tributary off the Garonne River, which produces the famous mists in the region that are absolutely key to enhancing the effects of botrytis. While this method of winemaking occurs all over the world, the conditions in Sauternes are unmatched by any other.

There are five communes in Sauternes that are permitted to label their sweet wine with this iconic name. Apart from the Sauternes village itself, the other most notable commune is Barsac, which is also allowed to label wines under its own name. This area produces some wonderful wines, most notably Chateau Climens. Within Sauternes itself, there is one Chateau which is absolutely unrivalled both in reputation and quality, notably Chateau d’Yquem. Loved and revered by critics and collectors around the world, even the other Estates in the region concede that they are top dog. No great collection is complete without a case.

Sauternes is too good to be reserved as an annual Christmas treat, as it so often is in this country; it’s a thing of beauty that should be delved into on a regular basis – just don’t tell your dentist.


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