IF THERE is one crumb of comfort to be taken from the miserable 2013 Bordeaux vintage – which, by the way, has also been remarkable for the carnival of desperate euphemisms employed by vignerons and wine merchants alike – it is that last autumn’s mists and incessant rain provided perfect conditions for the region’s other great produce, the intense, sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac.
For the uninitiated, these unique wines are made in the low-lying Graves region in Bordeaux from the Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grapes that in the autumn become afflicted with the botrytis cinerea mould, an ugly black stain on their skins. Most gardeners would chuck these on the compost heap, but the mould has a remarkable side effect; it desiccates the grape, leaving it with a small amount of very powerful, sweet juice inside.
This gives the wine an intense sweetness and, at its best, a wild cocktail of citrus flavours, almonds, hazelnuts and spices.
When I was first discovering wine a couple of decades ago, a bottle of Sauternes was a rare and costly prize. The Americans couldn't get enough of the stuff so the prices for the limited production from this damp corner of south-west France whizzed heavenwards.
Times and tastes change and I’m pleased to report that while prices in the rest of Bordeaux have multiplied, Sauternes and Barsac have stood relatively still, so that today they are practicably affordable, with the eye-watering exception of Chateau d’Yquem, the universally acclaimed emperor of the region that changes hands for £400 a bottle or more.
Sauternes are normally classed as dessert wines and I can’t think of any better way to round off a Sunday lunch. It shouldn’t always be relegated to the end of the meal, though, as it works equally well as an aperitif, ideally with a rich starter such as foie gras, or prosciutto ham.
The names of Sauternes and Barsac wines are redolent of hot, lazy summer days. How could you not adore wines with labels like Doisy-Vedrines, Doisy-Daene, Suduiraut and Rayne-Vigneau?
Unless you have a very large family or a lot of friends, buy these wines by the half bottle as they are not for glugging. As a starter, try the Waitrose Sauternes by Chateau Suduiraut for £16.99, which is excellent value. If you decide you like it, now is the time to buy some of the 2013 vintage en primeur. Lay & Wheeler, Majestic’s upmarket alter ego, has a good selection. I have just bought myself a case of 12 halves of Rayne-Vigneau for £159 and another of Doisy-Daene for £156 and I look forward to toasting my good fortune with them one summer’s day towards the end of the decade.