Postcard from France: Sauternes

A look at the beloved dessert wine.

Entrance to the town of Sauternes, Bordeaux, France; all photos by Hayley Hamilton Cogill
Entrance to the town of Sauternes, Bordeaux, France; all photos by Hayley Hamilton Cogill

Sticky, sweet and simply sublime, a Sauternes will bring tears to many wine lovers eyes. The dedication to the wine’s creation can be overbearing, but the end result is one of the purest forms of art. Time, patience and determination are only the beginning of what it takes to create the honey-filled, dessert wine. It also takes a lot of money to do it well, as vineyards that could produce three or four times as much still wine are instead used to make a very small amount of highly concentrated Sauternes.

Financially, this means some Chateaux in the gorgeous Bordeaux region of France have begun managing their vineyards a bit differently than those of generations past, as the popularity of the dessert wine has been waning. For many, it means introducing dry white wines made with their Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes into their portfolio. Though, these Chateaux may still make a small amount of their sweet wines, the shift is apparent throughout the region.  For white wine enthusiasts this shift brings new flavors to the wines of the region, giving a nod to modernity while still paying respect to tradition.

I had a chance to visit the region recently, traveling as a guest of CIVB, the Bordeaux Wine Council. Happily, Texas continues to be a solid importer of the classic Sauternes dessert wines, as our palates applaud the dedication to the classic style.

Botrytized grapes in Sauternes
Botrytized grapes in Sauternes

A bit about the production of the dessert style, botrytized wine. Botrytis cinerea is a beneficial fungus that affects plants when conditions allow it to be created, most notably moist conditions occurring when the grapes are fully ripened. If the conditions stay wet, grey rot forms and can destroy the crop of grapes for the year.

Botrytized Semillon in Sauternes
Botrytized Semillon in Sauternes

If moist conditions turn dry, the affected fruit becomes partially raisined and highly concentrated, creating noble rot. This is what is desired.  The shriveled grapes develop a grayish, powdery mold on the surface as well.

Though Sauternes is one of the most notable regions in the world for the delicious wine, others have been producing botrytized wines for hundreds of years. Hungarian Aszú Tokaj/Tokay is one of the oldest recorded productions of the style of wine, along with Trockenbeerenauslesen from Austria and Germany, and more recently, one of Napa Valley’s most loved wines, Dolce from Far Niente Winery. But arguably, the sweet wines of Sauternes are some of the finest in the world as the concentration of the fruit produces rich honey notes, but the freshness of the varieties can remain, revealing natural acidity on the palate.

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Perhaps the most famous Sauternes in the world is Chateau d’Yquem. The estate dates back to the Middle Ages and the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine, when the land was under English rule, but was transferred to King Charles VII of France in the mid-1400’s and has remained under French authority since, moving throughout French nobility through the generations, continually owned by Sauvage family since 1593. Records indicate as far back as this date that late harvest wine was produced on the estate. In 1855 when Emperor Napoléon III requested a classification of the best Bordeaux wines at the time Chateau d’Yquem (just Yquem at the time) was given the only Superior First Growth white, (Premier Cru Supérieur) designation.  The prestigious wine continues to impress, balancing sweetness with acidity, fruitiness with freshness, and always ending with a touch of bitterness inherent in quality Sauternes. The celebrated, and difficult to produce wine is not inexpensive, as a 375ml bottle can run anywhere from $300-$500 a bottle, depending on vintage and vendor, however the flavor is divine and the memory of each sweet sip will last a lifetime. La Cave Warehouse and Sigel’s carry various vintages.

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Chateau d’Armajan des Ormes, Sauternes, France
Guillaume Perromat of Chateau d'Armajan des Ormes
Guillaume Perromat of Chateau d’Armajan des Ormes

Though not as famous internationally, neighboring properties to the famous d’Yquem are worthy of similar praise as their stories and passions for the grape go back generations, as is their dedication to producing quality dry and sweet wines. Three generations of the Machy-Perromat family have run Chateau d’Armajan des Ormes at the entrance to the village of Preignac in the heart of Sauternes. A house of nobility and great history, the estate dates back to 1565 when it was ennobled by King Charles IX, and that King Louis XV visited during his reign.

Today brothers Jacques and Guillaume Perromat, 6th generation vintners, run the property with the a focus on quality and responsibility being their top priority. The responsibility is to maintain the work created by those before them and to take the winery successfully into the future in the region.

IMG_9307With soils filled with clay, sand and gravel, ideal for growing Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, the fruit undergoes five successive passes of hand picking during harvest to ensure each bunch of grapes is adequately ripened and botrytized to produce their luscious selection. Barrel aging after fermentation for up to 2 years adds complexity and roundness to the highly concentrated sweet wine filled with layers of dried apricot, orange blossom, sweet honey and butterscotch. A special wine from one of the regions most gracious producers. The wine is currently available on several wine lists throughout Dallas including The Grape.

Semillon vineyards in Sauternes
Semillon vineyards in Sauternes

IMG_9042Once and English fortress, dating back to the 13th Century, and the horse stables for Chateau d’Yquem, Chateau Coutet became a wine producing estate in 1643. In 1787, Thomas Jefferson, then ambassador to France, celebrated Château Coutet as the best Sauternes from Barsac. Today this tradition of distinction and quality in maintained at Coutet. Vines are planted in limestone and clay soils, digging deep into the earth to extract flavors of the terroir, with elegance and balance. Aromas of white flowers, hazelnut, honeysuckle and apricot fill the wine when it is young, melding into more dried fruit, vanilla and honey flavors as the wine ages in the bottle. $75, available at La Cave and Total Wine and More.

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Oliver Bernard explains the nuances of his Clos des Lunes Sauternes
Oliver Bernard explains the nuances of his Clos des Lunes Sauternes

Oliver Bernard and his Domaine de Chevalier team, including his son Hugo, made a commitment several years ago to revive and celebrate the wines of the ancient Clos des Lunes vineyard in Sauternes, with the goal to produce some of the finest white wines in Bordeaux.

IMG_9336They were already doing this with his Pessac-Leognan red Bordeaux and knew that the deep gravel soils of the Clos des Lunes vineyard in Sauternes were ideally suited for earthy, expressive white wines.

With a hands off approach, allowing the true nuances of the varieties to shine the winery is now producing fresh, balanced and refined dry and sweet wines from Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc vines averaging 35 years in age. Fresh, juicy and rich, these special wines are sadly not currently distributed in Texas. However, if you ever see one on a menu while traveling jump at the chance to enjoy them.

Entrance to Sauternes, Bordeaux, France
Entrance to Sauternes, Bordeaux, France

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