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Sauternes – Sweet, Versatile, Delicious, And Perfect for Every Day

November 20, 2017 7 comments

Sauternes - corksToday we are going to talk about sweet and delicious wines, but I feel compelled to start with a little rant.

What is wrong with you, people?

No, I’m not trying to better humankind with this pathetic opening, but nevertheless, I would like to repeat my question – what is wrong with you, people, when you proudly state “hmm, you said sweet? I don’t drink sweet wines!!” (add proud grin and posture to this statement). Sweet or dry, when it comes to wine, there is only one quality worth inquiring about – balance. “Is this wine balanced?” is a perfect question to ask, but sweet, dry, semi-sweet, semi-dry – those are all relative characteristics which often mean different things to different people.

Deep inside, we like sweet. We don’t always admit it as our well established societal shaming machine works perfectly, it creates an absolute truth like “sweet = bad”. Sweet is one of the easiest flavors to recognize, and we usually start our acquaintance with taste with sweet, later discovering sour, salty and bitter. Growing up, we learn that “sugar is bad for you” – which is true for anything taken out of moderation – and then we subconsciously extend “sugar = bad” rule to the most of the things we do, or rather, eat.

Now, I’m asking you to put these extreme views of sweet aside, at least for the next few minutes you will spend reading this post. I know, you can do it for me. Let’s go, let’s talk about it – yes, sweet wines.

Sauternes Selection

Historically, sweet wines had been around for as long as humans known to make wine. Sweet wines are typically easier for our palate to fall in love with, but keep that love going strong might be a challenge, as people change their taste quite often. Today, sweet wines are made everywhere – but in most of the cases, sweet wines are an addition to the winery’s repertoire, to all those white, Rosé and red which winery is generally producing – and not The Wine. Except in few places, it really is The Wine. One such place is located in the world’s capital of red wines – Bordeaux, and yes, it is called Sauternes.

Sauternes region is located about 40 miles south of the city of Bordeaux, and predominantly produces sweet wines (there are some notable exceptions like d’Yquem Y, which is a dry wine, but those are truly the exceptions). History of Sauternes goes back to the beginning of 17th century, but it is hard to tell what led to the appearance of the Sauternes wines as we know them.

You see, Sauternes wines are made with some special assistance from mother nature. This appearance comes in somewhat of a strange form – a fungus. The climate conditions in Sauternes are favorable for the specific form of mildew to set on the grapes, so the grapes essentially rot on the vine. It is manifested with the grapes starting to shrivel while they are still hanging in the cluster – however, outside of visually unappealing sight (for the rest of us, not for the vintners in Sauternes), that also leads to the shriveled grapes greatly increasing concentration of the sugar, which perfectly lends itself to creating some of the very best sweet wines in the world – yes, the Sauternes.

The fungus, which has a scientific name of Botrytis cinerea, is also called a Noble Rot, just to stress that unlike any other rot, which is generally bad, the Noble Rot is good and useful, and thus has such a distinguished name. The legend has it that monks who were the first to produce sweet Sauternes, were keeping information about the rot outside of the public knowledge, as whether you will call it Noble or not, it is not easy to explain to people that wine is delicious because the grapes had time to rot before been made into the wine.

Production of Sauternes is labor intense, even today. Not only all the grapes are harvested by hand – they also harvested multiple times. The workers can only pick individual grapes from the vine, those which are ready (read: rotted shriveled enough). Then they have to come back again to pick the new “ready” grapes – and this can repeat 6-7 times. So yes, talk about labor intense process.

All this pain with the harvest is well worth it, as it translates into the delicious wines. What is very interesting about Sauternes, which is typically well underappreciated, is that Sauternes are amazingly versatile when it comes to food. You can pair the whole dinner with Sauternes, but while this might be a bit challenging, they definitely beat most of the wines, maybe with the exception of Champagne/Sparkling, as a perfect accompaniment to any appetizers and cheese course. The Foie Gras and Sauternes is a classic combination, but it pairs spot on with any salumi, prosciutto, Jamon or any other cured meat. Salty, spicy, sour, bitter  – bring it on, all the flavor profiles will find their match with Sauternes.

A few weeks ago we had an opportunity to deep dive into the world of Sauternes with the virtual tasting run on Snooth – if you are interested in following the conversation, you can check out this post on Snooth. To prepare for the discussion, I had a pre-gaming session, pairing our selection of Sauternes with cheeses and Foie Gras, as you can see in the pictures above. I have to honestly say that I liked some wines better than the others, which you will see in the notes – but when it comes to complementing the food, they all performed really well.

There are plenty of sources for you to learn the particular details about the Sauternes wines and the region so I will spare you from my regurgitating of the known facts. Just as a quick reference, I can tell you that Sauternes wines predominantly made from Sémillon grapes, with Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle playing the supporting roles. Our tasting included wines from 2009, 2014 and 2015 vintages, which are all considered excellent.

Without further ado, here are my notes:

2015 Château Manos Cadillac AOC (14% ABV, $12.99, 98% Semillon, 2% Muscadelle, 50% of wine aged in barrels for 6 months)
C: golden
N: apricots, herbs
P: nice sweetness, apricots, touch of peach
V: 7+

2015 Château Haut Charmes Sauternes AOC (14% ABV, $20, 80% Semillon, 20% Sauvignon Blanc, aged in barrels)
C: light golden
N: touch of petrol, apricot, honeysuckle,
P: white fruit, honey, good acidity, appears light
V: 7+

2014 Château Lauvignac Sauternes AOC (% ABV, $18.99/375 ml, 85% Sémillon, 10% Muscadelle, 5% Sauvignon)
C: straw pale
N: Classic bortrized fruit, touch of honeysuckle
P: clean acidity, orange, bitter orange on the finish
V: 7

2014 Château La Rame Sainte Croix du Mont AOC (13.2% ABV, $20, 100% Sémillon, 50 yo vines, 30% aged in oak batrrels)
C: golden
N: rich, opulent, honey, bortrized notes, very inviting, touch of petrol
P: beautiful, round, honey, apricot, peach, intense, perfect acidity
V: 8, best of tasting

2014 Château du Cros Loupiac AOC (14% ABV, $15, 90% Sémillon, 5% Sauvignon, 5% Muscadelle, 12 months in barrique)
C: golden
N: intense honey
P: mostly honey, needs more acidity
V: 7

2014 Château Lapinesse Sauternes AOC (% ABV, $39.99, 100% Sémillon, 12 months in stainless steel)
C: light golden
N: dry, white stone fruit
P: sweet, mostly single note
V: 7

2009 Château FILHOT Sauternes AOC (13.5% ABV, $40, aged for 22 months including 12 months in oak barrels)
C: very light golden
N: honeysuckle, delicious, very promising
P: honey, candied orange, nice, touch more of acidity would be nice
V: 7+

2009 Château Dauphiné Rondillon Loupiac AOC (% ABV, $28, 70% Semillon, 30% Sauvignon Blanc)
C: light golden
N: muted, touch of honeysuckle
P: touch of candied orange, good acidity, but overall is just ok
V: 7

Sauternes Selection

The holiday season is upon us. While I’m not asking you to pair your Thanksgiving turkey with the Sauternes (albeit it might work very well – and I will actually try it), I definitely suggest you will give Sauternes a chance to brighten up your friends and family get together – that “wine and cheese” fun is generally overrated and underestimated at the same time, as majority of the wines don’t pair that easily with the cheese – but try it with Sauternes, and you might discover a new love in your life. Cheers!

Oh, My Sweet Valentine… – 2005 Version

February 8, 2012 2 comments

Inniskillin Cab Franc Ice WineAs I did recently with the post about Champagne, let me present you with an article written for the same Stamford Times newspaper in 2005 – talking about sweet wines for your special Valentin’s day, which is coming up in less than a week. For what it worth, here it is in its entirety.

* * *

Well, Valentine’s Day is around the corner. All stores are full of heart-shaped things, candies in particular. Seems that “sweet” is closely entwined into our tradition of Valentine’s Day celebration, and sweets and romance usually go together. While we are on the subject, did you ever think of where the word “honeymoon” came from?  If you know the answer – great, you can skip the last paragraph, if not – please keep reading and you will get an answer at the end.

Now, let’s talk about the sweet substance which usually doesn’t come in the heart-shaped form, but nevertheless is worth mentioning – let’s talk about sweet wine. So how come the wine can be sweet? Do they add sugar to it? No, usually, nobody adds sugar to the wine. Sugar is developing in the grape as it ripens, and it is a result of photosynthesis ( no sun – no sugar  – no wine, very simple formula). As the grape ripens, the amount of sugar is increasing, thus the idea is very simple – the longer time grape spends under the sun, the sweeter it becomes. The later harvest is, more sugar the grape will have. Have you seen the words “late harvest” on the wine label? What it telling you is that the grape spent more time on the vine and was harvested late, thus you should expect that the wine under such label will generally be sweeter.

Well, then, if sugar is naturally present in the grape, how come most of the wine we drink is not sweet at all – they are so-called dry wines? After grapes are pressed, when grape juice is fermented by adding yeast, the fermentation process stops by itself once all sugar is converted into alcohol – this is why we usually don’t taste sugar in the wine. Based on that fact, we can see that if grape has too much sugar, we might get wine very high in alcohol, which will usually defeat the purpose. The fact that the amount of sugar in the grape needs to be controlled often dictates the starting date of harvest. But when the goal is to produce sweet wine, the grapes are usually left on the vine for as long as possible, they shrivel under the sun, almost becoming raisins, plus very often it is desirable that the mold, called Botrytis cinerea, or “noble rot” will develop on the grapes. This will ensure that grape will have the maximum concentration of sugar, which will be then only partially fermented into alcohol, thus producing a sweet wine.

One more fact would be interesting to note – as it is necessary to wait until the grapes are “raisiny” enough to be made into a sweet wine, usually a small number of suitable grapes is harvested, and also such suitable grapes should be picked by hand multiple times. This translates into the fact that very often sweet wines carry a high sticker price (however an exception, but some German Rieslings, for instance, can go for $400 per 375 ml bottle)

To make sweet wines even more concentrated, as unusual as it sounds, next after sun and heat come frost. This is how so-called ice wine is made – grapes are harvested well into the winter months when the temperature drops below 17°F. Frost leads to the further dehydration of grapes, thus ensuring even higher levels of sugar and flavor in the grape. The grapes are pressed while frozen, and usually, a very limited quantity of the grape juice is extracted, which in turn means once again – you guessed it right – high prices. Just to add a historical perspective, ice wine was first produced in Germany at the end of 18th century and since then it is becoming more and more popular and it is now produced in other countries with great success (Austria and Canada are two of top contenders).

So where sweet wines are made? The answer is – pretty much everywhere. While covering all different sweet wine regions in this article would be impossible, let’s take a quick tour around the world.

We will start in … France, of course. Some of the best sweet wines in the world are produced in the region of Bordeaux called Sauternes. Sauternes wine is made primarily out of grape called Semillon. The most famous wine in Sauternes is made at Chateau d’Yquem – you wouldn’t regret having Chateau d’Yquem served at your romantic dinner.

While we are in Europe, let’s make another stop – Germany. Assumingly, German Rieslings don’t need much introduction. Riesling wine is made out of the grape with the same name – Riesling. There are different levels of sweetness (five of them) in German Rieslings – starting from the one called Kabinett, which is a semi-dry wine, and going to the one called Trockenbeerenauslese ( TBA in short), which makes very rich, sweet, honey-like wine ( the price also follows the trail).

Of course, when talking about wine, we can’t forget about Italy. While most of its fame is coming from the red wines like Barolo and Barbaresco, there are a number of well known sweet wines coming from that beautiful country. Asti Spumante, a sweet sparkling wine, would be one. Moscato di Asti would be another one – lightly fizzed wine with a fresh and delicate aroma. Vin Santo out of Tuscany (produced in the Chianti region) might also sound familiar.

Let’s cross the ocean now – in the United States, sweet wines are produced in the number of regions, best of them arguably coming from upstate New York and the state of Washington. These sweet wines are usually made out of Riesling grape. Canada is also worth mentioning as since 1973 it became a very respected producer of ice wine and compete very well in that category with both Germany and Austria.

While there is more to the geography of the sweet wines ( we didn’t even get to talk about Australia, Chili, Spain, Portugal, and others), let’s talk about how and what to serve them with. The serving temperature range for the sweet wines is rather large, from 50°F to 65°F. You can choose the serving temperature depending on what characteristic of the wine you want to bring out – for the sweetness you can serve it warmer (57°F – 65°F), but if you want to stress the light and refreshing side of the wine, you can serve it colder (50°F – 57°F).

What to serve with the sweet wine?  One possible choice – nothing. After all, there is plenty of sugar in that glass to qualify as a dessert by itself. But if you want to have the sweet wine with food, the rules are the same as for any wine in general – it can either complement or contrast the food. You can serve sweet wine with dessert to complement it, or you can contrast – serve a nice Riesling with blue cheese, for instance.

One thing left before we conclude – the answer to the “honeymoon question”. The word comes from ancient Persia, where it was a tradition for the father of the bride to provide a month-long supply of alcoholic beverage called mead (made out of honey) for the groom to be enjoyed after the wedding. As lunar calendar was used at that time, hence the “honeymoon” word.

With this, we will conclude our short journey to the world of sweet wine. This Valentine’s Day, bring a bottle of sweet wine to your sweet Valentine, and to make sure it will taste the best – enjoy it together! Cheers!

Daily Glass: Finding Pleasure, or Haut Charmes Sauternes

August 13, 2010 4 comments

I already touched on the subject of the “best wine” in my previous post, which can be defined as “the one you like the most”. Continuing the subject, I would also like to refer to the great teacher, author and wine guru Kevin Zraly, who taught tens of thousands of people (myself included) to understand and appreciate wine in his Windows on the World Wine School. In the words of Kevin Zraly, the best wine is the one which gives you pleasure. As simple as that. Why do I bring it up? Because today I want to talk about wine called Sauternes.  Sauternes is a white dessert wine which comes from Sauternes region in Bordeaux in France and typically made out of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grapes in various proportions. And if you ever tasted any of the Sauternes (and if you didn’t – please do it as soon as possible), you would agree, that this is one of the few wines which can be consistently associated with pleasure, which is also proven by the fact that Chateau d’Yquem (one of the very best, Grand  producers in Sauternes) wines received a perfect score of 100 points (absolute max) from Wine Spectator literally more often that any other rated wine ( you can check for yourself at Wine Spectator web site).

Enters Haut Charmes 2007, Sauternes, France.

As with any wines from any regions,of course not all of Sauternes are created equal, and there are always ups and downs. Luckily, Haut Charmes 2007 belongs to the “up” side. This wine comes beautifully clean on the nose and palate, with white fruits like peaches, and honey being prominent in the taste, all complemented with very good minerality and acidity. The wine presents itself in a very ethereal fashion, and doesn’t leave sweet residue on the palate, which many of its cousins would do, finishing with desire to reach for the glass again and again and again. I have to also mention that rumor has it that it is declassified d’Yquem – you can find this information in a number of places on Internet, but not at the Chateau d’Yquem official web site, so we have to take it as is. With or without any relationship to the actual d’Yquem, this wine is 10-fold less expensive that the actual d’Yquem – assuming you can find it ( in one of the near future posts, I will write about wine stores I shop at, so you will learn about the right places for that). And talking about rating:

Drinkability: 8+

Make an effort – find it and try it, and then let’s talk about wine and pleasure!

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