Sauternes is a sweet white wine made in the southern portion of the Bordeaux region in France. It is made from Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes that are both left on the vine past the normal harvest time until they become infected with Noble Rot, also known as Botrytis. While most fungus is detrimental to crops, Noble Rot is prized for the wines it helps produce. It can only survive in the proper conditions (such as foggy mornings with sunny, warm afternoons) and grapes must possess particular properties to be susceptible. The most important is a thin skin because the rot filaments puncture the skin and cause dehydration of the grapes. This process maintains the acidity of the juice while concentrating the flavors and sugar. It also adds flavors of honey, dried fruit, and citrus. When the grapes are finally ready for harvest, they must be picked by hand to ensure the best grapes are selected. It is also done in waves as the grapes take varying amounts of time to be fully infected and dehydrated for harvest. There are a few wines made utilizing Noble Rot, such as Tokaji, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese. These wines are all higher priced because of the increased labor costs, limited supply and because the wine can only be produced in vintages with proper environmental conditions that allow the fungus to grow. The best recent vintages include 2009 and 2011 with 2015 and 2017 close behind. In 2012, botytris set late in the season while the rains were even more delayed. Some of the top producers opted not to produce their highest grade wines this vintage as a result.
Sauternes was unsurprisingly developed by accident. The beginning was reportedly in 1836 (but origins may date back earlier) when a grower decided to wait out a string of autumn rains to pick his crop. When there was finally a break from the wet weather, they found the grapes were dried and infected by the rot. They decided to produce wine anyway and found the juice to be sweet and delicious. Prior to this documentation, the Dutch had been making sweet wines in Bordeaux using the same techniques used to fortify wine (adding sugar and alcohol). There are also mentions of leaving grapes on the vine for late harvest but until 1836, there had been no known documentation of using rot to aid in making these sweet wines. The most famous of all Sauternes, Château d’Yquem, got its start in 1847 when the owner was late returning from a trip to Russia during harvest. His instructions were to wait until his return and in doing so, he found a vineyard full of rotten grapes. If you are lucky enough to find a bottle of this original vintage, it will run you well over $100,000!
For the final wine pairing of the year, I had 2016 Sablettes Sauternes with Sauterne herb butter scallops. The medium yellow wine with brassy highlights had a viscosity that first coated the goblet then let legs trickle down. The rich aroma of honeysuckle was unmistakable in the wine. Honeysuckle combined with nutmeg, dried apricots, candied lemon peel, and yellow raisins. The heavier feel on the palate was a similar weight to the butter wine sauce that adorned the scallops. The licorice note of the tarragon, the freshness of the chopped parsley, and the tinge of black pepper were wonderful partners to the floral notes of the honeysuckle. The acidity in the wine prevented the dish and wine pairing from being too heavy. Fresh citrus flavors in the wine brightened the salinity in the scallops. Slivers of roasted red pepper along with the crusty edges of the seared scallops accentuated the toasted notes in the wine. The candied sweetness from the roasting of the peppers was the perfect partner to the candied fruit flavors from the wine. Sauternes is also commonly paired with salty blue cheeses and occasionally with desserts, however some in the French wine industry scoff at pairing a sweet wine like Sauternes with desserts. If it is served after dinner, a cheese tray might be the better option, but if you choose to pour a bottle with a crème brûlée, I won’t tell!
I can’t believe it has been a full year already! Over the next year, I am going to change the format slightly and post about wines I choose to drink each week! Instead of posting a list for the next month, it will just depend on what I pull from my rack. This will allow me to introduce you to some more obscure wine varieties, while still mixing in some of the classics! One of my other goals is to hit the Doppel mark of trying 200 unique wine varieties, so I will continue my journey towards that milestone! I look forward to you continuing this journey with me!