A Reminder, a Primer, Enjoying, and Pairing
By Charles M. Bear Dalton
One of my favorite quotes came to me from Samuel Johnson via C.S. Lewis. “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.” I find this true of myself in many situations and I see its application in many other areas as well. It especially applies to wine.
Wines can go in and out of fashion for no apparent reason. People enjoy the wine and drink it regularly and then fashion changes or their mind wanders and the wine drops off their radar screen. At some later time they re-encounter the forgotten wine and wonder why thy quit drinking it in the first place. They already knew about it, they just needed a reminder. Some years back, so-called “dessert wines” such as Port, Sherry, Madeira, and especially Sauternes passed from fashion. Sure, there are some hard-core Sauternes devotees but the general wine drinking population has been ignoring these wines for several years. Sauternes has been all but forgotten. And yet as soon as many wine lovers taste one, they are drawn back into the pleasure and even the thrill of Sauternes.
For me, my reminder about Sauternes came at VinExpo a few years back when Archie and Ivanhoe Johnston (two of the three brothers who own Bordeaux negoçiant Nathaniel Johnston) asked me to be sure to stop by their stand at 11am for a glass of Ch. d’Yquem, the most famous of all the great wines of Sauternes. After three days of walking the halls at the world’s largest wine trade fair, I was dragging and as 11am approached, I found myself in the wrong place. But, because they are my friends and because it was Ch. d’Yquem, I slogged almost the length of the enormous Espace du Lac exhibit hall to the Johnston stand. When I arrived the ever smiling bothers offered me a seat and then a small glass of the nectar that is Ch. d’Yquem. Even as I took the first sip, I began to revive. And yes, I swallowed. The wine was bright and vivid, fresh and refreshing. It combined honey and citrus and exotic spice with power, elegance and vivacity. As I sipped, it revived and re-energized me and gave me a wake up call both for the day and for my wine drinking life. I was refreshed for the day and I was reminded of the great pleasure to be found in fine Sauternes. And that vivid reminder has stuck with me. Sauternes has returned (I hope to stay) to my list of wine drinking pleasures.
A SAUTERNES PRIMER
Just today (the day I write this), I was asked by a co-worker “Why is Sauternes so expensive?” The only way to answer her question was to explain to her what Sauternes is and how it is made.
Sauternes is a sweet white wine from an appellation also called Sauternes which is on the left bank of the Garonne river to south (below Graves) and a bit to the west of the city of Bordeaux. On the west (left) bank of the river are the sweet wine appellations of Ceron, Barsac, and Sauternes. On the east (right) bank are the sweet wine appellations of Cadillac, Loupiac, and St. Croix du Mont. All make fine and even excellent wines but of the six, Sauternes is far and away the best known. In fact, the wines of the next best known appellation, Barsac, may be sold as Sauternes. Between the two – Sauternes and Barsac – come all the best sweet whites of Bordeaux.
All six appellations make their wines from the same (mostly rotten) grapes. The officially allowed grapes include Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, and Muscadelle de Bordelaise. Unofficially, I’ve heard that some of the oldest plots still feature a few hold out vines of Riesling. Mostly rotten? Actually, yes, Sauternes is made mostly from grapes affected by Botrytis Cinerea – which is also known as “noble rot.” While Sauvignon Blanc is the dominant grape for dry White Bordeaux, Semillon moves into the lead role for the sweet whites. Semillon “takes the rot” better than Sauvignon Blanc and the noble rot is what really makes Sauternes. Due to the confluence of the cooler Ceron and warmer Garonne rivers, the area is often covered by a morning mist which burns off as the day warms up creating the right conditions for botrytis to develop on the skins of the ripening grapes. As the botrytis rot takes hold, it draws water from within the grape, leaving behind a desiccated grape containing all its original sugar and acidity in a concentrated syrup. Semillon (along with whatever bit of Riesling is still planted) takes the rot and develops the sweetest nectar. Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t take the rot as well but does contribute brightness and freshness and some spice and herbal complexity. Sauvignon Gris contributes body and richness. Muscadelle (when used) lends a honeysuckle perfume.
Depending on the quality and price of the wine, the vineyard may be picked all in one pass or the pickers may, over a period of weeks, make as many as twelve or even more passes through the vines picking no clusters but only ripest, rottenest grapes, grape-by-rotten-grape. The sticky, disgusting treasure is then brought into the winery where it is crushed and pressed and drained (trickled?) into barrels or tanks to be slowly fermented until the yeast gives up, usually at around 12.5% to 13 % alcohol. The leftover sugar that is not fermented stays in the wine as residual sugar. This intense sweetness from the rot concentrated sugars is balanced by the equally concentrated acidity. Most Sauternes does not undergo malo-lactic fermentation so as to keep it as fresh and bright with acidity as possible. Even though a Sauternes may be very sweet, the really good ones are never cloying and always leave your mouth fresh because of their acidity.
After fermentation and aging the wines are bottled and then aged for … Well, just how long can you keep a bottle of Sauternes? I have to admit that I don’t really know. I have tasted a few bottles from before World War II that despite a burnished bronze coloring were still fresh and even young tasting. My most recent experience with an older Sauternes was a 1949 Coutet (which is actually a Barsac) served by Archie Johnston at a dinner in Bordeaux. Archie allowed that the ’49 (which is a birth year wine for him) might be holding together better than he is. The darkly bronzed beauty was spectacular from the start and got better as it developed and opened up in the glass. Wow! The amazing thing is that even at 62 years, it wasn’t old at all (and I will say the same for Archie). Of course this wine had been properly stored for most of its life in Johnston’s cellars in Bordeaux. The point is that I have never tasted a properly stored bottle of Sauternes that was “too old.” Sauternes’ high levels of sugar and acidity insure that it will last and last as long as it is/has been well taken care of.
So back to my coworker’s question – “Why is Sauternes so expensive?” One reason is that if everything goes just right, the yield of the vineyard drops to one sixth or even lower of the yield the vineyard would give to “normal” grapes grown for dry white wine production. Not to mention that picking grapes for Sauternes is more labor intensive (if no to say “yucky”) and requires more knowledge and skill than picking grapes for dry white, so the cost of harvesting is much higher. Add to that that Sauternes is something of a crapshoot; you never really know until it does whether Botrytis is going to do its thing or whether the grapes will be ruined by gray rot or mildew or birds or … You get the idea. In some years, you don’t even get a crop. In the winery, making Sauternes is more babysitting than winemaking as the winemaker is always worried about a stuck fermentation and everything is sticky from all that sugar. Walking through a Sauternes winery during harvest is like walking through an old time movie theater with floors sticky from spilled Cokes and popcorn butter. Given what the vigneron (grape growers) and winemakers must do to make Sauternes, it is no wonder that Sauternes can be expensive. The real wonder is that it can be sold as reasonably as it is.
At some point, every wine lover ponders the question “Who first thought to make wine from rotten grapes?” The answer is the same as that of the other imponderable food question – Who first thought to eat an oyster? In both cases the answer is “No one knows.” But there is a myth about the origins of botrytis-affected wines.
Depending on who is telling the story, the myth may be set in Germany’s Rheingau, in Hungary’s Tokaji, or in France’ Sauternes. In all cases, the legendary estate’s owner or director is travelling as harvest approaches and leaves orders for the staff to not pick until he gives permission. He is delayed in his travels and by the time he returns to give permission, the grapes have become rotten. In his anger over his staff’s lack of initiative, he orders that the disgustingly rotten grapes be picked and processed into wine. Everyone assumes the wine will be awful but tasting reveals nectar and all are vindicated.
As with any good myth there may be some element of truth that transcends the veracity of the story. As we say in Texas, “Why let the truth get in the way of a good story. And why let the facts get in the way of a good Truth.”
PURE PLEASURE: ENJOYING SAUTERNES
As noted in my VinExpo reminder above, Sauternes can be refreshing and reviving. It can inspire and provoke conversation and even controversy. For both its admirers and producers, Sauternes can be (should be, often is …) a passion. Even more than Champagne, Sauternes is the wine appropriate both before and after the meal. Sauternes can be the wine of conversation. It can both start the conversation and be the subject of the conversation. It can even take the place of conversation as friends quietly sip and appreciate something great in the glow after a fabulous meal.
Because of its high acidity and ultimately clean, refreshing finish, Sauternes can serve as an aperitif at the start of a meal or accompany a rich hors d’ouvree or first course. It is classic with foie gras at the start of the meal and classic with Roquefort at the end. While Sauternes is called a dessert wine, it is not often at its best with dessert. It can accompany great cheese and is often best served either in lieu of or after dessert.
Why, you might ask, does this sweet nectar not go with dessert? Well, actually it can. It’s just that most desserts are too sweet. The general rule is that the wine should be sweeter than the dessert. Sauternes can go beautifully with an apple or peach or apricot tart where the sweetness comes only from the very ripe fruit and not from lots of added sugar. An over sweet dessert will dominate and ultimately dry out the impression of an otherwise lovely sweet wine. If you want to pair Sauternes with dessert, proceed with caution. Do proceed, but with caution.
PAIRING SAUTERNES WITH FOOD
As you may now have gathered, I love drinking Sauternes and I love it with foods both traditional and, well, novel.
The classics include pairing Sauternes with any sort of dish including foie gras or Roquefort (and by extension other bleu) cheeses. Traditional foie gras dishes include terrine de foie gras and a seared slice of fresh foie gras. A favorite non-traditional foie gras (which I have served with Sauternes) is Foie Gras Pot Stickers. While Sauternes is great with Roquefort and other bleu cheeses in their natural forms, it can also accompany them in the form of a bleu cheese soup (whether based on Roquefort or Stilton or other) or a bleu cheese cheese cake. I have even had Sauternes as a unique ingredient in a bleu cheese milk shake (which was as truly strange as it was delicious). Much to my surprise, Sauternes can work wonders with Shrimp and Grits, especially if the dish is on the spicier side.
Sauternes and grilled oysters? Yum (it’s the acidity that makes it work). Sauternes and crab cakes? It can work, especially if you slip a little bacon into your crab cake recipe. On the dessert front, a great really sweet Sauternes can accompany a pecan or walnut pie. And Sauternes can be perfect with a perfect crème brulée. Or combine Roquefort and ripe fruits in the same dish (think trifle, or maybe a terrine) and serve with Sauternes. Caramel can work – especially salted caramel – and also dulce de leche. Chocolate does not.
Perhaps the most unique pairing I’ve ever had with Sauternes was spicy Cajun fried chicken. If you’ve ever had chicken and waffles, you’ll understand the appeal. If not, don’t knock it ‘till you’ve tried it. Since I can no longer eat chicken (I have since found out that I’m allergic to chicken), I’m now looking forward to trying Sauternes with chicken fried rabbit – which I hope will give me the same effect.
And try Sauternes with “pig candy.” (If you don’t know what it is, Google it. You may be disgusted … but you’ll want some.) And then there is foie gras ice cream and a foie gras and Sauternes milkshake and …
Please consider this your Sauternes wake up call. You’ve been reminded and maybe even a bit educated (but not so much taught). Now get out there and enjoy some Sauternes.