“Human beings have been inventing wine for some eight thousand years,” said author Paul Lukacs who in his 2012 work Inventing Wine: A New History Of One Of The World’s Most Ancient Pleasures marks the emergence of modern wine culture at the point when consumption of wine shifted from need to choice.
Sweet wines made using different methods to concentrate sugars in the grapes are one of humankind’s oldest forms of wine production. The Greek poet Hesiod who, in his didactic poem “Works and Days” which is a farmers’ almanac of sorts written in the 7th century BC, invokes the muses and spells out the production method for producing Commandaria, the famous sweet wine of the ancients. The Greeks and the Italians after them employed the appassimento method of drying grapes to concentrate and preserve the sugars in wine.
But in regions where air drying grapes wasn’t practical due to year around rains, Mother Nature offered an alternative method for making sweet wine that relies on the fungus Botrytis cinerea commonly called Noble Rot. The history of this method dates to 1571 in the Tokaj region of Hungary where the production of Azsú was codified in 1720. The German’s also lay claim to its origin when the harvest of 1775 was delayed at Schloss Johannisburg resulting the Spätlese or late harvest wine style. Today, Tokaj, the German Pradikat wines Berenauslese and Trockenberenauslese and Sauternes are the benchmarks for this extraordinary method.
In tracing the history of sweet wine production in Bordeaux, necessity seems to have been the mother of invention. The popularity of Botrytis-affected wines is attributed to the Dutch who came to drain the Medoc in the 17th century. Their thirst for sweet wines that were often further adulterated with syrups and herbs created a market for the style but historians believe the production method was not widely advertised until the wine had achieved notoriety largely because Botrytis-affected grapes are unappealing.
The production of Sauternes was first classified in 1885 at the request of Emperor Napoleon by local merchants and codified under AOP rules in 1936. At the time of the 1885 classification, the wines of Sauternes and neighboring Barsac were valued above Bordeaux’s dry wines and merited the creation of an über-category of ‘Superior First Growth’ for Ch. d’Yquem but for which no red wine was deemed worthy.
Of the five communes allowed to label their wines as Sauternes — Barsac, Sauternes, Bommes, Fargues, and Preignac – producers in Barsac are allowed to bottle under the Barsac appellation although considerably less wine is produced there. The production of Sauternes relies on a pain-staking and costly method that uses multiple passes through the vineyard to select individual bunches and berries that have been attacked by Noble Rot.
After a long fermentation, the resulting wines have high levels of residual sugar and acidity with an extraordinary range of opulent flavors that can include honeysuckle, acacia, citrus, tree fruit (quince) stone fruits (apricot/peach), tropical fruits (pineapple), orange marmalade, candied fruits, vanilla, rye bread and roasted nuts.
Although levels of residual sugar vary based on vintage and producer, these wines are best served as an aperitif or as a pre or post dessert course where they can be fully appreciated without the distraction of a dessert that is more or less sweet.
The sweet wines of neighboring communes that lie on the right bank of the Garonne River in Entre-Deux- Mers including Cadillac, Loupiac and Crois du Mont are made using the same method though often have lower percentages of Botrytis-affected grapes and can have lower acidity. While still mirroring the flavors of Sauternes, this somewhat subdued style is considerably more versatile at the table can be successfully paired with a range of cuisines.
These wines includes a range of styles from both the classified communes and Entre-Deux-Mers areas representing excellent quality for value:
Chateau Manos Cadillac 2015: $12.99
Produced by vintners Damien Chombart and Caroline Meurée of Chateau Lamothe this wine ferments 50% in tank and 50% in barrels (6 months 100% 1 year old barrels) and shows honeysuckle, medium plus body, yellow peach, apricot, delicious fruit purity and commendable length on the finish.
Chateau La Rame Sainte Croix du Mont 2014: $20
This 100% Sémillon has 110.6 g/l residual sugar. 70 percent is fermented in stainless steel vats and the remainder in oak barrels. Stylistically much richer, unctuous with somewhat lower acidity, the oak flavors are dialed up and balanced with ripe pineapple.
Chateau du Cros Loupiac 2014: $15
A 90% Sémillon, 5% Sauvignon Blanc and 5% Muscadelle that spends 12 months in barrel (30% new) with pronounced floral aromas of green tea, tangerine peel and candied fruit flavors through a very clean finish.
Château Dauphine Rondillon Loupiac: $28
This 70% Semillon, 30 % Sauvignon Blanc blend sees no oak but is almost savory with earthier dried apricot and a finish laced with smoke and minerality.
Chateau Filhot Sauternes 2009: $40
A Second Cru Classification Sauternes blend of 60% Sémillon, 36% Sauvignon Blanc and 4% Muscadelle that ages for 22 months including 12 months in oak barrels (1/3 new barrels per year). “A lively wine, sterling acid, beeswax, roasted apples, pears, cardamom and white roses.” Jamesthewineguy.
Chateau Lapinesse Bordeaux Sauternes 2014: $39.99
A 100% Sémillon aged for 12 months in stainless steel tank. “Sweetness here is balanced with a gorgeous acid character showing yellow peach, beeswax, wet stone and flowers,” jamesthewineguy. “Complex and well balanced showing lots of minerality with lovely aromas of honeysuckle and orange zest lifting it at the end,” Catherine Todd.
Chateau Lauvignac Cuvée Sahuc Sauternes: $18.99
A blend of 85% Semillon, 10% Muscadelle and 5% Sauvignon Blanc fermented in concrete vats and stainless-steel tanks. “Yellow citrus peel, almond, crushed sea shells and pine nuts,” credited to jamesthewineguy.
Haut Charmes Sauternes 2015: $20
This Ciron valley estate blends of 80% Sémillon and 20% Sauvignon Blanc aged in barrels (50% new; 50% one year old). A study in candied melon, saffron and succulent white peach.