Sweet/dessert wine is something I’ve only relatively recently got into.
I was lucky enough to be “broken in” several years ago with a (small) glass of 1980-odd vintage Chateau d’Yquem – recognised by some as the finest wine (red, white or sparkling) in the world and with a price to match. In 2006 a 135-year vertical (containing every vintage from 1860 to 2003) was sold by The Antique Wine Company of London for $1.5 million, one of the highest prices ever paid for a single lot of wine.
It was one of the most delicious, complex and pleasurable things I have ever drunk and if it weren’t for the price (around £200-250 per bottle so way out of my league) I would have bought some there and then. From the Appellation of Sauternes in Bordeaux, this is a common problem that a lot of these types of wines suffer from – they are too expensive and are exclusively the preserve of the extremely wealthy or wine futures investors.
The top Sauternes have benefitted from the front end of marketing and auction hyperbole for a while now too so are anything but accessible and unless you are lucky enough to know someone who has a bottle and they open it in your company and they let you taste it (some big ifs there…) then you may well spend the rest of your life wondering what all the fuss is about. Not everything coming out of Sauternes is brilliant and expensive though – there are some producers whose wines are affordable (in the Euro 15-20 per 750ml bottle range) but invariably the quality of these wines is very inconsistent and they are a pale and watered-down comparison to their more expensive brethren.
There are some good alternatives to Sauternes though – Barsac, Cerons and Monbazillac being a few. Barsac and Cerons are actually Sauternes’ less illustrious neighbours in the Graves region, bordering the Garonne River on its south bank before it reaches Bordeaux, where general quality is almost as high but prices are a bit lower because of the less glitzy name. Monbazillac, on the other hand, is a sub-region of Bergerac (about 100km east of Bordeaux and considered to be its “back yard”) but an appellation in its own right where wine production dates back as far as 1080. The best wines from this area can rival those of Sauternes and Barsac but due to a general under-appreciation of sweet white wines in the last few decades, the area has fallen into relative decline and is often referred to as le Sauternes du pauvre (‘poor man’s Sauternes’ – true in my case at least).
The grapes here – Semillon, Sauvignon and Muscadelle – undergo the same process as in Sauternes of noble rot caused by the naturally growing fungus Botrytis Cinerea, the spores of which breed well in the low-lying hills with optimum humidity and temperature conditions. These spores lie dormant in the soil and in the vine until activated by early morning mist alternated with hot, mid-morning sunshine, eventually latching on to the grapes. Once there they replace the structure of the grape with fungus that feeds off the moisture within, devouring 80% of the grape’s acidity and 30% of its sugar but more importantly more water than anything else, ultimately leaving a sticky, sugar-rich pulp. Only the affected grapes are then picked while the others are left on the vine to be botry-tised, thus prolonging the harvest and exposing the vineyard to greater risks of adverse weather conditions such as rain and hail. Not all the grapes get affected though and combined with the fact that the vineyard is far more at the mercy of mother nature means that relatively low yields are the rule – sometimes none at all – translating into generally higher prices.
This wine is a pale, golden-yellow in the glass that deepens to a more browny-gold with age (it will keep under optimum conditions and improve for 10-15 years) and has an oily looking quality to it indicating both high alcohol and sugar content. On the nose there are scents of lemon blossom, honeysuckle, marmalade and sweet citrus fruit. It is incredibly unctuous and full-textured on the palate with hints of caramelised fruits and peaches with a very smooth and slightly bittersweet finish. Ideal food partners include foie gras, steamed puddings and fruitcake – it is great with mince pies and brandy butter. It also complements certain types of rich and creamy blue cheese such as Roquefort and Stilton but it can be drunk on it’s own as an aperitif. In the winter months this is an ideal substitute to Port and is much more versatile, not to mention easier to drink.
Although I bought mine in France, I have found the 2006 vintage on sale in the UK from Leftbank Wines for £ 9.99 a bottle.
Marks out of 100 – 90.