Nestled within France's famous Bordeaux region is a subregion that produces sweet liquid gold. One sip of the aromatic, honeyed nectar, and your idea of dessert wine will forever be changed - in the best way possible.
What magic is this? It's Sauternes - France's vibrant dessert wine. If you've never tried it, get ready to discover just how good a world-class sweet wine can be.
What Is Sauternes Wine?
A notable wine from the Bordeaux region of France, Sauternes is a sweet wine that owes all its flavors to the growing process. And no, it's not just the sémillon, sauvignon blanc, or muscadelle grapes that make this wine singular. It's the noble rot, Botrytis cinerea, that sets Sauternes apart.
Since the Botrytis dehydrates the grapes so much while on the vine, there isn't much liquid left for the bottle. Instead, what remains is a sweet, concentrated nectar that ferments into a wine with vibrant flavors, spicy aromas, and a silky texture that coats your palate with pure goodness. This is a wine that's hard work to produce and a rarity to find.
You Can Thank Noble Rot
Don't be put off by the term rot. In the case of Satuernes (and its subregional sibling, Barsac), rot isn't just a good thing. It's the perfect thing to make a wine with the right amount of sweetness and impressive depth.
Noble rot is a beneficial fungus that collects on the grapes' skins, dehydrating them while keeping the sugar levels high (imagine the sweetness of a raisin). It also leaves behind a bit of its own aromatic touch, phenylacetaldehyde, a chemical compound with an aroma similar to spiced honey. The result is a sweeter flavor and deeper complexity.
The climate helps the noble rot along, particularly in the fall. The misty, damp mornings make for prime conditions that allow Botrytis to develop on the skin of the ripe grapes, creating the ideal conditions for dessert wine perfection.
What Does Sauternes Taste Like?
With Botrytis dehydrating the grapes, the sugars it leaves behind are all-the-more potent and notable. However, there's more to a glass of Sauternes than sweetness. Take a sip, and tropical fruit flavors, honey, and peach will mingle on your palate with notes of apricot, citrus, and honeysuckle. A bit of baking spice enhances the sweetness, while a crisp acidity provides balance and keeps the wine from becoming cloying.
Sauternes: Grapes, Terroir, Harvesting, and Making
Sauternes is primarily made from sémillon and sauvignon blanc grapes with a bit of muscadelle added. The microclimate in Bordeaux, with the misty and damp fall days, is key to the wine. The gravel, limestone, and clay-rich soil holds on to moisture, and the warm afternoons ensure the noble rot flourishes in the humid environment.
Winemakers harvest Sauternes grapes anywhere from mid October to early November, which is a little later than when other wine grapes are plucked from vines. This later harvest, along with the noble rot, allows sugars and flavors to concentrate in the grapes. Once the noble rot has done its thing, wineries harvest each grape bunch by hand.
From there, the grapes are gently pressed to extract the sugary, sweet juices. The juices are fermented in oak barrels and then the wine is aged in oak anywhere from a year and a half to three years - although some winemakers will opt for a shorter or longer times depending on the flavors they want to achieve.
How to Store Sauternes
Bottles of Sauternes do best when kept at a constant, cool temperature, like most other wines. Store them at somewhere around 50°F (10°C). Pick a spot that's dry and preferably out of the sun, storing the wine on its side to keep the cork from drying out. Don't store it in any place that has vibrations to avoid agitating the bottle. When ready, uncork, pour, and enjoy. You can age a bottle of Satuernes for anywhere from 5 to 50 or more years!
Sauternes Food Pairings
The sweetness of the Sauternes is tempting to have alongside desserts - and you'd be right to do so! It's right at home alongside cheesecakes, fruit tarts, or other fruit desserts (personally, I'm a big fan of it with some apple crisp), as well as ice cream or crème brûlée.
Of course, you don't need to wait until dessert to enjoy it with blue cheese, foie gras, pâté, and other earthy umami bites, or even buttery, rich seafood like lobster or crab. You also wouldn't be wrong to serve Sauternes alongside a salty snack like a bar nut mix or with a soft, gooey baked brie cheese with fig jam and apples.
Saunter Towards the Sauternes
Go ahead and take a trip to the French wine aisle to dabble in something sweet and juicy. Don't let noble rot throw you off; without that, this wine would lack distinction. Think of this as the blue cheese of wine. Which is great since they pair well together. Would ya look at that!