Sauternes is a sweet wine, but there’s more to it

June 26, 2012

Which wine makes you happiest? Not the wine that’s most interesting or profound or that makes you feel the hippest — the one that gives you nothing but joy?

For me, the answer is Sauternes. The recent tastings I put together of the famed sweet wine of Bordeaux made me so happy that every time I took a sip and a swallow, something like an inner glow happened.

Of course, until recently, my thoughts on Sauternes were like that of many others, namely: Who the heck drinks them, anyway?

Wine Recommendations

Joe Riley, manager at Ace Beverage in Northwest Washington, said he has seen demand for Sauternes and other sweet wines drop off like a cliff.

“I think some people like the idea of dessert wines, but have second thoughts when they see the prices,” Riley told me via e-mail.

Even Sauternes makers will tell you that their wine has been a tough sell of late. “Nobody comes into a store to buy Sauternes,” says Xavier Planty, general manager at Chateau Guiraud, a producer ranked as premier cru since the original Bordeaux classification of 1855.

As I’ve seen with numerous other wines and spirits over the years, however, if you wait long enough, things will change. Old will become new. Uncool will become trendy.

When I stopped at Chateau Guiraud on my visit to Sauternes in the spring, the mood was optimistic.

“Sauternes is back,” said Augustin Lacaille, Guiraud’s brand ambassador. “The target for us is millennials. From what we can see, the millennials have a sweet palate as they move into wine.”

Lacaille bases his optimism on trends like the rise of sweet wines such as moscato, the U.S. sales of which were up 80 percent last year. “Moscato was the easiest wine for [millennials] to start with,” he said. “I think this is a good thing. Eventually, the millennials will seek out more complexity.”

Among older wine aficionados, there’s a basic bias against sweet wines. I think we need to move beyond the false idea that “sweet” equals “unsophisticated.” Sauternes is “sweet” in the same way that “Moby-Dick” is a sea story. True, but there’s more to it than that.

“I don’t like the word ‘sweet.’ Sweet is reductive,” Planty said. “These wines are not just sweet. They’re more complex than that.”

When it’s good, Sauternes is like ambrosia, full of layer upon layer of flavors. I prefer to serve it slightly chilled, and as the wine warms up in the glass the complex aromas change from moment to moment: honey, honeysuckle, honeydew; pineapple, mango, papaya; almond, fig, flowers; brioche, creme brulee, salted caramel.

Sauternes gets its complexity from sauvignon blanc and semillon grapes, many of which have botrytized, meaning they have been benevolently “infected” by a fungus called noble rot. If you’ve never had wines like this it can sound strange, but the effect is delicious. As the grapes dry out, an incredible concentration of aromas and flavors occurs.

Unlike many sweet wines, Sauternes is not late harvest. Cool, humid nights cause the noble rot to develop, and noble rot must happen soon after maturity. There are so many capricious factors at play. In the early 1990s, there were years when no harvest occurred at all.

No surprise then that it’s one of the most sought-after wines by collectors. Half-bottles (375 milliliters) regularly fetch more than $100. Great vintages can stretch much higher. I recently saw a bottle of 1994 Chateau d’Yquem listed at a Virginia retailer for $2,790.

Part of the reason for this is the aging potential for Sauternes: The wine can seemingly live forever. “Sauternes was the first wine of Bordeaux to age. It’s built to age,” Planty said. “But a good Sauternes is always good. When it’s young, you can drink it, too.” That is very unlike a lot of coveted red wines meant to age, such as premier cru Bordeaux or Barolo.

That’s why I recommend splurging on even a young Sauternes. High-quality, 375-milliliter bottles for less than $30 abound. It sounds like a lot for a little, but honestly, you’re not going to slurp down a full bottle of such a rich, viscous wine. And I find that Sauternes keeps slightly longer in the refrigerator than other wines: at least four to five days, sometimes longer.

Don’t be put off by the drab sameness of the Sauternes labels. It seems to be a rule that all bottles must have golden, scripty fonts on stark labels, with images of either old chateaus or coats of arms. (I’d suggest that if Sauternes producers are really going after the millennial market, they may want to invest in label makeovers from hip graphic designers.)

In the end, the label is irrelevant. Once you open the wine and pour it into a glass, it’s pure pleasure. I defy anyone to taste and disagree with me on this: Sauternes makes you happy.

Wine Recommendations

Wilson writes this week for Dave McIntyre, whose column will return next week.

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