Don't pity Sauternes. That's the message Tom Heeter, an American who directs Chateau Nairac in Barsac, sends back to his homeland.
Here in the United States those luscious sweet wines from France usually are considered anacronisms, hangers on from an era before calorie counting became one of our national sports. But Heeter, wh toured the country the past spring, points to hopeful indicators on both sides of the Atlantic as evidence he's not merely a latter-day Don Quixote with a sweet tooth.
In France a number of chefs have shown a willingness to experiment with Sauternes innovative dishes that may appear - along with a glass of Sauternes - anywhere on the menu. (At a Georgetown dinner, Hetter poured samples of his graceful 1973 Nairac to accompany canapes his wife had fashioned from Roquefort cheese. A dry white wine and a red were served later with the meal.) In California, successful experimentation with bortytis -infected grapes has revived consumer enthusiasm for sweet wines, even at elevated prices.
"For the moment," Heeter said, "California is the best Sauternes market in the world."
That is ironic because one of the handicaps the French winemakers have faced is the bad reputation of generic California "sauterne," a wine that not only is sticky sweet but has virtually no redeeming graces save its alcohol content. Real Sauternes is made an in area on the west bank of the Garonne River south of the city of Bordeaux. There are five villages within the area, one of which, Barsac, has its own appellation. Thus, a few Sauternes wines, including Nairac, may be labeled Barsac.
The common link of all of them is the climate of the area, which encourages a mold, called Botrytis cinerea or the nobel rot, to attack the white wine grapes as they ripen. The grapes shrivel, so the sugar percentage rises and when crushed the wine is naturally sweet. Winemakers have turned nobel rot infection to artistic and commercial advantage in Germany (the various gradation of auslese wines), Hungary (Tokay) and now in California.
The most famous Sauternes is Chateau d'Yquem, still one of the most valued and expensive wines in the world despite the swing in popularity away from sweet wines. There are others: 25 were listed in the Classification of 1855. Not all survive and so completely does Yquem dominate discussion of the genre that barely half of them can be found in the Washington area. But those that are available represent great quality and variety at prices considerably less than Yquem commands.
Heeter's enthusiasm is understandable. Born in Ohio, his experience as a part-time wine salesman in a New York City retail store inspired him to go to France to learn more. in 1969 he arrived at Chateau Giscours in the Medoc to pick grapes. Within two years he had married the owner's daughter and made a $150,000 investment in Chateau Nairac. Their 1973 wine is one of the best in the region and Heeter is confident the 1975 and 1976 vintages will be splendid.
Whatever headway Sauternes is making, it is not very apparent here. Nor are others as confident as Heeter about the economics or the internal stability of Bordeaux wine industry. Picking grapes for Sauternes is very labor-intensive work and the development of the grapes is sunject to vagaries of the weather to an even greater degree than for other types of wine. There will be only a limited amount of 1977 Sauternes and it now appears that 1978 may be a year of limited quantity and quality as well.
The excellent 1970 and 1971 Sauternes are wines to seek out, as are any 1967's that still are unclaimed.
Nicole Tari-Heeter is an active partner with her husband and has taken the lead in promoting as awareness of Sauternes' uses in the kitchen. She tapped the imagination of chefs of Bordeaux and nearby regions and worked with them to devise a handsome series of recipe cards that have been much in demand in France.
It is not necessary to use a great Sauternes for cooking. Regional rather than estate Sauternes are availble and sweet wines from the Ste. Croix-du-Mont area, on the opposite side of the Garrone, are sold at very reasonable prices.
(As a rule of thumb with any wine, increase the quality in proportion to how directly it is consumed. In other words, the qualtity of a wine that will be boiled, falmed and simmered with meat for several hours is less important than the quality of a wine that will be poured over fruit in a bowl and served with it. Do not be tempted by "cooking" wine, however. Except for wine vinegar, any wine that is not good enough to drink on its own is not good enough to cook with.)
Here are translations of two of the recipes Nicole Tari-Heeter collected. The first is from Andre Deguin of the Hotel de France in Auch. The second was created by Paul Mora of the Relais de Fompeyre in Bezas. BEEF WITH A SAUTERNES-ROQUEFORT SAUCE (2 servings) 2 slices of beef filet, about 6 ounces each 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened 2 tablespoons Roquefort cheese, softened 2 tablespoons minced shallots 2 tablespoons chopped chives 2/3 cup Sauternes 2/3 cup veal or beef stock Slivered almonds
Blend butter and cheese well and return to refrigerator to chill.
Lightly oil frying pan and cook beef filets until rare or medium rare.
While beef is cooking, heat shallots and chives with Sauternes in a saucepan.Boil over high heat until wine is nearly evaporated. Add stock and reduce it to 2 tablespoons. Remove pan from heat and let it cool slightly. Using a whisk, beat in chilled butter, cut into several pieces.
Spoon sauce over beef, then sprinkle lightly with almonds. Serve with a green vegetable such as broccoli. SOLF FILLETS POACHED IN SAUTERNES (4 servings) 2 large or 4 small fillets of sole 1/2 cup minced shallots or onion 2/4 cup finely chopped mushrooms 3 tablespoons butter Salt and pepper Nutmeg 1 1/2 cups Sauternes 4 egg yolks 1 scant cup creme fraiches*(FOOTNOTE)
* Sold in specialty shops or use homemade (END FOOT)
Melt butter in a skillet. Add shallots and cook until they soften. Add mushrooms and cook until they give off their juice. Turn up heat and boil off juices. Season with salt, pepper and a little nutmeg. Add Sauternes, bring to a boil and simmer for 1 minute.
Butter the bottom of a pan or skillet large enough to hold the fillets in one layer. If using large fillets, cut them in half. Season with salt and pepper, place in the pan and spoon mushrooms over them. Pour wine into the pan, bring to a boil, cover the pan and simmer until just cooked, about 5 minutes. Transfer fillets to a serving platter or plates and keep warm.
Reduce liquid in pan by half over high heat. Mix together egg yolks and creme fraiche in a bowl. Slowly add cooking liquid, stirring with a whisk. Return to pan and place over heat. Stir until mixture is heated through and thickened. Do not boil. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
Spoon sauce over fillets and garnish plates or platter with sprigs of parsley and pastry fleurons. Serve at once.