"If I could make any wine," says David Stare of California's Dry Creek winery, "and still make a profit, I would make sauternes."
Making money from sauternes is difficult. Limited popularity, the massive amount of labor needed at harvest, the necessity of prolonged ideal weather to assure proper grapes to harvest -- all these things conspire to restrict sauterne making to those with unlimited bankrolls. It may be no coincidence that gold is the predominent color on satuernes' labels.
Yet with all the expenses to growers, sauternes remain amazing bargains for consumers. The most recent vintage in general release, 1975, continues to sell for less than 1975 Bordeaux reds, most of them for under $10 a bottle. tPrior vintages, particularly the very good 1971s, can be bought for similar prices or, in many cases, for even less.
But until the past few years nothing, not even rock-bottom prices, could convert wine drinkers to these luscious, sweet white wines of Bordeaux.
Now, however, that appears to be changing. "We're seeing a real resurgence in sweet wines in general and sauternes in particular," reports Ed Sands of Woodley Wines and Liquors. "Young people are the ones responsible for most of the increase. As new drinkers they're starting with whites, which are traditionally easier to drink, but unlike older drinkers, they're more willing to experiment. So they try sauternes, like them and buy them."
This renaissance isn't limited to Washington. Bordeaux wine exporter and consultant Peter Sichel, in his 1980 report on French wines wrote that "there is a sound nucleus of enlightened customers," interested in sauternes and "willing to pay a proper price for quality. French consumers, too, would appear to have rediscovered them."
For those who have yet to make their acquaintance, sauternes are velvety smooth nectar, rich and sweet but not cloyingly so. They are full and fruity and distinctly perfumed. Although they go down easily when young, they are remarkably well, usually reaching a luscious maturity after ten or 15 years.
Sauternes were classified into three categories in 1855. Chateau d'Yquem alone was elevated to a supreme position called "First Great Growth." Below it are 11 first growths and 12 seconds.
Part of the sauternes uniqueness comes from the grapes used -- usually 70 percent or more semillon and the rest sauvignon blanc -- and the soil in which they grow. But a major contribution is botrytis cinerea. the beneficient mold that attacks the grapes when autumn weather conditions are ideal. This mold dehydrates the grapes, which causes the glycerine, sugar and grape concentrate levels to increase.
Because the mold moves through vineyards in a most erratic fashion, infecting some vines and skipping others, pickers must make several trips through the vines over a period of weeks to insure getting grapes at the moment of maximum dehydration.
Those growers unable to afford four or five pickings or unwilling to take a chance on the weather, wait until most of the grapes are ready and then make just one or two passes.
Sauternes have generally been paired with fresh fruit (peaches, strawberries, pears, nectarines, raspberries) or those desserts that don't overpower the wine's sweetness with their own. (My favorite is a homemade cheesecake with a hint of lemon: a sauterne buff I know relishes his with a baked apple; Peter Sichel recommends a lemon souffle.)
Lately, though, a movement is underfoot to team the wines with pates and various cheeses, particularly Roquefort. Comte Pierre di Bournazel, the proprietor of Chateau de Malle, one of the second growth sauternes, suggests all of the above, plus sole with cream, shad, veal roasts and stews, duck, turkey, quail . . . and on and on.
Vintages most readily available are 1970, 1971 and 1975, with the '71s proving to be generally superior to the '70s. In addition to the '71 Rieussec, which was included in our tasting of the '75s, other '71s worth trying are Yquem, Climens, Cloutet, Rayne-Vigneau and Doisy-Daene. From 1970, Filhot, Suduiraut and Yquem are all very good.
The 1975s, however, may be better than either vintage. They may, in fact, be the best year in sauternes since the late 1940's. Certainly the weatherman cooperated, supplying the Sauternais with a glorious year, concentrating some of the best weather during the critical weeks of autumn.
The bad news regarding the '75s is that only 14 of them could be located in the Washington area. Missing were such well-known names as Climens, Rayne-Vigneau, Sigalas-Rabaud, Broustet, de Malle and Lamothe.
One wine, Roumieu, turned up too late for our tasting. A second, the celebrated Yquem, was purposely omitted. And simply because of its price. It has ballooned so drastically with this vintage -- to $70 or more per bottle -- that a careful buyer, shopping during local sales, could have purchased all the wines in our tasting for just a few dollars more than the price of a single Yquem.
But sauterne prices are on the rise and those interested in buying 1975s would do well to get them now. Many have nearly doubled in price since they were first offered, and opening prices of the 1978s, which have yet to arrive in Washington, are being quoted at a third more than current prices of 1975s.