“Liquid gold” and “nectar of the gods” are just a couple catchphrases that often define the world’s greatest dessert wine from Sauternes, France.
Sauternes is a commune in the Graves district south of Bordeaux, between the Garonne River and one of its tributaries, the Ciron. The sweet dessert wines of Sauternes, Barsac and Monbazillac are arguably the most notable of all botrytis wines, the oldest of which originated in the Tokai region of northeast Hungary in the mid 1600s. Botrytis wines also come from Germany, Austria, California, Australia, Romania, New Zealand and South Africa.
So what is botrytis? Botrytis bunch rot is a vine disease that has the potential either to ruin a crop or to create outstanding wine. If the fungus attacks grapes that are not yet ripe or damaged, it can be disastrous and is called grey rot. If the fungus attacks healthy, ripe white grapes, it is referred to as noble rot, a beneficial fungus that requires a mesoclimate with misty mornings and warm afternoons in the final weeks before fall harvest.
The noble rot fungus attacks vineyards and causes the grapes to shrivel and rot, resulting in grapes with greater concentration of tartaric acid and sugar. Due to this concentration, the resulting wines are intensely sweet, dense, refreshing and very complex.
In some years, botrytis attacks the vineyard in one fell swoop, making harvest faster and more efficient. In other years, the fungus can attack grape by grape, row by row or cluster by cluster. During these difficult years, harvest can take up to 10 weeks, with the workers having to make several trips through the vineyard to pick the most affected botrytized grapes. Because of the slow progress of harvesting and the minimal juice left in the grapes, botrytis-infected wines can fetch outrageous prices. It takes a plethora of raisins to make a bottle of wine.
White grape varieties are the beneficiaries of noble rot. In the Sauternes district of France, semillon, sauvignon blanc and muscadelle make up the blend. Typically though, semillon dominates up to 80 percent of most producers’ blends. The sauvignon blanc portion adds structure with its high natural acidity, and, when used, muscadelle offers additional aromatics.
Most reputable producers barrel-ferment the wine for 18 to 36 months which adds structure, complexity and elegance. The most famous of all botrytis wineries, Chateau d’Yquem, ages its wine in 100-percent new, French-oak barrique for 36 months. This estate also has the lowest yields at 9 hectoliters per hectacre (35 cases of wine per acre), making Chateau d’Yquem the most expensive of all Sauternes. Thankfully, the required maximum yield of Sauternes is 25 hl/ha, a far more affordable option. Entry-level Sauternes start at $20 for a half-bottle.
These wines are delightful upon release; those with the patience to age the wine themselves or purchase already aged wines can be rewarded. In great vintages, some wines can age gracefully for upwards of 50 years.
Sauternes is unmistakably sweet but with an unparalleled balance of fruit and acidity. Aromatics include notes of honey, apricots, peaches, clove and cinnamon. The body is full, rich, extracted and explosive, with a long silky finish – excellent alone or with the classic pairings of Roquefort cheese or fois gras. Often best served chilled with fruit tarts, these are excellent wines to accompany your holiday festivities.
Alan Cuenca is an accredited oenophile and owner of Put a Cork in It, a Durango wine store. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.