Erik Neilson on January 27, 2017 1 Comment There are a handful of wines that are simply given a bad name, many of them fortified. Marsala, for example, has been demonized to the point where many people believe it only has a place in the kitchen and not in a glass. Another wine that sometimes gets met with a turned up nose is Sauternes. A French sweet wine from the Graves area of Bordeaux, Sauternes is often viewed by those who “don’t like sweet wines” as a complete and utter waste of time — it seems like no one is drinking it anymore. This is a true shame, however, as the wine has quite a bit to offer, and there are still producers who treat it with such care that the end product is nothing short of extraordinary. Think Sauternes has gone the way of the dinosaur? Think again. Old World Mystery: Noble Rot When it comes to sweet wines, Sauternes is about as Old World as it gets. Typically a blend of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle, Sauternes is usually produced utilizing grapes that have undergone a fungal infestation known as Noble Rot. First thought of as a problem that no winemaker would ever want to have, it quickly became clear that the Noble Rot fungus actually had the capability of intensifying the sweetness of certain grapes that it touched — especially Semillon grapes. The initial practice of utilizing Noble Rot-affected grapes in Sauternes is debatable in terms of when it started, but accounts of Noble Rot on Semillon grapes date back to the 17th century. The conditions required in order for Noble Rot to form are actually rather difficult to recreate, especially when you consider just how much in harmony they must be for the end result to be reached properly. The vines for Sauternes wine are located near two rivers — Garonne and Ciron. This results in a constant mist that coats the grape, leading to the formation of Noble Rot. Excessive Noble Rot can be a problem, however, which is where the warm afternoon sun comes into play, drying the grapes and preventing more Noble Rot from forming on them. Because Noble Rot plays a relatively major role in the production of Sauternes, the weather plays an even larger role. Vintages can vary dramatically in quality from one another, perhaps more so than most other wines produced throughout the world. A great bottle of Sauternes that has been produced under the best of conditions is capable of aging for at least 15-30 years, however, and unfortunately, these tend to come with matching price points. Characteristics of Sauternes Once a few ounces of Sauternes enters your glass, it becomes instantly clear just how special this wine can be. Though typically thought of as sweet, great Sauternes will properly balance sweetness with acidity to create a harmonious mouthfeel and flavor profile. Apricots, honey and nutty peaches tend to be the first few flavors that present themselves, typical of the Semillon inherent within the blend. The color of most Sauternes is essentially that of a golden yellow, though this can differ depending upon the age of the wine and for how long it sits in the bottle. Over a number of years, the wine can eventually turn a rusty copper color. Because Sauternes can be so expensive to produce and thus sells for relatively high prices, it is often sold in 375 ml. half-bottle format. This also allows for the wine to be opened among just 2 or 3 people, as a 750 ml. bottle of Sauternes would be a difficult undertaking in a single sitting. Be sure to factor this into the equation when discussing the pricing/value of a bottle of Sauternes. Bottles to Try If you’ve never bought a bottle of Sauternes before, chances are you don’t know where to start. Things get even trickier given the fact that so many examples of Sauternes on the market are less than stellar, so here are a few tried and true bottles to pick up. Château d’Yquem Absolutely one of the best expressions of Sauternes out there, Château d’Yquem is not to be missed. There’s a great deal of acidity in this wine, and with 134g/L of residual sugar, that’s a very good thing. Sweet, lemony aromas lift the wine’s incredible palate of tangerine, pineapple and vanilla. Minerality is big in this wine, which may come in large part due to the fact that 25% Sauvignon Blanc is utilized. This will easily age for another 50 or 60 years, which makes it more than worth picking up for a special occasion. Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey For those who are looking for a big, in your face Sauternes, there are few options available today that can rival Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey. This is a dense Sauternes that is not without its elegance as well, and the rich complexities begin pouring out of the bottle as soon as the wine hits a glass. Full of smoky lemon and melon, this again is an example of how racy acidity can help to balance the inherent sweetness of such a wine. It’s drinking well right now, but there’s a good chance it’ll be drinking even better 40 years in the future. Château Rieussec Harmony and balance are what great Sauternes is all about, though the struggle of attaining such an equilibrium is certainly real. Château Rieussec does so with ease, and it’s an excellent option for those who have been turned off by Sauternes in the past. This wine features big flavors of nectarine, baking spices and ginger, harmoniously balanced and framed by an onslaught of tropical fruits. The finish on this wine doesn’t last seconds, but minutes, making it a slow sipper. It’s certainly one of the best Rieussecs out there, and it practically begs to be laid down for a decade or two before opening. Sauternes may not enjoy quite as much popularity today as it did in the past, but it’s certainly not going anywhere. Try one of the bottles above, and you’ll quickly understand why.