Such is the stuff Sauternes is made of. For hundreds of years, kings and nobelmen alike have been drawn to the sweet, golden colored, honey and apricot-flavored nectar that is savored as a dessert wine, and revered as a match made in heaven for the region’s other local delicacy, fois gras (yes, God is French).
The tiny Sauternes region is located in the southwest section France, forty kilometers from Bordeaux. It is the only place on earth where Sauternes wine is produced. In 1855, twenty-six of its properties were proclaimed classified growths at the Universal Exhibition in Paris (much like the Burgundy grand cru and premier cru designations). Chateaux d’Yquem, the best known and most esteemed producer is classified in a league of its own, as “1er cru superior”. It is followed by eleven 1er crus and fourteen 2e crus. As with most classified growths, the designation instilled a spirit of responsibility which when handed down from generation to generation has made the continued success of these producers a self-fulfilling prophesy. While Yquem retains its undisputed title as king of the castle (literally as well as figuratively since it occupies a hilltop that is the highest point in all the land), over time the line between the other 1er crus and the 2e crus have blurred—which is reflected in the prices they command.
The entire appellation of Sauternes is wedged between two rivers and a pine forest, and is blessed with prime soil conditions that were millions of years in the making. The harmonic convergence of these elements spawns a unique microclimate. Humid, misty mornings and sunny afternoons combine to manifest what the locals refer to as Noble Rot (a.k.a. botrytis), a microscopic fungus that envelopes the skin of the grapes, making them permeable. A further fungoid growth leaches moisture from within the grape, producing an extraordinarily concentrated and syrupy must (juice). These finicky funguses have a mind of their own, attacking (or not attacking) individual grapes on their own timetable.
The pursuit of the perfect Sauternes, like the pursuit of love, requires commitment, determination, and a good measure of insane optimism. The three grape variatels (Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle) face many obstacles: too much rain can prematurely wash away the festering rot; too much sun deprives the air of its crucial humidity; and birds from the local forests feast on the sweet grapes, or simply pick at them—which breaks the skin and oxidizes the juice. Local winemakers can’t do much about the sun and the rain, but have become resourceful in their ongoing struggle with the birds. During an early morning run, I thought I was back in South Central L. A. — until I realized that the “gunfire” was actually air cannons that are routinely fired to scare off the scavengers.
If and when the rot sets in, highly skilled pickers sift through the carnage using finely honed instincts to differentiate the good rot from the bad rot. This often means literally snipping single grapes from the clusters and leaving the rest to continue festering. In some years, pickers make up to five passes through each vineyard, beginning as early as September and stretching into November [when they must slug through muddy…]. During my end-of-season visit, I passed several vineyards where rotting fruit (unfortunately the wrong kind of rot—long past its prime) lay in the dirt. These moldy rejects were cut by clean-up crews and left behind to fully decompose on the ground. It’s a depressing sight: a year’s worth of tilling, pruning, fertilizing, spraying, green harvesting, and defoliating, undone by the fickle hand of nature (perhaps God is not French after all).
The grapes that make the cut are immediately pressed, and the juice is put in oak barrels where it is left to ferment. After the fermentation, the individual barrels are left for about five months. Then they are tasted. If the resulting juice is up to snuff, the barrels are blended. Substandard barrels are sold off to negotiants and bottled as generic Sauternes. The blended wine is left in oak for another 18 – 24 months, then bottled. The entire procedure—which is far simpler then that at of most other table wines—reflects the essential truth that the fate of the vintage is sealed in the field.
Excruciatingly high standards in both the field and the winery produce yields that vary wildly from vintage to vintage. About once a decade, conditions conspire to cause the classified producers to release absolutely nothing under their own name. The low yields (even in the best of times), a costly picking process, and entirely lost vintages, make the business a labor of love, not a path to riches—or so the local winemakers like to make it seem. They wear their martyrdum like a badge of honor driving beat up cars, living in crumbling chateaux, and subsisting on nothing but the livers of obese geese, tiny scraps of duck that have been stewed for eternity in nothing but its own fat, and little gnarly black mushrooms that their pigs dig up—all washed down with the only wine they can afford, ancient bottles of Sauternes.
I tasted 20 grand cru classés from 8 different vintages during my tour of the region. Many displayed the honey and apricot qualities that are commonly associated with Sauternes. When tasted side by side, some displayed less viscosity and sweetness, but offered intriguing notes of herbs, and spice. These wines were often served to accompany entrees such as duck confit, scallops, and pork tenderloin. The ’95 Yquem I tasted was fab, but not as superior to the others as one might expect. It will only reach its potential many years from now as its superb aging abilities compound its complex characteristics. Though not as highly revered, the sublime Chateau Nairac ’95 and ’97 vintages exhibited many of the same qualities of the exponentially more expensive Yquem. The ’97 Chateau La Tour Blanche was another favorite.
As a reminder of the miracle of nature that the community is beholden to, photographs of botrytis-infested grapes hang everywhere, including all of the local restaurants. It’s an odd sight, not unlike dining under medical photographs. But in Sauternes, where festering rot is considered noble, beauty and success are definitely in the eye of the beholder.