Drinking the Guiraud 1990 recently got me wondering: what exactly makes Sauternes so magical? Other sweet wines can be lovely and elegant, but the style of Sauternes is surprising because of its power and elegance and complexity. Somehow it is a style of sweet white wine that is more masculine. Of course we’ve heard of noble rot, specific to Sauternes, that helps give the specific flavor and concentration, but what is it exactly and how does it give this extra dimension to the wine?
Sauternes is made from Semillon and Sauvignon grapes and sometimes a little Muscadelle.
The Sauternes appellation is located in the more general Graves appellation. Sauternes, Barsac and Cerons are appellations within Graves that produce sweet white wines. The advantage that Sauternes and Barsac have over Cerons is a special microclimate. Sauternes and Barsac are at the conflux of the Garonne and Ciron rivers where mist forms in the early morning that is a catalyst for the development of botrytis, that indigenous fungus we all have to thank for making Sauternes. The botrytis lies dormant until the climactic conditions are perfect for it to develop on the skins of the grapes. The boytris feeds on the water on the grapes making them more concentrated. The spores also consume five-sixths of the grapes’ acidity and one-third of its sugar. Thus the boytris converts a healthy, ripe grape with 13 percent alcohol to a fungus-covered mass with alcohol between 17 and 26 percent. The boytris also leaves new elements on the grapes that undoubtedly add to its superior complexity: glycerol, glucoic acid, saccharic acid, dextrin, enzymes, and botrycine. Then during the harvest, not everything is harvested at the same time. The botrytis should be at the height of its strength and activity when it is harvested. The pickers are experts and they pick only the grapes that are ready. There can be several days or a few weeks between selective harvests.
Sauternes can last longer than dry wines, often several decades or more than a century. Over time, the acidity devours the sugar and they become less sweet, develop a darker color and more concentrated aromas. At Christmas, Philippe ROUX, the owner of SoDivin, drank a 1959 Yquem that he said was one of the most incredible wines he has ever tasted and that it still has a long life ahead of it. He ranked it a perfect score. This is what he said about it:
“Beautiful brown colour. Splendid nose, very aromatic, perserved orange. Extraordinary mouth, round, very rich with a beautiful acidity. The result of the vintage is very clear because at more than 50 years old it has not yet ‘eaten its sugar’. An infinite length in the mouth. This wine has attained perfection. ”
So once again we learn that an exceptional French wine is the product of an excellent terroir and indigenous spores that make it impossible to replicate exactly the same style of wine elsewhere in the world.