The Sauternes region lies some forty kilometres to the south of Bordeaux in the southern Graves area with the river Garonne to the north-east and the forest of Landes to the south and west. Both contribute to the particular meso-climate which makes these rare wines from Sauternes possible. Due to a dramatic, wonderful accident of nature and a set of geographic coincidences, Sauternes is uniquely disposed to produce the finest dessert wines in the world. Good dessert wines are those which provide a luscious grape sweetness on the palate, combined with a fresh crisp acidity. They are however notoriously difficult and expensive to produce, being totally dependent on the vagaries of nature to provide the right conditions for production.
The appellation includes five communes; Sauternes, Bommes, Fargues, Preignac and Barsac. Barsac wines can elect to be labelled Barsac or Sauternes
Soils, as always, play a role in defining character and are responsible for the different nuances in wines which, after all, are produced from the same grape varieties, Sauvignon, Sémillon and Muscadelle. The commune of Sauternes is planted on gravel, clay and sand over clay, gravel and iron. The better sites have good drainage. Gravel is important in Sauternes, as it is in the slopes overlooking the Ciron in the commune of Bommes. Fargues is planted on clay and limestone, with a gravelly-clay subsoil. Preignac, like Barsac is closer to the river and there are substantial alluvial elements in the soil. Slopes across the communes are very variable, as are their aspects, so there is plenty of complexity within the region.
Really special for Sauternes however, are the ideal conditions which promote botrytis cinerea. Foul is fair, it is extraordinary but the secret of delicious Sauternes lies in its grapes developing the most revolting looking rot, botrytis cinerea – so called noble rot. It looks anything but noble, it has to be said, reducing ripe, healthy-looking fruit to shrivelled, brown, hideously bearded creatures. The fact is, that in the right conditions, this does not act as a rot, it ameliorates rather than deteriorates. The grapes, in losing water to the fungus, concentrate both their acidity and their sugars. What is ultimately crushed is raisin-like, sweet and unctuous,producing a fraction of what the pre-botrytis bunches would have rendered. Musts are extremely rich and concentrated but, and this is extremely important, there is no loss of acidity.
Towards the end of September, as other parts of Bordeaux are praying for continued sunshine to ripen the remaining Cabernets, Sauternes can be humid, mild and sometimes foggy, with sunshine breaking through later in the day. A thin stream, the Ciron flows through Landes forest, destined for the Garonne river. Whilst the large river has gradually warmed up during the summer, the Ciron remains ice-cold and it is the meeting of these contrasting temperatures in the Garonne which creates the morning mists. Ideally the mornings will be hazy and humid, the mist gradually being burned off by the rising sun, clearing by midday. The conditions are rather uncomfortable for the mere human but are perfect for the development of noble rot. Sadly the conditions which create the finest wines are rare and it is only the very best properties, being adequately funded, which can take full advantage of the results, even in very good years. The noble rot begins to form during misty, rather mild nights and accelerates during the day, eating away at the water within the grapes. There is no stop-watch and the grapes will proceed in their own good time, demanding that several passages are made through the vines to pick at the optimum moment. Harvests can stretch over two expensive months during the most climatically variable times of the year. Bad weather or excessive humidity can easily swing the pendulum with noble rot giving way to grey rot, which ruins the crop.Further expense is due to the pitifully low yields since, after all,the process is all about evaporation.
The best of Sauternes is therefore truly great – glistening gold, luscious and perfumed with a rapier of acidity which lifts the wines, gives it a focus and makes people smile. Unfortunately much of what is produced, still with the legal right to bear the name Sauternes, is simply sweet white wine.
Vineyards in the Sauternais Credit: CIVB/V. Bengold