If there is a name synonymous with the best dessert wines in the world, that name is Sauternes. Based just over 60 kilometers south of the city of Bordeaux, this renowned village in the Graves district lends its moniker to some of the most expensive and, depending on the harvest, elusive dessert wines in the whole of Bordeaux. Although all wines from this area are often called Sauternes, there are actually five separate communes: Sauternes itself, Barsac, Preignac, Bommes and Faurgues. All carry the Sauternes appellation with the exception of Barsac, which has its choice of Sauternes or its own eponymous appellation. This distinction, in fact, makes sense, as Barsac wines have a reputation for being a bit fresher and lighter than the rich, almost creamy offerings hailing from Sauternes.
Aptly surrounded by vineyards, Sauternes is known for its dominant white grape varietal, Sémillon, which graces approximately
The work behind creating these fine wines is nothing short of strenuous. First, the botrytis must be systematically monitored throughout the season, ensuring that the desired effects are achieved and that the rot doesn’t progress from “noble” to “grey,” the latter aggressively turning the grapes sour and tart by nearly disintegrating them. Next, Sauternes appellation laws dictate that the grapes cannot be picked until they reach the required “must weight” of just over 220 grams per liter. This extended time on the vine can also potentially compromise the health and quality of the grapes. Once harvested, the aging process poses its own challenges, requiring that the wines rest in oak barriques for up to three years. And of course, there is always the unpredictability of climate. Uncooperative seasons have led to years of inferior harvests, thus stopping production in it tracks altogether. These kinds of setbacks, which lead to decreased availability, only add to the value and desirability of the wines.
The wines of Sauternes, and Barsac for that matter, have history behind them as well. Each was given its own ranking in the Bordeaux Classification of 1855, with Château d’Yquem considered the finest of all Sauternes producers by being classified as Premier Grand Cru. There are eleven additional châteaux which hold first growth classification for sweet wines in Bordeaux, with fifteen more as second growths.
Weather and noble rot permitting, Sauternes produces nearly 500,000 cases per annum. Approximately 2,000 hectares are under vine, with fewer than 20 estates owning more than 20 hectares each. The remaining hectares are divided among an additional 160 estates, with each having claim over 5 hectares or less.
In recent years, sweet wines have decreased in popularity and been replaced by sparkling whites or even more robust reds; however, the legendary wines of Sauternes still maintain a stronghold on this category of exquisitely delicious, delectable and decadent offerings. They remain some of the most respected treasures of Bordeaux.