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Sauternes is a famous French sweet wine. It is gold-colored and a classic dessert wine. Traditionally, it is consumed chilled and is also served as an apéritif or to accompany foie gras.

The sweetness of this wine is due to the interaction of several factors, including the amount of sugar and the relative levels of alcohol, acids, and tannins. The high sugar concentration is due to a noble rot, Botrytis cinerea, which is a fungus that develops on grapes.

A Little Geography

Sauternes wine is made in the Sauternais district of the Graves region of Bordeaux.

Stretching over 50 kilometers (31 miles), Graves is an important sub-region of the Bordeaux wine area. It is situated to the west of the Garonne River, and is southeast of the city of Bordeaux.

The name Graves comes from its intense, gravelly soil, a very important characteristic for a quality wine. Indeed, gravelly soil enables drainage, preventing grapes from having too much water.

Sauternes has been granted Protected designation of origin (PDO), and comes from the communes of Sauternes, Fargues, Bommes, Preignac, and Barsac, all of which are situated in the Graves region.

A Little History

There are many stories about the birth of Sauternes, one of which is the story of Focke. The story recounts that in 1836, Focke, a Bordeaux wine merchant originally from Germany, waited until the end of the long, autumn rains before harvesting his vineyards. Once the sun came back, the noble rot had done its work!

Another story comes from ten years later, when Marquis de Lur-Saluces went to hunt wolves in Russia and gave the order to wait for his return before beginning the harvest. His journey home was delayed, and the noble rot had turned the grapes into prestigious wine nectar by the time he returned.

Finally, it was in France during the mid-eighteenth century that the first evidence of the use of noble rot was written. Indeed, an Intendant of Guyenne wrote in 1741 that “harvest takes place when the grapes are almost rotten … and was carried out several times to give a sweeter wine.”

A Special Method of Production

Sauternes is made from three different grape varieties: Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle, and grapes need to be affected by Botrytis cinerea (noble rot). Sémillon is more inclined to Botrytis cinerea than the other grape varieties. Usually, the blend is composed of 80% Sémillon. The remaining 20% is often Sauvignon, but it can also be Muscadelle.

One tributary of the Garonne, the Ciron, cuts across the Graves region. Its source has cooler waters than the Garonne. In autumn, when the climate is warm, the different temperatures from the two rivers meet to produce mist that descends upon the vineyards from evening to late morning. This condition promotes the development of the Botrytis cinerea fungus. By mid-day, the warm sun helps to dissipate the mist and dry the grapes.

The development of Botrytis cinerea is the key to a syrupy wine. In favorable conditions, with a combination of alternating rain and sun and a beautiful autumn season, grapes experience degradation through the development of this exceptional noble rot. This famous fungus roasts grapes by drying them out, which concentrates the sugar.

Harvest takes place exclusively by successive sorting (between three to five passages). Only grains that have reached the ripening status are harvested, so the harvest must be hand-operated. That’s why yields are low (25 hl/ha maximum and even 8 hl/ha for some producers) and prices are high.

One never knows when Botrytis cinerea fungus will appear on grapes, as it depends on climatic conditions. That’s why some wine growers wait until November or December to harvest, but that could be hazardous as heavy rains can destroy all the grapes.

Once harvested, grapes are pressed, which ensures the delicate and progressive extraction of juice. After a slight settling, these musts ferment in barrels (20% of barrels are renewed each year). The slow fermentation lasts from three to four weeks. Breeding is done in barrels for 12 to 18 months, depending on the vintage. Wines are bottled after a single filtration.

Each year, 2,200 ha (5,434 acres) are harvested and produce approximately 5 million bottles (35,000 hl).
To qualify for AOC, Sauternes wines must have a minimum of 13% alcohol content and pass a tasting exam. There is no regulation about the exact amount of residual sugar that the wine needs to have.

Did You Know?

In May 1787, the Count of Lur-Saluces, ancestor of the owners of Chateau d’Yquem (one of the most famous Sauternes producers), welcomed Thomas Jefferson to taste his syrupy wine. Upon his return to Philadelphia, Jefferson ordered thirty dozen bottles of it for President George Washington and ten dozen for himself, saying that “this is an excellent wine that seems to satisfy the tastes of Americans better than any wine I’ve ever seen in France.”