Parents & Origin: Sémillon, Sauvignon blanc, Muscadelle (Southwest France)
Grape: Small, light-skinned, affected with noble rot
Flavors: Apricots, honey, peaches, nuts
Notable Regions: Bordeaux
Sweetness: Sweet
Body: Full
Tannins: None
Acidity: High
ABV: 13-15%

The History of Sauternes

While winemaking has existed on a prominent scale in France since the age of the Romans, the production of sweet wine was not recorded until the 17th century, when Dutch traders began to introduce German winemaking techniques to the Bordeaux region, many of which favored a sweeter final product. These Dutch merchants helped produce a wine known as vins liquoreux which may have been a precursor to Sauternes—a 1666 document acknowledges that grapes from the Sauternais region in Graves, Bordeaux, produced an especially sweet white wine.

It is unknown if the Dutch were actively using noble rot (Botrytis cinerea), and it is likely that it was first introduced to Sauternes by accident. However, it soon became the primary “ingredient” necessary to produce Sauternes wine. Though somewhat unappetizing and unreliable, noble rot causes the grapes to become partially raisined, producing a wine with more concentrated flavors and greater amounts of residual sugar. Still, the use of noble rot remained somewhat of a secret until the mid-18th century. By then, Sauternes was internationally famous, and the use of noble rot was readily accepted due to the undeniable quality of the wine.

To this day, Sauternes has maintained its renowned reputation as one of the best-tasting and classiest sweet wines. The best known producer is the Chateau d’Yquem, a Premier Cru Supérieur estate (and the only white wine with that classification) that helped to catapult Sauternes’ reputation as the king of all dessert wines.

Interesting Fact: Sauternes was popular among the United States’ Founding Fathers—Thomas Jefferson became a big fan during his trips to Paris, and President George Washington immediately ordered 30 dozen bottles after a taste of Chateau d’Yquem.

Sauternes Food Pairings

As a dessert wine, Sauternes is best paired with similarly sweet foods or soft cheeses.

The Best Sauternes Food Pairings

Sauternes’ sweet, fruity, and nutty flavors pair excellently with desserts such as cheesecake, ice cream, and fruit tarts. It also can stand to balance out some more savory dishes, such as soft cheeses, foie gras, and terrine with caramelized onions.

Food Pairings to Avoid with Sauternes

Like most white wines, Sauternes will not stand up to rich and meaty dishes that are more suited for reds. Even white meat dishes can still clash with the sweet flavors, so in most cases it’s best to keep Sauternes for solo drinking, cheeses, or desserts.

Sauternes Tasting Notes

To qualify for the Sauternes label, a wine must be prepared from a blend of Sémillon, Sauvignon blanc, and Muscadelle grapes, have a minimum of 13% ABV, and pass a tasting exam in which the wine stands out as noticeably sweet. Usually the majority of grapes are Sémillon, with the other two varieties used in smaller amounts. This results in a wine with a prominent nutty flavor characteristic of Sémillon, as well as notes of peach, apricot, and honey. Sauternes has a finish that can last for several minutes. It is best served around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, though Sauternes aged more than 15 years is served warmer.

Sauternes' Noble Rot

Botrytis cinerea, also known as noble rot, is a fungus that is prone to infecting wine grapes and, in this case, gives the wine its distinct sweetness. Harvesting and producing wine with noble rot is quite a challenge. The fungus may instead turn to grey rot, which kills the grapes, or in some years it might not infect the grapes at all. Noble rot is so critical to the production of Sauternes that if it doesn’t take hold one year, the vintage is usually never released and the grape juice is sold off. This makes Sauternes one of the riskiest and least reliable wines to produce, though many agree that when the conditions are right, the payoff is definitely worth it.

Sauternes' Delicate Climate

Due to the critical need for noble rot, most global climates are unsuitable for the production of Sauternes. The Sauternes region is located 25 miles south of the city of Bordeaux, near where the Garonne river and Ciron tributary meet. The Ciron’s water source has cooler temperatures than the Garonne, so when the waters meet in the warm and dry autumn season, a mist descends upon the Sauternes vineyards. This creates the ideal environment for noble rot to grow. Too much of this mist can instead produce less favorable rot, but remarkably, the warm air temperatures of the area serve to burn off the mist in the afternoon and ensure that just the right amount of noble rot grows on the grapes.

Sauternes' Aging Potential

Sauternes is also known for its ability to age over extended periods of time. This aging ability is facilitated by the wine’s high acidity and fruit flavors—the acidity preserves the wine’s integrity while the fruit notes fade away to reveal more complex secondary flavors. Sauternes can regularly be aged for a century or more, with one bottle of 1811 Chateau d’Yquem selling for $117,000 in 2011. Old Sauternes is known to have a darker caramel color, similar to a copper coin, that develops slowly from the golden color of young Sauternes. The secondary flavors that define aged Sauternes include caramel, butterscotch, and spice.

Sauternes in a Nutshell

While sweet wines usually generate a variety of opinions, there is no debate that Sauternes is an absolute delicacy. Despite its unusual origins within the European wine trade and its once-kept secret of noble rot, the wine provides an excellent accompaniment to any fruity dessert, savory soft cheese, or foie gras with its fruit notes, nuttiness, and acidity. With its unique climate expressly suitable for noble rot, it almost seems as if Sauternes was destined to produce the best and most prominent dessert wine for any wine enthusiast’s collection.

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