Sauternes is a sweet wine from the Sauternais region of the Graves section in Bordeaux, France. Sauternes is produced using the Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grapes. There are five villages in Graves permitted to make, and label their wines Sauternes - Preignac, Fargues, Sauternes, Barsac, and Bommes.
The Sauternes region is located near a river, the misty conditions here helps breed a “noble rot” - Botrytis Cinerea (a type of fungus). Early winemakers found that this rot gave the grapes a rich,, sweet, honey flavor, with a deep brown color. The rot must be of just the right level, and only the most affected grapes are picked. The fact that production of these wines relies on noble rot, which may or may not occur in a given year, can make the production of Sauternes a difficult proposition, with widely varying harvests from year to year. To be labelled Sauternes the wines must be a minimum of 13% alcohol, and pass a tasting test, where the wines must be noticeably sweet. The amount of residual sugar is not regulated.
Sweet white wines are thought to have been first produced in this area around the 17th century. Dutch traders invested in plantings of white grapes in the area for the production of German style white wines. Using German wine making techniques, such as halting fermentation with the use of sulphur, which maintains high sugar levels in the wine, they produced sweet wines known as Vins Liquoreux. Whether they were using grapes affected by noble rot at this time is not clear.
By the 18th century the use of noble rot to produce sweet wines was being widely practised in Germany. Winemakers in the Sauternes region took to these methods and Sauternes quickly gained a reputation, rivalling the great dessert wines of Germany and Hungary. Famous people such as Thomas Jefferson, and President George Washington became avid connoisseurs of this sweet wine, which also helped boost its profile.
The Sauternes region is situated 27 miles (43km) south east of Bordeaux, and comprises five communes Sauternes, Bommes, Preignac, Barsac, and Fargues. The growing area covers approximately 4,500 acres (1800ha) of land. The soils within this region are gravel, clayey limestone, and limestone. The climate here is maritime, which increases the risks of frost and hail. The reason this region is so good for the production of Botrytis affected grapes can be attributed to the Garonne river and its tributary, the Ciron that flow through the area. The Ciron is fed by a spring which has cooler waters than the Garonne. In Autumn, when the climate is warm and dry, the two rivers meet producing a mist that decends on the vineyards in the evening., promoting the development of the Botrytis fungus.
Young Sauternes are typically golden yellow in color, and become darker with age. These wines are sweet, with relatively high acidity. They often display flavors of honey, peaches and apricot, and possess a nutty nose. The finish is long and often smooth and creamy. These wines age very well, with some examples being over 100 years old! Sauternes pairs well with many desserts such as creme brulee, and fruit desserts. The naturally high acidity in these wines means they will also pair well with fatty foods, such as goose liver.