Sauternes, et. al

Hey all…I thought I would start this topic for a couple of reasons but basically because I wanted to add a perspective on Sauternes et. al. (meaning "and the 5 surrounding sweet wine communes).

Some folks on this board (hey Ashish!) can attest to my Sauternes “chops”, I started my interest in wine with a '76 Doisy Daene (must turn off spell check) and worked at a wine importer and a couple of shops in the Bay Area which allowed lots of tasting opportunities, and I want to put down some thoughts on why this area has been considered an “also ran” in the wine world with the starry exception of d’Yquem.

When it comes to “getting” a region and its wines there are a number of factors…Bordeaux because of its varietals, Burgundy because of its terroir, Germany because of its sweetness…in the general sense. It’s easy to get around and guess good bottles and likely off ones from following vintage notes and tasting notes, and to pair with foods, occasions, etc.

For me, understanding and enjoying Sauternes et. al. needs such a basis in the most general sense…I will try to put down my perspective (which has been very useful to me) so please provide input and thoughts…and discussion…

I like many wine enthusiasts go with vintage charts or scores as a basis for new purchases or picking wines for events, etc. I think this is only a part of what one needs to be equipped with in order to understand (not really “understand”…we all “understand” but maybe “know?”) Sauternes…and this complexity has to me (and I think other Sauternes enthusiasts) been a targe part of the appeal and what makes it such a fun area to explore. I’ll start with two thoughts:

  • I think Sauternes have been “misunderstood” to the extent that we try to put the wines into a category like Dessert Wines. But the range of sweetness varies greatly, from light to heavy, and there is no standard (i.e. Kabinett, etc.) to use. Consequently, wine critics expecting a dessert wine will score drier Chateau offerings poorly, and those expecting complexity and lightness with downplay big boned rich wines.

  • Expectations are based on more factors than other wines…which makes each bottle a different story. When I try to understand a bottle, I look at 1) Chateau terroir/history, 2) winemaking style (light/heavy, or sweeter/drier), 3) vintage and 4) age. All of these wines will have a factor of sweetness to them…but a lighter style wine like Doisy Daene from a lighter vintage might pair with fish, but no Rieussec from any vintage would be a candidate.

I think there are lots of food pairings possible…from almost any dessert to cheeses, but also chicken, eggs, fish, smoked and cooked in other methods, veggies, etc. in addition to foie terrines and foie based entrees. Even seafood salads…but more on that later.

Thoughts appreciated…

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Right on here. Limited experience but a Doisy Daene tasting a couple years ago definitely shed light on that finer edge for me. Previously had only
Tasted richer producers for the most part

Hi Fred! Always happy to see more on sauternes on the board.

I agree with virtually everything you’ve said, especially the diverse food pairings if you look at sauternes as a whole. Honestly the only thing I’ve never paired successfully is a steak. Everything else has a good pairing if you know enough about what to look for.

To expand on some of your thoughts:

  • Winemaking style is key, but for sauternes I break it up into three groups instead of two. Lighter/barsac styled (Doisy, Climens, Coutet), heavier/sweeter (Rieussec, Suduiraut, Guiraud), and a group inbetween that seems to straddle that line (Yquem and Fargues). Obviously then there is chateau stylistic differences between each group and their own character.
  • I think people don’t really understand sauternes aging curves well. I’m a big fan of Bob Hudak’s model: Stage 1 sauternes are youthful, vibrant, fruit-forward (first 5 years or so), Stage 2 sauternes are an awkward phase where they aren’t completely shut down but sometimes show disjointed or lacking complexity (age 5-15 roughly, with lower tier chateau closing down in the 5-10 range and Yquem sometimes closing down until age 15+), Stage 3 sauternes are mature and showing butterscotch, caramel, but still fruit and sweetness (age 15-~40), Stage 4 sauternes are so mature they start to lose a bit of body and sweetness and eventually start to show as a dry wine (age 40+).
  • I think understanding this aging curve really helps with picking the right sauternes for the right occasion. You’ve opened some sauternes for me back to the '20s and those were absolutely phenomenal wines and barely sweet sometimes.

That said, I think this complexity is hard for people to get a handle on because they don’t drink enough of it. Try to get a feel for these variables drinking one or two bottles a year… it’s just not possible. The same would be true in burgundy… you won’t truly love the region if you try a bottle every 6 months. Sauternes is no less complex and requires a good amount of knowledge and experience as with all great wine regions. (This is where friends come in handy… get a group of 8 and open multiple sauternes! Pair them with your savory meal!)

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Back about 15 years ago, this was a diagram I put together on style of Sauternes…it likely could use updating and YMMD…

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Ah, Sauternes… One of the world’s great wines that is going through a difficult time at present. They have largely gone out of fashion and a large amount of dry white wine is now being made there (indeed, lobbying is going on to create a separate AOC for the dry wines of Sauternes). However, resurgence is on the way. Properties have changed hands (Doisy Dubroca, Rabaud Promis, Haut Peyraguey, Brouset) and there have been some ambitious wine tourism projects (Lafaurie Peyraguey, d’Arche, Guiraud, even Yquem…).

The big divide between French and “Anglo-Saxon” wine lovers is how to serve the stuff.

When I invite English speakers to the house for dinner, I like serving Sauternes as it is often done in Bordeaux: as an aperitif. This goes against the grain for some people but I say you should at least try it before you rule out the practice J.

Then, of course, there’s matching Sauternes with food, which often makes people uncomfortable, whereas it really shouldn’t. Foie gras and Sauternes are, of course, a match made in heaven. But there are so many other wonderful combinations: melon and Parma ham, vol au vent, veal sweetbreads, blue cheeses, etc.

How many bottles of Yquem have been drunk with the dessert? I’m not saying that this is a massacre, but will say that one has to be careful about the choice of dessert because sweet on sweet can be overwhelming.

It is a good idea to refer to the different styles of Sauternes but this is unfortunately difficult to get a handle on for the average consumer.

Best regards,
Alex R

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This is great! I don’t think you’ve shown this to me before. I pretty much agree with where you’ve placed all these chateau on the spectrum.

My suggestion for people who love sauternes is to pick a chateau in every category that they love to drink regularly so that they have bottles across the spectrum. For me my top performers are Coutet, Yquem, Fargues, and Rieussec, so that gets me from “balanced” to “rich, full” with the added variability of riper years and cooler years in addition. Each vintage there are also outperformers, so figuring out who those are can be helpful too but requires some experience or insight (or friends who drink a lot of sauternes).

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Given how hard it is to make the wine, and how low the prices are, I can’t really see the category existing the same way in the future. My main ‘LWS’ gave up on all vintage dated dessert wines a few years ago, no doubt tired of the constant markdowns they had to resort to, as vintages turned over.

The wines keep so well in the fridge for 4-5 days that I don’t see why more people don’t just open full bottles and leave them in there, having a glass each night if they are up for it.

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On that visual above: where would Nairac be positioned?

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I’ve only had 2-3 vintages of Nairac, but based largely on the 2001 I would place them around the Coutet/Latour Blanche area. The other two vintages I’ve had were older (1986 and 1988) and those were already heading into late stage 3/early stage 4, so they mature a little faster than I would expect. The 2001 is a great buy though… not expensive and really well balanced and fresh.

Might have been WOTY last year if not for some epic, opulent holiday meals.

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Wow that is a rarity. I’ve had their non super long aged version Les Justices in a few vintages like 1997 and 2001. It was only ok.

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I am a big fan of Sauternes, I enjoy them young, for all of that sweet, vibrant, tropical fruit, and older, as they develop more caramel and butterscotch tones.

Sadly, while it is the most difficult wine to make in Bordeaux, it is also opened less and less these days. Now, the trend is for more dry white wines coming from the region.

You can find most of what you want to know about the appellation here if you are looking for more info. Learn all about Sauternes/Barsac, Sweet Bordeaux Best Wines

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Do you find the Sauternes producers are still making their sweet wines in a style consistent with what theyve been doing for the past 30+ years or are there some major changes going on similar to how some BDX producers are amking more modern styles with their red wines?

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I think the wines are better today. Less time in oak, more freshness. Selection has always been stringent, so that remains about the same is my guess, though more grapes are being used in the dry white wines, so production is less. Also. you might find a bit less Sauvignon Blanc, and more Semillon, so the wines are perhaps a bit richer.

Your bigger issue is the decrease in production due to frosts, hail, and more dry white wines. Sadly, they are not really able to increase prices enough to cover the loss in revenue.

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This is intriguing to me. We don’t drink a lot of sweet wine, but my main quibble with Sauternes, particularly, is that it generally has (for me) too-low acidity to balance the level of sweetness. If I were to look for specific producers who tend towards a relatively higher-acid style (at any level of weight), who should I look for?

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I have generally found Coutet to have a bit more zip and zest than other houses.

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More generally, I would say Barsac over Sauternes although Lafaurie Peyraguey has good acidity in my experience.

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Another big factor in selecting a Sauternes for food is that sugar often drops off quite a bit with age so that one with 20-30 years on it can come off as significantly drier and maybe even quite dry. Sometimes that influences a food/wine match but predictions on this metamorphosis are not always accurate.

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We opened a 1983 Filhot last night. I was so surprised with this wine because I know at one point it wasn’t stored in ideal conditions. But it was amazingly fresh and delicious. Not as sweet as other Sauternes like Suduiraut or Rieussec. But very well balanced with delicious apricot notes. A big surprise for me.

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83 is a great, high-acid vintage.

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Sauternes do have high acidity. They are not cloying, at least not to me. Because I am seldom in Sauternes, I do not see the tech sheets. But I do have them for 2015 d’Yquem.

Made from blending 80% Sauvignon Blanc and 20% Semillon, the wine reached 13.9% alcohol with a pH of 3.65 pH. The wine is incredibly sweet with 144 grams per liter of sugar, but this is all kept in check due to the 6.2 grams per liter of total acidities.

Most of the top estates have ample acidity levels. Though Barsac, with more chalk and limestone in the terroir can be a bit brighter, as well as lighter.

As for which wines have higher acidities, it is not something I focus on per se, I think more about the general overall wine, its appearance of freshness, purity, length, character, balance and drinkability.

Honest, if sweet Bordeaux is of interest to you, take a moment and play on the page I already linked to, look at the tasting notes and check out the terroirs, and philosophies of the vineyards and you should find wines to your liking. The nice thing, except for 2 wines, most of the wines are really affordable, especially in half bottles.

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