One of the most seducing wines of the world, Sauternes, comes from a small district just forty kilometres south of Bordeaux. This tiny district lies at the most southerly part of Graves, so called due to its pebble-stoned soils, and is typified by a huge diversity of the underlying rock structures: a limestone plaque is barely covered by a thin layer of clay in Barsac, richer clay in Sauternes, Fargues and Bommes, and in the middle the area of Preignac, where there is a blend of both soils.
In this area, the Ciron, a torrential cold water stream runs into the warm and calm Garonne River. This confluence of the small tributary with the grand Garonne creates the formation of humid morning mists that, alternating with sunny afternoons and warm evenings provides ideal conditions for the proliferation of the Pourriture Noble, the Noble Rot. This microscopic fungus shrivels the grape skin and takes away part of the water contained in the pulp, producing important changes in its composition: reduction of the volume, concentration of natural sugars and reduces the acidity. The botrytised berries soon shrink acquiring a violet-brown colour, and this process will help to concentrate the aromas and taste of the must.
The berries must be handpicked one by one when fully botrytised. This technique is called vendages par tries, and consists in repeating the harvest several times (even up to 10 or 11), to collect only the berries already fully attacked by the fungus and at their best of concentration and maturation.
Because of this the harvest in the Sauternais usually lasts -four to eight weeks- and the extreme care and delicacy of the harvest determines the quality and price of this wine. Needless to say that this is an extremely labour demanding method run by high qualified vignerons whose strenuous work is celebrated at the end with traditional festivals called Acabailles. The Semillon and Sauvignon grapes are blended with a touch of Muscadelle which combined provides the unique aroma and structure.
Sauternes is submitted to a long and slow fermentation of more than one month, in which the high sugars levels are converted to an aromatic must with an intense bouquet of ripe apricot and peach, typical of Semillon; acacia and honeysuckle from Sauvignon Blanc, and raisins from Muscadelle. There is a medicinal varnish note too which is a characteristic of botrytised grapes.
The ageing in small oak barrels for many years fix these flavours and enhance the nose with a touch of honey and nutty aromas, and the wine acquires its soft texture.
Sauternes typically shows a deep golden colour which progressively becomes amber with age but, as the locals say, it is only when an old copper tinge appears that it develops its more complex and intriguing bouquet. Unique and perfect in its balance between alcohol, zesty acidity and sugars Sauternes displays an extraordinary character even when young, but has strong development potential which can even exceed 100 years!!
My thanks to Patrick Eméry, oenologist at Château Raygne Vigneau, who introduced me to the magic discovery of Sauternes, and now I can easily say the soul of terroir exists and we can appreciate it in a glass of wine.
Posted on 10th September 2013 by Simona