There is Far More to Sweet Bordeaux than Sauternes

I will admit it, I was excited, perhaps even on the verge of giddy.

And I don’t get giddy.

I was in Bordeaux focused on the sweet wines of the region and had already visited a dozen or so wineries from the ten different appellations that produce sweet Bordeaux. Now, though, I was heading to Château d’Yquem, indisputably the most highly regarded producer of Sauternes, the unctuously sweet golden elixir that could turn the most ardent “dessert wine” detractor into an immediate convert.

OK. I was giddy.

Château d’Yquem.

I have only tried Château d’Yquem on a scant handful of occasions, but each sip confirmed what scores of critics had proclaimed: it was the pinnacle of the genre. For a century and a half, the venerated estate has been the sweet wine of Sauternes, the yardstick against which all other sweet wines are measured.

As the van rolled by hectare after hectare of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle, the three varieties used to produce the sweet wines of Bordeaux, I reflected about the visit thus far.

Grapes have been grown and fortified into wine for over 2,000 years in Bordeaux, as the Romans brought in vines shortly after the Empire took control of the region. Originally, the red wines of the region were intended for the common folk, while the sweet wines were uniquely intended for aristocrats.

Today, the region produces about 10 million bottles of sweet wine, but that represents only 2% of the total Bordeaux production (some quick math reveals that the entire Bordelais output is around 500 million bottles).

The sweet wines of Bordeaux are only made with grapes affected by Botrytis cinerea, a desiccating fungus that concentrates the flavors and sugars in the shrunken grapes. The Garronne River meets its tributary, the spring-fed Ciron River, near the town of Sauternes. In late summer, the Garonne is quite warm, but the Ciron remains quite cool, when they come together, the resulting mist coats the grapes, which leads to Botrytis. The chapel on the horizon is in Sainte-Croix-du-Mont.

Harvest is conducted early in the morning fog, completely by hand, and requires experienced labor to recognize properly affected grapes. Harvest often takes many passes of the vines, days or weeks apart, and costs about 3-4 times more than harvesting grapes for dry wines in Bordeaux.

Botrytis can either result in “gray rot” which reduces the interior of the grape into a dry powder or “noble rot” the desirable outcome. These are “beautifully rotted” Sémillon grapes.

We started in Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, one of the top five appellations for Sweet Bordeaux, where I was impressed with the wines of Château la Rame, whose production is approximately 50% sweet wines.

2014 Château la Rame Réserve du Château Sainte-Croix-du-Mont: Retail $40 (375ml). 100% Sémillon. Only made in best years and very limited production (5-20k bottles). Decide after pressing and before bottling which lots go into the reserve. Spends time in oak. Darker than the tradition. Rich and unctuous. Whoa. This is rich with honey, coffee, and apricot. Outstanding. 92-94 Points.

2007 Château la Rame Réserve du Château Sainte-Croix-du-Mont: Retail $40 (375ml). 100% Sémillon. Great vintage in Bordeaux for sweet wines, while quite bad for reds. Dark and viscous with marzipan, Christmas spice, and apricot. A bit rounder initially but the acidity kicks in on the finish. Whoa. What a finish. By that measure alone this is remarkable. Outstanding. 93-95 Points. 

The next stop was Loupiac, another appellation known for the production of Sweet Bordeaux.

I walked the vineyards with the venerable Michel Boyer of Château du Cros.

I tasted through several wines from the many appellations that produce Sweet Bordeaux (Loupiac, Cadillac, Graves Supérieures, Côtes de Bordeaux, and Sainte-Croix-du-Mont).

The next stop was Château Lamothe de Haux in the Cadillac appellation, which is relatively new (1972). Lamothe also manages Château Manos, which ended up producing one of my favorite wines of the day:

2008 Château Manos Cuvée Traditionnelle: 98% Sémillon, 1% Sauvignon Blanc, 1% Muscadelle. Quite mineral, with honey, spice, and a bit of smoke. Nice on the palate. Savory and surprisingly, mocha. Whoa. Outstanding. 92-94 Points.

[Side note: near the end of the 17th Century, Antoine de La Mothe de Cadillac left Southwest France for the New World where he eventually founded a fort that would eventually become the city of Detroit. He would also lend his name to one of the stalwarts in the American automobile industry.]

That night, I was invited to dinner in Sauternes, not at Yquem, but at perhaps the second most famous Sauternes winery, Château Guiraud. I did not take many notes during dinner at the recently converted to organic winery as I did not want to appear rude (I take all my notes on my phone, which my wife asserts makes me look as if I am always texting), but the wine (and food) lineup was incredible.

The following day included many more “big” names in Sauternes, including Pastor-Lamontagne, Château de Fargues, and, of course, Château d’Yquem.

… to be continued…

About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
This entry was posted in Muscadelle, Sauternes, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Wine. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to There is Far More to Sweet Bordeaux than Sauternes

  1. Pingback: Wine Blog Daily Thursday 5/17/18 | Edible Arts

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