Dessert wine isn’t just for Christmas which seems an awful shame if the other 50 odd weeks in the year are sweet wine free. All those sensuous opportunities of palate-heaven missed. All those crumbles and crème brulées, those apple tarts and pecan pies consumed with no glorious golden liquid accessory. As you might expect, a sweet wine does deliver a few more calories than other wines and it tends to be a little more expensive too so it might seem almost too decadent, too naughty for much of the year. But as a sweet wine lover, I put it to you that for its generally high quality, Sauternes is pretty good value. Plus you never drink that much of it in one sitting anyway (it often comes in half bottles) so you probably don’t actually have to overdose on your calorie intake.
Now Christmas is upon us anyway and furthermore sweet wines are medicinal, they’re good for you. Well, ok, that might be wishful thinking on my part and not strictly true but they do feel as if they can sooth a sore throat in much the same way as Lockets do. The rich texture, which is thicker than dry wine but thinner than honey, comes from the high sugar content. In the case of arguably the world’s best sticky wine, Sauternes, the sugar is derived from the less than attractive sounding Botrytis Cinerea, aka Noble Rot – which, I admit, has even less of an enticing ring to it.
The sweet wine maker (by that I mean the maker of sweet wine!) is gunning for the rot to take hold in his vineyard. This fungus, for truth be told that’s what it is, comes about by virtue of the proximity of the vineyards to two rivers, the Garonne and the Ciron, which help create autumn mists alongside warm temperatures thus providing ideal conditions for Pourriture Noble (slightly better moniker?) to develop.
Once the grapes are affected, they begin to turn brown, shrivel and all but dry out so that what’s left is a raisin-like grape with lots of sugar and barely any juice. I realise I’m probably not doing a great job of selling the idea of sweet wine to you, but stick with me.
The grapes, Sémillon and Sauvignon, can’t be picked all at once as with other vineyards and has to be done by hand. A machine would be unable to detect which grapes were ready for picking and which should be left for a few more days to rot further. Several separate pickings will see the grapes in the winery ready for fermentation and it is here the magic happens; the mystical transformation from decay to delectation.
The wines are aged in oak barrels giving them even more aromas and flavours – they truly can seduce by smell alone. Aromas of honey and marmalade, passion fruit and butterscotch, apricots and barley sugar with flavours to match. These syrupy, honeyed wines help upgrade a pudding into a dessert. Or have it instead of dessert. And if you have any Roquefort in the fridge you’ll discover another prefect combination.
Christmas isn’t the only time we should drink Sauternes but it is one of the best. Most supermarkets have their own label brands most of which are pretty good because they’re made by some of the top Sauternes producers. Particularly recommended are those from Waitrose (gloriously rich and complex) and Tesco *finest (paler, lighter with a little extra zing), or try Château Roumieu from the Co-op at £12.99 a half bottle (beautifully balanced). Aldi is currently stocking Château Myrat 2012 at £11.99 a half bottle (pineappley and caramelly.) Your local merchant may have a top end Sauternes Cru Classé – ask him. It’s Christmas after all and you deserve it.
Thank you to CIVB for the photos. You’ll find lots more Bordeaux info on their great website