ONCE the style queen of the wine world, sweet wines are decidedly out of fashion. Flash back a century and the sweet wines of Germany were commanding higher prices than the first growths of Bordeaux. How things have changed!
The preferred wines of ancient Greece and Rome were appreciably sweeter than modern wines. They would often add honey or other ripe fruits to their wines making them sweeter. When the Roman Empire fell and Europe settled into the Dark Ages it was the Catholic monks who keep the art and science of winemaking alive. These holy men would often stop the fermentation process to retain residual sugar.
From the advent of traditional method sparklers in Limoux in the 16th century to the ascension of Champagne in the succeeding centuries the styles of these early bubblies were quite sweet. A dry sparkling wine in the mid 19th century was sweet by modern standards. This explains why in contemporary times the term dry is used to describe off-sweet wines. The trend toward drier Champagnes and indeed the relatively new term brut occurred due to a demand for drier wines during the Victorian era.
What makes a high quality sweet wine? Its pretty much the same attributes all top dry wines must have; namely intensity, balance, persistence and complexity. All good to great wines must have intensity, in other words, an aroma and flavor impact that makes a major impact on your senses. Balance means all the elements are harmonious and no one element dominates the others. This is especially important in sweet wines where a good acidity is needed to balance the sweetness. Persistence or length in the palate and complexity are also highly desirable traits. So what sweet wine features all these attributes in abundance? The answer is arguably the world’s greatest sweet wine.
The Sauternes AC region is located in the Graves district about 40 kilometers southwest of the city of Bordeaux. The most important grape in making Sauternes sweet wines is Semillon that is prone to become infested with fungus that causes the grapes to rot and lose much of their water content. Sauvignon Blanc and sometimes a little Muscadelle are added to the blend.
Sauternes enjoys a maritime climate with two rivers intersecting the region. In most vintages, the warmer waters of the Garonne River that flows to the Atlantic and its cooler tributary the Ciron River interact to form a mist that envelops the vines of Sauternes. From the late evening to early morning the moisture coating the grapes helps activates dormant spores of the Botrytis Cinerea fungus. The morning and afternoon sun then dissipates the moisture and dries the grapes thereby preventing the grey rot fungus.
Some producers have been known to use sulfur to stop the process of fermentation and retain more sweetness. More accepted yet still controversial processes are cry-extraction where grapes are frozen to eliminate water and concentrate sweetness, and chaptalization where concentrated grape juice is added to the grape much prior to fermentation.
But sweet wines have become less fashionable in the west and this has made them relatively affordable. Except for the incomparable Chateau d’Yquem, the one and only Premier Cru Superieur, many excellent Sauternes wines are available at reasonable, though not cheap prices.
Occupying the highest hill in the region, Chateau d’Yquem lords over the rest of Sauternes. Natural factors as well as stringent winemaking practices mean that one vine only yields one glass of this liquid gold.
Other more budget pleasing but still excellent Sauternes wines include the Premier Crus Chateaux Climens, Suduiraut, Rayne Vigneau, La Tour-Blance and Coutet as well as the Duexiemes Crus Chateaux d’Arche, Caillon, Fihot and Nairac. Even less pricey and still eminently drinkable are Sauternes with generic Bordeaux brands like Mouton, Ginestet, Bernard Magrez that are sourced from contracted chateaux in the region.
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