Sweet Bordeaux wines are among the most luscious and long-lived wines in the world. Most are only made in exceptional years, when the perfect conditions are met, allowing ‘Noble Rot’ to develop.
Located south of Graves, the villages of Sauternes, Barsac, Bommes, Fargues and Preignac are home to Bordeaux’s hugely sought-after sweet wines. The wines are usually made from Semillon, which is particularly prone to ‘noble rot’ and, to a lesser extent, Sauvignon Blanc which provides acidity and Moscatel which adds delicate notes of white flowers.
Sauternes & Barsac AOC
Sauternes is the most famous area for sweet wine and produces half of all the sweet wines made in Bordeaux. It is four times larger than its tiny neighbour, Barsac. The wines are opulent and luscious (often called liquid gold) with notes of citrus peel, tropical fruit, apricot and honey and are incredibly well-balanced. The wine made in Barsac can be labelled both as Sauternes and Barsac.
Outside the two main AOC, sweet wines are made across the region, notably Sainte-Croix-du-Mont AOC, Loupiac AOC and Premières Cotes de Bordeaux AOC.
What is it?
Noble Rot or botrytis cinerea is a type of fungus that shrivels wine grapes. The mould creates filaments in the skin of the grapes which allows the juice inside to evaporate. That process concentrates all the components of the grape, especially sugar and flavours.
For botrytis to take place, the right amount of humidity and warmth must be achieved. Sauternes is the perfect area for that. The Ciron River meets the Garonne River creating gentle morning mists, followed by sunshine in the afternoon which dries the grapes, so avoiding unwanted grey rot. The nearby forests also help to hold the moisture in the air.
Botrytis spreads sporadically, which means a laborious hand harvest of individual botrytised grapes. Several picking times are necessary to collect the fully infected grapes. Pickers must go into the vineyards four to ten times during October and November, adding a huge cost to the final wine.
How is the wine made?
The shrivelled grapes will have a tiny amount of juice. Because of the sugar concentration in the must, the fermentation is difficult. The yeast will struggle to convert the sugar into alcohol and the process might take up to a year. The concentration of alcohol is so great that it kills the yeasts which stops the fermentation, leaving some residual sugar so the wine is naturally sweet.
What does it taste like?
Botrytis contributes to the flavour of the wine adding complex notes of ginger and beeswax. Top Sauternes and Barsac can be remarkably alive after thirty years or more. The wines will have irresistible apricot and honey flavours when young. With age, they will gain opulence and more complexity.
Sweet Bordeaux We Recommend
2016 DV 2nd Wine of Château Doisy-Védrines, Sauternes
This is a superb value wine. Luscious, with quince and marmalade aromas and notes of honey. Beautifully sweet with a refreshing acidity. It has some complexity and a great length.
2009 Château Rayne Vigneau, Sauternes – Half Bottle
Classified as a 1st growth in 1855, the estate is also renowned for its soil that abounds in agates, amethysts, onyx, and even sapphires. Sauternes produced here are intense and fresh with a long finish on the palate.
Apricot, orange, citrus and honey suckle with notes of ripe tropical fruits. Luscious and sweet with a good acidity and a great length.
2007 Château Climens, 1er Grand Cru Classé Barsac – Half bottle
Château Climens is amongst the best Barsac, producing some of the greatest sweet wines to be found. The wines made here are known for their delicacy, finesse and complexity.
Barrel-fermented and aged in small oak barriques (one third new) for 22 months. Aromas of orange, gingerbread, caramel and creme brulée with notes of spice and honey. Rich and smooth on the palate with a vivid fresh citrus acidity.
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