When thinking Bordeaux, minds immediately go to the bold, elegant, refined red wines the region produces. After all, they are some of the worlds most coveted and sought after wines. However, to only know Bordeaux red wines is to not fully know Bordeaux. Not only is Bordeaux home to crisp and elegant white wines, it is also home to rich and glorious sweet wines. Imagine a meal that begins with raw oysters, followed by lobster ravioli, and concluding with a crème brulee all served with a varieties of sweet Bordeaux wines. This is an ultimate dining experience.
Although Bordeaux’s sweet wines amount to only 2% of the regions overall wine production, these wines are beloved the world over. Sauternes steals the show in discussions of Bordeaux sweet wines; however, it comprises only 43% of the regions sweet wine production. In fact, there are 10 total Bordeaux AOC’s that produce sweet wine.
Twenty miles south from Bordeaux City lies Sauternes and Barsacs. These two regions traverse both sides of the Garrone River. It is here the misty river fog provides ideal conditions for necrotrophic fungus called Botrytis cinerea to thrive on the grapes. You’ve likely seen this gray rot on strawberries or other fruits or vegetables. In the Bordeaux sweet wine production regions, Botrytis cinerea, aka noble rot, is imperative to the production process. Botrytis are airborne spores that land on and become one with the grapes in their flowering stage. It lies dormant within the grape until the grape begins to ripen and its sugar level increases. At this point Botrytis wakes up and forms a crust on the skin of the grapes in the fall when the cool, humid, foggy mornings give way to warm, dry afternoons. These grapes are given an extended hang time, allowing them to over-ripen with the effects of the noble rot, resulting in decreased acidity, increased sugar levels, and the grapes becoming shriveled, concentrated, raisin-like clusters on the vine.
This is not a streamlined process. The effects of Botrytis cinerea is not the same for every grape; therefore, it can take months of continuous, meticulous hand-selecting the grapes, long after the rest of the Bordeaux grapes have been harvested. This is a pain-staking process that is not only time consuming but also costly. Grapes are not harvest by cluster; rather, workers have to hand select each grape, cutting them from the cluster, once they are at the perfect concentration from Botrytis. Often times passing through any given row up to seven times over the course of weeks until all the grapes are harvested. It can take up to four Botrytis effected vines to produce one bottle of wine, contrasted with the average yield per healthy medium aged vine producing ten bottles of wine. These are the reasons Bordeaux’s sweet wines are not only revered, but can also be costly.
There are three key grapes in the production of Bordeaux sweet wine. Semillon (80% of plantings), Sauvignon Blanc (15% of plantings), and Muscadet (5% of planting). Semillon provides the backbone to these wines, is highly susceptible to Botrytis cinerea, bringing its deep golden color, elegance, weighty texture and high viscosity to the wine. Sauvignon Blanc is an earlier ripening grape effected sooner by Botrytis, it contributes its characteristically high acidity and vibrant aromas, brings lots of energy to the wine, while Muscadet adds additional layers of aromas and floral notes to the wine, but is harder to grow and susceptible to many diseases.
Residual sugar, grape sugar that remains after alcohol conversion, is what makes any and all wine sweet. In Bordeaux sweet wines, there are two categories of sweetness. First is moelleux, or mellow, indicating a lighter colored wine that is more fruit forward with a smooth mouth-feel. The second category is liquoreux, offering deeper golden color, more intense fruit, and secondary flavors of candied fruit, nuts, and honey. As Bordeaux sweet wines age, the liquoreux category continues to evolve and expand, adding depth of texture, concentration, and rich expression.
Bordeaux sweet wines balance acidity to residual sugar seamlessly; therefore, it is not surprising these are highly versatile food wines. Classic Bordeaux sweet wine pairings include foie gras, cheese such as Roquefort and Stilton, and desserts such as crème brulee, salted caramel pudding, and macarons. However, all 10 AOP’s would like to encourage you to have some fun playing with food pairings with sweet Bordeaux wines. Be creative! These wines have varying degrees of sugar but all are complex with balanced acidity. Some favorite pairing ideas include: raw oysters, fried chicken, curries, spicy cuisines such as Thai, Ethiopian, and Chinese, Korean BBQ, lobster rolls, pasta carbonara, potato chips, sardines, roasted duck, chicken, or pork, and salmon canapes. An added bonus is due to the slight oxidation the grapes experience as the Botrytis perforates their skins, these wines will hold up when stored in the refrigerator after opening for up to a week! Keep in mind serving temperature is important. A serving temperature range of 44° –55° F is ideal, the sweeter the wines served close to 44°, the older wines served closer to 55°.
I recently participated in a Snooth virtual tasting of eight Bordeaux sweet wines. Here are my brief thoughts on the wines we tasted.
2015 Chateau Manos Cadillac Bordeaux France ($12.99): 98% Semillon, 2% Muscadet; bright nose, aromas of honey, apricot, tropical fruits, orchard fruit slightly baked; light and fresh, high acidity, medium weight and finish.
2014 Chateau La Rame Sainte Croix du Mont Bordeaux France ($20): 100% Semillon; pronounced aromas tropical fruit, floral notes, trailing spice; sweetness dissipates into high acidity, mouth-coating, concentrated intensity on the palate, long dry finish.
2014 Chateau Du Cros Loupiac Bordeaux France ($15): 90% Semillon, 5% Sauvignon Blanc, 5% Muscadet; delicate and inviting aromas of flowers, stone fruit, tropical fruit; racy acidity, light in body and finish, possibly the lightest of all the wines, very enjoyable
2009 Chateau Dauphine Rondillon Loupiac Bordeaux France ($28): 70% Semillon, 30% Sauvignon Blanc; medium aromas with lots of orange notes, candied orange rind, orange blossoms, additional citrus layers; lighter on the palate, less sugar, refreshing and bright, medium+ acidity, an easy drinking wine
2014 Chateau Lauvignac Cuvee Sahuc Sauternes Bordeaux France ($18.99): 85% Semillon; 10% Muscadet, 5% Sauvignon Blanc; lighter personality on the nose and palate, floral, tropical fruit, touch of honey, marzipan; medium acidity, light body, layered palate with a long dry finish
2014 Chateau Lapinesse Sauternes Bordeaux France ($39.99): 100% Semillon; complex nose and palate, tropical fruit, Korean melon, beeswax, honey, almonds; firm minerality backbone, high acidity, balanced, incredible wine
2015 Haut Charmes Sauternes Bordeaux France ($20): 80% Semillon, 20% Sauvignon Blanc; spicy aromas of ginger, saffron, Christmas spices, dried apricots and figs; balanced weight and texture, elegant, high acidity, mouth-coating, long dry finish,
2009 Chateau Filhot Sauternes Bordeaux France ($40): 60% Semillon, 36% Sauvignon Blanc, 4% Muscdet; inviting aromas apricot jam, dried figs, tropical and citrus notes, beeswax, honey; luxurious mouth-feel, rich and elegant, high acidity, long dry finish
*Disclosure: These wines were provided as media samples. All thoughts and opinions are my own. I have long enjoyed the honeyed beauty of Bordeaux sweet wines, this tasting only solidified that love.
Consider something different this holiday season. In addition to enjoying Sauternes with your holiday desserts, include it on the table during the meal. Roasted turkey and sweet potatoes are great pairings with Bordeaux sweet wines. Be creative. All of these wines are available in the US, find a bottle or two and have fun seeing all the different foods that pair with these wines. Then let me know by sharing your photos on social media and tagging me. Together we can start a movement, Bordeaux sweet wines are not just for dessert any more. Cheers!
My Song Selection: Sorry, I could not resist.
Get your own bottle (or 8) of Bordeaux sweet wines and let me know what song you pair with them. Cheers!