Why Sauternes Makes You Happy

And why Bordeaux's joyful noble rot sweet wine is here to stay.

Our special guest in podcast episode 3 — Jeff Harding, wine director at the Waverly Inn in New York — continues to educate us on classic sweet wines in today’s newsletter.

Be sure to also check out bonus converations with Alex Rainer of Rochelt, the iconic schnapps producer from the Austrian Alps and with the guys behind the up-and coming domestic fruit brandies from Rootstock.

Learn Sauternes

by Jeff Harding

Sauternes is one of the great wines of the world. But due to its extreme rarity and history as the so-called “wine of kings,” people tend to think it’s too expensive and out of reach for everyday wine drinking. The other myth of Sauternes is that it’s too sweet to drink, other than with dessert. I’m here to dispel both of these fallacies.

My favorite thing about Sauternes is its extreme concentration of flavor, texture, and sugar. A sip of this wine always makes the other senses pause while my taste buds light up, almost as if time stops. It reminds of a recording of Sarah Vaughan singing “Summertime.” The intro is waiflike and pretty, ethereal and light, like the aroma of these wines. But when she sings “And the living…,” You are struck by the moment, it’s almost as if time stops. You’re waiting for the next words. You lean forward, almost on your toes, expecting the lyrics, and she makes you wait, just as your brain pauses while the sweet wine coats your tongue, and you ask yourself “What’s going on here?” and then Ms. Vaughan drops a register and lands on “…is easy,” a bit like a far-off thunderclap, which is exactly how these wines resonate in your brain.

This concentration of flavors is caused by the work of the Botrytis cinerea fungus, also known as Noble Rot. Near Sauternes, southeast of Bordeaux, the cool Ciron River meets the Garonne and in autumn, produces a fog, which allows the fungus to bloom and raisinate the grapes. If the sun burns off this fog adequately and regularly throughout the fall, the noble rot will reduce the water in the grapes, effectively increasing the sugar ratio and making the flavors extremely more complex. The grapes are then picked in meticulous fashion in multiple passes through the vineyard, and then vinified according to these waves of harvest. This added level of manual labor is why, in general, these wines are more expensive than dry white wines of neighboring regions.

But not terribly expensive, even so. Most of the wines we are tasting below are under $30, and I’ve included a couple second wines from notable houses, another way to find a great wine at a lower cost. The prestigious “Grand Vin,” from the famous chateau like Yquem are definitely not in this category, but look for second wines from a notable house, or producers outside Sauternes (eg, in the lesser known appellations you see below). In this part of France, it’s traditional to drink these wines with roast chicken for Sunday dinner, but they go remarkably well with spicy ethnic cuisine, but also can act like a fruit chutney on a roast pork or a citrus marmalade on duck confit.

And don’t forget the aperitif! Sugar stimulates the appetite and revs up your palate as well as many cocktails, which are simply another alcoholic beverage balancing sugar with acid (think margarita or cosmopolitan). A glass of any of the below wines over ice, with a twist of orange, are my go-to aperitif when entertaining, and these wines can keep for up to a month after opening.

The wines Jeff and Jason tasted on this week’s Everyday Drinking podcast:

Cyprès de Climens, Château Climens, 2012, Barsac/Sauternes

Bright citrus notes, with exotic spices, dried mango and pineapple, rich viscosity and long finish.

Castelnaud de Suduiraut, Château Suduiraut,  2016, Sauternes

Fresh and vibrant, with notes of apple pie and baking spices.

Secret de Château Biac, Château Biac, 2010, Cadillac

Honey and butterscotch on the nose and palate, with a vibrancy and freshness of a younger wine. I mentioned oyster shell minerality and green bananas in the podcast, and this is a good thing, but more about the way it makes your tongue feel: alert!

3 More sweet Bordeaux wines from outside Sauternes:

Château de Cerons, Cerons, 2010

Butterscotch and waffles, a lovely hint of bitter gives it tension, with an orange oil finish.

Château La Rame, Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, 2016

Fresh and lively, with bright aromas of white flower and beeswax. Long finish of citrus and pineapple on the palate.

Château Dauphiné Rondillon, Loupiac, 2015

Very light and fruity, mouth-watering peaches, with a limestone minerality and notes of tropical fruit.

Sauternes Cocktails (That Will Make the Count Unhappy)

As Derek Brown reported last spring, Count Alexandre de Lur Saluces, former owner of prized estate Château d’Yquem, wrote an angry open letter to the French publication Terre de Vins. The Count railed against the trend of using Sauternes in cocktails, saying it was “arrogant” to think that Sauternes wines could be enhanced through mixology.

“You seem convinced that as it stands, [Sauternes] has no future. That this wine belongs to the past. So you want to improve it with various subterfuges: ice cubes in the glasses, orange or lemon zests, sparkling water, etc.,” writes the Count, chastising producers who have marketed the wine as a cocktail ingredient — including the saujito, a take on the classic mojito. “No doubt you were thinking of shock as a ‘marketing’ means to shake the consumer. I wish you luck. He is not that silly and will not be manipulated.” The Count ends on an aristocratic flourish: “Sauternes wine does not deserve an improvement but a protection, that which one grants to the witnesses of civilization.”

Sauternes indeed has a proud history and certainly deserves some measure of protection. But cocktails are also part of Sauternes’ history, and the history of civilization, whether the Count likes it or not.

Light Guard Punch

This is an easy, perfect warm weather punch. The original recipe comes from Jerry Thomas’ 1862 classic The Bartender’s Guide: How To Mix Drinks, and was adapted by Dan Searing in his book The Punch Bowl. Besides Sauternes, other botrytised sweet wines also work well. Methode traditionnelle sparkling wine is the way to go in cocktails like this. It’s a very generous and flexible recipe that serves about a dozen, but is also easy to double since you’ve already got the Sauternes and sherry open and the pineapple chopped.

  • Half a pineapple, peeled, cored and coarsely chopped

  • 375 ml (half bottle) Sauternes (or similar botrytised sweet wine)

  • 375 ml (half bottle) fino or manzanilla sherry

  • 375 ml (half bottle) Cognac VSOP or similar brandy

  • 1 bottle sparkling wine

  • Lemons, cut into thin slices, for garnish

Combine the pineapple, sherry, Cognac and sweet wine in a large bowl or pitcher. Transfer to the refrigerator and chill for at least 2 hours. If you want more pineapple flavor, you can gently the muddle the pineapple before adding the wines and the Cognac.

Have a large punch bowl and glasses ready. Just before serving, fill about one-third of the punch bowl with ice, stir gently. Pour a ladleful of the mixture from the punch bowl into each glass (about 2-3 ounces), then top each with sparkling wine. Garnish with lemon slice.

Sauternes Cobbler

Adapted from Jerry Thomas’ 1862 classic The Bartender’s Guide: How To Mix Drinks, by Derek Brown.

  • 3 ounces Sauternes

  • Spoonful simple syrup

  • Orange slice

  • Seasonal berries

  • Mint sprig

Add Sauternes and syrup to glass. Add crushed ice and garnish with orange slice, mint sprig, and berries. Stir gently. Sip with a metal straw.

Sauternes Cup

This old punch recipe is sort of a crazy concoction, but delicious. I got this from Crosby Gage’s The Standard Cocktail Guide (1941).

  • 3/4 ounce Cognac VSOP or similar brandy

  • 3/4 ounce Benedictine

  • 3/4 ounce Cointreau

  • 1/2 ounce yellow Chartreuse

  • 16 ounces of Sauternes

  • Club soda or sparkling water

  • Orange slices

Combine all ingredients except club soda in a bowl or pitcher, stir gently, then transfer to the refrigerator and chill for at least 2 hours. Just before serving, fill about one-third of the punch bowl with ice, stir gently. Pour a ladleful of the mixture from the punch bowl into each glass (about 2-3 ounces), then top each with sparkling water. Garnish with orange slice.