Some Sauternes to savor now, cellar for later

October 8, 2018

Sauternes wines have “sweet” attached to their name, a fair appraisal. Those few of us left who actually enjoy well-made Sauternes are enjoying the effect of this unfortunate truncated description. As its popularity has diminished, our ability to purchase properly aged wine at very fair pricing has increased. Although Sauternes is indeed a sweet wine, it is balanced by wonderful aromas, flavors and palate-cleansing, balancing, cheek-tingling acidity.

Regulars are aware acidity is only perceived on the sides of the tongue and the inner cheek area of the mouth, and sugar on the tip of the tongue, n’est-ce pas? Sauternes is made from the combination of three varietal wines:  Sémillon, which contributes richness and texture; Sauvignon Blanc, freshness and acidity; and Muscadelle for fruit accents. These varietals also produce the dry white Bordeaux discussed previously. It is the occurrence of a fungus, Botrytis Cinerea, which causes these white grapes to shrivel and concentrate their sugars, yielding less volume of juice as the water goes away. It is fragrant, flavorful and enhances other characteristics that extend their aging capabilities, while avoiding the raisin notes one might expect.  Sauternes drink well when young and age for remarkably long times as well.

Sauternes is too often described as a dessert wine. It is wonderful with a wide panoply of not-too-sweet desserts. Aficionados with a sybaritic bent know these wines support foie gras, veined cheeses, especially Roquefort, and most fruit. Let me tell ya, folks, Roquefort ain’t blue, bleu or blew cheese. It is definitely worth the candle.

Sauternes also support Serrano and Parma ham, sautéed lobster with shallots, just deglace and pour over, Peking Duck and geese, and many now out-of-fashion filet of beef dishes, such as Tournedos Rossini, Beef Wellington, Steak Sauternes, Carpetbagger Steak (stuffed with oysters) and Steak de Burgo. Here’s an easy recipe for Steak de Burgo: blend and reserve 2 oz butter, 2 oz half-and-half, and 1/4 tsp finely minced garlic. Sear two 5- to 6-oz. filets in an 8-10-inch hot, dry pan. Just before they’re done, remove from heat and pour over 1 oz sauternes, the cream mixture, it will reduce quickly, and sprinkle on equal parts fresh oregano and basil, about 1/8 tsp each, to taste. If using salted butter, it likely won’t need S&P. Other foods that are truly enhanced by well-chosen Sauternes are: edamame dumplings w/bonito flake and kombucha in a shallot, sauterne broth; chicken with mushrooms and Sauternes (please don’t use the recipe with canned mushrooms and chicken broth or dried mushrooms); rillettes; and many meat terrines and patés. You see, the acidity in Sauternes cuts the logy mouthfeel that animal fats induce.

Broad brush, young Sauternes show pineapple, apricot, honey and barrel notes. The mature wines, in addition, might show ripe melon, dried lemon zest, ginger, crème brulée, marzipan, spices, anise and caramel. Naturally, the vintage and terroir also drive the aromas and flavors. This category can originate from Sauternes, Barsac, Cérons, Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, Cadillac, Loupiac, Premières Côtes de Bordeaux, and Côtes de Bordeaux Saint-Macaire. Frugal buyers should look into wine from Mombazillac located in the Bergerac region.

Following are some favorably priced young Sauternes. Petit Guiraud from Chateau Guiraud, Castelnau from Suduiraut, and Madame de Rayne from Rayne Vigneau are all second labels from first-growth producers. They run under $50/halves for 2011, ‘14 and ‘15. By comparison, half bottles of the stellar 2011 vintage from Doisy Caillou, Clos Haut-Peyraguey, Chateau de Myrat and Chateau de Rayne Vigneau will come in under $27 and 750s about $50. Wise buyers will go older.

Clos Haut-Peyraguey, de Myrat 2007, for example, is 93 points and goes for $60/full and just entered its drinking window. This is mahvelous, dahlings, and findable. JR gave it 19 points and wrote, “This wine was difficult to spit.” The 2014, $60/ready in 2020, and ‘15, $40/2024 were both rated 93 by many. The ‘15 is decidedly better. Following my longtime advice, waiting for the next great vintage pays off again for cellarers. Chateau D’Yquem is the pride of show, as you know.

One of the few that is investment-grade, it increases dramatically in price. The 2015, ready in 2027, is the belle of the ball at $360/bottle. The price has doubled since September 2017, and if history holds it should come in over $700 when it is ready. 

Subscribe to the Daily Newsletter