Experiments in Sweet Bordeaux


A few months ago, I was minding my own business, mostly, when I received a phone call from my good friends here at Snooth, wondering if I would be interested in heading to Bordeaux for a few days and write a story about my experiences. The trip would focus solely on sweet wines from the region, or what wine types frequently refer to as “dessert wines." Therein was the challenge, however, as the Sweet Bordeaux Association, a subset of the CIVB (Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux or Bordeaux Wine Council) is striving to change the perception that Sweet Bordeaux is strictly a wine to have at the end of a meal. Thus, the theme of the entire trip was to underscore the idea that the sweet wines from Bordeaux should be considered as a viable alternative for the aperitif, the appetizers, even the main course.

I was skeptical, to put it mildly.
Most of my adult life, there were precisely three occasions to serve a sweet wine from Southwest France: the aforementioned dessert, with foie gras, and with blue cheese (preferably Stilton or Roquefort). Seeing that I am not a huge fan of blue cheese and foie gras does not constitute even a minuscule proportion of my quotidian diet, I was not entirely sure how the next several days would pan out.

Bordeaux, as a region, is huge—it has roughly the same number of acres under vine as the entire state of California—and in an average year, the region produces approximately 700 million bottles of wine, about 90% of it red. Sweet Bordeaux represents a very small percentage of the entire Bordeaux production—a little less than 2% of what the region churns out every year. Still, that equates to roughly 10 million bottles from over 500 producers

For many, the terms “Sweet Bordeaux” and “Sauternes” are synonymous, but Sauternes, which can be produced in five different communes (Barsac, Bommes, Fargues, Preignac, and Sauternes), is just one of ten different appellations that may produce sweet wines in Bordeaux (other prominent AOCs include Barsac [wines can be labelled either as “Barsac” or “Sauternes”], Cadillac, Loupiac, and Sainte-Croix-du-Mont). While the ten appellations vary in soil types and climate, there are a few commonalities across the growing areas.

First, the sweet wines from Bordeaux are a blend of mostly Sémillon and smaller percentages (usually 25% or less) of Sauvignon Blanc and, occasionally, Muscadelle. Second, the sweetness of the wines comes from the grapes being affected by botrytis cinera (also known as “noble rot”), a fungus that gradually raisinates the berries by drawing out the water, which concentrates the sugars, acidity, and flavors.

Third, all ten appellations in Bordeaux that produce sweet wines border either the Garonne River, its tributary the Ciron, or both. The Ciron River is a relatively short, but extremely cold river that empties into the larger Garonne River near the town of Barsac, the virtual epicenter of the ten contiguous appellations. It is not until autumn however, after the Garonne has spent the summer heating its waters, that the clash of these two rivers of drastically different temperatures creates a morning mist that envelops both valleys.

This mist, along with the sweet plump berries on the vines, provides the perfect combination for the development of noble rot. That rot is a bit finicky, however, as it does not attack all of the grapes in a bunch at the same time, and certain bunches might not get affected at all in spite of near perfect conditions. Thus, the fourth common aspect: harvesting grapes to make a sweet wine in Bordeaux is expensive. It often takes at least three passes, often days apart, to harvest a vineyard, resulting in costs that are more than three times the rate for standard red wine harvesting in the region.

Compounding the calculus is the desiccation of the grapes. While a “normal” vine might yield enough grapes to produce 2-3 bottles of dry wine, producers of sweet Bordeaux wines can typically expect that a single vine might bear enough fruit to make a single glass.

Those that have tasted the sweet, unctuous wines of Bordeaux can surely attest that the region produces some of the best wines of their type in the world, but pairing them with parts of the meal that do not rhyme with “this shirt” might still be a tough sell.

As I said: I was skeptical.

The first pairing was with Japanese food, which I tried at Château du Cros in Loupiac. While the wines worked, for the most part, I think that Chinese or Korean cuisine would be a much better pairing which feature spicier, saltier, and more fried dishes.The pairings with Japanese food were fine, but I remained somewhat skeptical.

That evening, I had dinner at Château Guiraud in Sauternes. The meal was impeccably prepared and the wines were sublime on their own. When they were paired together? Whoa. They worked together magnificently. After I realized that what I was eating and what I was drinking were a near perfect match, my skepticism melted away and I pondered the reasons why.

Then it hit me: salt.

Sure, there are other factors at play, but as long as there is plenty of salt in the dish, it will likely pair well with Sweet Bordeaux wines. The rest of the meals over the course of the week followed suit: as long as there was a perceptible saltiness to the food, I was confident that Sweet Bordeaux would be a viable if not preferred pairing. The roasted rabbit at Château Guiraud? Perfect. The mushroom and bacon soup (which might just be the best soup I have ever had) at Château de Fargues? Divine. Even Burgundian escargots back at the hotel? Fantastic. In just three short days, I went from full-blown skeptic to converted disciple. So much so, that my first meal at home I did a comparison pairing: my chicken with a mushroom/crème fraîche sauce with a Sauternes and one of my go-to Chardonnays. The Sweet Bordeaux more than held its own—it won the night.

Since that first meal back home, I find myself regularly pulling out a Sweet Bordeaux from the cellar to serve with dinner, experimenting with friends and family alike. Sure, there are likely still skeptics out there, but I contend that once they try a sweet wine outside of that last course of the evening, they will become a convert as well.

Here are some of my favorite wines I tasted during the week:

2014 Château la Rame Réserve du Château, Sainte-Croix-du-Mont: Only made in best years, deciding whether to make it sometime after pressing and before bottling. Spends 18-24 months in oak. Dark, rich and unctuous. Whoa. This is rich with honey, coffee, and apricot.

2009 Château du Cros, Loupiac: One of the best years for Botrytis in recent memory—had to pick very quickly. Good acidity, but there is also a roundness, a fatness that balances well.

2008 Château Manos Cuvée Traditionelle, Cadillac: A mineral-driven wine, with touches of smoke around the edges. Coats the palate with savory notes and mocha.

2005 Château Giscours, Sauternes: Dark, rich, and unctuous, loaded with caramel and citrus. This is the wine that “flipped the switch” for me on Sweet Bordeaux.

2015 Bastor-Lamontagne, Sauternes: Just a baby with noticeable oak and plenty of pineapple upside down cake. Rich and unctuous but loads of acidity.

2014 Château de Fargues, Sauternes: From the original owner of Château d’Yquem, rich golden honey in the glass. On the palate. Whoa. Impeccable with great fruit and balance. Incredible. Paired with oysters two ways.

2011 Château Laville, Sauternes: Candied apricot and peach dance on the nose and the palate. Power all the way through. One of the more concentrated of the week.

2005 Château Sigalas Ribaud, Sauternes: From a particularly warm year. Black tea, creme brûlée on the nose. On the palate wonderfully nutty with the slightly burned element of the creme brûlée.

2009 Château de Rayne Vigneau, Sauternes: More candied peach and apricot here. Big flavors and plenty of heft. Sweet and unctuous.

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: sometime66
    1347805 15

    First I understand that this article is limited to Sweet Bordeaux so my comments are off subject. I just wanted to bring to your attention (you are most likely far more aware then I) that some extremely pleasant botryised Reislings are produced in Alsace. A huge surprise for me was the following Miguel Torres Chile Riesling Vendimia Tarde.
    Thank you and best regards...LDH

    Dec 12, 2017 at 6:49 PM

  • And what happens to the wins after much aging? They deepen. Yet even after they turn black, much remains. Most of mine is still wonderful, although it is from the sixties and seventies. { and a few odd bottles from the twenties, thirties and forties. ) It does surprise me that Cerons gets passed over.

    Dec 12, 2017 at 7:18 PM

  • @sometimes66—Ah, Alsace! I lived there for a time and it just might be my favorite wine region in France—the sweet wines there are certainly sublime!

    Dec 12, 2017 at 7:21 PM

  • @passetoutgrains The list of wines finer than a properly aged sweet wine from Bordeaux is decidedly short—I do not have any quite that old, but I am working on it!

    Dec 12, 2017 at 7:22 PM

  • The-Drunken-cyclist: Fear not and plunge ahead. These wines may be the last to suffer from price creep. Values persist in the older wines still around, and they do not age poorly. Unlike reds, color can be a useful tool: since these come in clear glass, one can have a good indication of potential. An additional plus is halves are frequently found.

    Dec 12, 2017 at 9:53 PM

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