Sweet endings

November 2018

One of the great delights of Christmas and the holiday season is the delectable array of sweet treats that seem to magically appear at this time of year. Traditional fruit cake from great-grandmother’s secret recipe, hand-rolled home-made decadent chocolate truffles, endless varieties and shapes of shortbreads, exotic tropical fruits and nuts from faraway places…the indulgent list goes on. And, as wine lovers, what selection from the cellar shall we choose to accompany these special seasonal delicacies?

Probably the most popular sweet wine at this time of year is port (see Bayview December 2016). But the world has many other sweet wines, of embarrassingly variable quality. Today we sample one of the very highest quality, one of the world’s very rare and truly great wines, a very different sweet white wine from the Bordeaux region of France – Sauternes.

Although most Bordeaux wine that we drink regularly is red (see Bayview September 2018) this large region produces a broad variety of wines in all colours, qualities and price ranges. South-east of the city of Bordeaux, close by the little River Garonne, lies a very small, unique patch of low-lying land that is particularly susceptible to fog. As the grapes ripen in the fall, the damp fog descends on the vineyard, and a mould – called botrytis – begins to grow on the skins of the grapes. The mould’s rootlets penetrate the grape skins without breaking them, withdrawing moisture from inside the grapes. The resulting clusters of small, wizened grapes closely resemble mouldy raisins, while inside, their juice has become supremely concentrated. When pressed at the winery, their juice barely flows, as viscous as maple syrup. Starting fermentation is difficult, and it proceeds slowly, but eventually a brilliant golden wine high in natural alcohol results, with large amounts of residual unfermented natural grape sugar. Mellowed in oaken casks for several years, the finished product is a wine of distinctive character. On the nose, penetrating complexity of exotic fruit aromas, reminiscent of pineapple, orange and apricot, is joined by a unique, compelling pungency – this is the legacy of the mould. In the mouth, the rich fruit flavours echo the nose, and your senses will be overwhelmed by the extreme unctuousness and intense sweetness. These sensations continue, lingering long after the wine has gone, with perhaps the longest finish – or aftertaste – of any wine.

Sauternes pairs well not just with sweets, but also as a perfect accompaniment to cheese, including the strongest ripe blue cheeses like Stilton and Roquefort, the wine’s unctuous sweetness providing a perfect complementary contrast to the pungency of the cheese.

Good Sauternes can be expensive, as the quantity of wine produced is significantly reduced by the loss of moisture from the grapes, and the difficult fermentation and long ageing add to the cost. I usually buy Sauternes in half-bottles, as one small glass to accompany dessert or cheese at the end of a rich meal is all one needs. Sauternes will age magnificently in your cellar, evolving from brilliant gold to deep amber as the decades roll by, adding intriguing nuances to its flavours and aromas.

Based on their pedigree, the best chateaux of Sauternes have been classified as first or second cru (growth). Names to watch for here in the $30 to $50 dollar (per half-bottle!) range include Chateau de Malle, Roland, Doisey-Vedrines, Coutet…and at the higher end, Sigalas-Rabaud, Guiraud and Suduiraut will set you back a bit more. But remember, a little goes a long way, and you bring this wine out only on those very special occasions that merit its regal presence.

Follow Paul Inksetter’s wine writing on his blog, www.winewicket.com

© Paul Inksetter 2018

Follow Paul Inksetter’s wine writing on his blog, www.winewicket.com
© Paul Inksetter 2016

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