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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Sauternes’ “Rotten Luck”

When Ambassador Thomas Jefferson, a great wine lover and soon to be President of the United States, visited Sauternes in 1790 this area was already known for producing sweet wines.  Following his trip, he sent the following letter to the area’s premier winery, Chateau Yquem:  I have convinced our President, General Washington, to try a sample. He asks of you 30 dozens, Sir, and I ask for 10 dozens for myself…”   Nearly seventy years later another dignitary visiting Chateau Yquem would alter the course of wine history when he purchased wine made from rotten grapes as in the photo above.

The dignitary was the Czar’s brother, the Russian Grand Duke. (Russia’s aristocracy had long been a great fan of Bordeaux wines.)   The vintage that changed everything was  1847.  That year a horrible black fungus stuck the Sauternes vineyards and created a huge disaster of decaying fruit.  While Chateau Yquem harvested some of the grapes, the quality was so poor that it decided not to release the wine for sale.   When the Grand Duke visited Yquem in 1859, however, he fell in love the 1847 wine which was like no other he had ever tasted ---not only that, but he ended up paying a small fortune for 100 cases of it.  From this point forward, Sauternes attacked by this mold has commanded lofty prices. 

How could rotten grapes possibly make a fabulous wine?  The culprit is Botrytis Cinerea, a fungus that only grows on very ripe grapes.  It attacks the skin of the grape causing it to loose nearly 75% of its water.  More than dehydrating and concentrating the flavors, however, Botrytis actually causes a chemical change in the aromas and taste of the wine.  At the same time, it also increases the grapes’ acids so that the wine is not cloyingly sweet.

The terroir in Sauternes is instrumental in setting up the perfect conditions for Botrytis organism.  Two rivers, one cold and the other one warm, meet in Sauternes.  The mixture of the warm and cold waters creates a mist.  This mist, in tandem with warm afternoons, creates the perfect environment for botrytis, often referred to as “noble rot.”

Coming with us to Bordeaux?  Wine-Knows will be staying in Sauternes at a Grand Cru wine-making chateau and will visit Chateau Yquem where the Russian Grand Duke changed rotten luck into the noble rot.  The sweet life doesn’t get any sweeter than this.


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