Sauternes are among the world's most expensive wines
The grape harvest for Bordeaux’s white and red wine finished some weeks ago, but it is just starting for Bordeaux’s prized sweet wines, Sauternes (pronounced sew TAIRN.) Sauternes is some of the priciest wines on the planet (a bottle of an old Chateau Yquem sold a few years ago for $117,000---that's $26,000 a glass, or $2,200 a sip!) One of the reasons is that the berries are picked one at a time, rather than one bunch at a time. Let me explain.
Sauternes is a wine district, a town, and a sweet wine
Known as “liquid gold,” Sauternes is pricey because of the labor intensive process required to make it. Grapes for these sweet wines are hand-picked carefully by workers who have been trained to look for “botrytis.” Known also as the “noble rot,” botrytis is a fungus that attacks very ripe grapes. Typically, it does not attack the full bunch, but only certain berries. Workers must often make several passes through the vineyards over a period of weeks, picking only the grapes that have been effected with noble rot. In some cases one vine is necessary to make one bottle of the most expensive Sauternes.
So how can rotted grapes possibly make such a magnifique wine? First, the botrytis penetrates the grape’s skin and causes it to lose nearly 75% of its water. However, much more than dehydrating and concentrating the flavors, botrytis actually causes a chemical change in the grape’s aromas and taste profile. Third, while all of the above is occurring, the fungus also increases the actual acid levels so that this sweet wine is not cloying sweet.
Damp & warmth together create the perfect storm for botrytis
The terroir of Sauternes is key to botrytis. The fungus does not happen every year, but only when certain conditions in the environment occur at the same time. There are two rivers, one cold and the other warm, that converge into one river near Sauternes. The mixture of warm and cold creates a mist. Providing the afternoons are warm, this mist in addition to the heat create the perfect milieu for botrytis to thrive.
If you’re one of the lucky Wine-Knows joining the September 2021 trip to Bordeaux, you’ll have the opportunity to sample some of the world's most famous Sauternes. The sweet life doesn’t get any sweeter than sipping a Sauternes at its birthplace.