Wines that hit the sweet spot
Parcel Series Sauternes, Bordeaux, France 2018 (£24.99, or £14.99, as part of a mixed case of six bottles, majestic.co.uk) A sweet, thickly syrupy, golden wine made of mist and mould: sauternes is a defiantly odd creation. Produced in the eponymous appellation in the south of Bordeaux's Graves district, it relies on the very particular conditions of its vineyards by the river Garonne and the Ciron tributary, which are cloaked by lingering evening mists in autumn at the end of the growing season. In the cool and damp a benign form of mould, the legendary noble rot, or botrytis cinerea, forms on the grapes, sucking out the water, and concentrating sugars and flavours. This makes for an exceptionally labour-intensive, and profoundly uneconomical form of winemaking: at harvest time, pickers for the best sauternes producers pass through the vineyards several times, over several weeks, selecting and sorting the semillon and sauvignon blanc grapes. Yields may be as low as one glass of wine per vine – a glass of pure, honeyed pleasure, in the case of Majestic's clever find from an undisclosed ‘top’ château.
Ulysse Cazabonne Sauternes, Bordeaux, France MV (£18.50, thewinesociety.com) Another secret château is the source for The Wine Society's equally gorgeous example of sauternes seductiveness: a blend of three vintages (hence the MV or multi-vintage) that fully expresses the special charm of the style, all honey, acacia and marmalade tanginess, the silky sheen of the texture offset by ripples of fresh acidity and a wonderful clarity and length of flavour. Sauternes isn't the only Bordeaux region where top châteaux occasionally sell off the odd bit of stock under cover to help cashflow, and the practice isn't necessarily an indication of financial difficulties. Still, there is no doubt that recent years have been tough for winemakers in the region. Thanks to the impact of spring frosts and mildew (a not-at-all benign form of mould for grape growers) the latest vintage, 2021, was a disaster, with many producers not making any wine at all. And all this in a global context where sweet wines, no matter where they come from, have never been less fashionable and harder to sell.
Domaine Rotier Renaissance Vendanges Tardives, Gaillac, France 2017 (£16.99, 50cl, Waitrose) One of the problems for sauternes producers – not including the region's most revered château, d’Yquem, which has never lost its centuries-old status as one of the world's most expensive and sought-after wines – is the way it tends to be sold as ‘dessert wine’. True, sauternes has the necessary sugar and balancing acidity to work with the sweet part of the meal. But it's better, in my opinion, served on its own, as a kind of dessert – or sweet part of the meal – in itself. Or, better yet, as the ideal partner for cheese. Think of the way that quince or fig jam makes such a good contrast with stronger cheeses: a glass of sauternes does much the same job, while also rinsing the mouth clean with that tangy acidity. This skill isn't the sole preserve of Sauternes, by the way: a couple of hours’ drive west of Bordeaux, Domaine Rotier's Renaissance is an intense yet scintillating, crystalised apricot-accented sweet alternative made from the local loin de l’oeil variety in Gaillac.
Follow David Williams on Twitter @DaveydaibachParcel Series Sauternes, Bordeaux, France 2018 (£24.99, or £14.99, as part of a mixed case of six bottles, majestic.co.uk) Ulysse Cazabonne Sauternes, Bordeaux, France MV (£18.50, thewinesociety.com) Domaine Rotier Renaissance Vendanges Tardives, Gaillac, France 2017 (£16.99, 50cl, Waitrose)