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 Editorial  Share this article     Summary of ABC Wine column Wine Tasting 
  ABC Wine Issue 48, January 2007   
Sauternes - BarsacSauternes - Barsac  Contents 
Issue 47, December 2006 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 49, February 2007

Sauternes - Barsac

Located in the Graves wine area in Bordeaux, Sauternes and Barsac are considered all over the world the best producers of sweet wines from grapes affected by Botrytis Cinerea

 Sweet wines have always been subject of a strong interest and charm among wine lovers of all times. Considered rare and refined, these divine nectars have always had the reputation of an exclusive prestige also for the fact they were mainly found in the tables of nobles, therefore very expensive and beyond the possibilities of common people. For many aspects, quality sweet wines benefit of the same charm and prestige still today, the same reputation which accompanied them in the course of history, since the very beginning of enology. Among the many sweet wines which in the course of history have given emotions to the palate of humans, the ones produced in Sauternes and Barsac keep intact their fame and all of their prestige still today. Considered among the best sweet wines of the world, the extraordinary wines from Sauternes and Barsac - the two famous villages in the Graves of Bordeaux - are the result of unique climatic and environmental conditions, as well as the effects of pourriture noble - that is the noble rot like the French call it - on the berries of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle.

The production area of Sauternes -
The production area of Sauternes - Barsac

 History tells us the first wines produced with grapes affected by noble rot Botrytis Cinerea were in 1650 in Hungary, in the Tokay area, and the “discovery” is credited to Máté Szepsi Laczkó, the priest of Zssuzsanna Lorántfly's estates, who was also in charge for the production of wine and vineyards care. As for the production of sweet wines in the Sauternes and Barsac areas, there are no reliable or proved information about the beginning of the production of wines with grapes affected by Botrytis Cinerea. One of the most oldest information about the production of sweet wines in this area is dated back to 1660. In a document about the harvesting of 1660 in the properties of the renowned Château d'Yquem, it is mentioned some details which could make one believe, although with no evidence, the wines of that vintage were probably sweet, although it is impossible to tell whether those grapes were affected by Botrytis Cinerea.

 The production of sweet wines in Sauternes was however consolidated since the eighteenth century, when one of the most renowned admirer of this wine was Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States of America. Documents of those times confirm Thomas Jefferson was used to buy sweet wines produced by Château d'Yquem. In occasion of the famous Classification of Bordeaux in 1855, Sauternes was the only wine area outside the Médoc to be included. Eleven châteaux were classified as Premier Cru, fifteen as Deuxième Cru, whereas to the top of the classification of Sauternes, was created a special denomination of Premier Grand Cru exclusively reserved to the famous Château d'Yquem: an unique case in all Bordeaux. Despite the prestige the classification can give to the Château belonging to it, today it can be said this system is not very reliable, as there are many Château not included in the classification of 1855 and that with their wines have been capable of proving to be extraordinary producers.


 The production of sweet wines in Sauternes and Barsac is strongly influenced by the meteorological conditions of the year and the right conditions for the correct and useful development of pourriture noble, the noble rot, not always happen. Because of the non favorable conditions which may happen in some years, producers in fact decide to not make their sweet wines, when the grapes are considered of inferior quality, in order not to damage their reputation and the quality of their wines. In these unfavorable years, the grapes are usually used for the production of table white wines classified with the generic denomination Bordeaux AC. This type of “risk” convinced many producers to replace the grapes in their vineyards with the more “reliable” red varieties, causing the decline of Sauternes wines also because of a lower demand and interest for this type of wines. It will be necessary to wait the end of the 1970s and the 1980s to see a renewed interest for Sauternes wines, when some obstinate producers resumed to invest and to strongly believe in the myth which for centuries gave notoriety to the sweet wines of France. Within few years Sauternes wines were on their way for success again: a renewed success which amazes wine lovers all over the world, today as it exactly was in past times.


Classification of Sauternes and Barsac

 Sauternes and Barsac wines are classified according to French quality system Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC). The prestige of Sauternes wines was already consolidated in the 1800s, as to deserve the inclusion in the famous classification of the 1855 of Médoc: an exceptional fact, if we consider Sauternes is found in the large wine region of the Graves. In 1855, in occasion of the universal exposition in Paris, emperor Napoleon III asked the chamber of commerce of Bordeaux to classify the best wines of the area. The job was assigned to Bordeaux merchants who largely based their job according to the price of each Châteaux, considered, according to their opinion, a reliable quality factor. Besides classifying the wines of Médoc, the merchants of Bordeaux decided to include the famous wines of Sauternes as well, by defining three specific categories. The highest class corresponds to Premier Grand Cru (or Premier Crus Supérieur) exclusively reserved to Château d'Yquem. The next class is Premier Cru and includes 11 Châteaux: Château Climens, Château Clos Haut-Peyraguey, Château Coutet, Château Guiraud, Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey, Château Rabaud-Promis, Château de Rayne-Vigneau, Château Rieussec, Château Sigalas-Rabaud, Château Suduiraut and Château La Tour-Blanche. The third and last class is Deuxième Cru and includes 15 Châteaux: Château d'Arche, Château Broustet, Château Caillou, Château Doisy-Daëne, Château Doisy-Dubroca, Château Doisy-Védrines, Château Filhot, Château Lamothe-Despujols, Château Lamothe-Guignard, Château de Malle, Château de Myrat, Château Nairac, Château Romer, Château Romer du Hayot and Château Suau.


Production Areas

 The wine area of Sauternes and Barsac is found in the southern part of Bordeaux wine region, inside the large wine area of Graves, about 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) South-East from the city of Bordeaux. Wines belonging to this Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée area are exclusively produced in five communes: Sauternes, Barsac, Bommes, Fargues and Preignac. Of these five communes, Sauternes and Barsac are the most renowned ones and from here are coming the best sweet wines of the denomination. Despite the commune of Barsac belongs to the Sauternes denomination, wines from this commune can also be classified as Barsac AOC. Producers can therefore decide whether indicating in the label either the first or the second denomination, however the most prestigious producers of this commune prefer to identify their wines with the Barsac AOC denomination. Both Sauternes and Barsac make extraordinary sweet wines with grapes affected by Botrytis Cinerea - here known as pourriture noble - however Barsac wines generally differ from the ones from Sauternes for a lesser body and a higher finesse.


Production of Sauternes

 The production of Sauternes wines, sweet grape nectars capable of amazing every wine lover in the world, are the result of a series of unique and unrepeatable environmental, climatic and natural factors, last but not the least, the intervention of man on the final quality of the product. Despite it plays an essential and irreplaceable role, noble rot is not enough to make Sauternes into a refined and elegant wine, a sweet wine having no equals all over the world. Type of soil, climate and right environmental conditions for the development of Botrytis Cinerea without allowing it to degenerate into ignoble rot and the right grapes, are only some of the essential factors for the production of Sauternes. Then, there is the job of man. The production of a great Sauternes requires strict and patient practices, with no compromises, probably like no other wine in the world. The best Sauternes are in fact produced with grapes cultivated with very low yields, strictly hand harvested, an operation which can be repeated even 12 times during the season, in order to harvest - each time - only the bunches showing the perfect characteristics of ripeness and development of pourriture noble.

 Sauternes is mainly produced with Sémillon grape, to which is added a part of Sauvignon Blanc and - occasionally - small quantities of Muscadelle. Sémillon, which is very common in the Bordeaux area, seems to be perfect for the production of botrytized wines, that is produced with grapes affected by Botrytis Cinerea. Thanks to its thin skin, Sémillon is in fact particularly sensitive to the attacks of noble rot which can easily penetrate inside the berries, therefore giving them the typical “roasted” look. Sémillon has however the “fault” to easily tend to overproduction, drastically diminishing the final quality of wine. For this reason are required strict cultural practices in order to limit the production of Sémillon and to ensure high quality levels. Also Sauvignon Blanc - which is very common in the Bordeaux region and present in Sauternes in lesser quantity than Sémillon - is particularly sensitive to the attacks of Botrytis Cinerea, while giving the famous sweet nectar of this land, aromas and acidity: two qualities which make Sauternes charming to the nose and balanced in the mouth.

 The official recipe of Sauternes also includes Muscadelle grape, however it is not always used by producers in their wines. Just like Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle is sensitive to the attacks of pourriture noble, a characteristic which is certainly welcome in the Sauternes area. Because of its intense aromas, Muscadelle - when it is used in Sauternes - does not generally exceed 5%, in order not to excessively cover the organoleptic qualities of the other two grapes. The composition of grapes in Sauternes wines varies according to vintage, meteorological conditions and, of course, the choice and style of each producer. In general terms, Sémillon is the main grape and which can also represent 80% of the composition, whereas the lesser part is reserved to Sauvignon Blanc and, marginally, to Muscadelle. The production of Sauternes is always risky, just like for every other wine produced with grapes affected by noble rot.

 The arrive of noble rot in vineyards is always a preoccupying event for every producers, including the ones who make wines with the grapes affected by this fungus. The correct development of Botrytis Cinerea for the production of these wines, requires humidity in the morning in order to allow the development of the mould, sunny and dry afternoons in order to avoid its excessive development: a condition which does not always happen. In fact it can happen that when the meteorological condition of the year is characterized by excessive humidity, the development of Botrytis Cinerea is excessive and becomes gray rot or, even worse, rot, therefore irreparably compromising the whole harvest. Moreover, sometimes it can happen the noble rot develops very late, therefore increasing the risks for the producers, forcing him or her to harvest the grapes later, with the risk of the worsening of meteorological conditions - in particular hail and rain - therefore compromising the whole harvest.

 The best Sauternes always come from vineyards with low yields per hectare and harvested by hand. In general terms, the grapes are harvested in distinct phases, by checking every bunch in the vineyard and by harvesting only those showing the right ripeness quality and development of noble rot, while leaving in the plant the bunches requiring some more time in order to reach the perfect condition for the production of Sauternes. Some producers can also repeat this operation even twelve times - usually from October to November - a practice followed by the best producers only. Grapes are then pressed and the must is allowed to ferment in barrels. Because of the high concentration of sugar, the fermentation is very difficult and requires very long times, sometimes a full year. The fermentation is “naturally” stopped when the quantity of alcohol is such to kill the yeast - also because of the presence of Botrytis Cinerea - and, as the concentration of sugar is pretty high, in the wine will be found a remarkable quantity of non fermented residual sugar. At the end of fermentation, Sauternes is allowed to age in cask for about two or three years before being bottled.

 The grapes not reaching the right conditions for the production of Sauternes - a frequent condition in unfavorable years - are generally used for the production of dry table wines and commercialized with the Bordeaux AOC or Bordeaux Supérieur AOC denominations. In 1980s, in order to make wines with higher quality in less favorable years, in particular in excessively humid years, some producers began the use of cryoextraction of the must. The process consists in freezing the grapes at low temperatures, usually -7° C (19° F). When this temperature is reached, the grapes are immediately crushed while avoiding the extraction of water - in the form of ice - therefore increasing the concentration of the must. The result is similar to what it is naturally obtained in Germany and in Austria in the production of icewines, when the grapes are harvested in wintertime and with temperatures lower than 0° C (32° F).


 Editorial  Share this article     Summary of ABC Wine column Wine Tasting 
  ABC Wine Issue 48, January 2007   
Sauternes - BarsacSauternes - Barsac  Contents 
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