Sauternes and Sweet Bordeaux Wine

Botrytis Cluster
S. Slinkard

While sweet white wines may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Bordeaux, because they're only 2 percent of the region's overall wine production, but they are significant. They can quickly expand a dining palate by bringing a broad spectrum of styles, price points, and food pairing options to the table.

Although Bordeaux's sweet wine scene is dominated by its international reputation for the ultra-rich, honeyed flavors of Sauternes (and Barsac) from the Graves district, the sweet wine options from Bordeaux extend way beyond Sauternes. In fact, while Sauternes tend to snag plenty of the dessert wine limelight, with legitimate reason based on outstanding quality, sheer quantity (Sauternes comprises 43 percent of the region's total sweet wine production), and a high concentration of larger estates, it's the well-priced sweet white wines from the other 10 AOCs (roughly translated to "named places of origin") that many of the Bordelais themselves tend to drink.

Sauternes and Sweet White Bordeaux Wine Regions

Bordeaux's primary sweet wine-producing region is situated 20 miles south of the city of Bordeaux, spanning both banks of the Garrone River and enveloping the initial section of the Ciron River. These waterways provide the perfect backdrop for a misty morning microclimate that encourages the growth of Botrytis Cinerea, also called Noble Rot. There are 11 designated AOCs that produce sweet white wines in Bordeaux. The most notable (and most expensive) sweet white wines of Bordeaux are Sauternes and Barsacs, yet there are plenty of less expensive, sweet wine offerings from smaller estates that bring good value bottles to the market. As an aside, the term "Sauternes" is often used to encompass all sweet wines from the Bordeaux region; however, there are technically only five villages that produce Sauternes (Sauternes, Barsac, Bommes, Fargues, and Preignac), the rest are referred to as Bordeaux Supérieur AOC or simply as "Sweet Bordeaux."

Botrytis and Bordeaux Wines

The sweet wines of Bordeaux can only be made with the unique partnership of botrytis. This fungus generally forms on grapes in the fall when cool, humid mornings are followed up by warm, dry afternoons, and the grapes are allowed extended time on the vine to over ripen. Botrytis changes the grape's innate composition by decreasing acidity levels and increasing the grape's sugar levels, resulting in shriveled, concentrated, raisin-like clusters. The secret to sweet Bordeaux wines is careful picking.

Since botrytis does not develop at even rates in a vineyard the harvest for sweet Bordeaux can take several months to complete. Hand-harvesters comb through the vines looking for well-shriveled grapes while tossing damaged fruit. These pickers may make up to ten passes through the same vineyard, hand selecting only the botrytized fruit, cluster by cluster, or at times grape by grape, before the harvest is finally finished. It's interesting to note that a typical grapevine produces about a bottle of wine, while an average botrytis-infected vine will only yield a single glass of wine. With lower yields, considerably more time invested in the harvest, and a crop that is in the "high risk" category from weather wipeouts, it is understandable that consumers may be asked to pay a bit more for the better sweet wines of Bordeaux.

Grapes Grown for Sauternes and Sweet White Bordeaux Wines

The only grapes that may be grown in Bordeaux's sweet wine regions are Sémillon (80 percent), Sauvignon Blanc (15 percent) and Muscadelle (5 percent). Sémillon, which is particularly susceptible to botrytis, is the primary grape variety for sweet white wines in Bordeaux, lending deep golden color, an overall elegance and the concentrated, unctuous quality that gives the wine its heavier texture and high viscosity. Sauvignon Blanc contributes freshness and vibrant acidity along with rich aromatics. However, the Muscadelle takes the aromatics to a whole new level, bringing powerful, floral aromas to the blend.

Just How Sweet is Sweet Bordeaux Wine?

When it comes to sweet wines, it's the quantity of residual sugar in a wine that determines just how sweet the wine will be. Residual sugar is basically the sugar from the grapes that have been left unconverted to alcohol in the final wine. In Bordeaux, there are two categories of sweet: vins moelleux ("mellow," a semi-sweet wine) and vins liquoreux, (the sweetest wines, with considerably more residual sugar). The semi-sweet moelleux wines enjoy lighter color components than the liquoreux and are characterized by more fruit and a smooth palate texture. The liquoreux wines bring more depth of color and greater intensity to the fruit, often with candied fruit components and rich honey and nut nuances. The younger wines will typically show more "fresh factor" and the older wines tend to showcase a more subdued nose, yet richer palate expressions.

Food Pairing with Sauternes and Sweet Bordeaux Wine

The sweeter style of Bordeaux's white wines enjoy a surprising breadth of food-pairing versatility, thanks to the consistent balance of acidity. From accompanying savory or spicy fare to the classic Sauternes pairing of foie gras or Roquefort cheese, or on to an ensemble of desserts, Bordeaux's sweet wines promise to be worthy pairing partners in the midst of tricky fare, from apéritif to dessert and many things in between.

The younger sweet wines offer a fresher approach and are a natural match for the likes of scallops, salmon, poultry and even eggplant and artichoke. While the older (in the 5 to the 10-year range) sweet wines present flavors that center around honey, apricot, spice, and almonds. With more age on the wine, the perception of sweetness decreases as the aromatic expressions become more subtle. These older vintages tend to match up better with fruit-based fare, almond cake, crème brûlée, and the like.

Top Tips for Serving Sauternes and Sweet Bordeaux Wines

The right serving temperature is critical for maximum enjoyment of Bordeaux's sweet wine selections. Shoot for a chilled temp of 45 to 50 F to best showcase the wine's aromas and palate profile. Decanting the older vintages is especially important for releasing the wine's aromas. As an added treat, these sweeter wines will keep well for up to two weeks in the refrigerator.

Who's Who in Sauternes and Beyond

Chateau d'Yquem reigns as the cream of the Sauternes crop and holds the title as the only classified first growth, Premier Cru Supérieur, from Bordeaux's sweet wine estates. You'll have to part with hundreds of dollars for this one or you can taste it by the ounce at Bordeaux's Max Bordeaux tasting bar in the heart of Bordeaux's city center. Chateau d'Yquem also has a second label, Chateau de Fargues, that sells for a third of the cost. Down the dollar scale, you'll find good quality Sauternes from Chateau Rieussec, Chateau Guiraud, Chateau Lafaurie-Peyraguey, Chateau Clos Haut Peyraguey and solid value from Chateau Roumieu Lacoste and Chateau d' Arche.

Bordeaux's sweet white wine offerings promise to expand both the palate and paradigm of those who chose to drink outside of the basic Bordeaux box. With a full range of prices, from classified growths to local favorites, these white wine gems are affordable, accessible, and extraordinarily versatile.

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary travel for the purpose of reviewing the region. While it has not influenced this review, believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our ethics policy.