Sauternes, the sweet wine of Bordeaux, is one of the oldest and most widely recognised wines in the world. The unique microclimate in which semillon and sauvignon blanc grapes grow is perfectly suited to promoting the development, in autumn, of noble rot – the grapes literally begin to rot on the vine – which in turn imbues the wines with beautifully complex flavours of peach, marmalade, caramel and honey.
So, what’s the problem? Well, there are two major stumbling blocks for producers in Sauternes and its sub-region Barsac. Firstly, dessert wines have rather fallen out of fashion. Fewer people regularly drink them, and those who do can choose from a huge diversity of delicious sweet wines from all corners of the globe, many substantially cheaper.
The other major problem is that it is incredibly expensive to make top-quality Sauternes. In order for the grapes to be picked at optimum ripeness and with just the right level of noble rot, it is necessary for pickers to carry out several sweeps (tries) through the vineyard to select the best bunches. Picking and sorting Sauternes grapes is a highly skilled (and very sticky) job. Each bunch has to be assessed individually to ensure that only grapes with noble rot (as opposed to the grey or black variety) find their way into the winery. Even small amounts of grapes affected by the wrong kind of rot can ruin an entire batch. The average yield for a Sauternes château is approximately a quarter of that of most red Bordeaux, yet producers cannot hope to charge four times the price for their wines, and so margins are tiny. Many growers are, sadly, having to sell up, especially as the region has been particularly badly affected by climate change in recent years. Château Climens, the top property in Barsac, has had two ‘write-off’ vintages in the past five years due to frost and/or hail, and Bérénice Lurton has recently been forced to sell her beloved property. Some estates are using a proportion of their vineyards to make dry wines to help with cash flow, but sadly many châteaux are up for sale.
The Wine Society and its members are major supporters of the Sauternes region and its wines, and we are one of the biggest importers of Sauternes and Barsac in the UK. We will be offering a broad range of Sauternes and Barsac, including some older vintages, in the run up to Christmas. I do hope that members will continue to support this beleaguered region in the hope that its fortunes will improve. I find it inconceivable to imagine a world without Sauternes!