Don't think of Bordeaux like a red only region. It's also home to Sauternes - one of the most precious sweet wines on this planet. A little natural phenomenon caused by Bordeaux's beloved Garonne and its' tributary Ciron set the ground for a very complex to make, a very expensive to buy and a very beautiful to age wine. And if many countries have learned to replicate the 'Bordeaux-style reds', the Sauternes-style sweets will remain exclusively here as long as the mist does.
So let me introduce you to a winery that managed to become the first organic producer among the 1er Cru Classes of 1855. Let me introduce you to the ones who created the one of a kind Bordeaux white vine nursery to preserve from extinction and propagate 175 Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon varieties. The ones who graft yearly 40 000 vines in their nursery and proud to have 482 varieties of tomatoes around their vines. Where biodiversity already took over the lead and ecosystems of flora and fauna are being created uninterruptedly, on their own. A not only organic but a sustainable Sauternes is being born here in Chateau Guiraud. But for now let's start with learning about the Sauternes appellation and the natural factors that create an environment suitable for producing this liquid gold wine.
The natural phenomenon of Sauternes
No, they don't add sugar in their wines (God forbid!). These world's most precious sweet wines require lots of tough work and investment. It's not a surprise that the number of chateaux in Sauternes is in decline. But let's return to the mystery of their sweetness.
And this magic (you can also call it morning mist) occurs in September.
Locals say that without Ciron there is no Sauternes. And that's just as much truth as that without Garonne there's no Sauternes either. Garonne is one of the two signature rivers of Bordeaux's. Deep, powerful, merges with Dordogne to become the Gironde estuary, and then - the Atlantic ocean. Garonne's temperature fluctuates from 8 °C in winter to sometimes 30 °C in summer.
Meanwhile, Ciron, the giant's tributary, has quite stable temperatures, 12-15 °C all year round. Ciron joins Garonne at Barsac. There's only one unique period a year when the temperature of the two is drastically different, the grapes are at their ripeness, and the afternoons are warm and dry. And this magic (you can also call it morning mist) occurs in September. The gentle hills of Sauternes and Barsac are covered with mist in the morning. Then in the afternoon dry and warm wind powerfully blows off all the humidity from the vineyards. So the berries go through two periods daily - the humid one, when Botrytis cinerea (the Noble rot, the famous fungus) thrives, and dry period - windy afternoons. Half of the day Botrytis does the job and makes grape skin almost disappear, it becomes so porous that in the afternoon the dry and warm wind evaporates most of the water from the grapes. This is how we achieve the spectacular concentration of Sauternes wines - aromas and flavours of Noble rot (mushroom, undergrowth, orange marmalade, apricot, honeysuckle, ginger) and luscious sweetness anywhere between 120 and 220 g/L.
The Sauternes Appellation System
The classification of Bordeaux's precious sweet wines happened during the famous Classification of 1855 that included the best chateaux of Médoc and just one from Graves (Haut-Brion). They were classified in five levels - from Premiers to Cinquemes Cru (1st to 5th Growths). As for the sweet wines, there were two levels - Premiers and Deuxièmes Cru, while Chateau d'Yquem ended up in its' own elevated category, Premier Cru Supérieur, (as it was simply incomparable to the other wines). In total there were 27 chateaux classified - 11 First Growths, 15 Second Growths, and... Chateau d'Yquem.
While Sauternes is the name of the appellation, it's also the name of the village. Among all the wineries in this village, the highest qualified were d'Yquem and Guiraud. But don't let the French appellation system confuse you! Sauternes AOC is an appellation which includes 5 villages:
The last 4 are allowed to bottle their precious sweet wines only under the Sauternes AOC, meanwhile producers in Barsac can choose whether to put the Barsac AOC or Sauternes AOC on the label. Easy-peasy, the French wanted everyone to get it right so they made it very straightforward ;)
How is Sauternes sweet wine made?
When I said making Sauternes is a tough job, I mainly meant vinification.
Let's imagine a typical day at the organic Sauternes producer I visited during harvest.
In the morning you are out with baskets to collect berries - berry by berry, manually, you're not cutting the whole bunch. Noble rot affects berries at a different speed, with different efficiency rate, thus daily two rounds are done and this will last until all berries are picked at perfect maturity.
Every time baskets arrive at the vat room they're immediately pressed. You can't store or delay botrytised berries. After the press, the juice is left to settle down for 12 hours at 6-8 °C - low enough to avoid the start of fermentation. It moves from the press down to the vats by gravity - they're literally underneath the vat room.
Then the first batch of oak barrels gets filled. This is Wine #1. Most likely, in the evening they'll bring in grapes for Wine #2, and so on and so on - until all the berries are harvested, pressed, settled and in barrels.
As you understand, this means that their Sauternes ferments in barrels - they're 30-50% new oak barrels. Selected organic yeast is added to start the fermentation - as I understood, it's quite challenging to rely on native grape yeasts with Sauternes. First of all, there's too much sugar and uncontrolled yeast may give up and stop fermenting at 5-7% abv. This is not what we expect from Sauternes where alcohol should reach the 13% abv.
Second, the production of Sauternes is very expensive due to not just manual, but selective manual harvest. Sometimes there're years when you can't make any Sauternes at all due to unfavourable weather conditions. So there aren't too many producers that are ready to risk their anyway risky noble sweet wine production and trust the native yeast found on grape bloom.
In 4-6 weeks the fermentation must be stopped. SO2 is added once the wine is chilled to stop the activity of yeast. Then the yeast is filtered. If all this, especially the addition of sulphur, is not done the wine will keep fermenting until 15% abv when yeasts will be killed by alcohol (and 15% abv is not what we want from a Sauternes).
Sauternes matures for 2 years in barrels in two separate stages. The first year all wines age separately, not blended. Once the right balance between sweetness, acidity, minerality and the signature chateau style is found wines are blended in tanks and now it's time for another year of maturation in barrels.
Besides that, the wine from each barrel during all this period is returned to the tank every 4 months as the barrels must be washed. Sugary environments are very prone to bacteria growth. And... you guessed it right, this is not what you want for your expensive and so demanding to make Sauternes ;)
So, are you ready to discover the only organic winery in Sauternes that was classified as first growth in 1855? I did a vertical tasting of their 1996 - 2009 and 2016 vintage, my tasting notes in the next article!