Uncorked: The rare wines of Sauternes
by Pat Kettles
Special to The Star
Mar 13, 2013 | 2894 views |  0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
I live with a lover of foie gras, the fatted liver of a goose that has been force-fed grain. This fatty liver, so cherished by the French, is somewhat of a gastronomical anomaly in the States, appearing only on the menus of gourmet and French restaurants.

When word went out this past week that Chef Alan Martin would be featuring seared foie gras at his restaurant at the Victoria Inn, among goose liver aficionados reservations were made to enjoy this liver repast. The liver lovers were not disappointed, pronouncing Martin’s preparation and presentation exceptional.

When served in France, the accompanying wine is most often a rare sweet wine from the Bordeaux region of Sauternes (soh-turn). This was the wine of choice for the foie gras consumers who absolutely swooned over the pairing. I passed on the liver, but admit to swooning over the wine.

Sauternes is among the world’s costliest wines and also one of the most interesting and delicious. It is made with grapes afflicted by the fungus, Botrytis cinerea, sometimes known as noble rot.

Bordeaux is best known for its red wines produced by the great chateaux classified in 1855, but one white wine producer, Chateau d’ Yquem (dee kem), also received the highest rating of Premier Cru Supérieur, or “First Great Growth,” in the 1855 classification.

Chateau d’ Yquem, along with other classified wines from Sauternes and the neighboring commune of Barsac, comprise a rare winegrowing region devoted solely to the production of sweet wine, but not just any sweet wine.

These wines are viscous and honey-colored with zingy acidity that explodes into the mouth with flavors of apricots and candied almonds. Made from predominately Semillon and sauvignon blanc, these wines are not fortified but have great longevity with alcohol levels similar to standard table wines.

Sauternes is expensive. Grapes are grown in a very limited area in the southern-most region of Bordeaux at the junction of the Ciron and Garrone rivers. These rivers play an important role in creating a climate of lingering morning mists making a welcoming climate for fungus growth. As fungus forms on grapes, it punctures their skins and water begins to evaporate from each grape causing it to shrivel like a golden raisin. Juice left inside the grape becomes very concentrated while maintaining its natural acidity.

Harvest occurs late for these grapes. Growers want to give the friendly fungus time to work its magic. Ideally, fungus would form on grapes in vineyards at the same time, but since it does not, vineyards have to be picked, sometimes one grape at a time, by pickers making multiple passings. Constant vigilance is required. Grapes left to hang are subject to ruin by early frosts or onset of winter.

If growing conditions are not right, some producers will simply forgo a release as was the case when Chateau d’ Yquem announced for the first time in 20 years there would be no 2012 vintage. The level of quality from the harvest was just not there.

Further adding to cost is the labor intensiveness of getting juice out of raisin-like grapes. For other wines, one vine will typically produce three to five bottles. In Sauternes, one vine affected by noble rot produces one glass.

If interested in tasting the crème de la crème of Sauternes, Wine Exchange has a 375 ml of Yquem for $300. A 750 ml bottle of the same vintage goes for $600, but lesser Sauternes, like the locally available ones listed below, provide almost equal enjoyment. Consider a 375 ml bottle of Chateau Haut-Mayne 2009 Sauternes, $23.50 at Tyson Fine Wines and Things in Golden Springs or Chateau Roûmieu Lacoste Barsac for $24.99 at The Wine Cellar on Quintard.

These wines are also lovely with fruit desserts, crème caramel and bleu cheese, or as a stand-alone aperitif or after-dinner drink.

Contact Pat Kettles at pkettles@annistonstar.com.
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Uncorked: The rare wines of Sauternes by Pat Kettles
Special to The Star

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