Sauternes – the bargain wine from Bordeaux

I was never the most shy or retiring of youths, but when visiting Sauternes (Bordeaux’s sweet wine enclave) at the age of 12 I was stunned into an approximation of silence by the heady, nectarous delights I felt deeply fortunate to be tasting. This was my first visit to a quality wine region and it utterly convinced me that the rest of my life would be a continuing quest for transcendent wine experiences.

For those who don’t know, Sauternes is made from a blend of grapes: Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc (some wines also have Muscadelle in the melange but the least said about that the better). These grapes are left on the vine until they are attacked by the fungus Botrytis cinerea, also known by the jocular epithet Botryotinia fuckelana, which removes water from the grapes and so concentrates their sweetness.

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When the fungus has done its duty the bunches are a mass of shrivelled grape remnants (see picture) which may look distinctly disagreeable but they have the all-important character of being extremely rich in sugar. These ultra-sweet bunches are harvested and vinified into decadent, ambrosial sweet wines that can be impressively complex and age forever.

I am sure you are ahead of me at this point: letting your grapes rot on the vine is a risky business. As a consequence, yields are generally low and so you would expect them to match their red neighbours in terms of avarice-driven pricing. Much to my surprise I found when researching some wines that this is not the case; it is quite easy to obtain top-drawer producers and good vintages without becoming excessively vacuous of wallet.

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I started off at The Wine Society and was quite taken with their well-chosen range. I was particularly gruntled to see they had some La Tour Blanche 2003 for a rather reasonable £37 per bottle. La Tour Blanche was one of the estates I visited a long time ago so I’ll admit to having a bit of a soft spot for them. The 2003 is a bonkers roller-coaster ride of intoxicating excess and yet it has balance and definite complexity. It’ll keep a while longer yet but I’d wager you’ll be sugared up nicely when you pop your bottles.

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Slightly more elegant, if retaining some heroic traits, is the 2003 Chateau Lafaurie-Peyraguey. I really enjoyed my last bottle of this wine, it seemed very much that after drifting for a while they have become re-focussed on the all important quest for pleasure. At £39 a bottle I couldn’t resist scoring myself a crafty one.

Chateau Suduiraut 2001 and Chateau Climens 2003 are beyond top drawer in terms of quality, more like hidden behind the counter in a shop with blacked-out windows. Properly grand wines that would only enhance any collection.

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Half bottles can be a useful size when dealing with intensely sweet wines. Lea and Sandeman have a couple of goodies. The 2007 Chateau Doisy Daene comes from Barsac, a sub-region of the greater Sauternes area which is renowned for making more elegant wines. I rather enjoyed the sleek, smooth texture of this wine when I last tasted it. It will only set you back £20.25 a half which I think most reasonable.

I can feel my credit card trying to hide somewhere as I think of my next recommendation, halves of 2003 Chateau Suduiraut. This wine has definite power, but is totally harmonious and deeply complex. It is a Paul Smith signature striped shirt, strident and bombastic yet totally stylish and effortlessly classy. A steal at £27 a half.

There are plenty more give-away deals on these under-appreciated wines that have so much to give in terms of drinkability when young and solid cellaring potential. These are the only Bordeaux wines that should be making your credit card smoke.

One last thing. Even though Sauternes are thought of as dessert wines it’d be a criminal waste to pop one to have with your apple crumble and custard. You drink the Sauternes as dessert or as a pre-dessert sharpener. Fine wines should be treated with respect, that is how to extract the most pleasure from them.