One should not mistake my title. No, the Sauternes appellation for sweet white wines does not lie on some tectonic plate that is about to slide down the Garonne river as if on a surfboard. But, faced with a tricky (ie falling) market for sweet wines of all kinds, and for Sauternes in particular, producers are looking for ways to entice consumers back to these luscious nectars which so often produce the most intense of pleasures that can be found in a wine glass. Or else reinvent themselves in a number of other ways, as we shall see.
Sauternes is perhaps, with Tokaji, the most famous appellation for sweet white wines. Unlike Tokaji however, Sauternes is not allowed to produce dry white wines under the rules of it’s specific appellation. Therefore, as producers gradually increase the proportion of dry wines made from their vineyards in the Sauternes region (and this is just one of the solutions they are adopting to counter the fall in sales of sweet wines), they have to fall back on the basic « Bordeaux » appellation to designate them. This puts them at a commercial disadvantage since there is always a « glass ceiling » syndrom at work with appellations: meaning that, unless one is called Yquem, it is very hard to sell a wine under the Bordeaux appellation for more than, say, 12/15 eros a bottle at tops, however well made it may be.
Photo above shows the difference between some grapes affected by botrytis and others not, on the same bunch
The first intiative has been the efforts of many producers to lighten up the style of their sweet wines. Various approches have been used, alone or in combination. In particular many do not worry so much about having all or most of their grapes affected by botrytis cinerea, this fungus that causes « noble rot » and which concentrates even further the natural sugars in the shrivelled grapes. Picking a bit earlier and perhaps fermenting at lower temperatures have also played a part here in the refining process. The aim at all events is to make wines that appear lighter and fresher on the palate because their acidity levels are higher.
One can add to this a growing proportion of dry white wines beieng made on a number of estates, to which I have already alluded. After all, Sauternes lies within the wider Graves region which is well-known for such wines.
Then there are the various promotional and commercial initiatives whose aims are to make Sauternes better known and more attractive to consumers. These range from châteaux working together to sell their wines to more inconoclastic ideas such as using Sauternes as an ingredient in cocktails as an aperitif drink. The latter may shock some puristic-minded people, but why on earth not try this if it attracts new consumers to the wines?
One of the commercial initiatives that strikes me as being both useful and intelligent was that initiated by David Bolzan, who is the director of Château Lafaurie Peyraguey. It has brought together five classified growths, all within the commune called Bommes which is part of the wider Sauternes appellation. The châteaux are: Sigalas Rabaud, Rayne Vigneau, Lafaurie-Peyraguey, La Tour Blanche and Rabaud-Promis. Their first collective action was to announce their futures prices at the same time. The aim of this is to increase the impact with the negociants who then buy and resell the wines to markets, following this specific practice that is ingrained in Bordeaux for the top châteaux. Then they went on to sell, last year and in a very short space of time, a number of sampler cases that contained 5 bottles, one from each of the above châteaux, thus giving people a chance to try them all without having to buy a case of each. Now they have gone one step further by adding a sixth bottle to the case, this being a wine produced by blending 20% from each of their own productions. Naturally it cannot be named by any or all of the châteaux involved, so it is called 5 étoiles (5 stars) and just carries the Sauternes appellation. I tasted this wine and found it excellent.
Another axis of development for Sauternes which is gathering speed concentrates on the tourist who visits the Bordeaux region. Until recently Sauternes had only one top level hotel within its boundaries. This is Château d’Arche and it just contains 9 very fine rooms. But Arche is extending its hotel offering by converting a former winery to add another 50 rooms. In addition, Lafaurie Payraguey, which was acquired a few years ago by Sylvio Denz, also owner of the Lalique glass company, has just opened a Relais et Château hôtel that incorporates a gastronomic restaurant. Château Guiraud, another fine classified growth has for some time also been active on this front with its restaurant of the neo-bistro type, run by the same team as the Brasserie Bordelaise in that city.
Speaking of tourism and what may attract people to any wine region, it should be noted that Sauternes is a beautiful one, with a generally hilly and varied landscape, well wooded on the hilltops and to the south-east, with the broad Garonne river as a border to the north-east. It is also filled with some very fine architecture as many of the châteaux are really impressive buildings of very varied architectural styles: some dating from the Middle Ages, others from the Renaissance, and others from the 18th century. Most of these have been carefully restored and are well worth a visit.
So it is high time to discover, or re-discover the wines of Sauternes and get to know the region next time you are in Bordeaux.
PS (en français) Il est grand temps de redécouvrir les vins de Sauternes et cette belle région.