A version of this article first appeared in France magazine, August 2010.
Sauternes is the obvious starting point for dessert wines, but it is not the only ‘sweet’ appellation in Bordeaux. Barsac is right next to Sauternes, and can be labelled Sauternes even though it is often a little less weighty and more floral than its neighbour. Alternatives in the region include Cadillac, Sainte-Croix-du-Mont and Premières Côtes de Bordeaux. And from the neighbouring Bergerac region Monbazillac can offer particularly good value, especially in good vintages.
The thing that unites all these appellations are the grape varieties: semillon, sauvignon blanc, and sometimes a little muscadelle. Sauvignon blanc provides a strong acid backbone to balance the residual sweetness in the wine. Semillon and muscadelle have thin skins and are therefore susceptible to the wondrous and desired, but rather unsightly, process of botrytis ‘infection’, so when blended together, the rich flavours and sweetness are held in frame by plenty of ripe acidity.
Botrytis, or noble rot, is a feature of the end of the ripening season. As the weather cools down in October, and sometimes into November, low-lying river mists creep up their banks and into adjoining vineyards, bringing the botrytis mould with them, which settles on the skins of the grape berries. Emerging late morning sunshine dries off the berries, preventing the botrytis mould from becoming unpleasant, and to survive, the mould effectively sucks out water from the berries. This results in complex chemical changes within the grape which makes the juice more viscous and unctuous.
Botrytis wines are identified by their characteristic dusty, honeysuckle and fresh mushroom tones on the nose and a lush, concentrated, complex, viscous palate which can include more or less barley sugar, tangerine and marmalade flavours.
This is quite a high-risk type of wine to make, and labour intensive with several passes in the vineyard to collect fruit, either individual berries or part bunches, as they become shrivelled by the mould. But if the sun doesn’t emerge to dry off the berries, the mould may just rot the berries, and having no wine to make is also rather expensive!
Bordeaux is not the only region where these river mists seep over adjoining vineyards. In the Loire Valley, where the firmly acidic chenin blanc is king, vineyards around the river Layon create lush and concentrated sweet wines in such appellations as Bonnezeaux and Coteaux du Layon. Similarly in Alsace the sweet sélection de grains nobles are botrytis-influenced, and the vendange tardive (made from any of gewürztraminer, pinot gris, riesling or muscat) may also be.
But botrytis is not the only way to achieve sweetness in wine. Leaving selected fruit on the vine late into the season can also concentrate the sugars, but without any botrytis. In places such as Jurançon, they take this late season concentration to another level by the technique of passerillage, where the wood of the vine is cut close to the bunch to prevent any late season moisture being added to the berries from the vine itself. In Australia this is called ‘cut cane’.
Another factor to take into consideration is the use of oak in the winemaking. Whilst ‘entry level’ Sauternes is likely to be made in inert, possibly concrete or stainless steel containers, ‘posh’ Sauternes will be fermented and matured in new oak, or part new oak. This will add toastiness, creaminess and a nutty complexity to the fruit and botrytis flavours.
In the south of France, in Languedoc and Roussillon, and in the Rhône, there is a long tradition of making fortified sweet wines, both red, from grenache, and white, from muscat. Collectively these are called vins doux naturels. Ripe, healthy grapes are harvested, fermented a little, and then the fermentation is stopped abruptly by the addition of extremely high strength neutral grape spirit, so the finished wine ends up at around 15% alcohol (still lighter than some new world shirazes and zinfandels!). The sweetness comes from the unfermented sugars. The use of neutral spirit helps to preserve the fresh fruit characters of the grapes. After the fermentation, the maturation can either follow a course that preserves the fresh, juicy, primary fruit notes, or follow one that allows oxygen to develop complex nutty, figgy, mocha and toffee notes. This latter is called ‘rancio’.
Understanding which grape varieties are used, as well as how the wine is made, whether with or without botrytis, with or without new oak influence, with or without neutral grape spirit fortification, with ‘fruit-focused’ or ‘rancio’ maturation, is important to finding style preferences. Above all, though, the level of acidity must be sufficient to carry the sweetness and concentration. A sweet wine should leave no cloying sensation on the palate.
Château de Fesles, Bonnezeaux 2005, Loire
£29.00 per 50cl The Wine Society
From one of the top sweet wine appellations of the Loire, by definition made entirely of chenin blanc grapes. It took seven successive picking passes in the vineyard to bring in all the botrytised fruit. This is rich, honeyed, with a waft of aromatic wood smoke on the nose. It has a densely sweet palate attack of allspice, cloves, ginger, marmalade and juicy-ripe baked pineapples and crystallised quince. Rich and unctuous mouth-filling palate, sweet, serious and sophisticated. It leaves the mouth aromatically spicy and tingling with balanced acid freshness.
Domaine Pouderoux, Maury 2007, Vin Doux Naturel, Roussillon
£17.49 / 75cl Quaff Fine Wine Merchants
Sweet red wines are not so common, port being the obvious example. This delicious one comes from the sun-soaked Roussillon, and is made entirely from grenache. The bright, purple-cherry colour is immediately appealing, followed by allspice, plum, black cherry and blackcurrant aromas. It’s lush, dense and sweetly spiced with rich primary, fresh berry fruit compote flavours, mouth-filling, sweet and slippery-textured, and concentrated.
Château Montdoyen, Monbazillac 2005, Bergerac
£16.70 Great Western Wine
This is a pretty classic ‘Bordeaux’ sweet blend of 80% semillon, 10% sauvignon blanc and 10% muscadelle, from the adjoining region of Bergerac. It was fermented and matured in cask for 22 months, so has had expensive winemaking lavished on it, and to good effect. The bouquet is aromatically spicy, with cinnamon-infused pineapple and tangerine fruits. It is fresh and warming on the palate, with rich sweetness enveloping the tongue with creamy texture and nicely rounded supporting acidity to balance the piquant, creamy, lemon-curd complexity. It’s not over-complex which is part of its appeal.
Le Clos Lapeyre, La Magendia de Lapeyre, Jurancon 2006, South West France
£23.99 / bt ; £12.99 / half. Caves de Pyrene
This wine is late harvested, with passerillage, in four picking sessions in the vineyard, where drying of the petit manseng grapes is helped by warm southern winds. The aroma is creamy, honeyed, aromatic and peachy. Fresh peach, apricot, even mango combine on the palate with delicious freshness from the acid spine. The flavours grow in the mouth, with orange blossom, honeysuckle, and the sweetness defined by palate cleansing freshness. Hints of oak loiter in the background, offering an added note of support and complexity. Complex and long.
Les Vignerons de la Méditerranée Narbonne, Muscat de St Jean de Minervois, NV, Vin Doux Naturel, Languedoc
£4.48 per 37.5 cl. Sainsbury’s
This is fresh, light, grapey, honeyed and fully sweet in its classically simple style. It’s typically light, even though it has 15% alcohol. This style is designed to be straightforward and grapey, with smooth texture and succulent tastiness, with plenty of flavour impact for not so much money. It has a bit of piquant alcohol warmth at the finish in a good, clean, true, fruit-focused muscat vin doux naturel.