I recently posted an article about our enjoyable wine tasting journey with Sauternes wines. These delightful French wines— honey gold, sweetness of pineapple and apricot, full-bodied and glamorous on the tongue — paired deliciously with everything from artichokes to hummus, and desserts in between. I just knew that there was more to this beautiful elixir than meets the eye, and with a little further sleuthing, found these remarkable notes.
What Is Sauternes?
What do a Dutch taste for sweetness and fungus have in common? More than you might think. Enjoy this tribute to the French Sauternes and learn about its unique history and composition – and its possible ties to the Dutch.
Sauternes is a distinctively sweet wine from the Bordeaux region of France, more specifically from the Graves section in Bordeaux. It is comprised of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grapes, but with a twist. You see, due to the climatic influences on the Graves section, grapes in this area are often infected with “Noble Rot,” which gives these grapes their unique sweet flavor.
Noble rot is a fungus, Botrytis cinerea, which has a raisining and sweetening effect on the plants it infects the most, namely wine grapes. (It also infects other berry fruits, like strawberries.) The result is a wine of concentrated flavors, usually sweet. However, sometimes the results are dicey, and as it costs a lot to produce Sauternes (likely partially due to choosing the best of the “rotted” grapes!), these wines tend to be costly.
Botrytis cinerea gets its name from Greek and Latin— Greek for “grapes,” and Latin for “cinder,” or ashes. The gray ashy mold powder on the clusters is aptly named, and results from wet and humid conditions followed by waves of warmth, or heat. This results in perfectly affected grapes that are not totally damaged to the point of falling off the vines.
The Dutch Influence
So, what do the Dutch have to do with a sweet French wine? Dutch traders were active in the area around Bordeaux, and sought to fulfill their Scandinavian customers’ preference for sweet white wines. The British at this point were fonder of red clarets, and the Germans (although experienced and adept at wine making), were beginning to turn their tastes to beer. The Dutch added syrups and fruits to their white wines to increase sweetness, and focused on Bordeaux for their white wine source.
Although it is not proven that they used wines hit with noble rot, it is very likely, since that area was prone to the disease and actually caused the taste they were after. And, with possible attention to marketing, it is likely that the Dutch traders didn’t promote the fact that this expensive French wine was actually rot-infested. Oo-lá-lá!
So there you have it! A unique act of Nature, coupled with people’s regional preference for a particular taste, and one makes lemonade from lemons . . . or Sauternes from nobly rotted grapes! Bon appétit!