There are those that eschew anything sweet, be it from a health viewpoint or merely due to taste preferences, but for those who really appreciate a drop of delicious, honeyed, sweet white there is no better place to try it than the Sauternes area of south-west France, part of the overall Bordeaux wine region.
Situated 35 miles south of Bordeaux near the town of Langon, the tiny village of Sauternes gives its name to some of the best vineyards for sweet white wine in the world. The harvest this year is just coming to an end this week and took place in ideal conditions, with warm sunshine in the afternoons and cool, misty mornings. Grape picking in Sauternes takes place over several weeks, as only the grapes which have been affected by the famous ‘noble rot’ are selected and this happens progressively rather than all at once.
Many of the chateaux producing these wines offer tastings at their premises and a visit to the area is rewarding both in terms of scenic vineyards and countryside, and discovery of the fabulous, sweet wines. But for an authentic immersion into the village life of Sauternes, head for the Auberge les Vignes, located in the heart of the village, opposite the church and more importantly the Office de Degustation – the Tasting Office! Which gives a new meaning to ‘I’m just going to the office’ or ‘I maybe late back from the office’!
The family run Auberge les Vignes is always full, either inside by the open fire where steaks are grilled on vine prunings, or on the sunny terrace in good weather. It is a lunchtime venue for chateau owners and vineyard workers alike, with a delicious daily lunch menu at around 16 euros and many wines offered at five euros a glass. The Auberge is also an important meeting place for wine buyers and merchants, doing business in a convivial atmosphere surrounded by the wine producers whose wines they aim to trade.
The extensive wine list is a pure dream for Sauternes lovers, including well over 60 different Sauternes, with vintages ranging from a sprightly 2015 to a venerable 1970 – over 50 years old and still going strong. Prices range from 42 euros a bottle for Raymond Louis de Rabaud Promis 2015, to an eye-watering 1,560 euros for Chateau d’Yquem 1975. Additionally, there is always at least one top wine by the glass at a very reasonable six euros.
Contrary to popular opinion, Sauternes is not just for the dessert
or to go with the speciality duck or goose paté of the area – although the Auberge does produce one of the best I have eaten. It can be drunk throughout a meal and for the ultimate experience, order the Tout Sauternes menu at an amazingly good €48. Start with roast langoustines accompanied by a glass of Castelnau de Suduiraut 2011 (second wine of a 1er grand cru classé chateau), followed by roast pigeon with prunes and a glass of Chateau Guiraud 2009 1er Grand cru Classé. Finish with a pear and chestnut dessert and a glass of fruity Clos Lecomte 2018.
Make notes ready for travel next year and visit Bordeaux and Sauternes for a taste of the sweeter things in life.
Richard Esling is a wine consultant, agent, writer and educator. He runs agency and consultancy WineWyse, is founder and principal of Sussex Wine Academy and is chairman of Arundel Wine Society