Sweet Bordeaux is having a moment that’s as close to immortality as wine gets
Liquid gold, the gold standard, luxury in a glass, wine’s Chanel No. 5, the silence that follows a piece by Mozart in which the listener remains suffused with the music – that’s Sauternes, the sweet white wine from France’s Bordeaux region. Made from sémillon, sauvignon blanc and sometimes muscadelle grapes, it’s having a magnificent moment in Asia.
Hong Kong and China are now the world’s second-biggest market for this sweet Bordeaux elixir, according to Emma Baudry, who represents the Sweet Bordeaux association and travels annually to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo to promote the golden wonder in October and November.
At Hong Kong’s most recent Wine and Dine festival, Baudry and the Sweet Bordeaux delegation sold more than 13,000 glasses over four days to the trade, visitors and amateur oenophiles. “The winemakers worked hard to explain the diversity of AOC [appellation d’origine contrôlée] to the young audience of Hong Kong,” explains Baudry. And so popular it was, she ran out of stock.
Sauternes, and especially at Château d’Yquem, its most esteemed estate, is produced 40km upstream of Bordeaux in a region nestled between the left bank of the Garonne and the immense Landes forest. This noble area of about 2,200 hectares is divided among the villages of Sauternes, Bommes, Fargues, Preignac and Barsac. Although they can all properly claim the famous Sauternes appellation, the producers in Barsac are allowed to choose between the
Sauternes AOC and its sister appellation, Barsac AOC, which controls production in a very similar manner.
Sweet Bordeaux’s silver bullet, irony of ironies, is something called botrytis cinerea, commonly known as noble rot and capable of reducing a potential harvest of 40 hectares to just 18. Sémillon, sauvignon blanc and muscadelle grapes are left on the vine longer than a normal grape, the result of which makes the grapes raisin-like and shrivelled, and covered in a veil of fungus. Sauternes is one of the few regions where contamination happens frequently; in years when it doesn’t, the winemakers desist from producing.
Grapes are often picked one by one and winemakers may take batches for harvest each day as they assess their state of noble rot. Some estates harvest the sauvignon blanc as soon as it’s ripe to retain its aromatic finesse and acidity in order to produce fresh, more vigorous wines, while producers of heady, fuller-bodied Sauternes wait for the maximum amount of noble rot to set in. The natural concentration and selection process afford miniscule yields; a single vine produces just one to three glasses of this extraordinary wine.
Feared everywhere else, rot is providential and makes sweet Bordeaux, in all its iterations, a wine with extravagant complexity and variety; notes of orange, honey, apricot, peach, grapefruit, tangerine, pineapple, lemon, mango, lychee, cooked apple, ginger, vanilla, acacia blossom, walnut, almond, hazelnut, nutmeg, light and dark crème brûlée, and even saffron can all be evident. Really, no other wine bears such profundity in its sultry and seductive versatility.
So why isn’t it more commonly drunk? Sauternes and sweet Bordeaux have endured a curious agony-and-ecstasy of an image problem over the years, as a multitude of preconceptions have built up around the wine’s consumption. Among the most commonly misplaced notions are the following: that it’s only a dessert wine; that it can only be paired with foie gras, blue cheese and fruit desserts; that it’s expensive; that it’s wasteful, meaning not everyone wants to finish a bottle once opened; and that its sweetness has made it the preserve of women rather than the red-blooded male.
Edward Narby, Berry Brothers & Rudd’s Hong Kong-based corporate account manager, has noticed a rising interest in Sauternes in China – “though not to the consumption levels of dry reds and whites,” he says. He identifies several reasons for the change. “The emphasis on food and wine-matching with Sauternes – it goes particularly well with aromatic and spicy dishes, with the sweetness acting as a great complement to spice, which can often overpower red wines.”
Baudry and her cohorts have also paired sweet Bordeaux with seafood and found them to be agreeable to the broader Asian palate. “We have paired sweet Bordeaux with oysters, then lobster and finally a smoked saffron fish,” she says. “Very beautiful chords showed the guests the sweet wine’s pairing abilities thanks to its aromatic complexity, with a variety of textures and tastes.”
Narby also believes the region’s dining culture matches well with the libation: “The tradition of Chinese dining, where lots of dishes are served at once, also works with sweet wine, as it is surprisingly versatile. There’s also a psychological edge to Sauternes – gold is such a positive colour, too.”
But what about the commonly held belief that alpha males don’t touch the sweet stuff? “The notion of Sauternes being a more female-friendly libation is completely unfounded,” he says. “In tastings, I see that everyone enjoys these wines now. Real men drink rosé – they are drinking sweet Bordeaux, too.”
It’s also an elixir with staying power on the practical level. “A sweet white Bordeaux, once opened, thanks to the higher levels of alcohol and acidity, will easily keep in the fridge for up to ten days… if you can resist it!” says Narby. At the more remarkable end of the preservation scale, US wine critic Robert Parker tasted an 1811 Château d’Yquem in 1996 and awarded it a perfect 100 points. The house of Dior even combined with d’Yquem in 2006 to create an anti-ageing cream that utilised sap from its vines.
Nicolas Sanfourche, who oversees 30 hectares of vines at Château Loupiac-Gaudiet, of which three hectares are dedicated to red wine and 27 to sweet white Loupiac, says both yes and no to Sauternes being considered a dessert wine. “It’s a dessert wine because it replaces the dessert at the end of the meal,” he says. “Never mix sweet wine and sugar, and if you really want to pair it with dessert, I prefer fresh fruits.”
And on the point about the gender battle: “Soft drinks are sugared, too, but does that mean they are only for women as well?” he poses, noting that he sees more men in his cellar than women. Sanfourche also has two dancefloors in his cellar, where he invites 500 people and six DJs to while the weekend away. “The average age of the people is 25,” he adds. As of this month, he’s opened a space on the estate for Airbnb for those wanting a taste of the life more ambrosial.
So what are you waiting for? Sweet Bordeaux doesn’t only taste sublime or match with all foods – it’s an anytime, anywhere libation, “People say sweet Bordeaux wine is only for the end of the year, a celebration, but my favourite time to drink it is next to the pool in the summer,” says Sanfourche. From here to eternity, go grab the sweeter life and aspire to iridescent immortality – a life Sauternal?
Images provided to China Daily
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