Alright. This is a three part question that has all to do with Sauternes. Ready?


[Answer(s) based on WSET Level 3 material]

Before we get into the questions, here’s just a little basic information about Sauternes.

The top sweet wine appellations of Bordeaux are all on the banks of the Garrone and its tributary, the Ciron. You can see this on the map above—all sweet wine appellations are marked in yellow. The best of the best comes from, as many of us know, Sauternes. However, let’s give a shout out to Barsac, which lies inside Sauternes. Producers here are allowed to label their sweet wines as either Barsac or Sauternes. So don’t forget those guys and gals.

Now to the questions:

a.) Botrytis can play an important role during the production of this wine (Sauternes). What is botrytis?

Botrytis, also called noble rot, is a fungus that infects healthy grapes. The spores of the fungus puncture tiny holes in the grapes’ flesh, causing the water content of the fruit to evaporate and the sugar content to concentrate.

b.) What are the ideal conditions for noble rot?

For botrytis to occur, the grapes need to be fully ripe. The vineyard needs to be in a location that provides a warm, humid environment during the autumn months. The moisture in the air helps the fungus survive on the grapes. However, it’s also very important that the afternoons are dry to slow down the development of the rot; excessive moisture can turn noble rot into grey rot, an unhealthy rot that will render the grapes unusable for wine production.

Vineyard landscape on smog-Vineyard south west of France, Sauternes, Timelpase

The perfect vineyard conditions are not guaranteed year to year, so in some vintages, producers will need to use passerillage to help concentrate the sugars when noble rot is not present. (Passerillage refers to leaving the wine grapes to dry, or raisin, on the vine before harvest.)

c.) What role does botrytis have in the production of this wine and how does it affect the style, quality and price of these wines?

Grapes affected by noble rot need to be harvested by hand, as the development of the rot is not uniform and grape pickers will have to pass through the vineyard several time to pick the proper grapes at the proper time.

Because of the high sugar content within the grape, during the winemaking process, primary fermentation will stop naturally because the yeast will not be able to convert all the sugar into alcohol. The resulting wines are sweet wine, high in alcohol, that are typically aged in oak vessels, which add notes of toast and vanilla. The botrytis itself will also impart specific flavors into the wine: honey, nut, orange marmalade.

NOTE: Sémillon is the primary grape used, as its thin skin is quite susceptible to noble rot. However, the wines of Sauternes are typically blends that also include Sauvignon Blanc, which adds acidity that balances out with the sweetness, as well as Muscadelle, which adds a floral aroma.

So, to answer the last part of this question, given the specific needs in the vineyard, the need of manual labor during a long harvest process, as well as the use of new oak aging, these wines will command a high price. (So, sorry, no wine to review today.)

How’d I do? Anything you want to add about the production of Sauternes? Have you had any you want to recommend?

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2 Comments on Sauternes Pop Quiz

  1. Nice! Glad you mentioned to not forget Barsac. But also don’t forget the other areas that make sweet wine around there: Loupiac, Cérons, Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, St-Macaire and Cadillac. All the info in your quiz applies. The best part- you can find very nice wine for less in these areas! In Barsac Doisy-Daëne produces an exceptional wine. Hope you get to try it!

    • Hi Lynn,

      Thanks so much for the feedback! Great point about the other areas creating more affordable versions of the beloved Sauternes. I’ll have to seek out the Doisy-Daëne. Do you typically purchase online or does your local shop carry it? Thanks again…cheers!

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