Sauternes is arguably one of the most fundamentally under-priced wines available today. Time-consuming and expensive to make, it can be picked up for a song if one knows where to look.
It takes passion, skill and manpower to make great botrytised sweet wine. Risk is inherent in the process: producers leave the grapes on the vine past their optimal ripeness for dry wine in the hope of noble rot's intoxicating influence. Frost and hail can strike at any time, decimating the vineyards. If the weather is too dry then the wines end up passerillé, or dried, closer to raisins to create a straw wine. Too much moisture and the dreaded grey rot sweeps through the vineyard, creating unusable grapes that would give a musty, tainted flavour.
Sauternes' ideal position has created its world-class sweet wines. A meeting of the Garonne and Ciron rivers close by creates morning mists that burn off in the afternoon, bringing the perfect humidity in many vintages. Even in these conditions botrytis takes hold in stages, so teams of experienced pickers must go in and pick the fruit bunch by bunch and often berry by berry to find only the appropriate fruit - several tris, or passes, have to be made through the vineyard. Not all the fruit is usable, and the remaining grapes are dehydrated by the gentle piercing of botrytis, so yields can be perilously low - often below 20 hectolitres per hectare and at times below 10.
The tightrope walk continues with the winemaking. Fermentations are slow and can get stuck due to the high level of sugar in the juice, more wine can be lost at this stage if the vigneron is not attentive. When the yeasts are eventually exhausted at between 13-15% abv, the glistening fresh wine then needs extended barrel ageing to soften and mature - this can be over two winters in the best examples. All told, it would be far easier for these producers to make still, dry wines that would likely be much easier to sell. This would be a great loss as the wines are truly a highlight of the wine world, and are shown to be even better value when the time and expense of production is taken into account.
We have an outstanding selection currently available, from the giveaway Carmes de Rieussec to pristine bottles of Yquem back to the 1930s. Between these extremes we have mature vintages of Rieussec and Suduiraut – all under £500 per case and, in many cases, the mature wines are less expensive than the current releases.