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Wine

A Wine Critic Defends Sauternes, Bordeaux’s Sweet, Unloved Stepchild

As winemakers try more and more poorly conceived stunts to popularize the sweet white, Elin McCoy takes a stand

Pity poor Sauternes. The Bordeaux region’s unfashionable sweet white wines are always trying something new and controversial to appear cool and with-it to attract drinkers.

The latest attempt is the just-launched SO Sauternes (€18), a new, lighter style of the luscious white intended for mixing with Perrier over ice as an aperitif cocktail. If it’s a success at bars in France, it will come to the U.S. and U.K. 

What a waste: The combo is light and vaguely refreshing, but the golden-hued, opulent wines from Sauternes and neighboring Barsac are better than ever, even sublime. And they’re one of the wine world’s great bargains. Deeply fruity and sweetly tart when young, they age brilliantly. Older vintages taste like liquid crème brulee. 

So why are they neglected? 

Sadly, too many wine lovers have bought into the prevailing idea that only dry whites and reds are serious. (The same people, by the way, don’t hesitate to knock back expensive sugary cocktails.) 

But after a taste of Sauternes, those who start out saying,  "I don’t like sweet wine," usually recant big time. I’m used to seeing guests at my table reluctantly sip a glass of Sauternes, then later ask for seconds. 

Chateau Suiduirat in Bordeax.
Chateau Suiduirat in Bordeax.
Source: Chateau Suiduirat via Bloomberg Business

Still, converts—and even those who have long loved, like me—rarely buy these wines. I think that’s partly because people don’t know when to drink them. Sauternes has long been pigeon-holed as a dessert wine, and by the end of a rich dinner an awful lot of people are wined out, ready to move on to a double espresso. 

I suggest instead serving them ice cold in tiny glasses. I learned this trick at Château Mouton Rothschild, where the late Baron Philippe de Rothschild liked to pour half-frozen legendary Château d’Yquem. It oozed out like some thick, rich nectar, a dessert in itself. 

In Bordeaux, the traditional way to serve these sweet wines is at the beginning of dinner, with foie gras, not a dish you see on the menus of today’s hippest restaurants.  

Since Restaurant Daniel has dozens of vintages of classic Sauternes on its list, I e-mailed head sommelier Raj Vaidya to find out how often he serves them. To my surprise, he replied, “Easily 20 glasses a night, mostly with foie gras. Right now I’m pouring 1988 Château Suduiraut.”  ($60-80 a bottle retail.) He says only an older vintage will do.  

The 1998 Sauterne from Chateau Coutet.

The 1998 Sauterne from Chateau Coutet.

Source Chateau Coutet via Bloomberg Business

But back to the châteaux: Desperate winemakers have also started a movement of championing Sauternes as the ideal match for exotic spicy cuisines. I tried this theory at New York’s Indian-Latin fusion restaurant Vermilion, where I discovered that a 1998 Château Coutet ($50 a half-bottle) is perfect with succulent lobster, sweet coconut rice, and hot tomatillo chutney. Still, how do you message that to the masses?

I've also witnessed a few châteaux, hoping to win over sweet-toothed millennials, putting their wines in 100-ml, test-tube-shaped glass tubes. You'll see them chilling in big bowls of ice in Bordeaux nightclubs, looking like weird elixirs to swig for rejuvenation half way through a long night of boozing. (That will not work, I can assure you.)

Even more estates have shifted a growing part of their production to tangy dry versions of their sweet wine, often named with a letter, as in S de Suduiraut, Guiraud G, R de Rieussec, and the brilliant, complex Y from Château d’Yquem.  The sweet ones are better. 

But despite all these efforts, the future is not looking bright for Sauternes; in the past two weeks, a number of estates have released prices for their 2014 futures—and so far they’ve landed with a thud. That's despite the fact that the wines are excellent, rich and lively, and some of the best of the vintage. Chris Adams, who is chief executive of New York’s Sherry-Lehmann, says he doesn’t plan to offer any because there’s no demand. 

You might consider bargains Doisy Vedrines ($18 a half bottle) and Coutet ($20 a half bottle), but many merchants, such as London’s Bordeaux Index, have a backlog of older vintages at very similar prices, making them a better buy for drinking. The last 10 vintages of Coutet now sell for an average 22 percent below their initial futures prices, according to Liv-Ex. 

Nicholas Jackson, who runs Sotheby’s retail shop in New York, is hopeful tastes are changing. “I see two trends,” he says. “People are buying more half bottles, which is an inexpensive way to try the wines. And I’m seeing people buying and enjoying younger vintages, like the 2010 and 2011 that have crystalline purity and freshness.” 

What to pick? Half bottles are the most useful. In older vintages, look for 2001, 2005, and 2009. My short list of always reliable names includes well-priced Châteaux Coutet, Doisy-Vedrines, Guiraud, and Raymond-Lafon, and more expensive Rieussec and Suduiraut. 

 

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