​A Paler Shade of Bordeaux

davies wakefield

a paler shade of bordeaux—davies wakefield—march 2020

If you prefer a stick shift in lieu of an automatic, or still read the print editions of newspapers you may be interested in another product that is becoming an anachronism. Sauternes and Barsac are the concentrated, distinctly flavored sweet white wines from the southern end of Bordeaux where the little River Ciron meets the wider Garonne, which flows past Bordeaux into the Atlantic. These wines have an archaic ring to them reminiscent of the British Crown or Holy Roman Empire, when the Bordeaux region was more like one of a king's domains. In fact, all of the wine from Bordeaux was intended for European royalty, until the age of kings ended with the French Revolution and the rise of the United States.

Sauternes was thought to have originated when Dutch traders were looking to replace sweet German Rieslings as beer became Germanys drink of choice. They invested in the planting of the white wine varieties Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon in this southern area of Bordeaux, nearly 30 miles southeast of the city of Bordeaux. This propitious location provided an environment that caused the grapes to rot. In the fall when temperatures fell into the 60's the cool spring waters of the Ciron mixed with the warmer waters of the Garonne mists developed in the evening and burnt off the following morning. Conditions were perfect for the propagation of a mold Botrytis cinerea (called Noble Rot) that formed on the skins of the ripe grapes. This would be a disaster in most vineyards, but here the mold fed off the water in the individual grapes increasing the sugar content. This phenomenon didn't occur regularly because it was predicated by the fickleness of the weather but that didn't stop the Dutch. They were trying to replicate the sweet German Trockenbeerenauslese, which was extremely popular with British royalty. At first these clever Dutchmen used techniques that the Germans had employed such as halting the fermentation with the use of sulfur to maintain the residual sugar levels. They used a “brimstone candle” which consisted of a candle with a wick dipped in sulfur. Sulfur is an anti-microbial agent and stunned the fermentation yeast in its tracks leaving high levels of sugar in the wine.

The exact time that vintners changed over from using sulfur to prematurely stop fermentation to using fully Botrytised grapes has been lost in antiquity because vintners were loathe to disclose that they were using rotten grapes to make wine fearing public backlash. Keeping food production techniques secret was rampant in those days in light of some of the horrors revealed in exposes like Upton Sinclair's “The Jungle.” The process used today consists of multiple pickings of grapes and selecting individual bunches and individual grapes. The grapes are shriveled and grey. A container of strawberries left in the refrigerator too long will illustrate this mold precisely. The resulting must from the pressed shriveled grapes is very high in natural sugar but also high in acidity. The acidity imparts longevity to Sauternes with vintages like the superb 1989 and 1990 vintages still listed as drink or hold for future pleasure. Acidity also leads to some odd or rather bizarre choices for food pairings. One food that fits Sauternes like a glove is duck liver or foie gras. My wife and I shared an appetizer of seared foie gras with caramelized pineapple six years ago at Bartolotta's Lake Park Bistro in Milwaukee with a glass of the 2000 Chateau La Tour Blanche that was so memorable that I can still taste it when I think about that meal.

My first introduction to the taste of Sauternes was on a wintry February day at the Gold Standard Wine Store near the Treasure Island Supermarket on North Clark St. in Chicago when I was 28 years old. Jelal Inje a British educated, grandfatherly Turk talked to me about the pleasures of eating a fresh ripe peach with a glass of Chateau Climens. I took his advice and bought a small bottle (375ml). Later that year my wife and I were at the Amish community in Arthur Illinois and found a farmer who was selling a peach variety called Rio Oso. They were as big as softballs. We bought a sack and ate one that evening with that little bottle of Climens. It was an epiphany that has me thinking about it every August when I see those beautiful Michigan peaches at the Green Bay Farmers Market. Another good match for Sauternes is any confection with apples. Apple pie, cobbler, tart, strudel or gratin, they all pair well with young Sauternes. Another unusual taste match for this wine is blue cheese. The saltiness of a French Roquefort needs the sweetness of Sauternes. I like a good English stilton; Neals Yard if you can find it. The Whole Foods market in Milwaukee carries Neals Yard. Nala's Fromagerie on Lime Kiln Road usually has a good selection of blue cheeses. Once you've tried these combinations, I trust you'll become a fan of this unusual wine that was once the exclusive realm of royalty.

But, like that ancient Greek Heraclitan River, that could never be stepped into precisely the same the second time, Sauternes has felt the need for change as the culture has changed. And they are not alone. The famous German sweet wines like Beerenausleseand Trockenbeerenauslese are being slowly nudged out of the way by the demand for drier wines, hence the rise over the last decade in wines labeled Trocken. Trocken (Dry) in this context means that the wine must has all the sugar consumed by the fermentation. Whereas the Trocken in Trockenbeerenauslese refers to the dried berries used to make the wine.

Sauternes has caught that same coronavirus of change. Demand for their lamentably underappreciated wines has been disproportionally low despite a run of great vintages. The 2001, 2005, 2007, 2009,2011, 2013,2015 and 2016 vintages were all great but are not selling, consequently Chateau d'Yquem has resurrected the Y or Ygrec, what used to be a heavy, alcoholic but dry white wine, in a more refreshing style. Like the copycats on today's social media, Chateau Guiraud and Suduiraut have introduced the G and S respectively. Both wines are dry blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon designed to attract a younger hipper crowd or crew as they are referred to at the moment.

The two wines I selected for this essay were acquired at Binny's wine store in Highland Park Illinois (about as far into Illinois as I want to go these days) They are both Doisy's (pronounced Dwa Zee) one from Barsac the other from Sauternes

The 2013 Doisy Daëne is from Barsac and is 13.5 percent alcohol and $25 (a bargain) for a 375 ml bottle. This vineyard has been producing wine since 1704 and has been in the Dubourdieu family since 1924. All the vines were replanted in the decade between 1950 and 1960. This vintage was a hot one. It was a year in which thousands of older French people died because of the heat. The wine is composed of 90 percent Semillon 9 percent Sauvignon Blanc and 1 percent Muscadelle. The muskiness of the Muscadelle lifts the aroma and made this wine my favorite. The soil, known as “Barsac red sands” is a mix of sand and clay, gives the Barsac wines a fresher taste than Sauternes.

The 2015 Doisy-Védrines is from Sauternes. It is 13.5 percent alcohol. This was also $25. Doisy-Védrines was part of the vast Doisy estate the was comprised of Doisy Daëne and Doisy-Dubroca the property was founded in 1704 and owned by the Védrines family and was sold into the three parcels in 1851. Ironically the property while located in Barsac continues to use the Sauternes appellation on the label. This wine is 80 percent Semillon, 15 percent Sauvignon Blanc and 5 percent Muscadelle. This wine is still young by sauternes standards but tastes wonderful. This vineyard is next door to Chateau Climens my favorite. Both the Doisy's produce dry white wines as well. Both these vineyards practice reduction of greenhouse gases techniques. Doisy-Védrines has purchased a plot that is devoted to raising trees, which serve as CO2 collectors.

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