Peaches, Foie Gras, Roquefort Cheese and Sauternes

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | sept. 2017

One of my favorite pairings during the summer is sliced peaches and a glass of chilled Sauternes. Yet this unusual wine also has an affinity to fattened duck livers (foie gras) and salty, funky Roquefort cheese as well. The story of this wine and how it is made is even more unusual than the odd food that it goes so well with.

Sauternes wine is produced in the extreme southern edge of Bordeaux about twenty miles southeast of the city of Bordeaux. Red wine production dwindles southward along the Garonne River and the production of white wine increases until the river Ciron where the Barsac and Sauternes appellations begin. There is a total of 2,300 hectares or about 5,600 acres in the two regions and the confluence of the cold waters of the Ciron and warmer waters of the Garonne produce autumnal mists that create the conditions necessary to produce Sauterne. The phenomenon of sauternes has only been around for 250 years. It was the Dutch traders, part of the Dutch East India Company, which originally expressed interest in the white wines of the region because they were sweet. The Dutch East India Company was the 15th century version of our current Amazon.com behemoth. Known as the VOC (Vereenidge Oostindische Compagnie) in the Netherlands, the VOC traded gold and silver for spices like black pepper, ginger, cloves, nutmeg and cardamom from Asia. The spices were then sold and traded within Europe. The Dutch were trading in the Bordeaux region for wine and greatly influenced the winemaking methodology of the sauternais winemakers. The interest in sweeter wines, like most fads, drove the direction of wine making in this region to the point of gilding the lily. Initially the way to get sweeter wines was to harvest later, this led to later and later pickings. The Dutch also introduced techniques that they developed with the Germans in the 17th century to make the ultra-sweet Auslese wines. One of the methods was a process of halting the fermentation before the grape sugars were converted to alcohol by using a brimstone candle. The candle was dipped in sulfur and lit inside the barrels that were used for fermentation. Sulfur is an anti-microbial agent that stunned the yeast during fermentation leaving more grape sugar in the wine.

The other method that developed over time was the practice of picking grapes that were infected with a fungus called Botrytis cinerea. The three primary grapes of Sauternes are Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle. In certain years, when the temperature and humidity were the same for extended periods, fogs and mists develop in the region that produce the conditions necessary for the fungus to infect the grapes. The start of this process isn't known and experts have posited that the winemakers were concerned about the unappealing thought of drinking wine made from fungus-infected grapes, thus keeping it secret. By the 18th century, the practice of using Botrytis affected grapes was well known in Germany and the Tokay area of Hungary, which forced the sauternais vintners to admit their secret. They also created a euphemism for the fungus calling it “noble rot"; by the end of the 18th century the unspoken secret was well known. Thomas Jefferson was an avid collector of Chateau d'Yquem while George Washington had ordered as many as 30 dozen bottles.

Chateau d'Yquem is the most prestigious wine of Sauterne while Climens is the best from Barsac. The process of picking the grapes affected by the noble rot is an elaborate one that justifies the high price commanded for these wines. In some years the entire grape cluster is infected all at once which makes the picking easy. That has only happened in 1967, 1989 and 2001. In other years like 2012, there was no wine produced because the noble rot did not occur. In years when the rot does occur, most times it doesn't affect whole clusters. In those years the picking is laborious. But before learning about the picking procedure, it is helpful to understand how the noble rot affects the grapes. Under certain autumnal conditions with misty mornings and sunny afternoons, one of the molds common in vineyards reverses its role; instead of ruining the grapes it is entirely beneficial. The fungus begins to feed on the sugar and tartaric acid in each grape, probing with roots so fine that they penetrate the microscopic pores of the grape skin. The grapes rapidly shrivel first turning grey with fungus spores, then violet brown. By this time they have lost more than half their weight, but less than half the sugar. The juice of these grapes is concentrated, extremely sweet and rich in glycerine. With a few exceptions like the previously mentioned years in which the whole cluster is infected, the grapes are harvested individually. At Chateau d'Yquem 140 pickers move through the vineyards at a snail's pace gathering individual grapes one at a time, then going back again and again up to 10 or even 11 times. The final crop amounts to about one glass of wine per vine.

In the winery, the freshly picked rotting grapes are lightly sulphured, put through a gentle wooden fouloir (crusher) and then immediately pressed in old-fashioned vertical presses three times. The pressed cake is cut up with shovels and thrown into a mill to remove stalks between pressings. Several days' work may only account for 40 barrels. But that is not the end of the story. During fermentation and aging the barrels are tasted over and over again to determine the quality level. If quality is not up to the grand vin level, the wine is declassified and sold on the secondary market as generic sauternes. When the wine reaches about 14 percent alcohol, the yeasts gradually stop working leaving about 120 grams of sugar per liter of liquid. These properly made sauternes can age for many years. The 1983 and 1985 vintages of Chateau d'Yquem are still not ready to drink.

But there are other avenues to enjoy this expensive and age worthy wine without paying through the nose or waiting decades for the wine to become drinkable. There are small producers that purchase grapes that may only have as few as five pickings. The two wines I've selected are just that type of wine. The other option is to buy a half bottle (375ml). Both these wines were purchased as half bottles. Once again Ridgeview Liquors in Ashwaubenon is the place to go. The two wines were about $15 a half bottle and well worth the money.

The first wine is the 2007 Chevalier du Pastel by Yvon Mau, a negociant in Saint Emilion. This wine has a luscious viscous mouthfeel with ripe stone fruit flavors (think peaches and apricots). It has hints of Chamomile, butterscotch and orange rind. The sweetness is balanced by good acidity, which will cut through the rich fat of foie gras or blue cheese. Try it with a chunk of Roquefort cheese and some good sourdough bread after dinner. Yum!

The second wine is the 2011 La Fleur Renaissance from the negociant Antoine Moueix. This wine was made with grapes selected with five passes through the vineyard. It is a beautiful golden color that exhibits dry notes of honey and apricots. The flavor starts with floral tastes that carry into a pleasant sweetness. This was my favorite that my wife and I consumed with a bowl of peaches and cream. I would also recommend this wine with a fall apple pie with a buttery crust.

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