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Sauternes Blend

botrytised semillon grapesThe Sauternes blend of grapes comprises Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle and it is these three grape varieties that are used to produce the great sweet, dessert wines of Sauternes and Barsac in the Bordeaux wine-producing region south east of the city itself. Up until the Phylloxera louse devastated French vineyards in the latter half of the 19th. century slightly more Sauvignon Blanc was planted here than Sémillon but in the following period which witnessed large scale replanting it was the Sémillon variety which was more highly favoured and it now constitutes a little over 70% of the total vineyard area used for dessert wine production in these two appellations. The production of Sauternes and Barsac is reliant upon favourable autumn weather conditions to an even greater extent than perhaps any other wine producing area. This is because sweet white wines such as these require the appearance of autumn mists that are created by the interaction of cooler night-time temperatures along with the cooler waters of the River Ciron flowing into the slightly warmer River Garonne. Such conditions are necessary for Botrytis Cinerea, sometimes known as noble rot, to occur which attacks the ripe grapes. If this is followed by daytime breezes and sunny weather burning off the mists then the precise conditions are created for the fungus to shrivel the infected grapes and cause them to dehydrate. This loss of water concentrates the sweet juice which, when fermented, produces delicious sweet wines which are characterised by their richness and sweetness balanced with fresh acidity and power balanced by elegance. If, however, as happens in some years, the mists give way to excessively humid or wet conditions, grey rot forms which taints the grapes and causes the loss of the harvest.

Being an owner or winemaker in this region is fraught with potential difficulties. Apart from the previously mentioned reliance on precise weather conditions in the period leading up to harvest the maximum permitted yields here are a mere 25 hectoliters per hectare although the best chateaux harvest a measly 8 to 10 hectoliters per hectare with the average of the higher rated chateaux being 12 to 15 hectoliters per hectare. Such low yields requires quite drastic pruning in the vineyard during the growing season to concentrate the vines' energy into the production of fewer grapes with a greater concentration of flavours. In less than propitious years the regulations allow for a pair of "get out of jail" cards for winemakers. The first is in allowing for a little chaptalisation - the addition of sugar to the grape must to raise sugar levels. Such a practice may only be used to "top up" sugar levels; the minimum alcohol by volume for these wines is 13% of which at least 12.5% must be derived from naturally occurring grape sugars. The second way in which a bad year may be rescued is by using a process known as cryoextraction whereby the grapes are frozen before crushing. Due to the fact that sugars lower the freezing point the under-ripe grapes can be frozen while the more sugar-rich juice is able to run free to give sweeter, more concentrated wines. Both of these methods are used only as a last resort by the better quality producers.

To produce the best wines several "passes" through the vineyard are needed to pick the shrivelled bunches by hand. Botrytis doesn't infect a particular plot evenly, a whole vineyard even less so, and therefore pickers may have to do this as many as nine or ten times before the harvest is completed. This is an extra expense and consequently only the richest estates, usually making wines that sell for the highest prices, can afford this luxury and less wealthy estates must make do with just one harvest which results in wines that are perhaps less concentrated than they otherwise might be. In this way the hierarchy of estates is reinforced except in cases where more investment is made available to improve the quality of the wine.

Sauternes Grape Varieties

As is the case with dry Bordeaux red and white wines the exact proportion of the grape varieties used to produce Sauternes and Barsac will vary from estate to estate as well as from year to year. Such variation, although partly dependent upon the vintage, also helps to differentiate the wines of one producer from those of another. It is also worth pointing out that barsac is an area contained within that of Sauternes and therefore all Barsac may be called Sauternes but not all Sauternes is Barsac. Due to differences in both geology and meso-climate the wines of Barsac are slightly fresher and less nuanced than those of Sauternes. Unusually for France there is absolute unanimity amongst both producers and wine critics that Château d'Yquem stands head and shoulders above all the other great sweet wines from these two appellations.


Sémillon is a native of, and the most widely planted grape variety in, the Sauternes region accounting for about 80% of vineyard plantings. It is a relatively easy grape to grow and care for in the vineyard and it possesses two qualities that are much-prized in the appellations of Sauternes and Barsac. The first of these is the thin skin which lends itself to becoming infected with noble rot. Secondly it grows in very tight bunches which means that the Botrytis spreads quickly and easily throughout the clusters. Sémillon produces wines with a thick, oily texture that is sometimes referred to as being that of lanolin. It is relatively low in acidity although that which it does have has a lemon quality and this is enhanced by the shrivelling and drying of the grapes. The most noticeable flavour is of apricot and its nose is one of honeysuckle with some wet wool. A few chateaux produce 100% Sémillon wines in the region; Ch. Climens in Barsac is one and Ch. Coutet's Cuv&ecute;e Madame is another sweet wine made exclusively from Sémillon grapes.

Sauvignon Blanc

Up until about 150 years ago Sauvignon Blanc was the most dominant grape variety in Sauternes but post-Phylloxera planting has seen Sémillon take over that mantle. It now constitutes slightly under 20% of vineyard plantings. In the Upper Loire this grape produces wines with a clean, fresh acidity, a quality that is still in evidence even when affected by noble rot. It also gives an aromatic, herbal quality to the blend but these days is seen very much as playing a supporting role in the Sauternes blend.


Muscadelle supplies a scant 1% of grapes in these two appellations. It has two big disadvantages in that it is late to ripen, and ripe grapes are essential for producing naturally sweet wines, and it is also prey to other forms of rot other than the noble variety. Where it is used it contributes a pronounced floral character.


James Cluer, MW, in Sauternes

  1. Château Filhot, 2me Cru Classé Sauternes, 2009

    Château Filhot, 2me Cru Classé Sauternes, 2009

    Château Filhot is a very good quality sweet wine from the Sauternes appellation.

    Colour White Wine
    Grape Variety Muscadelle, Sauternes Blend, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon
    Country France

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  2. Domaine de l'Alliance, Sauternes, 2009 (50cl)

    Domaine de l'Alliance, Sauternes, 2009 (50cl)

    This delicious Sauternes is made by a quality-conscious producer whose wines regularly out-perform others from the appellation with bigger reputations.

    Colour White Wine
    Country France

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