As with all marvellous revelations, it came as a surprise and I remember it well. “It” was my first encounter with sweet wine, which arrived in a petite dessert wine glass at the side of a cheese platter, in a posh friend’s house. The Sauternes had a glowing, golden amber hue.
I’m not a food and wine critic, but let me try to explain how my taste buds were thrilled as I nibbled and sipped through the cheese course: the nutty aroma of Comté twirled happily with the wine’s fruity and citrus aroma; the mouth-feel of supple Reblochon rolled around contentedly with the luscious and viscous liquid; the pungent bite of Stilton partied with the sweetness and acidity of the wine. I became an instant fan of sweet wine.
Years later I meet Stephane Rouveyrol, a Director at Château d’Arche (Deuxièmes Cru Classé) of Sauternes, and ask him about other food-sweet wine pairings. The French tradition, he says, is to enjoy Sauternes with cheese (especially hard cheeses like Roquefort) and with foie gras, but today consumers will enjoy it with fresh shellfish, sushi, Parma ham and roast chicken. They also sip it at any time, before, during and after a meal. I personally think Peking Duck and sweet wine make an indulgent and delightful pairing, and enjoy having sweet wine at the end of a meal in lieu of dessert, even if the meal was an Asian one.
In Asia (where I am based), vintages of sweet wine are, unfortunately, not commonly found. For a good selection of these, one still needs to travel to Bordeaux – and preferably to the wine region of Sauternes – in southwestern France. Bordeaux lies over 500 km from Paris and to reach it, there are around 20 daily domestic flights from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Bordeaux–Mérignac Airport. Additionally, since July 2017, the journey by high-speed, non-stop Train Grande Vitesse (TGV) has been shortened from three hours and 15 minutes to just a little over two hours. The TGV also offers 18 return journeys a day. Wonderful!
The village of the appellation of Sauternes, especially known for its high-quality sweet wines, lies 65 km south of Bordeaux city. What is notable about Sauternes is its terroir, which encourages the frequent occurrence of Botrytis cinerea (commonly referred to as Botrytis and also known as Noble Rot), the fungus that is necessary to make outstanding Sauternes. Sauternes village is situated close to both the Garonne and Ciron rivers which, with their different temperatures, create early-morning misty conditions that encourage the presence of Botrytis. It generally develops on grapes during autumn when cool, humid mornings are followed by warm, dry afternoons. Even so, production is hit-or-miss from year to year, and Sauternes can be expensive largely due to the high production costs.
Château d’Arche in Sauternes has a very long heritage, and Stephane tells me more about it. The château was established in 1580 and received its Deuxièmes Cru Classé ranking in the 1855 Bordeaux Classification under Emperor Napoleon III. It has a 50-hectare vineyard on rolling hills next to Sauterne centre with a North-South axis that ensures its grapes receive the maximum amount of sunshine, and today produces 100,000-120,000 bottles of Sauternes annually. The vineyard is planted on layers of soils (70% gravel, 20% clay, 10% silt) and their Sauternes is made with Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscatel grapes. Semillon forms the base with texture and fruity aromas, Sauvignon Blanc brings fresh herbal aromatics and acidity for balance, and a tiny amount of Muscatel adds aromatic complexity.
When Botrytis ‘attacks’ the grapes, they become dark, shrivelled, look rotten and unappetising, but will eventually result in a glorious sweet wine that, according to Dr. Jean-Michel Descamps, the Mayor of Sauternes who I also have the pleasure of meeting: “… is a wine of pleasure”. Botrytis changes the grapes’ composition by decreasing their acidity levels and increasing their sugar levels, giving them a concentrated, distinct flavour. Careful picking is crucial, and it can take weeks to strip a single bunch. The reason is that grapes on a bunch will rot at different speeds and need to be selected and handpicked one at a time, and pickers will thus need to return to the same bunch a number of times, over a number of weeks. Harvesting usually takes place between the end of September and the end of October.
I am itching to make a trip to beautiful Bordeaux, which also has the accolade of being voted Best Region (to live) in France for the fourth consecutive year. In Sauternes, Stephane says that Château d’Arche can offer nine guestrooms but that expansion plans have started, and that in 2020 or 2021 they will be offering a new wing with 45 guestrooms. By then, the château will also have two restaurants and the best spa in the area, all managed by Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas. These plans promise a wonderful vacation base for all visitors to the region.
I have also heard about the running and mountain bike marathons in Bordeaux that are fabulously fun. The most notable one is Le Marathon du Médoc – held each October – during which runners will pass through over 40 of the region’s châteaux and get to enjoy almost 20 wine-stops along the way, that include delicacies such as cheese, oysters and steak! The race’s slogan “Le Marathon Le Plus Long Du Monde” (or “the world’s longest marathon”) can be counted in terms of time or distance. If by time, it’s from the additional time spent at wine-stops, and if by distance, it’s from the additional weaving-in and weaving-out after getting tipsy!
Other similar events – that are also more suited for families – include La Medocaine in Bordeaux’s red wine region in May, and Le Raisin d’Or in Sauternes in November. These mountain bike marathons offer route options typically varying from 12 to 50 km that lead cyclists through delightful scenery, forests and vineyards – with “pit-stops” that likely include live music, dancing, games, party food and, of course, wine! It’s all intended for good family outdoor fun, and no one will mind if you just walk the route and end up last.
I simply can’t wait to fly over for a taste of Bordeaux including the sweet wines of Sauternes!