Sweet Bordeaux is reaching out to a new, less formal, drinker and showing off its multiple expressions. Nick meets the winemakers that can pair the wine with more than just pudding.
‘It’s corked!’ says Monsieur Labergere, director of Château Rayne Vigneau pulling a sour face.
He flips out the contents of his glass and it falls like rain down through the leaves of the tree and onto the ground. ‘Pas de probleme,’ is Au Fil du Ciron climber Vincent Galle’s response as he swings off in search of a fresh bottle.
The recoil of his move makes the suspended platform we’re sitting around pirouette wildly and we hang on tight hoping our harness ropes hold. It’s about a hundred feet straight down and we don’t to end our wine tasting by getting out of our tree the wrong way.
It’s not normal of course to have a wine tasting at the top of an ancient pine, having first climbed hand over hand up a rope to get there, but for Château Rayne Vignaud a sweet wine maker here in south west France, doing things differently is the new sweet Bordeaux way.
The sweet stuff
Ah yes sweet white wine, or as we usually know it ‘dessert wine’. The sommelier’s chance to make some more money off you at the end of the meal, or over your starter if you chose foie gras.
Or maybe it’s the wine you buy for Christmas day and pour at the end of lunch to ensure everyone is fast asleep in their chairs before the Queen comes on?
Well it’s time to think again because sweet wine is getting hip and fresh, but first we need to talk a bit of rot.
Mould is magic
“Folklore suggests that hundreds of years ago a white wine grower failed to harvest before the weather changed and he found his grapes covered in a mould that made the berries lose all their moisture and shrivel up. Not wanting to lose all his money he made wine from the berries anyway and it was a revelation; sweet, complex and delicious.”
Jean Christophe Barbe pours me another glass of his own sweet wine as he talks, we’re sampling different vintages in the shabby-chic kitchen at his vineyard Château Laville in Preignac. He isn’t just a skilled winemaker, he’s a professor at Bordeaux Oenologist University and his speciality is the fungus that forms on the berries, the so-called Noble Rot, or ‘pourriture noble’.
“The scientific name is Botrytis cinerea,” he explains as I relish the remarkable aromas rising from my glass. “The fungus punctures the grape’s skin, so the water in the grape evaporates during dry conditions and that raises the sugar concentration in the remaining juice”.
The downside is of course that it means you get a lot less wine from your vines. “ About one glass per vine,’ he says, as I reluctantly leave an hour later, “which partially explains the high cost of the finished product. But there are other factors too”. I’m eager to learn more.
“The saying around here is that while wines are made in the cellars, sweet Bordeaux is made in the field”, Margaux Mavabiau Valeze of Château Bastor Lamontagne in Preignac tells me as, with the dawn light behind us, we walk to where her grape pickers are already hard at work. “With ordinary reds or whites all the grapes are picked at once, often by machines.Sweet Bordeaux grapes however are always selected and harvested by hand and up to three times, often until December.”
She bends down to show me a typical bunch of grapes and explains that while some are at the right level of rot, some have not rotted enough while others have gone too far and are useless. The pickers must assess each bunch by eye and by smell too. It’s a slow process and requires experienced pickers under the direction of skilled winemakers.
The pickers are usually women, they have more supple wrists Virginie explains, while the men do all the heavy lifting walking back and forth to take the picked grapes to the waiting trailers.
The men and women I speak to are cheerful, enjoying the seasonal work and they come back, they tell me, year after year often travelling hundreds of miles from their homes. But they can’t stop and chat for long, the weather is perfect for harvest today and there are rows and rows to pick yet. Tomorrow rain is forecast.
Don’t save it for dessert
Another kitchen, another ancient house, this time the home of Laure de Lambert des Granges-Compeyrot, châtelaine of Chateau Sigalas Rambaud in Bommes. Here chef Olivier Straehli of Le Maison de 5 Sens in Bordeaux will create dishes to match her very high standard wines.
Far from being heavy and overly sweet the new breed of Sweet Bordeaux from winemakers who, like Laure are increasingly women, offer all kinds of expressions. The younger wines are a lighter golden colour, vivacious, clean and fruity, especially when served chilled. They haven’t yet the full honeyed complexity of age but they bring a lot to the plate and the palate.
This is amply demonstrated over the course of seven courses and seven wines.
Flavours are complimented, enhanced and balanced, from a dish of Shepherds Pie in a pumpkin with coconut milk, to one of cress risotto with parmesan, and another of Soba noodles with cream of kaffir lime and roasted sesame.
You’d not normally think to pair these dishes with these wines, but they work wonderfully. Spice loves sweet.
I left lunch feeling more informed, excited and just a little bit full.
The choice is yours
There are in fact eleven sweet wines produced in the region, the most well known being Sauternes. Each uses varying proportions of the primary grapes, Sémillon being the leader followed by Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle.
The differing soils, microclimates and elevations provide a wonderfully wide variation of wine styles across the area and even within individual chateaux. The unifying factor is the early morning autumn fogs created by the Garonne and Ciron rivers, the fog brings the damp that creates the noble rot.
And for those looking for nobility there is of course Chateau d'Yquem. My pilgrimage along the sweet wine route had to end where some of the most expensive wines in the world are produced. The chateau dominates the landscape as it has done since around 1477 and you’re aware of the wealth and power of the brand at every turn, from the modernistic staircase down to the cellars, to the clean minimal lines of the tasting room.
Here Sandrine Garbay took time to guide a tasting. Perhaps the most powerful woman in the sweet Bordeaux world she joined the Chateau d’Yquem team in 1994 to supervise quality control. She is the ultimate decision maker on each year’s production and with bottles costing upward of £150, and more usually around £350 or more, it’s a serious job.
‘For example, in 2012 the weather meant we did not get grapes of the highest quality, but rather than create an inferior vintage we chose to produce no vintage at all,” she explains. It was a decision that must have cost the estate a great deal of money but its reputation is worth far more.
And how do they taste? The more aged are complex and layered, tropical fruits with the marmalade finish that is the mark of the finest aged Sauternes. Balance is perfect, a velvet mouth feel and an acidity so gentle it’s almost invisible but which clears the palate.
So the message is, don’t stop at Sauternes but instead explore the remarkable range of Sweet Bordeaux wines and even try, as the Sweet Bordeaux website suggests, mixing it for a cocktail.
A few aged sommeliers may turn purple at the very idea of that, but there’s a new golden age for sweet Bordeaux on the horizon and from up that tree I definitely could see it coming.
Discover more about Sweet Bordeaux, including recipes and recommendations, at sweetbordeaux.com