Drying Out in Sauternes

From my understanding, the pioneer of “dry Sauternes” was a man named Paul César Rival, owner of the famed Château Guiraud from 1932 until 1981 when he sold the estate in his old age. According to Clive Coates, Rival was a bit of a jerk and an eccentric—conceited and arrogant, but also driven by modernity. His true passion was apparently flying and he was the first winemaker in Bordeaux to put an airstrip next to his vineyard. Legend has it he once built his own plane from a DIY kit and crashed it directly into the vineyards at nearby Château d’Yquem. While that little escapade didn’t go over all that well with his neighbors, Rival’s interest in technology did result in a few positive wine-related developments. He helped to bring motorized tractors into the vineyard in place of animal-drawn carts and he also created the Château Guiraud “G” expression, the forefather of a future dry Sauternes movement. They say necessity is the mother of invention and it’s believed that, after planting too many sauvignon blanc vines, the dry wine of Guiraud was initially the result of extra produce. Many decades later, however, it’s part of a growing trend.

There was a time when people asked for “dry” wines simply because they were repeating what they had heard other people talk about. Today, however, most Californian drinkers stay “dry” to avoid sugar, whether it’s personal preference, a way to prove they understand wine’s more complex flavors, or simply part of the latest dietary fad. Sauternes winemakers aren’t the only ones fighting the anti-sugar bandwagon. German riesling producers, in danger of being phased out of this market, are retaliating by making drier, snappier versions of their historically sweet spätlese and auslese wines. But whereas riesling has always been paired with the meal’s main courses, Sauternes has historically been enjoyed as a finale, pairing with the cheese or dessert course after a long night of gluttony, posing an even bigger problem here in the states where CrossFit culture has all but cut out dessert and cheese plates are usually served as an hors d’oeuvre. 

While the French haven’t given up their culinary traditions, they have cut back on their late night drinking due to stricter alcohol limitations for drivers. A pre-meal Champagne aperitif is still very much in order, as is a bottle of claret while dining, but when it comes to that post-meal Cognac, Calvados, or glass of Sauternes, the crack down on France’s highways has forced its citizens to lighten their drinking load. I’ve seen the effects in France’s distillation capitals over the past few years, where I’ve been served well-intentioned Cognac and tonics and Calvados spritzers by anxious producers who are desperately trying to find a way to jump the line and are hoping cocktail culture might be their salvation. While I’m sure bartenders could find a creative and delicious use for Sauternes, shaking up a bit of 2001 Suduiraut over ice might be overkill at a hundred bucks a bottle. While there are a few diehards out there who enjoy sweet Bordeaux as a pairing with spicy cuisine (renowned consultant and Bordeaux weatherman Bill Blatch is well-known for his “Sausages & Sauternes” party each year), there are still facts to face, one of which being the public’s new-found desire for dryness. 

So what exactly does dry Sauternes taste like? Like crisp, clean sauvignon blanc combined with round and creamy sémillon? Yes, that’s pretty much it. The wines I’ve tasted in my career lacked the snap and drive of something like Sancerre, and they don’t have the oak influence of a classic white Graves, but what they do have is texture, weight, and a luxurious body. When balanced, the wines can be utterly ethereal. Take Château d’Yquem’s “Y” (pronounced “Ygrec”) for example, a wine that the esteemed estate has been producing during strong vintages since 1959, and every year since 2004. I brought a few bottles of the 2014 vintage to an NBA Finals pre-party and the whole crowd went nuts for it (including Kevin Durant’s mom). Using certain plots of sauvignon blanc that are harvested at the beginning of the vintage, Yquem combines that fruit with sémillon picked right when botrytis has begun to show. With ten months of lees stirring during both fermentation and maturation, the end result is a rich, heady, and supple wine that has the ripe fruit of a Sauternes, yet without all the sugar. At almost two hundred dollars a bottle, however, it’s not a bottle most can enjoy regularly.

Regular and repeated enjoyment is what Sauternes needs if its going to survive in this dry modern age, and there’s nothing like a crisp, clean, and affordable bottle of white wine to increase one’s thirst. Moving back to the “G” from Château Guiraud, we’re currently in possession of the delicious 2014 vintage, which beautifully demonstrates the merit of dry Sauternes at a much more reasonable sub-$20 price point. With stone fruit and spice on the palate, the wine has both texture and charm, finishing with a clean acidity and bit more heft than your standard sauvignon blanc. While the trend may have begun with Guiraud, many of the top estates like Doisy-Daene, Rayne, Suiduiraut, and Rieussec are now being recognized for their dry Sauternes (and have followed suit with the single letter namesakes). Because there is no official appellation for the wines, they’re typically bottled as general Bordeaux Blanc, but perhaps in time—as the appreciation for these wines continues to grow—we’ll see a greater recognition. 

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll