As we come to the latter part of Bordeaux wine month, it is important to acknowledge that Bordeaux is more than just red wine. While the big and powerful reds of the region are often the ones shouted about, the region produces other types of wine - and they do dessert wine particularly well. It may account for only 2% of the wine volume produced in the region but it is well worth getting to know.
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let's ask the first and most important question, what is dessert wine?
Coming from the extra sweet grapes, dessert wine can loosely be defined as a sweet wine with a slightly
higher alcohol content. There are many types of dessert wine and many ways of making it. One way is to use the grapes that are left on the vines and therefore have started to raisinate (yes that is a real word and it might be my new favourite) and increase their sugar content. In another method, the fermentation process can be halted so that the yeast does not eat up all the sugar in the grapes. Or some wine producers add sugar but this is often regulated and in some regions, illegal. They can be made from red or white grapes, be still or sparkling and, despite all this talk of sugar, they can vary from dry to sweet.
Back to Bordeaux
There are some big names in the world of dessert wine: Port, Madeira, Sherry, Moscato, Riesling. But if we are talking Bordeaux there is one famous name- Sauternes. Sauternes is a region within Bordeaux that produces some of the world's most coveted dessert wines. People go crazy for it's honeyed notes of apricot, peach, butterscotch, and caramel. However, it is not just this big name that produces this style of wine. There are many other regions and just like we saw with the left and right bank there is a great degree of variety. The Entre-Deux-Mers, which is the area between the left and the right bank which is green on the map, makes beautiful dessert wines that are are incredibly undervalued and often offer a lighter style of sweet wine. Meanwhile the big dogs on the left bank, Sauternes, Barsac and Cérons, are typically more full-bodied with more pronounced marmalade, beeswax and honey flavours.
'Why would you want rot anywhere near your grapes?' is the question I am sure you are asking. It would be a fair one as most of the world's winemakers are always on the look out for ways to keep their vines disease free. However, in Bordeaux they've made friends with one particular fungus and this is what makes their wine so special: Botrytis cinerea. Not the most catchy name so some wise people somewhere renamed it 'noble rot' to make it sound more regal and less like a fungus (could have stepped away from rot but....). It transforms the white grape varieties Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc by reducing the water inside the grapes (remember that word raisinate?!). This water reduction results in an increased concentration of sugar, acid and flavour molecules. What you loose in a much reduced yield, you gain in a grape with high levels of sugar perfect for dessert wine. These grapes have to be picked much later, so there is a level of jeopardy for these wine makers as a bad autumn could cause them a sizeable headache/destroy their crop entirely.
To encourage noble rot to take up house in your vines you need some pretty specific conditions: damp, misty mornings followed by bright sunshine in the afternoon. This niche requirement is why some areas of Bordeaux are so well suited to producing these sorts of wines. Sauternes lies close to the Garonne and Ciron rivers, both of which help create these beautiful autumn days that are required for this style of winemaking.
But after all of this, what do they taste like?
If you have had the pleasure of trying them before you will know the answer is pretty delicious! But as we alluded to above, there is a lot of variety so it is not a one size fits all kind of vibe (when is it?!).
The best wines will have high acidity to balance out the sugar. In younger wines you may find flavours of marmalade, honey, butterscotch, nectarine and apricot, but these will develop over time into dried figs, chocolate and dried orange peel. Our old friend noble rot also has it's hand in adding to the flavour profile of the wines as well. Wine experts often use words like “honied,” or “honeysuckle” to describe the effect that the rot has on the wine. Noble Rot wines also exhibit higher levels of a fragrant aroma compound called phenylacetaldehyde. This is also found in another popular sweet treat which goes by the name of chocolate!
These wines will age well. Some for 30+ years, improving over time. They can also be kept open in the fridge longer than your average bottle.
Is it just for pudding?
Given the name, many people think that dessert wine is something to have at the end of the meal, either with your pudding or instead of. Whilst this is a great way to drink it, it is not the only way.
Importantly, you should drink it chilled (between 9-10 degrees is optimum). This is to prevent the sugar from feeling claggy in your mouth. If you do want to drink this with your final course, then a general rule of thumb is to always make sure that the wine is sweeter than your dessert - something like poached fruit is very complimentary.
However, why not extend the reach of these drinks. They can be served as a beautiful alternative to traditional aperitifs or; it is popular in France, to serve them with strong meat pates or blue cheese. It works well with any food that is strong enough to contend with the flavours, whilst also complimenting them.
If you have got to this point and are desperate to give one a go then we have a couple of options for you:
These are little bottles of elixir, enjoy!