Didier Galhaud, tall, dark, and slim, meets me at Chateau Guiraud in the Sauternes district of Bordeaux, and escorts me around the First Grand Cru Classe wine property, known for the spectacular sweet wine called Sauternes.
Grey mist swirls around us as we crunch our way down the gravel walkway towards the tasting room. Guiraud is your fantasy of the classic French chateau, right down to the turrets and chandeliers. Peacocks even show off their colorful plums in the garden. Dinner or décor, I wonder.
From this description, you might think I’m setting the scene for a romance novel or murder mystery. Actually, the grey mist — a cool morning fog — is a key ingredient for the success of quality wine production. Sauternes grapes need a moist, cool, foggy morning and a drying afternoon sunshine in order to achieve “noble rot.”
Why Sauternes? Why now? Why Chateau Guiraud? Since you are reading this column, you are already a sophisticated connoisseur who is curious about new trends, and quite possibly, you may have dismissed sweet white wine as appropriate only for dessert. However, sweet white wine from Bordeaux pairs magnificently with foie gras, various varieties of cheeses, and even the right entrée.
How does Sauternes wine get so luscious and pleasantly sweet? The answer is Botrytis Cinerea, or noble rot, a beneficial mold that grows on grapes that have become extremely ripe. It attacks the inside of the grape and its skin. The skin is digested and, becoming thin and fragile, takes on a brown violet color. This is the initial stage, called “pourri plein.”
The second stage is reached when the grape appears wrinkled and slightly dried. At this point the grape has become naturally “roasted” and is sometimes covered with the grey filaments of the fungus. The grapes are harvested by hand, picked in successive selections through the vines because Botrytis Cinera does not affect all of the grapes at the same time. It is very slow, irregular, and varies with location, grape variety, bunches of grapes, and even individual grapes.
Chateau Guiraud’s grapes are 65 percent Semillon and 35 percent Sauvignon Blanc. The soils are sandy gravel for 80 percent of the surface, and clay gravel for the remainder. The sub-soils are very diverse, including pure gravels, red clay, limestone marls, and fossilized oyster beds with red and white clay.
In the winery, the grapes then undergo staged pressing, with the first pressing expressing 70-80 percent of the grape must. Separate batches are fermented in barrels over a period from three weeks to two months, when their progress is closely monitored. The wines undergo further barrel aging (18-24 months) before final blending and bottling.
The result is the most refreshing and delicious “Nectar of the Gods” you can imagine. Break away from the ‘dessert wine’ trap by pairing Sauternes with cheese, either during the cocktail hour or after the meal. What type of cheese? Because these wines are especially viscous and sweet, they are best reserved for cheese types that really require that level of sweetness, especially blue cheeses. I like to go high-end Roquefort, but also try Blue d’Auvergne, Fourme d’Ambert, and Livarot.
Experimentation is the spice of life. Bon Appetite!