Mention dessert wines and most wine lovers will immediately think of Sauternes – the famous golden nectar from Bordeaux. And why not? But Sauternes is only one of hundreds of sweet wines which, incidentally, aren’t just marvellous accompaniments to the pudding course; they are often equally delicious partnering a blue cheese or a rich paté. And, of course, don’t ignore how good some sweet wines can also be as an aperitif!
But, in general, this style of wine is designed to go with the dessert, and, if trying to match the two, it’s always a good idea to ensure the wine is sweeter than the food; the other way round and the wine will be drained of much of its sweetness and may taste sharp and thin.
I opened a dessert wine at a dinner party with some good friends recently – not one from Sauternes but from an estate in the less well-known Côtes de Gascogne, about an hour’s drive south.
Domaine du Tariquet’s Dernières Grives (Wine Society, £15.50) is, perhaps, a little less sweet than a typical Sauternes yet has a lovely delicacy and charm – thanks to only 11.5% alcohol. That makes it a perfect partner for a lighter pudding – the apple fool that we served or a crème brulée or some fresh strawberries are other possibilities that come to mind.
The wine is mainly made from the local Petit Manseng grape (a variety that lovers of the wines of Jurançon would be familiar with), left on the vine late into the autumn to over-ripen and then picked (as the producers note on their website) before the local birds, especially the thrushes, get to them! They even name the wine after the birds – dernières grives is the French for last thrushes.
This is a delicious alternative sweet wine – without the power or richness of a Sauternes, but beautifully balanced and fresh and a simple delight at the end of our enjoyable, sociable meal with friends.
Ask a wine lover to name a sweet wine and chances are the reply will be ‘Sauternes’. This golden nectar is made from a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes (with occasionally a little Muscadelle as well) in a tiny area 6 miles long by barely 4 miles wide a short drive south of Bordeaux. Both the location and the grape varieties are vital to making Sauternes the wine it is.
Sauvignon Blanc is a naturally high acid variety and so adds refreshing ‘lift’ to the wine which, without it, could be dull and cloying. But it’s the Semillon that holds the real key. It is a very thin-skinned variety and, as such, is very susceptible to rot. Rot is normally an enemy to winemakers, introducing off flavours into wine, but in certain circumstances, a particular type of rot becomes a friend. And in the warm, damp, humid conditions often occurring during a Bordeaux autumn, this so-called ‘noble’ rot (or botrytis) can be found most years.
Botrytis works in a strange way. It attacks the berries and makes dozens of pin-prick holes in them. Add a little sunshine and, as the grapes are warmed, the moisture inside them starts to evaporate through the holes, concentrating the sweetness in the berries so that, when they’re picked and sent to the winery for fermentation, the yeast struggles to cope with all the sugar. It converts some to alcohol, but plenty remains to give a wonderful, luscious sweet wine.
The most famous name of Sauternes, Château d’Yquem, sells for hundreds of £s a bottle, but the Château Filhot (pictured) is a remarkably good, elegant and affordable alternative, available quite widely including from Grape and Grind of Bristol for £12.99 a half bottle. Enjoy with desserts, of course (tarte tatin is a great match), but also with some blue cheese – Roquefort would be the traditional choice, but St Agur or the creaminess of a Dolcelatte would go well too.