Sunday, January 9, 2011

Wrought with Flavour (Sauternes)

Today was a beautiful day in the winter rain capital of Canada. The unusual presence of sun encouraged me to go on a stroll outside my normal stomping grounds. Several blocks west of my house a few wine shops can be found, knowing this I left my house, wallet in hand, hoping to discover a few new wines. Specifically I was hoping to find a Sauternes. If you have not had the pleasure of trying this luxurious, sweet golden liquor I highly recommend you perform a quick internet search to find the nearest liquor store that carries a bottle.

It is often thought that sweet wines are for the inexperienced palate, something that can bring a novice wine drinker to appreciate the flavours of wine in a very approachable way. Sweet wine should not be relegated simply to the palates of the inexperienced. Port has been drunk by English professors for centuries, and with their penchant for often imbibing more than their fair share I would be hard pressed to call them novice wine drinkers. Port may be one of the most familiar sweet wines, but there are several that many self proclaimed wine aficionados will find most pleasing, a fine Sauternes will be at the top of the list.

Deliciously complex, with rather unusual flavours of nuts and petrol along side more common flavours of tropical fruit, Sauternes stands out as probably one of the strangest wines that can be had.

The process of making a Sauternes is similar to the makings of any white wine, what truly sets it apart is what is allowed, and encouraged, to happened to the grapes before they are fermented. Botrytis cinerea, known as either Noble Rot or Grey Rot depending on whether it is desired or not, is a mold that attacks grapes when the conditions are right. The rot has the effect of bursting the grape skins leading to the evaporation of water and concentration of sugars and acids. The sugar content of the grapes goes through the roof, they become so sweet that yeast can’t ferment the wine fully leaving residual sweetness.

Just because it’s sweet doesn’t mean its bad. The rot not only leads to the production of a very sweet and acidic wine (the acid and sugar have a balancing effect on one another so the wine remains well balanced) it also produces the strange nutty and petrol like flavours associated with Sauternes. There are other wines produced from grapes that are affected by Noble Rot. Sauternes is the name of a district within Bordeaux and is by far the most famous nobly rotted wine.

Unfortunately, because Sauternes need fairly specific conditions to be made and because the overall juice that can be extracted is greatly reduced, the wine isn’t cheap. A 375ml bottle, half the size of a standard bottle, starts at about $20 but it is well worth it. Because of it’s price and because I have other plans I’m not going to dip into the wine I bought today, but I promise when I do drink it I will post tasting notes for it.

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