WINE: Drinking Sauternes

International Herald Tribune

December 11, 1970

Fads have their advantages: they allow you to pursue certain unfashionable pleasures at minimal cost and with no competition.

Take white wines, for instance. The current snobbery is to drink only the dry ones and to look down the end of one's nose at the sweet wines of Sauternes as being fit only for little old ladies left over from the Victorian era.

On the left bank of the Garonne 25 miles southeast of Bordeaux, Sauternes is considered by many connoisseurs to produce the greatest white wines in the world. (Apropos – and dictionaries be damned – many wine lovers think that the correct spelling ought to retain the final "s," to set them off from their California copies which, using the English spelling, do not have it on their labels.)

Of course the anti-Sauternes sentiment does not apply to the first great growth, Château d'Yquem, which is drunk not for its fabulous qualities but because it is so famous and so expensive that it must be right to drink it.

But there are many others, the first and second growths, some of which can be nearly as good as a Château d'Yquem although they cost anywhere from half to a quarter as much. In fact, you can often buy superb Sauternes of excellent years for as little as $2.50.

Why these magnificent golden wines fell so low in esteem (Château d'Yquem has even produced a dry wine under another name), is a mystery but now is the time to take advantage of it, for the first timid signs of a return to favor have already begun to appear in France.

This is also the best time of year to drink rich, sweet wines. They are easier to take in cold weather and they go well with much of the rich, holiday fare.

About the only thing Sauternes are still generally served with is dessert, a striking indication of contemporary lack of imagination. Only the sugar in this great wine is being made use of against the sugar in the dessert, and this can at times make for a cloying amount of sweetness.

Sauternes is much better with fruit, but it is as good at the beginning of the meal. A small glass of Sauternes makes a perfect apéritif and it does very nicely with oysters.

Yes, oysters. Not the more acid Portugaises fines de claires and spéciales but the flat Belon type whose marine fatness matches both the soft glycerine and the faint taste of iodine in Sauternes.

No wine goes better with foie gras, for Sauternes is as rich and full as the fat liver and yet there is a slight touch of almond-like bitterness to both of them that completes the harmony.

Sauternes is a fine accompaniment to fish prepared with rich cream sauces, especially when the same wine has gone into the sauce, and this would be equally true of veal or chicken.

What wine could possibly better harmonize with canard à l'orange, matching both the strong taste of the duck and the sweetness of the sauce? Or roast pork with peaches? In Sauternes itself, the natives drink it with simple roast chicken and it even goes with game such as quail with cherries or muscat grapes.

The fact that its mellow richness is also very good with Roquefort cheese brings us full circle back to dessert. Thus Sauternes can accompany an entire meal, as can any wine, provided that the meal is built around the wine rather than vice versa.

Naturally, all the above applies to Barsac which is Sauternes because it has the legal right to either name. There are subtle differences due to soil and exposure, for Barsac is grown on flat land and Sauternes on gently rolling terrain. Barsac tends to be slightly less sweet and rich but with a somewhat more fruity fragrance than Sauternes.