Why the weather determines the taste of Sauternes

Sweet wine expert Ana Carvalho explores the effect of hot and cold years on the taste of Chateau Suduiraut with Peter Ranscombe.

TUCKED away between the Ciron and Garonne rivers in Bordeaux, the Sauternes region produces arguably the most-famous sweet wines on the planet.

When the cold waters of the Ciron meet the warmer Garonne they produce a mist, which creates the ideal conditions for the formation of “noble rot” or botrytis, a fungus that removes the water from grapes, leaving behind concentrated sugars and flavours.

Yet the mist isn’t the only climatic condition that can affect the taste of Sauternes, as Axa Millesimes brand ambassador Ana Carvalho explained earlier his month during her masterclass at drinks writer Tom Cannavan’s Festival of Wine in Edinburgh.

Carvalho presented six vintages of Sauternes from Axa’s Chateau Suduiraut, a property founded in 1580 and which has passed through the hands of only four owners.

After opening with a glass of the 2018 Blanc Sec (equivalent to £14.17, Millésima) – a dry white wine produced on the property, which crackled with acidity and intense peach, lemon and salted almond flavours – Carvalho guided guests through the way in which the weather affects the flavours in the glass.

The first pair of wines were the 2015 (£60, The Wine Society) and the 2013 (£49.18, Armit Wines), with the younger wine coming from a warmer year and the older wine from a wetter vintage.

The 2015 combined fresher green apple and lemon flavours with sweeter biscuit, caramel and honey notes, with enough freshness to stop it becoming cloying.

The wetter 2013 brought more acidity to the wine and emphasised more of the smoky notes from the oak barrels in which it was aged; Carvalho characterised it as a vintage to drink earlier and highlighted how Sauternes of this ilk can be served with spicy foods such as curry as well as lighter desserts like lemon tart.

Always take the weather with you

Those sweeter caramel and honey notes were more noticeable again in the warmer 2009 (£66.25, Lea & Sandeman), with the years of ageing adding lemon curd and peach notes, alongside a rounder feeling in the mouth.

The 2007 (£61, Davy’s) was again a colder and wetter year, but not as bad as 2013, and again revealed lots of acidity, with cinnamon, white pepper and clove notes coming to the fore amid peach, pineapple and a touch of banana.

“We can do better than a Bloody Mary or Prosecco,” laughed Carvahlo as she reeled off a list of pancakes, waffles and other brunch staples that could pair with the 2007.

Assorted “Mmmms” and “Ahhhs” from guests at the masterclass confirmed that the two older vintages – 2005 (£65, Wine Rak) and 2001 (£71.68, Lay & Wheeler) – went down very well indeed.

Dryness during 2005 led to record sugar concentration in the grapes and resulting wine, yet there’s still a pretty floral element to the nose, which leads onto flavours of lemon peel and vanilla, plus a sweet yet malty element, like honey spread over a digestive biscuit.

“If you couldn’t make good Sauternes in 2001 then you should do something else – like grow potatoes,” Carvalho giggled as she introduced the final wine, which came from a year with such a good concentration of botrytis.

The 2001 had taken on a golden hue with age and was expressing flavours of toffee, candied orange and mango juice, yet it still had an attractive fresh red apple and lemon element to it, proving that these Sauternes are only just beginning their ageing journey, and rounding off a deliciously-different masterclass.