Once upon a time there was a girl that drank Moscato with her meal. I hang my head as I admit that the girl committing that faux pas was me. In my defense, I was whatever today’s millennials would have been 15 years ago and just wanted to feel grown up drinking wine. I hadn’t yet acquired a taste for wine, and so I sipped my Moscato unabashedly. When my palette grew up, I turned my nose up at all dessert wines…until I met Bordeaux’s Sauternes.
What is Sauternes?
The sweet French wine comes from one of the country’s most famous wine regions, Bordeaux, and is made from Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grapes. The typical days with morning mists that burn off and turn into warm, dry afternoons create the perfect conditions for fostering a type of fungus that lands on the grapes and slowly turns them into something that looks like raisins on the vine.
Wait, fungus that causes grapes to shrivel up is a good thing? Yes! The fungus in the right conditions is essentially sucking the water out of the grapes while naturally concentrating their sugars and creating amazing flavor compounds. When picked at the precise right moment of noble rot, what is left behind is a grape with an intensely sweet and flavorful juice.
The first wine outing on my Viking River Chateaux, Rivers & Wine cruise, a fantastic 8-day voyage through Bordeaux wine country and must for wine-lovers, was to a Sauternes tasting. With around 140 passengers on board, I was thrilled to see that we wouldn’t all be crowding into the same castle and tasting room.
I was in the lucky bunch to set off to Chateau de Myrat, a beautiful castle set amongst their 22 hectares of vineyards. Chateau de Myrat was classified under Napoleon III during the classification of Medoc, Sauternes and Barsac wines in 1855 as a Grand Cru of Second Growth (Deuxième Cru). In the very simplest of terms that meant I was about to try one of the best Sauternes in Bordeaux.
As we learned about Sauternes and its complicated production, we toured the barrel room, gardens and said hello to the peacocks and turkeys that call Chateau de Myrat home.
Wine making is always a risky business, but even more so with the production of Sauternes since it is completely reliant on the botrytis (fungus) developing in the vineyard. Some years it just doesn’t develop at all and 2012 was a particularly bad year because of all the rain. This is just one factor that makes Sauternes such an expensive dessert wine.
While I wouldn’t bat an eye at a bottle of Château Margaux fetching the price tag of over $200,000 per bottle, I was surprised to learn an 1811 bottle of Chateau d’Yquem was recently purchased for $140,000.
Touring vineyards is always a tease of anticipation and I couldn’t wait to taste the vintages. We started with the youngest, a 2011. It was very concentrated and rich; good, but nothing I felt a need to write home about.
This was my first experience with a vineyard that only produces one wine year after year. So as the glasses of 2009 were poured, the anticipation I usually feel watching the amber liquid streak down the sides of the glass just wasn’t there. But as I swirled the glass and the aromas were released, I realized that this wine may have the same name but it was something entirely different. The flavors were like layers, unfolding one by one. This was spicy. This is could see myself enjoying with a cheese plate.
Finally we tasted a 2006, the sweetest of the three vintages and declared the least favorite by nearly our entire group. Great vintages arrive about once a decade and there was no denying that 2009 had been a great year.
That night back on the ship I did not turn down the Sauternes that was offered with the afternoon dinner cheese plate.
Know Before You Go
My Chateaux, Rivers & Wine cruise was provided by Viking River Cruises in order to bring you this story. However, Luxe Adventure Traveler maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site. As always, all thoughts, opinions, and enthusiasm for travel are entirely our own.