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The Death of Sauternes

I was concerned to learn today, thanks to this piece written by Jane Anson, of a move by a number of Sauternes producers to apply for the Graves appellation for their dry wines. History can teach us something of what might happen should they succeed.

First, a little background. In Sauternes, many estates produce a dry cuvée alongside their sweet wine, a move which has in many cases gone a long way to help balance the books. With sweet wines chronically unfashionable, dry wines are a useful addendum to an estate’s portfolio; not only do they reduce the volume of Sauternes building up in the cellars (helping to balance supply and demand, and supporting already fragile prices) but they are a distinct revenue stream in themselves. They may sell for less money (although not that much less, to be honest, especially when you get away from the really famous estates) but the yields are much higher; the volume of juice and thus wine obtained might be three or four times what you get with dehydrated, botrytised grapes.

The Sauternes producers have a problem though; although you might think most people buy on the basis of critics’ recommendations, or your own knowledge and experience, on the domestic French market appellations are still very important. A Graves is held in higher regard than a basic Bordeaux, and the Sauternes producers feel they have been held back by the fact that their dry wines only have the basic Bordeaux appellation, and not the more prestigious Graves appellation. They see a chance to label their dry wines as Graves as a route to higher prices and better sales; hence the call for just such a reclassification.

Château d'Yquem

They may well be right; just to the north of Sauternes and Barsac is a little sweet wine appellation called Cérons, and it is one I have recently described in my newly expanded Bordeaux wine guide. Here in Cérons, the dry whites have always had the Graves appellation. And so when interest in sweet wines fell away, there was a lucrative route out of destitution; stop making lesser-known and unfashionably sweet Cérons, and start making more appealingly dry Graves. That’s exactly what the majority of estates did, and this is why Cérons is today little more than a Bordeaux curiosity; only a handful of estates still make sweet wines, while most have converted totally to dry.

In Sauternes, a move to the dry whites also being eligible for the Graves appellation will ultimately have the same effect. Sure, big name estates will carry on, and it may be that with improved income from the dry whites the future of the sweet wines at these estates is even more secure. But – regardless of the moaning of merchants who must suffer the Lafite-Rieussec tie-in, and who find Sauternes a chronically difficult sell – there is still at least some interest in the wines of Yquem (pictured above), Rieussec, Suduiraut, Lafaurie-Peyraguey and the like. These wines will continue on. But you can wave goodbye to the likes of Haut-Bergeron, Dudon, Bastor-Lamontagne and other small châteaux that are more likely closer to the fiscal edge. Even lesser classed growth estates, like d’Arche, Romer, Romer du Hayot and the lesser-spotted Suau will feel the pull of dry wines. A move like that proposed may well make those with dry wines to flog a few extra sous (are there any involved in the process that have a vested interest in the prices of the dry wines, but are not worried about the sweet wines, I ask myself), but it would change the landscape of Sauternes forever. I hope that the move is soundly rejected by all those who care about the future of Sauternes.

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