The Noble Secret of Sweet Wine
Often enjoyed with dessert, sweet wines – crafted using intricate methods and a fungal phenomenon – intrigue the senses and deserve high praise.
When Does Rot Become Noble Rot?
When it comes to sweet wines, the words ‘rot’ and ‘wine’ make the perfect pair. Noble rot, otherwise known as botrytis, is a fungus that sucks the juice from thin-skinned grapes, leaving them shrivelled and dehydrated. This natural phenomenon increases grape sugar levels and flavour intensity, and occurs in cool climate wine-producing regions which lie close to a river, such as Bordeaux.
Focus on Sauternes
On autumn mornings in the commune of Sauternes, Bordeaux, fog rolls off the Garonne River and into the vineyards where sémillon and sauvignon blanc grapes are grown, creating a unique microclimate for noble rot to develop. These grape types also have thin skins and close clusters on the vine, making them particularly susceptible to the fungus. The grapes are picked only when sugars are at peak concentration and this famously intricate process produces wines with rich tasting notes that range from lychee to honey, and almond to saffron. While it’s true that some sweet wines are made simply by adding sugar to dry wines, this is not the case for Sauternes wines, which have become some of the world’s most famous and highly prized.
With a winemaking history that stretches back more than 400 years, Château d’Yquem is one of the wine world’s greatest treasures, and was the first maison in the region to be granted premier cru supérieur status in 1855. Planted with 80% sémillon and 20% sauvignon blanc, the vineyards are harvested in stages at low yields, meaning that the wine is quite rare – each vine typically produces only one glass of the glorious nectar. This also means that Château d'Yquem vintages vary in style from year to year based on the balance between the grape varieties and weather variations.
2013 Château d’Yquem has a higher percentage of sauvignon blanc grapes in its blend, and therefore has cleaner aromas of cut grass and razer-sharp acidity to complement roasted white fruit and raisins on the palate. The unseasonably warm spring of 2011 meant an early harvest for 2011 Château d’Yquem, an iconic vintage with flavours of pineapple, apricot, toasted nuts and a hint of saffron, supported by a finely tuned minerality. Fresh and complex 2014 Château d’Yquem also owes its precious acidity to an early harvest, with aromas of candied citrus and sweet apricot complemented by hints of almond and a light spice.