Wine 101: French Wine Regions: Bordeaux: Sauternes

This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by The Language of Yes, a love letter to southern France sent from California. Pioneering winemaker Randall Grahm’s vision leads this Old World, New World winemaking tribute with traditional winemaking methods like passerillage, post-harvest drying. This imparts notes of crushed lavender, rosemary, and sage to the Syrah, and hints of strawberry rhubarb in the Grenache. These wines scored high with critics. To try Language of Yes Grenache and Syrah, visit

On this episode of “Wine 101,” host Keith Beavers explores Sauternes, where a prevalent fungus called Botrytis cinerea plays a unique role in the production of the region’s beautiful, sweet wines. Tune in for more.

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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers and I found out the voices of Mickey and Minnie — the people actually got married and were married for 18 years. What were the vows like?

What’s going on, wine lovers? From the VinePair podcasting studios, this is the “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers and I am the tastings director of VinePair. Hi. We’re sticking around Bordeaux. We’re going a little bit south, and we’re getting to someplace that’s different than everything else we’ve talked about in Bordeaux. Full stop. It’s a sweet wine, and it’s called Sauternes. Let’s get into it.

I’m pretty sure I’ve said this a bunch of times, but throughout my career in wine, when I talk to winemakers, one of the things I hear the most is that winemaking starts in the vineyard. Over these past three seasons, that kind of makes sense with all the crazy agriculture going on, and how wine is so tied to nature and agriculture more than any other product we have in the alcohol space.

Well, one of the things about vineyards, which we’ve also talked about in the past, is the challenges that the climate, other pests, fungi, and all these diseases pose for winemakers. And a lot of those — there’s a very long list of fungi that can almost destroy a vineyard — but there’s this one fungus that seems to be benevolent if you will, but only if the conditions are right. This is so crazy. Nature is just so amazing, and in wine, it shows itself to be just the most — it’s so fascinating.

Imagine this: You have vineyards in a temperate climate, let’s say, surrounded by some bodies of water. In the early morning hours, a fog sets in. This fog is going to be around until the late morning when the sun rises and burns it off, but during those early, early morning hours, that fog encourages the activation of spores of a fungus called Botrytis cinerea. And in a random, unpredictable, and intermittent fashion, this fungus spreads through the bunches of grapes in vineyards and begins to infect the healthy grapes on the vine.

These are white wine grapes, let’s say. As this fungus penetrates the skin of these grapes, little brown spots show up on the berries. These little brown spots are called filaments, and what’s really amazing about that is, now that the fungus is inside the grape, these little brown filaments protect the grape from any other damaging microorganisms from entering into the berry while this fungus does its work.

As this happens over a five-, 10-, or 15-day period, these white grapes turn golden, and then a sort of purple, light purple-ish. Sometimes people say pink, and then they turn brown. As they turn brown, they begin to shrivel to the point where one bunch of grapes looks like it’s halfway to a raisin, but it’s still moist. It’s gross looking. In addition to that, the grapes, or the grape bunch, form this powdery, ash-like substance over the grapes that gives this fungus the name cinerea, Botrytis cinerea. “Cinerea” means ash. It’s Latin.

Because of the work of this fungus, and also because the skins being deteriorated, the grape loses more than half of its water. Not only that, but the sugar content in the grape, which the fungus is feeding on, reduces by a third or more, and the acidity — the natural acidity inside of the grape reduces by 70 percent. But while it’s consuming these sugars, and while it’s consuming these acids, it’s producing other compounds.

Now imagine taking all of those shriveled, sugar-concentrated, low-moisture grapes and turning that into wine. What you get, wine lovers, is a very sweet wine. That is what we’re talking about today. Because in Bordeaux as the Gironde estuary splits off into two rivers, the northern being the Dordogne, the southern being the Garonne — as the Garonne has its own tributary, it splits off in a river called the Ciron. That land mass right there has five communes: Sauternes, Barsac, Preignac, Bommes, and Fargues.

I don’t know if I’m pronouncing any of those correctly, but those five communes in that land mass between these two rivers have a certain kind of microclimate that allows for Botrytis cinerea to develop in such a way that this became its own wine region, its own AOC called the Sauternes AOC. And this place, unlike any real wine region in France, or even the world, is primarily wine made from noble rot. Noble rot is the term given to Botrytis cinerea because these grapes, which we’ll talk about in a second, and this fungus can create some of the most stunning, age-worthy, long-lived sweet wines in the world.

This wine is very important to this part of France — so much so that, if you go back and listen to the Bordeaux episode from Season 1 where I break down the entire appellation system of Bordeaux, this area is extremely important. This is where Château d’Yquem is, which is some of the most famous wine in the world. Thomas Jefferson, in the 18th century, was buying Sauternes from Château d’Yquem, which is located in the commune of Sauternes. I find this so fascinating.

Some of the famous wine regions in France — in Burgundy, the chaotic soil means that from one climate to another, wines can change. In Champagne, the weather conditions are very challenging, but they make amazing sparkling wine from that. In Bordeaux, they had to drain the actual estuary and create these piles of gravel soil that eventually became the terroir of Bordeaux. Sauternes is an AOC between two rivers that has this natural climate that basically forces winemakers to make wine this way. The origin of this style of wine is pretty murky, but when Thomas Jefferson was buying wine from there, it was very established at that time. There are records going back to the 17th century, but they’re not 100 percent accurate.

So this has been going on for a while, but this kind of natural occurrence makes sense that they’ve been making wine this way. I just wonder who made the decision: “Let’s just make this wine and see what happens.” And it turned out to be incredible — wines that can age for 50 years. The thing about Botrytis cinerea is that the varieties that are most susceptible to this fungus are varieties that create bunches where the grapes are mashed up and close to each other. It’s sort of like when we talk about Pinot Noir and how susceptible that is to all kinds of fungi, while other varieties like Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, and Muscadelle are also susceptible to this fungus. That’s why, across the over 4,000 acres under vine and these five communes, the majority of the varieties are Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, and Muscadelle.

Muscadelle is not as popular as it once was, but the most susceptible of that shortlist is Sémillon. According to the “Oxford Wine Companion,” Sémillon, on average, is about 80 percent of an estate’s mix of varieties — a French word called “encépagement.” So we have a wine region where winemakers and vine growers are hoping that their grapes are infected. There’s this really great passage in the Sauternes entry in the “Oxford Wine Companion” that I need to read to you. It really gives a sense of what this is like.

“In Autumn, the cool, spring-fed Ciron waters flow into the warmer tidal Gironde. Evening mists envelop the vineyards until late morning the following day. If the sun shines, it burns away the mist. The moist atmosphere encourages Botrytis cinerea. The mist activates the spores in the vineyard and alternating sunshine completes the desiccation.” That just sums it up. That amazing thing going on inside the grape is creating compounds that, when made into a sweet wine, give it layers of complexity, viscosity, and that wonderful nutmeg flavor.

But nature doesn’t clock in and clock out. Nature is very unpredictable. And even though this microclimate encourages this fungus to happen pretty much — well, almost — all the time, there are years where it doesn’t develop in certain places. There are years when it develops too late. So the practice here is pretty unique to the area, in that the harvest often requires multiple passes through the vineyard over multiple weeks.

While this Botrytis cinerea is solidifying, desiccating, and doing its work, you’re running through the vineyard picking the best grapes you can at any given pass. And as this happens, there are certain areas where the noble rot gets away from itself and becomes something called gray rot, which is actually not good for these sweet wines. So you have to eliminate the gray rot grapes, and you have to maintain and harvest the noble rot grapes. It’s pretty wild.

And what’s really awesome is that at harvest, when you taste these sweet wines from Sauternes, you’ll notice they’re very unctuous. They’re sweet and have viscosity, but they have very good acidity to them, keeping them bright and fresh on the palate, even though they’re sweet and viscous. That is because, during these harvest times, they also grab grapes that are shriveled but don’t necessarily have the Botrytis infection, so their acidity holds, and that is Sauvignon Blanc. Sauvignon Blanc does a lot of that. You’re harvesting Sauvignon Blanc, harvesting maybe Sauvignon Gris, and maybe some Muscadelle, making this one of the longest harvests in France.

I read that this is one of the only regions in France where they have to hold vineyard workers for quite some time. Even more craziness is that it’s very costly to make this wine, and the yields are always very low — sometimes nothing at all. There are some times when vineyards are just so bad that winemakers have to just make their wine into dry white wine and sell it as a general Bordeaux AOC. Not only that, but, because of the product — the material being used to make this wine — the maximum yields are actually restricted to about 1.4 tons per acre, or 25 hectoliters per hectare — sometimes as low as nine hectoliters per hectare.

Just to give you an example, in Médoc and Sémillon, the average is 45 hectoliters per hectare, and then in addition to that, the wine usually ages between 18 and 36 months in barrel. But I got to say, when you have a Sauternes, whether it’s from any of the five communes, Sauternes itself and Barsac seem to be the most popular in our American market.

When you taste one of these balanced wines, it’s beyond anything you’ve ever experienced on your palate ever. It’s just amazing. It’s sweet — undeniably sweet — but as your palate and brain are going, “Oh man, this is a sweet wine,” the acidity comes in, cleans the lineup, and it’s just so beautiful.

Actually, I have a hard time explaining it because you really have to experience it yourself. So if you’ve heard about Sauternes and always wondered what it’s about, if you always wanted to try it, this is a little crash course on this region of Bordeaux that is absolutely unique in itself. It’s its own entity and it’s fascinating. Okay, next week we’re going to the road. Talk to you next week.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big old shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darby Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

E. & J. Gallo Winery is excited to sponsor this episode of VinePair’s “Wine 101.” Gallo always welcomes new friends to wine with an amazingly wide spectrum of favorites, ranging from everyday to luxury and sparkling wine. (Gallo also makes award-winning spirits, but this is a wine podcast.) Whether you are new to wine or an aficionado, Gallo welcomes you to wine! Visit today to find your next favorite. (Where shipping is available).