Be careful not to confuse a Sauternes with a Sauterne wine. The first is a sweet, golden wine produced in the Bordeaux region of France and the second refers to a wide variety of white wines produced in California. I guess somewhere along the line someone decided that it would be a good idea to attach a fancy French name to their wine and went ahead and labeled it Sauterne.
What Makes Sauternes Different?
Whereas a Sauterne wine is made from many different combinations of grapes, the grapes used to elaborate Sauternes are specifically the same used to make other Bordeaux white wines (although in different proportions): Sémillon, Sauvignon blanc, and Muscadelle.
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While they are still on the vine, these grapes are exposed to humid nights and damp mornings as mist rising from the nearby confluence of the Garonne and Ciron rivers spreads across the vineyards. And as we all know, where there's humidity, there is mold. Yes, Sauternes is made from moldy grapes!
The mold that develops on these grapes is no ordinary mold however. This is pourriture noble or noble rot and it is this that distinguishes Sauternes from other sweet white wines. Because small changes in weather conditions can have large effects on the development of noble rot, Sauternes can not be produced consistently every year, and you should be careful to buy a reputed vintage if you are going to enjoy a Sauternes.
Even within the small region where Sauternes can be officially produced, there are pronounced differences in the soil. These differences also play a large part in determining the final quality of the wine. It is officially considered that the cream of the crop of Sauternes wine comes from Château d'Yquem. Enjoying a Château d'Yquem Premier Cru Supérieur could be considered a peak life experience and would certainly never be confused with drinking a Sauterne wine.
A good Sauternes becomes denser and more flavorful as it ages. They are among the rare white wines that can and should be enjoyed at 20, 50 and even 100 years!
Can You Cook With It?
You may find a Sauterne wine that is just perfect for your recipe calling for white wine, but don't try cooking with a Sauternes.
Instead sip your Sauternes slowly from a dessert wine glass for maximum enjoyment. You can even find stemware that is specifically called a Sauternes glass.
This wine should be served at about 52° F or 11°C. Some older, more dense and complex Sauternes wines can be enjoyed at slightly warmer temperatures. Learn more about how to serve wine here.
What to Serve With It
Out of habit, many French people opt for the classic pairing of foie gras with their Sauternes and look no further. Nothing should stop you from exploring however, as the sweet, intense taste of a Sauternes wine can be a dynamic and fine accompaniment to a variety of foods.
A good Sauternes can be enjoyed with the strong salty taste of Roquefort cheese. You will often find a Sauternes paired with a chausson feuilleté au Roquefort (a cheese filled puff pasty). Now that's a pack of flavor for anyone's palate!
Also try serving it with different fruits or a fruit salad for dessert. Or if you happen to be enjoying a Pithiviers (a puff pastry dessert filled with sweet almond frangipane and perhaps a fruit), a Sauternes is considered to be an excellent accompaniment.