Splendor in the glass by Jay Mclnerney for Château de fargues

Splendor in the Glass :

Extracted from the moldy, putrefying remnants of a legendary Bordeaux grape, Sauternes is the most expensive wine in the world to produce, and it delivers a hedonistic bang like nothing else.

By Jay McInerney

When did sweet become a dirty word ?

Like reformed sinners, wine novices often feel compelled to renounce the sweet tooth of their unsophisticated youth. Somewhere along the way they acquire the notion that wine must be dry. Even among connoisseurs, who should know better, the appreciation of “dessert wines” seems to be declining. In the mid-19th century they were the height of fashion, and none was more revered than Sauternes, a honeyed white from southern Bordeaux. As recently as the 1920s, the average Sauternes sold for as much as a first growth dry red from the nearby Medoc, the home of such legendary wines as Latour, Lafite, and Mou­ton Rothschild. In our time, no individual has done more to promote Sauternes, and to bring it to new heights of quality, than Comte Alexandre de Lur Saluces, whose family has been in the neighborhood for the past 500 years.

For more than 200 of those the Lur Saluces family owned the flagship of Sauternes, Château d’Yquem, which in the Bordeaux classification of 1855 stood alone atop its appellation as a Premier Grand Cru — the only chateau in all of Bordeaux to be so honored. The property was already famous when it came into the Lur Saluces family in I785, with the marriage of Françoise-Joséphine de Sauvage d’Yquem to Comte Louis-Amédée de Lur Saluces, a godson of Louis XV. Thomas Jefferson visited shortly before the wedding, buying wine for himself and, later, George Washington. Alexandre de Lur Saluces took over in1968, the sixth member of his family to preside over the estate, and pushed the quality to new heights, even as the region experienced a slump in demand and price after the 1973 oil crisis.


His efforts were eventually crowned with a rebound in prices and a trio of near-perfect vintages in 1988, 1989, and 1990.Those wines are just beginning to show their spectacular potential and will continue to develop in complexity for years to come. (D’Yquem improves for decades; the 1937 a friend opened on my last birthday was one of the greatest wines I’ve ever put to my lips. The word ambrosia seemed entirely appropriate.) I recently opened a bottle of the 1989 at a dinner party, and most of my guests, including a few who had never evinced any great interest in wine, were utterly starstruck. “What the hell is this,” asked one, “and where can I get some?” I was compelled to descend to the cellar for another bottle.

Such was the luster and legend of Chateau d’Yquem that it attracted the attention of LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault, that uber-collector of French luxury brands, including Louis Vuitton, Chris­tian Dior, Dom Pérignon, and Cheval Blanc. In 1999 Arnault managed to buy a 55 percent stake in d’Yquem from various family members for about $100 million. Tue comte did not go down without a fight, but eventually he admitted defeat and, after presiding over the transition, left his beloved Château d’Yquem in 2004, to be replaced by Pierre Lurton, the highly regarded winemaker and director of Cheval Blanc.

Fortunately for Lur Saluces and wine lovers, he didn’t have to go far. Château de Fargues, just a few miles from Château d’Yquem, has been the seat of the Lur Saluces family since 1472. The 420-acre property, which sprawls across a series of rolling hills, is dominated by the ruins of a hulking 14th-century fortress. Thirty-eight acres are planted with vines, which, along with the castle, occupy the higher ground. Château de Fargues, made under the comte’s supervision since the 1960s, was sometimes mistakenly identified as the second wine of Château d’Yquem, though in fact the wines came from entirely separate vineyards, the comte himself providing the only connection. But the wines are made with the same techniques, and de Fargues, if not quite as long-lived or complex as d’Yquem, can taste remarkably similar, especially in its youth.

This past spring I toured the property with the sprightly 80-year-old comte, who was smartly turned out in a tweed jacket and knit tie, along with his son Philippe, whose version of aristo country casual included a blue blazer and rep tie. As we walked among the rows of vines, just a few days short of flowering, he pointed out d’Yquem, occupying a distant hill.

“D’Yquem is the best terroir,” he admitted. “They have a patchwork of different soil types, which gives them more complexity in certain years.” But the similarities are greater than the differences. Sauternes derives its decadent richness from the fungus Botrytis cinerea — often referred to as noble rot — which tends to infest the ripening grapes in the fall, when mists from the Garonne and Ciron rivers settle over the vineyards.

“We need fog in the morning and wind in the afternoon,” Lur Saluces told me. “We need humidity, but not too much.” Botrytis occurs in many of the world’s wine regions, but the climate of Sauternes seems particularly conducive, and at some point in their history the Sauternians decided to encourage the mold by letting the grapes hang into late fall.

Like the first man to eat an oyster, it must have been a brave soul who first made wine from the ugly, shriveled, fuzzy black berries infested with noble rot. Hugh Johnson, the eminent English wine writer, describes them thus: “A heavy web of greenish-gray mold, with short hairs growing outwards, covers the grapes; each grape has partially or totally collapsed and, if handled, readily exudes sticky juice and a cloud of mold spores.”

Improbably, these nasty-looking grapes produce a viscous golden nectar with more complexity and intensity than other sweet whites. The comte compared the Fungus to a chef “There is a biological transformation in the grapes, changing the flavor,” he said. The downside is that infested grapes produce less juice than clean ones. “Botrytis is a Fungus feeding on the fruit,” Lur Saluces explained. “If you wait too long, nothing is left. In the Medoc and elsewhere, they get a bottle of wine per vine. We get only one glass.”

On the other hand, in those years when botrytis doesn’t set in, the grapes may pro­duce more juice — but it won’t be Sauternes. In 2012, for instance, the failure of botrytis led the comte to declassify the whole crop, producing nothing under the de Fargues label. These unbotrytized grapes are sold for a fraction of their potential value to négociants for bottling as generic Bordeaux.

Besides cutting the quantity of juice, the other not-so-noble quality of noble rot is that it affects the bunches unevenly, which means that in order to catch the affected grapes at their peak, after they are botrytized but before they are completely consumed, it’s necessary to pick in stages, sometimes over many weeks. At de Fargues, as at d’Yquem, the pickers are trained to choose “the ugliest” grapes, hand-sorting the bunches and plucking only the gnarliest and fuzziest.

This late picking results in juice extremely high in sugar content and glycerol. A good deal of the sugar is converted into alcohol during fermentation, but inevitably a fair amount remains. The high levels of glycerol and grape solids give Sauternes a rich, viscous texture that makes it seem more like a liqueur than a traditional wine.

Making it is a tedious, labor-intensive process — one reason, along with the small yields, Sauternes will never be an inexpensive wine. On the other hand, given the difficulties of production and the decadence of the finished product, one could argue that Sauternes represents one of the best values in the world of fine wine. The 2005 de Fargues retails for about $100. In 2011, the next vintage slated for release, the comte produced 15,000 bottles — a little over 1,200 cases. Given the cost of production, the economics seem fairly dismal. Good thing for Lur Saluces he owns the land.

Let’s forget about production and turn to the more pleasurable question of consumption , at which point gloom is replaced by pleasure, wonder, even rapture. Few wines in the world deliver the sheer hedonistic bang of a great Sauternes. It’s lush, ripe, and, yes, sweet, but with a contrarian streak of acidity to prevent the richness from cloying. It’s the Taj Mahal of wines, over­-the-top and wildly opulent, yet somehow balanced. It almost seems beside the point to bring in practical concerns — that is, to ask when and how to drink it — but these are the questions that daunt many would-be drinkers of Sauternes. Sauternes is more versatile than you might think, but one time not to drink it, in my opinion, is with dessert. Pairing a great Sauternes with a piece of cake or a bowl of chocolate mousse is like playing two different symphonies at the same time: They cancel each other out.

“I want to get out of the dessert wine category,” the comte told me as we sipped an ’05 de Fargues alongside Belon oysters in the restored keep of the old fortress. It seemed like an odd pairing until I tried it; the salinity of the shellfish turned out to be a nice counterpoint to the wine’s sweetness. It reminded me a little of the contrast between salty Roquefort and Sauternes, one of my favorite combos. For much the same reason, ham is another terrific accompaniment.

The classic accompaniment to Sauternes, of course, is foie gras. Few wines can stand up to the fatty richness of foie gras, but Sauternes is perfect. Less classic is pairing it with spicy Asian cuisines. However, a good rule of

thumb is that heat balances sweet.And if you insist on drinking Sauternes with dessert, the comte suggests tarte tatin, and I concur, though my feeling is that a great de Fargues or d’Yquem is the perfect ending to the meal — dessert unto itself. Why spoil it with some childish cake or ice cream? As Hemingway once observed, a man who eats dessert probably isn’t drinking enough.

(c) Town and Country, December 2014 / January 2015