Yesterday I mentioned how excellent the wine was on our Viking River Cruise last month. What I didn’t say was how much I learned about wine during the trip. Our first lesson concerned the Sauternes wines. I’m not a big fan of sweet wines, even though I started drinking them around age five. But the process is fascinating.
We visited Chateau Guiraud, which produces a variety of vintages, including the sweet Sauternes wines. The Chateau is located 20 miles south of Bordeaux in a small area within the Graves region on the left bank of the Garonne River. It’s dedicated to producing dessert wines for a geographic reason.
Mist and Fungus
A smaller stream, the Ciron River, enters the Garonne, carrying cold water from the mountains. The mix of water temperatures creates a low-lying autumnal mist that provides the perfect condition for the growth of the botrytis cinerea fungus, or “noble rot.”
The fungus grows on the Sémillon grapes in the fall and changes the composition of the fruit. It decreases the water content and the acidity, while increasing the sugar levels. The fungus shrivels the grapes into clusters that look like raisins on the vine. Because Sémillon grapes are particularly susceptible to the botrytis fungus they are the primary variety grown here.
The harvest does not begin until the grapes reach a minimum potential alcohol level of 20° C. It starts when the morning mist lifts and the grapes have dried. The fungus does not grow evenly across the vineyard, however, so the grapes are hand-picked.
The 120 pickers inspect each bunch for the required level of botrytis, leaving the ones that aren’t mature for a later picking. Sometimes they pick the grapes one by one, selecting only the tightly shriveled ones. That means the harvest for sweet Bordeaux can take several months to complete. The picked grapes are placed in plastic tubs but never piled one bunch on top of another to prevent squishing.
This painstaking approach affects the yield. A typical vine is cultivated to grow about a dozen clusters which produce a bottle of wine. For Sauternes, however, each botryris-infected vine yields only one glass of the golden wine. That’s why it’s so expensive.
Only five villages produce authentic French Sauternes: Sauternes, Barsac, Bommes, Fargues and Preignac. All other sweet wines from the area are labeled simply as “sweet Bordeaux.”
We arrived at Chateau Guiraud on a sunny late-fall morning. The chateau is a beautiful house in the heart of the estate and the whole estate is located within the village of Sauternes. No one lives in it anymore and the building is used for wine tastings and other functions.
Formerly known as the “noble house of Bayle,” It once belonged to the Mons Saint-Poly family but was acquired by Pierre Guiraud in 1766. In 1855, Chateau Guiraud was named a “Premier Grand Cru de Sauternes,” or “First Great Classified Growth.” This means the vintage is in the highest tier of the classification for Sauternes.
We entered the room warmed by a roaring fire in fireplace big enough to hold a wild boar. There we were treated to tastings of three different vintages from the Chateau, which also produces a white wine. After learning the differences in taste and sweetness, we were taken on a tour of the winery in which our guide explained the process of creating the chateau’s great vintages.
The Great Houses
It’s fascinating to see the great houses surrounded by vines growing on every inch of suitable land—which is the sparse gravelly ground. Truly fertile land is used to grow other things. The vines had been harvested and pruned back for the winter, of course, but the acres and acres of vineyards were impressive.
It seems like there are chateaux everywhere one looks because wine—in many varieties and colors—is the main product of the Bordeaux region. There are so many picturesque manor houses, chateaux, farmhouses and vineyards that it’s impossible to photograph them all.
This was the first of the wine-related trips on our @VikingRiver cruise but certainly not the last. A person who knew nothing about wine at the start of this cruise was an expert by the end. We were given the opportunity to participate in so many wine (and cheese) tastings that I drank wine every day, sometimes many times a day.
Now that’s a vacation!