13 August 2012

sophie brissaud & sauternes at spring boutique, 75001

Writing about the wines of Bordeaux, I feel perennially obliged, before airing opinions, to quote Plato's Socrates, who said, 'If I know one thing, it is that I know nothing.'

My experience with the greats of the region is more or less reflective of my interest in them. Not that I'd ever turn down a glass of Petrus or what-have-you. But with such a teeming diversity of fascinating wines from less commercialised regions all much more readily available for study, it rarely seems with the effort involved to approach Bordeaux. There's a velvet rope of pure hassle and expense around the good stuff: purchasing it is out of the question, and most tastings that present it - especially the public tastings - are insufferably stuffy and boorish affairs, quite far removed from the "dudes hanging out with bottles" template of the most enjoyable tastings.

It's a happy coincidence that the wines of Bordeaux I find most interesting from an aesthetic standpoint - white Bordeaux and Sauternes - are in general slightly more approachable. Good examples of both wines present unique, opulent flavor profiles found nowhere else in wine, but with the exceptions of Château d'Yquem and Haut-Brion, neither wine category receives anywhere near the attention of the region's reds. One encounters the opposite problem: rarely finding the wines, let alone several at once to facilitate comparison. So when I learned my friend the prolific food writer Sophie Brissaud was to lead a tasting of Sauternes at Spring Boutique last winter, I found myself, for once, genuinely exciting about a Bordeaux tasting.

Brissaud, who I first encountered via her excellent blog, has authored sixteen books on various culinary topics, and produced several others in collaborations with notable chefs. She fell in love with Sauternes, I'm told, during research for her book "Grands Crus Classés: The Great Wines of Bordeaux with Recipes from Top Chefs of the World."

The production of Sauternes, from varying proportions of Sauvignon, Semillon, and Muscadelle grapes, famously involves botrytis, or 'noble rot,' the fungus which raisinates grapes on the vine, causing their sugars to concentrate and promoting development of the wine's distinctive flavours. But the process entails relatively low yields (25HL per hectare on average, with some celebrated estates yielding half that figure), and popularity of sweet wines has declined significantly over the course of the last century, with most drinkers - even here in France, a fact that continually surprises me - considering the whole category a kind of grannyish horror.

Brissaud has taken up promotion of Sauternes as a pet cause. None of the estates we tasted were paying her in any way, as far as I know. She just genuinely enjoys allowing people the opportunity to discover that there's great profundity to be found in Sauternes' sweetness, and that it's not necessarily frightfully sweet to begin with.

Château Lamothe-Guignard's 2004 struck me as notably mushroomy on the nose, which made for a pleasantly necrotic contrast to the palate's masculine, lightly tannic nectarine sweetness. The wine is produced from 90% Semillon, with 5% each of Moscadelle and Sauvignon; average vine age is 34 years.

My favorite wine of the tasting was perhaps more classic: Château Doisy-Daëne's 2004, which stood out for the amplification of its aromas, and for showing more secondary flavours than the others we tasted.

Acid was seamlessly integrated, supporting a lovely peach-cream / antique shop accord, rounded off with a light grassiness. Doisy-Daëne's Sauternes is notable for containing no Muscadelle - it's 89% Sauvignon, the rest Semillon. The 16ha estate has for the past 80 years been part of the Dubordieu portfolio, presently run by Denis Dubordieu and his sons. The estate also makes a very nice dry Bordeaux Blanc from Sauvignon that I've tasted on other occasions.

Given the theme of this blog, I was very interested to taste Château Guiraud's 2002, as they're one of just two estates in Sauternes practicing biodynamic viticulture. But for whatever reason this bottle wasn't showing; aromas were mute, and while the palate was impressivly persistent, it displayed little more complexity than the standard apricotty opulence.

Brissaud provided very helpful technical notes to accompany each wine, replete with varying accompaniments for each. These latter suggestions, I must admit, I found a little much: 'long roasted meats' or 'iodised shellfish,' for one; 'Thai cuisine,' for another. Such absurdly precise advice become comprehensible only in consideration of Brissaud's chief aim, which is to restore Sauternes' place at the dinner table, during dinner itself. In this respect - and this applies very widely - the pairing suggestions function semantically somewhat like the verbose descriptive signage at a Whole Foods supermarket. It's there to lend vocabulary to a potential consumer for use in convincing him or herself to purchase.

I can't argue with the success of the technique (one sees a variation of it here in France, in the punning labels Monoprix puts on its house brand items). But I'd submit that overly detailed pairing suggestions have the unintended, deleterious effect of causing consumers to fuss endlessly about precisely which breed of duck or which regional Chinese cuisine to pair with their wine, time that would be better spent drinking and conversing. If food writers can teach the public simply not to pair Sauternes with ice cream, but rather with foie gras or shellfish or Asian food, they will have already succeeded admirably.

Spring Boutique
52, rue de l'Arbre Sec
75001 PARIS
Métro: Louvre-Rivoli
Tel: 01 58 62 44 30

Related Links:

Bordeaux, town of puns
Notes on Graves from Château Méric

Spring Boutique:
Valerie Guérin of Domaine Les Milles Vignes at Spring Boutique
Blandine Chauchat of Mas Foulaquier at Spring Boutique

A terrific profile of Château Doisy-Daëne @ TheWineDoctor
A profile of Château Lamothe-Guignard @ TheWineDoctor
A good lengthy article on Sauternes production @ DiWineTaste


  1. A little bug in this phrase : "Brissaud, who I first encountered via her excellent blog". The word "blog" is a link that does not lead to Brissaud's blog. Too baaaad

  2. Thanks a lot for that report, Aaron...

    About the pairing suggestions: first, I think they sound less pompous in their original language!

    As may be read on the photos you've provided, I am not sure they can be described as "absurdly precise". Encompassing categories of taste rather than dishes or ingredients, I'd rather describe them as orientations than as pairings strictly speaking. Sincerely, I think they are rather vague.

    They are also quite different for each wine, and that was done on purpose, as I believe you guessed. The common image of Sauternes is of "sweet wines" or "dessert wines" in a rather undifferentiated manner. I think it is important to stress their diversity, and since my means of interpretation is food, I use the diversity of food to express that.

    Through that approach I hope to trigger people's curiosity and encourage them to get to know these wine better, and experience them beyond their sweetness. Sauternes have been so underexposed and limited to their status of "dessert wines" that there is a certain urgency in doing that.

    Regarding the excessive precision of my suggestions (as you judge it), well I am a food writer, and as such I like to be precise for I believe that nobody was born with a palate, but anyone can grow one and develop it to the infinite through experience, it is not just a talent some of us have. For one think I had never heard of pairing Sauternes with ice cream (that's an idea) but your suggestion for food writers to teach the public to pair them with foie gras amused me, since aside from desserts and foie gras, very few dare to serve them with anything else. Okay, some are already venturing into shellfish. But "Asian" - that made me jump. I am so tired of reading and hearing of "Asian food". What could that be? Is there such a thing as "European food"? "African food"? "American food"?

    For one thing I am not ready to set the bar so low regarding what food writers should hope for. Surely I hope we can do better than encouraging people to serve Sauternes with 'Asian food'

    Cuisines in Asia (and elsewhere) are each based on differents sets of taste balance, and I believe it is not useless or pretentious to get the public used to that idea. More knowledge is always a good thing. I do knot know what 'Asian food' is, but I know that, for instance, the balance of spice, sweetness, acidity, and fish-sauce funkiness in Northeastern Thai/Laotian foods are perfect with Château Climens or its second, Cyprès. Also that the more subdued balance of Cantonese food will meet an airier wine like Clos-Haut-Peyraguey, more successfully. But when it comes to sturdier, more resinous Sauternes (say Lamothe-Guignard), we are definitely more in the "cuisine des palombières" répertoire (yes, historically the wines drunk in the palombières were Sauternes, for their restorative and warming qualities).

    As you seem to have guessed also, this is all about pedagogy. Most wines don't need pedagogy. These ones do. I know these pairing suggestions are valid but on a global basis, personally, my belief about pairings is the following: very good stuff goes with a huge number of things, there is an incompatibility margin of about 10 to 15 percent, and that's that.

    Whole foods? Why not, if one concentrates on the form, not on the spirit? But I won't follow you on the comparison with the silly, pretentious Monoprix slogans... Ouch, being compared with marketing campaigns left to the intern when the whole team is away on vacation... Excuse me, I think I'm going to pout now.