Over the past year I’ve spent time tasting and researching the sweet wines of Bordeaux for a piece in Forbes. I got hooked. And you will too.
In the U.S. market they are referred to by several unofficial names—”late harvest” or “golden” or “sweet” or “dessert”—but by definition this category is associated with sweetness, distinct from the Bordeaux table wines that many consumers associate with meal pairing or everyday drinking.
These wines have varying levels of natural sweetness due to an occurrence in the vineyard (not a winemaking technique to appeal appeal to sugar-loving palates). This phenomenon is fascinating, a true symbol of terroir in the French sense, a synergy of the natural environment plus the work of human hands and the application of the wisdom gained from this work.
The environmental conditions in these Bordeaux vineyards welcome an organism called botrytis, a mold that performs something like perforation with surgical precision upon the the grapes, causing them to leak the tiniest bits of water from their flesh. What remains is concentrated, succulent, luscious fruit that is used to make wine that reflects this character.
Skilled winegrowers understand how to harvest and vinify these grapes, but it’s not easy. Botrytis—so treasured it has been called noble rot—doesn’t sweep through a vineyard and impact all grapes. In fact, it doesn’t even impact every grape in a given cluster. Someone must choose the grapes by sight in order to harvest them properly.
As sommelier Yannick Benjamin describes, “you can imagine picking berry by berry.” This is a hand-harvest that could take a month or more, with several trips to the vineyard to pull the chosen berries from the vine. If the conditions aren’t right in a certain year, or the grapes aren’t up to standards, a domaine or winery may not even declare a vintage for their sweet wines.
But this level of focus is worth it, he says. The resulting wines exhibit “intense spice and complexity, hard to duplicate anywhere in the world.” Benjamin estimates that one vine has the limited potential to produce only a single glass of wine. “The amount of labor required is not easy,” he says.
Reading this, one may think that drinking a wine with such provenance is out of reach. Too expensive. Too rare. While there are wines at the tippy top of the scale (the mind goes to Château d’Yquem from Sauternes) there are many family wineries that produce exceptional bottles in this category at reasonable prices. Corners simply aren’t cut in this particular craft, so buyers will always get a product of quality, which is reassuring in the world of wine where confusion can easily set in.
A note of advice to readers thinking that sweet wine isn’t your thing: this sort of sweet is different. It’s not pop-or-soda of the wine world. These wines are complex, an enchanting balance of sweet and savory, satisfying in mouthfeel, versatile beyond expectation. “We should not be afraid of sugar,” says Benjamin.
Not Just For Dessert
For many fans around the world, these wines are admired for their satisfactory, unctuous dessert-like quality. In our household we do sub in a small glass of Loupiac for ice cream or brownies after dinner. But they are exceptionally versatile, with a spot at the bar and on the table in nearly any circumstance.
Chasity Beasley is a Chicago native and veteran mixologist for more than 17 years. “I’m going to spread the word on how great sweet Bordeaux is for cocktails,” she says. “It’s got a lot of complexity. It’s beautiful, elegant and shows terroir.”
Chef Justin Kingsley Hall, owner of Main Street Provisions, opening soon in Las Vegas, loves to pair sweet Bordeaux with food cooked over an open fire. “These wines are so complex, and so is cooking, so you can really have fun,” says Kingsley Hall. He says they are perfect for foods with spicy-sweet sauces, such as New Orleans style BBQ shrimp, or quail with a blackberry demi-glace.
Benjamin agrees that sweet Bordeaux shines with spice: “I’m telling you right now that the sweetness of the wine will cool down the spiciness of the dish.” And as a bonus, these wines are kitchen-friendly. “The acid and the sugar acts as a preservative and you can keep the bottle for two to three weeks when opened,” adds Benjamin.
Wines to Try
Château Tanesse Lion de Tanesse Bordeaux Moelleux 2019 (Bordeaux Moelleux) $15 USD
Château Tanesse Palissades Moelleux 2018 (Premieres Côtes de Bordeaux) $16 USD
Château Dauphiné-Rondillon Cuvée d’Or 2015 (Loupiac) $42 USD — I spoke with Sandrine Froleon, the winemaker at Château Dauphiné-Rondillon about the 2020 harvest in a recent piece for Forbes. Find it here.
Château du Cros 2014 (Loupiac) $30 USD
The French Winophiles
Admit it. You are hungry now. And craving sweet Bordeaux. Good news: there is more to come. This month our French Winophiles group has gathered around the theme of sweet Bordeaux and many of the writers have prepared pairings with free-to-use recipes. Many of them reflect this spicy-sweet concept introduced by Yannick and Justin.
We also have a special edition Twitter chat, dedicated to sweet Bordeaux. You’ll find us at 10am central time with the hashtag #Winophiles. All are welcome to join!
Meanwhile, here are the stories and pairings I promised:
- Camilla at Culinary Adventures with Camilla: “Surprise! Pairing Spicy and Savory Dishes with Sweet Bordeaux”
- Terri at Our Good Life: “Spicy Hot Tacos and Sweet Bordeaux”
- Martin at ENOFYLZ: “Pairing Golden Bordeaux with Southern Fare”
- Lauren at The Swirling Dervish: “Golden Bordeaux Meets Savory Pumpkin and Smoked Bacon Tart: a Delicious Thanksgiving Twist!”
- David at Cooking Chat: “Pairings for Sweet Bordeaux Wine”
- Katrina at The Corkscrew Concierge: “Golden Bordeaux Delights in Louisiana’s Cajun and Creole Cuisine”
- Payal at Keep the Peas: “Four Sweet Bordeaux Wines with Four Courses”
- Jane at Always Ravenous: “Golden Sweet Bordeaux Wines: Tasting and Pairings”
- Wendy at A Day in the Life on the Farm: “Hot Chocolate and Halva Pudding paired with Lion De Tanesse L’Amour”
- Jeff at foodwineclick: “Sweet Bordeaux Meets the Smoke”
- Here at L’OCCASION: “Sweet Bordeaux Wines Aren’t Just for Dessert”
- Lynn at Savor the Harvest: “Sweet Bordeaux Wines Get Savory Pairings”
- Rupal at Syrah Queen: “Sweet Bordeaux Is A Sweet Delight – Savor These Perfect Food Pairings”
- Robin at Crushed Grape Chronicles: “Sweet Bordeaux Wines and pairings from opposite sides of the globe”
- Pinny at Chinese Food & Wine Pairings: “Sweet Bordeaux Paired with Asian Carbs – Chinese Sticky Rice and Korean Japchae”
- Susannah at avvinare: “Delightful Sweet Wines from Bordeaux”
- Nicole at Somm’s Table: “Château Loupiac Gaudiet with Cinnamon Apple Crème Brûlée”
- Gwendolyn at wine predator: “Successful Pairings of Salty and Savory with Sweet Semi-Dry Bordeaux”
- Jennifer at Vino Travels: “A Look into the Sweeter Side of Bordeaux Wines”
- Linda at My Full Wine Glass: “Appetizer, entrées and yes, dessert please, with sweet Bordeaux”
- Payal at Keep the Peas: “Four Sweet Bordeaux Wines With Four Courses”
*To orient oneself, understand that all of these wines come from ten appellations Bordeaux: Barsac, Bordeaux Supérieur, Cadillac, Cérons, Côtes de Bordeaux-Saint-Macaire, Graves Supérieures, Loupiac, Premieres Côtes de Bordeaux, Sainte-Croix-du-Mont and Sauternes. Like all French appellations, each has their own regulations and slightly unique understanding their winegrowing process that honors the overall concept of sweet Bordeaux winemaking.