The name as applied to the French wines is always spelt with a final ‘s’. The region is to the south of Bordeaux, within the area of Graves. The wines are white and, today, must be sweet to get the A.O.C. Sauternes; but this was not always so. As recently as the early part of the 19th century, they were dry or dryish – though fairly full in character. The story has it that in the 19th century the owner of Yquem insisted on the vintagers waiting for his express instructions before picking. These were then delayed, arriving so late that the grapes shrivelled on the vines. When, in desperation, these grapes were pressed, the wine they made was superlative.
In fact the unique quality of Sauternes comes from the action of Botrytis cinerea. This settles on the grapes in certain years (humidity and a certain amount of warmth late in the vintage is necessary) and shrivels them, concentrating the juice inside. Its action is such that when, after successive passages by the vintagers through the vineyard (the grapes are picked one by one, using special scissors, rarely bunches), the wine can be made, the result is a luscious golden liquid. Records indicate that sweet Sauternes of this kind was first made in the early part of the 19th century; although the great sweet German wines were being made long before this. Unlike the German sweet wines, the Sauternes are fairly high in alcohol – this is why they are taxing to drink.
Within the Sauternes boundaries are the regions of Bommes, Fargues, Preignac, and that of Barsac adjoins it. Sauternes begin, continue and end sweet; they have a beautiful deep golden colour and great fragrance. Our ancestors drank them copiously, even at the beginning of a meal, but recently they have tended to go out of fashion. Menus showing that they were served with oysters exist, including one of a dinner given by President Roosevelt at the White House in 1937 for the visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. They should always be served well chilled.