Appellations, Terroir and sauterne

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Grape vines and Chateau Guiraud

Monday dawned hot and still. The temperature was forecast to reach 38+ (100F) and we were warned to take water with us on our journey to a chateau that made sauterne. Making wine is a delicate art and it has its own terminology. I tend to work on the basis that “I likes what I likes”, so don’t expect a detailed essay on how they make the stuff. Suffice to say they use different types of grapes which are aged in concrete and then in oak for a certain amount of time. Wines will also mature in the bottle but while it’s true that a very old bottle of grange hermitage or the like might be lovely, most wines are created to be consumed within a few years of being bottled – especially whites. Blending the various types of grapes together is the art of the vigneron. Me, I just like to drink the stuff.

The wine industry in Bordeaux is strictly controlled to ensure quality. Each vineyard (or chateau) is allowed to sell only so much wine, based on the size of the property. The vines cannot be irrigated and many vineyards have reverted to organic practices (ie no insecticides). The number of bottles of wine is also controlled. Wineries are issued with labels with individual numbers. We visited Chateau Guiraud, which is organic.

Flower gardens invited pollinators and they’ve even created insect hotels with nooks and crannies to encourage the discerning tenant.

Flowers and an insect hotel
The insect hotel – accommodation for a multitude of guests

The vineyard had a whole garden devoted to various varieties of tomatoes. I don’t recall how many – let’s call it ‘lots’.

Lots of tomatoes

To get an idea of how long this area has been settled and cultivated, this is a heritage listed Roman road.

In Australia if you want a wine in a restaurant you’d ask for the name of the grape or blend. Eg semillon sauvignon blanc, or shiraz cabernet sauvignon. In Bordeaux they’d look at you funny. You ask for a wine from an appellation. Rather than me paraphrasing what it’s all about, have a look at this page. From there, we heard about ‘terroir’ which is a combination of weather, soil, microclimate and the like as it pertains to an appellation. Get the real description of Terroir here.

Today we were going to be shown the process of making sauterne. I’d always thought of sauterne as a sticky, a dessert wine. But as we would discover with our tasting, it’s really not. Sauterne is made from Sémillon, Sauvignon blanc, and Muscadelle grapes that have been affected by Botrytis cinerea, also known as noble rot. Our guide explained that while most vineyards fear fungal outbreaks, it is essential to make sauterne. The fungus sucks moisture from the grapes, increasing the intensity of the flavour. It’s a bit like making wine from raisins.

This area combines conditions that increase the likelihood of botrytis occurrence. The vineyards are in a triangle of land bordered by the Garonne River, its waters warmed by the sun, and the Ciron River, with cold waters shaded by overhanging trees. When the Ciron flows into the Garonne the mingling of the cold and warm water causes mists which are ideal for the fungus to form – which is a perfect example of ‘terroir’. Our guide explained that harvesting the grapes is labour-intensive. The pickers only take grapes which have been sufficiently affected by the botrytis. The vines will be picked over several times, so the pickers need to be knowledgeable and available. As a result, pickers usually come from surrounding villages. Each new picker is supervised for the first season to make sure they know what they’re doing.

Our heads full of information, we tasted two of the chateau’s wines – a young sauterne, and an older one so we could taste the difference age makes.

Wines for tasting
Chateau Cazeneuve

From here, we went on to Chateau Royal de Cazeneuve – what we would automatically think of as a chateau – a castle. Owned by the Dukes d’Albret since the 12th century, the chateau is still owned by the same family. During the 16th century it was the home of King Henri IV and his wife, Margot. Queen Margot was another high-born lady who enjoyed herself. Henri had many mistresses and Margot used to meet her lovers in a cave in the forest. What’s good for the gander and all that. Louis XIII and Louis XIV both stayed at the castle, as did Edward I of England. France’s death duties are crippling and having renovated the castle, the baron elected to use it to make a living by encouraging tour groups, and conducting events and lunches such as the one we enjoyed there.

The lunch menu – absolutely delicious
Lunch remnants with the remains of the sauterne

After lunch we were invited to tour the castle and grounds before setting off to rejoin our boat for the trip back to Bordeaux. We actually did some sailing, arriving just on sunset.

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