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In the latest of Square Meal's ongoing series of tours to the world's great wine regions, Hamish Anderson heads to Sauternes in a Mercedes E 220 CDI
The long approach up Château Suduiraut's drive filled me with a genuine sense of excitement and awe. Here I was, in one of the world's great wine regions, about to taste one of the world's great wines. The sun was shining, the vines had a picture-postcard look about them, and the gently rolling vineyards appeared to be in impossibly rude health. Surrounded on all sides by vines was the 17th-century château, its wrought-iron gates and cream turrets resounding with history.
A warm, down-to-earth welcome from the proprietor and the rumble of a tractor soon snapped me out of my reverie and brought me back to the 21st century, however.
Only 10 minutes later, after a brief tour of the ancient vaulted cellars, I was sampling the estate's 2001 in a contemporary, functional tasting room. This was an extremely complex wine, full of life-affirming acidity and a finish that lasted well over a minute. I had definitely arrived in Sauternes.
The region holds a particular allure for wine drinkers, as it is here that many of the world's most astonishing sweet wines are made. For an area that produces such a modest amount of wine, its reputation is huge. It is home to one of the world's fabled estates, Château d'Yquem, whose wines have graced the tables of European aristocracy and the world's rich and famous for centuries. Thomas Jefferson, US president from 1801 to 1809, was among its avid consumers, as were the tsars of Russia.
Debate rages in the Bordeaux region, Hungary (Tokaji) and Germany as to who first realised the beneficial effects of botrytis cinerea (see box overleaf), the mould that plays such a key part in the production of wine in the region. But who discovered it is not the most important issue; what really matters is that Sauternes is one of the few places on the planet where a number of factors combine to promote its growth on a regular basis.
Today, after a string of good vintages in the late 1990s and early 21st century, its wines are undergoing a resurgence. And compared with their red cousins, they look positively good value. Mature vintages can still be picked up for surprisingly little money.
This situation is unlikely to last as the laws of supply and demand take effect in this increasingly fashionable region. My advice is to get on board now and stock up before the rest of the world realises what it has been missing.
I have been lucky enough in my travels to visit most of the world's major wine-producing areas. But a visit to one of the spiritual homes of sweet wine has somehow eluded me until this trip to Sauternes.
The journey was made yet more enticing by the Mercedes E 220 CDI saloon (376 miles on the clock) in which I travelled. The blissfully car-free French autoroutes gave me the perfect opportunity to use the cruise control, and the péages proved the only disruption to our serene progress - although they did give the E 220 an opportunity to show off its effortless acceleration.
After eight hours in most cars you'd expect to feel a little frayed round the edges, but not only was the E 220 a pleasure to drive, but I felt surprisingly fresh when I stepped out of the car that first evening at our hotel. This was a testament to the car's comfortable interior design.
Sauternes is a small area and accommodation is limited, so I had based myself at a hotel just outside, Les Sources de Caudalie in Pessac-Léognan. Owned by Château Smith Haut-Lafitte (a rejuvenated estate producing excellent dry white and red wine), it has a fine restaurant with an excellent cellar. It also has a famous spa that uses products developed by the owner's daughter, all made from grape skins and seeds. Not only was I going to taste a collection of exceptional sweet wines, I could literally bathe in the stuff at the end of the day. It also had the advantage of being within striking distance of Sauternes, yet also offering easy access to Bordeaux city in the evening.
As Bordeaux itself is a large area, it is easy to forget just how small and compact Sauternes is until you get there. It has a positively Burgundian feel to it, with small villages and all the famous châteaux within spitting distance of each other. I started off in Barsac and within 10 minutes had driven past Climens, Coutet, Doisy-Daëne and Doisy-Védrines, a roll call of the great and good of the sweet wine world.
Sauternes itself is a small, appealing village and there is an opportunity just outside to wander down to the banks of the Ciron. This river plays a key role in the production of the wines by providing the misty evenings that promote the growth of botrytis.
What was also apparent here was the welcoming nature of many of the estates. Visiting and tasting at many Médoc properties usually involves advance booking, and you need an introduction to set foot in any of the really exclusive châteaux. Sauternes has an altogether more open feel, perhaps realising the need to promote its wares in the face of the vagaries of fashion. You can turn up unannounced at many châteaux and taste.
Take into consideration, however, that at harvest (any time from early October through to late November), estates will be working flat out. Spring through to autumn is the best time to visit, with autumn offering a particularly stunning spectacle, as the vineyards turn from green to golden brown.
One of the highlights of my trip was a tasting and lunch with Alexandre de Lur Saluces, arguably the most famous name in Sauternes. Now no longer involved at Château d'Yquem, he has turned his considerable talents to the family estate of de Fargues. This property, long favoured by those in the trade, is not more widely known because of its tiny production.
De Fargues' château could not be more picturesque if it tried and has been in the Lur Saluces family since 1472. The original building dwarfs the current house, a stunning ruin that Alexandre dreams of rebuilding. This will be no mean feat, considering it has no roof and hasn't been lived in since 1687, when it was damaged by fire.
The estate has a relatively short history of producing sweet wine, having been converted from red wine making in the 1930s and 1940s. Indeed, today only a small part of the total acreage is under vine. This fact was highlighted when Alexandre proudly pointed out his herd of Bazas cattle, a breed local to Bordeaux.
We tasted a range of wines from barrel (the property is unusual in ageing its wine for up to three years in oak barrels, a particularly long time) and this confirmed that they are among the most luscious and decadent of sweet wines. Lunch also demonstrated that great Sauternes should not just be limited to being drunk with desserts. Roast guinea fowl with ceps and a 1996 de Fargues was a revelation.
An hour later and I had quietly passed the car keys to my driving assistant and was happily discussing the fortunes of the region with Alexandre over a glass of the extraordinarily powerful 1990. Life really doesn't get much better than that.
Sauternes (in which I also include Barsac, a subregion, that can label its wines using either name) is synonymous with the world's greatest sweet wines. It is a region steeped in history and, after a couple of decades in the doldrums, it is now being restored qualitatively, and in the wine drinker's psyche, to its rightful place.
The vineyards are situated in Bordeaux, to the south-east of the city, along the banks of the river Ciron, one of the Garonne's tributaries. The main grape of the region is Sémillon, with Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle playing minor supporting roles. Late harvested grapes, in the best years heavily affected by the fungus botrytis cinerea, are fashioned into decadent, long-lived wines.
Stylistically, the wines vary hugely, depending on the vintage. The lighter years will have a deep yellow colour and have aromas of tropical fruits and honey and, while being sweet, will not be decadently so. In the best years, they take on a golden appearance and taste of spices, toffee, dried fruits and caramel. Top wines will age effortlessly for decades, taking on extra layers of complexity, but tasting drier the older they get.
The lighter versions are perhaps the most versatile with food, especially rich pâtés, foie gras, fruit-based desserts and blue cheese. But if you want to try something a bit more unusual, they also work splendidly with spicy Asian food. Try the best wines with tarte tatin, crème brûlée and any caramelised dessert, or savour their complexity on their own at the end of a meal.
Everyone should try d'yquem at least once in their life, as little else in the vinous world gets close to it for consistency, power and complexity. The estate has recently undergone a painful transition from more than 200 years of ownership by the Lur Saluces family into the hands of the Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton empire. Quality remains stellar, as witnessed by the rave reviews that accompanied the recently released 2003. yes, it is expensive, but take into consideration the sheer effort (typically pickers will go through the vineyards up to 10 different times during harvest) as well as the minuscule yields per vine, and it doesn't seem so bad.
From £100 a bottle
While d'yquem grabs the headlines, those in the know drink de Fargues, as it approaches the same quality level but at a fraction of the price. Made by Alexandre de Lur Saluces, of d'yquem fame, it is the epitome of flamboyant, creamy Sauternes. Made in tiny quantities (a paltry 1,250 cases a year), it needs to be bought young and squirrelled away, as very rarely are mature vintages seen on the open market.
From £35 a bottle
Part of insurance company AXA's portfolio (it also owns Château Pichon-Longueville Baron in Pauillac), this brilliantly run estate consistently overdelivers on price to quality.
From £20 a bottle
Like all Bordeaux wines, it is worth shopping around as prices vary enormously. A good place to start is Farr Vintners (tel: 020 7821 2000, www.farr-vintners.com).
Rot, mould, mildew and the like are usually the bane of winemakers worldwide. It is thus a peculiar irony that the production of truly great sweet wine in Sauternes rests on the properties of one such fungus called botrytis cinerea, otherwise known as 'noble rot'. Encouraged by misty autumn nights, it has the effect of reducing the amount of water in each berry, shrivelling the grapes to raisins and concentrating the juice and flavours within. Conditions are not right for it every year, so producers count themselves lucky to have five great vintages in a decade. The best winemakers go through the vineyards many times selecting only those grapes affected (top estates talk not of harvesting bunches, but of individual grapes). The harvest might start in october and has been known to go into December. It all amounts to a hugely time-consuming and expensive process. And if you consider that the dehydrated grapes produce yields that are roughly one fifth of the rest of Bordeaux and a staggering one tenth of the average in Champagne, they suddenly look rather good value. The typical flavours imparted by noble rot grapes are exotic tropical fruits, marmalade and caramel.
The best of the last 25 years 2003, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997, 1996, 1990, 1989, 1988, 1986, 1983
Les Sources de Caudalie
Chemin de Smith Haut-Lafitte, 33650 Bordeaux Tel: 00 33 557 83 83 83, www.sources-caudalie.com Charming, artistically decorated hotel that's excellently situated and offers two good restaurants and a spa. From £130 a night.
33210 Sauternes Tel: 00 33 556 76 66 55, www.chateaudarche-sauternes.com overlooking the village of Sauternes, this is a wonderful spot right in the heart of the château's vineyards. From £90 a night.
Domaine de Fompeyre
route de Mont-de-Marsan, 33340 Bazas Tel: 00 33 556 25 98 00, www.monalisahotels.com Situated on the edge of the Sauternes region, this is a well-situated and good value hotel. From £70 a night.
6 rue Porte de la Monnaie,
Tel: 00 33 556 91 56 37,
If you only eat in one place in Bordeaux, make sure this is it. Have rib of Bazas beef or duck cooked on the open fire.
Chemin de Smith Haut- Lafitte,
Tel: 00 33 557 83 83 83,
A serious restaurant attached to the Les Sources hotel, it features a stellar wine list.
Eurotunnel can be contacted on 0870 535 3535 or www.eurotunnel.com n For further information on the Sauternes region, visit www.sauternais-graves-langon.com n For driving tips and advice on routes, visit the AA's website at www.theaa.com. note: If you can avoid it, do not drive in Bordeaux city, a nightmare of one-way systems where parking is impossible.
Engine: 2148cc, 6-speed manual transmission
0-62.5mph: 10.1 seconds
Top speed: 134mph
Hamish Anderson's verdict: The journey to Bordeaux showed off the strengths of the E 220 CDI to the full: it simply eats up miles on motorways. Perhaps more surprising, though, was its performance on the windy roads of Sauternes, the diesel engine packing a surprising punch. And for a car that has an imposing presence, the handling was superb. London to Bordeaux is 10 hours' driving, yet so comfortable and well designed is the interior that I was ready to dive straight into a wine tasting on arrival. This really is the ultimate vehicle in which to cover long distances, without feeling like you've travelled to the ends of the earth.
Top Gear's Andy Wilman's verdict: As you read this, Mercedes is loading up container ships with fistfuls of the heavily revised E Class, which will arrive here with new engines, new suspension and a body that's been under the knife. The outgoing 220 though, has acquitted itself respectably. All it lacked was the power punch of its 320 big brother. Still, a late model of the 220 will make a very decent second hand buy once the new version arrives.