Last week, the Union des Grands Vins Liquoureux de Bordeaux, the body that represents Bordeaux sweet wine producers, hosted a tasting of wines from six of the appellations they represent to partner savoury and sweet dishes at a lunch at le Cercle restaurant in Chelsea.
Sauternes and Barsac are the best, and best-known, Bordeaux appellations for sweet wines, but there are in fact eleven, producing vins liquoreux (sweet wines) and vins moelleux (medium sweet wines) from Semillon (60-80%), Sauvignon blanc (20-40%) and, in the better wines, Muscadelle (2-5%). The Semillon provides roundness, the Sauvignon Blanc light, fresher notes, and the Muscadelle an aromatic fruitiness.
An essential element to producing a good sweet wine is botrytis, or noble rot. Late in the autumn, the spores of a tiny fungus attack very ripe grapes, high in sugar content, shrivelling and discolouring the fruit, and in the wine enhancing the aroma and flavour and increasing viscosity. Sweet wines without botrytis lack distinction; wines that have noble rot have a clear aromatic profile, lusciousness, and in the best examples, complexity and longevity.
Our first wine, a Premières Côtes de Bordeaux NV, was served as aperitif with crudits and a yogurt dip. This simple, medium sweet wine was agreeably refreshing and pleasant with the vegetables and dip.
At table we moved to a Premiers de Loupiac, 2004 to partner fennel confit, orange vinaigrette and rocket salad. The slightly botrytised wine, easy and light, matched both rocket and caramelised fennel well. The chef had, for me, introduced too much orange into the vinaigrette and that did not enhance the wine. Other vegetables with a sweet note, such as asparagus, fresh young peas or in winter a dish of braised parsnips would go well with a Loupiac.
The next course, foie gras confit, fruit jelly and lemon granite was accompanied by Château de Cérons, 2001 and Château Crabitan-Bellevue, Ste-Croix-du-Mont, 2001. The two wines were markedly different in style: the Crons was full-bodied, luscious, apricotty on the nose and quite long; the light, minerally Sainte Croix du Mont was stylish, but had a harshness on the finish. Both accompanied the foie gras well; the granite was not, in my view, a good addition to the dish, and did not go well with either wine.
A salt cod roulade with carrot and tarragon, accompanied by a Château Peyruchet, Cadillac, 2000 came next. For me, this was the most successful pairing. The wine had lusciousness and also good acidity to support the judiciously tarragon-flavoured cod and the sweet note of the carrots.
Next came roast quail, apple and quince puree and grapefruit with a Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Sauternes, 2001. My serving had little apple and quince, and no evident grapefruit, but rather an excess of red capsicum, not usually a good companion to wine. This was no exception, but once the bits of capsicum were set aside, this luscious, honeyed wine, with a fine vein of acidity was a good foil for the quail. Poultry of all kinds marries well with sweet wines; one of the most famous dishes of the region is roast chicken liberally basted with Sauternes, and then served with a bottle of the same wine.
The dessert, mango and coconut rice sushi, served with Château Haut Bergeron, Sauternes 2003 was a disappointment. The coconut rice was quite mismatched with the wine, and the lime flavours were too strong to match its gentler citrus notes. The lightly botrytised, luscious wine, concentrated and full-bodied, would have gone better with an apple tart or a ripe peach. A subtly flavoured oriental chicken or fish dish could also have accompanied this wine at an earlier stage of the menu.
This might seem a startling suggestion, but with some thought and experiment, the sweet wines of Bordeaux can provide unexpectedly successful partners to savoury dishes from Asia and from closer to home. In the 19th century it was common for a Sauternes to be served with a fish our poultry course in the middle of an extensive dinner. Our palates may be unaccustomed to such combinations, yet the overall success of this lunch shows that the pairing of sweet wines with savoury food does work, and with good quality wines, there is no danger of palate fatigue as you move through the menu.
Le Cercle is at 1 Wilbraham Place, Chelsea, London, SW1X 9AE. Tel: 020 7901 9999. All the wines mentioned cost under £20 and are available in the UK.
Jill Norman is as acclaimed as an editor as she is as a writer. She created the Penguin Cookery Library in the 1960s and 1970s, worked with Elizabeth David for many years and is literary trustee of her estate. She has since become a Glenfiddich trophy winner in her own right, and is a leading authority on the use of herbs and spices as well as having a long-standing interest in food and wine matching. Her most recent books are Herb & Spice (Dorling Kindersley) and Winter Food (Kyle Cathie)
Photo by Vanessa Courtier