Discovering you could make a wine from grapes that have shrivelled with rot to leathery little fossils on the vine is viticultural history’s finest example of making a silk purse out a sow’s ear. There is a sense of the miraculous in every sip.
The classified wines of the Sauternes district of Bordeaux are among the prime exemplars of the style. From the serene majesty of Chateau d’Yquem, cloistered in splendour in a taxonomic category of its own to the region’s many dazzling smaller growers, production of Sauternes requires uncommon dedication. Not every vintage produces quite the right conditions for it, and even when the times and grapes are ripe, the harvesting is a matter of painstaking selection, bunch by bunch, even berry by berry if you’ve money to burn and the backs of your vineyard labour don’t break.
All of which begs the question: What are these wines for? They drink beautifully on their own, standing in for a dessert at many a meal where the thought of another dish is outfacing. In France, unfathomably enough, they are often drunk as aperitifs. The one thing nobody seems that keen on these days is drinking them alongside dessert dishes. One of the UK’s most senior wine authorities once remarked in a tone of genteel despair to the young pup who’d been sent to interview him that the British would persist in seeing Sauternes as a dessert wine.
Cue contemptuous rolling of eyes. Typical! But, er, as opposed to what?
The continuing search for an answer to that question led us to London’s Delfina restaurant a couple of weeks ago, where a horizontal tasting of the immensely promising 2005 Sauternes vintage was married with a succession of dishes created by the venue’s erstwhile chef, Maria Elia.
Elia’s food has always been at the vibrant edge of the modern brasserie idiom, blending influences from all shores of the Mediterranean with sound culinary technique and a nerveless feel for balance. If anybody could persuade dishes across the taste spectrum to match up to the unyielding demands of nectar-sweet wines, it would be her.
We began in muscular style with an extraordinary appetiser. A little ramekin of what looked like crme brle turned out to be a mind-blowingly rich combination of Roquefort and fig, with a couple of grissini for dipping.
The match of honey-dripping wine and the salty blue sheep’s cheese of Cambalou is an established classic, and so this was naturally successful. It isn’t just the salt/sweet idea that carries it. There are other nuances within the match, such as the way the almost spicy quality of the blue mould meets the high alcohol in the wine head-on. With the triumphantly full and luscious Lafaurie-Peyraguey, this was a winning combination.Where next, though?
A thorough cleansing of the palate with water seemed necessary before setting about the first course, which was a complicated assemblage of duck foie gras, garnished with poached pear and shaved ginger, on walnut and raisin bruschetta. I may be the only person in western Europe who thinks that Sauternes and foie gras is not a happy marriage, largely because the two types of fattiness in the food and the wine seem to slip and slide over each other, rather than properly getting to grips.
This was a good match however, especially with one or two of the lighter 2005s, such as Villefranche and the surprisingly delicate Guiraud. What, I suspect, was carrying it, though, were the sweet fruit elements in the dish, the pear and the raisins being spotlit by the unctuous ripeness of the wines.
Most daring was the main course, in which nicely charred, jointed quail which had been rubbed with Moroccan spices, was served on a bed of satin-smooth sweet potato mash. The intriguing discovery here was that even the richer wines carried this, the Haut-Peyraguey and Raymond-Lafon matching it for both textural weight and subtlety of flavour.
The winemaker of Bastor-Lamontagne told me they are deliberately making a breezier, fresher style of Sauternes these days, with up to 20% Sauvignon Blanc in the blend, which is intended specifically to accompany savoury dishes. And indeed it was interestingly good with the quail dish, the sweet potato bringing out a fascinating savoury note in the wine.
The remainder of the menu was ostensibly cheese and dessert. The latter, an orange syrup cake topped with crme frache, hardly tested our palates, and in fact the cheese dish was effectively another kind of dessert. It was a cheesecake made with some light blue type (perhaps dolcelatte), accompanied by a quenelle of creamed rhubarb.If there was a lesson to be drawn from these menu pairings, it seemed to be that more than a touch of sweetness in the dish is a must. Even that main course was based on sweet potato. The dishes don’t have to be desserts, but they do need some sweeter element that helps them to meet the wine halfway. Once that’s in place, the savoury components will seemingly follow.
(And my pick of the 2005 Sauternes on show? Lafaurie-Peyraguey, La Tour Blanche, and the twin properties of Haut-Peyraguey and Haut-Bommes.) Stuart Walton is a long-serving food and wine writer, a contributor to the Good Food Guide, and author of The Right Food with the Right Wine.