Golden Bordeaux

Andrew Polmear writes for the love of wine . . .

There’s an appalling lot of nonsense written about wine. I thought I’d found another prime example of this recently when I read an article on an American wine website called Snooth about the sweet wines of Bordeaux. Wine makers are trying to cope with poor sales by rebranding their sweet wines as ‘Golden Bordeaux’ and the suggestion by Snooth was that sweet Bordeaux wines go well with any food, except perhaps sweet desserts. What were they thinking of, I wondered, when almost everyone calls these ‘dessert wines’? It’s true that there are a few situations, other than dessert, when one might drink a sweet wine. French friends in the south of France will opt for a sweet local Muscat as an aperitif, rather than the dry white wine that we English tend to drink. And a case has been made for pairing sweet wines with foie gras and with blue cheese, but that is as far as conventional wisdom goes. Furthermore, why does Snooth advise against our current habit of pairing sweet white wine with a sweet dessert? That I do understand; it’s because they are too similar. Food pairing is about matching power with power, delicacy with delicacy, but also about pairing contrasting flavours and textures.

So, to put Snooth to the test, we got out our only Sauternes, a half bottle of Chateau Suduiraut 2011, and tried it out on New Year’s Eve with a friend.

Noble rot
Noble rot

Served chilled, it was excellent as an aperitif. Sauternes, and the other 9 appellations south of Bordeaux that make sweet wine, do not make any old sweet wine. The grapes are left on the vine to rot, and the misty October mornings and warm afternoons of that area means that they become mouldy with a specific fungus, Botrytis, which makes for wine of extraordinary power: not just sweet but packed with a distinctive marmalade/vanilla/honey flavour. You don’t have to remember the names of the 10 appellations to know you are getting a sweet wine; the golden colour gives it away.

Next course was mackerel paté. Excellent again. The Sauternes was the perfect foil for the strong fishy taste of the mackerel.

The main course was a powerful vegetarian dish – root vegetables with chestnut, black beans and chilli. Here the problem started. It wasn’t that the Sauternes didn’t go with the food, it was that we’d had enough of it. All that sweetness was just too cloying. One mouthful in and we’d all three changed to a red Navarra Reserva.

Then the cheese. The Sauternes was marvellous with the Stilton but not with a milder hard cheese; its flavour disappeared under the Sauternes’ power.

Dessert was mincemeat ice cream in a brandy snap basket. It was sweet but, like Christmas pudding, also spicy and the Sauternes worked wonderfully well because of the contrast with the spice.

So, I half agree with Snooth. A Sauternes will go with almost anything that’s powerful enough to cope. I can also imagine it with spicy Asian food, with salty oysters or calamari. I still can’t imagine it with red meat. But above all, I’d only want it with one or two courses, at either end of the meal. Which brings us back to serving it as an aperitif and with (a fruity or spicy) dessert – which is what we’ve been doing anyway.

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