Far more people know something of Sauternes than have actually drunk it, I fear. Sauternes seems to be one of those wines that resonate in wine lore but are consumed less and less with every passing year. I have to plead guilty to my part in that neglect: I have unconscionably ignored Sauternes for far too long.
Not that that was ever a deliberate plan, mind you: I just sort of fell out of the Sauternes habit. Just what a pity that is I realized over the Christmas holidays when I stumbled on a bottle of Chateau Rieussec 1989 that I had completely forgotten I had. The bottle was only slightly ulled and the cork was sound. The wine had darkened to a deep reddish amber, and as soon as I pulled the cork a rich, sensuous aroma jumped right out at me. That wine was glorious, and it immediately reminded me why Sauternes was once so celebrated. Diane and I drank it with a very fine mousseline of foie gras, and the combination of flavors was perfect, the lush sweetness of the duck livers merging with the smoky/honey flavor of the Sauternes, and both held in lively tension by the wine’s vibrant acidity, which ensured that neither tasted excessive or cloying. On the face of it, an unlikely combination, but the genius who discovered it deserves a monument, as I’m sure Brillat-Savarin would agree.
Chateau Rieussec has long been my favorite Sauternes château because it so often achieves that crucial balance of sweetness and acidity – and is so much less expensive than the fabled Chateau d’Yquem. No Sauternes is an everyday wine, though I have read that in the 19th century it was often consumed right through dinner. Tastes obviously ran more pronouncedly to sweetness in those days: Now, it would have to be a very carefully designed dinner that could sustain Sauternes all the way through. These days, when Sauternes appears at all, it usually arrives with or as dessert, with occasional roles alongside foie gras, which as you can tell, I heartily endorse, or with Rocquefort, a combination still honored in France but to my palate problematic.
Wondering about Sauternes and other cheeses, and still having some of that lovely bottle, I tried a glass of it with my favorite simple dessert: a good Bosc pear and a scoop of Gorgonzola cremificato. The combination was wonderful. The harmony of the fruit and the cheese was elaborated and heightened by the complexity of the wine.
So emboldened, another day I tried the Rieussec alongside a first-course cheese tart. Once again, I was very pleasantly surprised by how well the combination worked. The tart and the Sauternes seemed to feed off each other, accentuating the savoriness of the cheese and the sapidity of the wine, to the extent that its sweetness was scarcely noticeable. Who knew? A whole new flavor world is opening for me.
Back to Chateaux Rieussec, however. This estate began life as an abbey of Carmelite monks. At the Revolution, the abbey was confiscated and sold at auction, since which time it has passed through the hands of numerous owners. Now it forms an important part of the Domaines de Lafite Rothschild. Classified a premier cru in 1855, Rieussec has always maintained its reputation. Its vineyards and cellar have been thoroughly renovated under the Rothschilds. It now tallies about 95 hectares, twice its original size, and is densely planted to Semillion (almost 90% of the vines), Sauvignon blanc, and Muscadelle. On the east, Rieussec abuts Chateau d’Yquem and shares a very similar terroir.
The estate produces a second Sauternes, Les Carmes de Rieussec, and a dry white wine, R de Rieussec. I don’t find either of these very exciting, but Chateau Rieussec will always command respect as a great, complex wine. By itself, it’s lovely. With the right food, it can be memorable. I’m going to have to re-cultivate my Sauternes habit.