Sauternes and Barsac are the world-famous sweet wines of Bordeaux, though this part of France produces other similarly luscious wines (such as, Loupiac, cérons, Saussignac and cadillac) that can also be outstanding in many vintages. rarely, however, do they reach the same lofty heights – or prices.

In those vintages in which weather conditions are just right, Sauternes and Barsac are home to unforgettable wines.

The Sauternes region is located 40km southeast of the city of Bordeaux, in the southern end of the Graves wine district. Though it is commonplace to refer to all the sweet wines made there as ‘Sauternes’, in fact there are five different communes: Sauternes, Barsac, Preignac, Bommes and Fargues.

Sauternes and Barsac map

While all the wines made in the region can be labelled Sauternes, producers in Barsac may label their wines under the Barsac appellation, should they choose to do so. this is not a bad idea as Barsac’s silty, alluvial soils tend to give wines of greater freshness and lightness than the other communes – all known for creamier, rounder wines.

Noble rot

Much like Bordeaux’ famous châteaux classification, Sauternes and Barsac have their own ranking, which was also presented at the 1855 World expo in Paris.

Just like the Médoc, the Sauternes region is subjected to the same highly variable maritime climate, and so vintages are all-important. Perhaps even more important than in the Médoc, as the area is famous for the presence of noble rot – a fungus (Botrytis cinerea) that awakens under specific weather and geographical conditions.

Primarily this is when the different water temperatures of the two rivers (the Garonne and its tributary the ciron) mix, giving rise to morning mists. additionally, on warm, sunny days grapes can dry and concentrate without being ravaged by grey rot or other diseases.

If and when all this occurs, noble rot can then attack the grapes, contributing greater concentration, acidity and complexity to the wines. It also adds recognisable aromas and flavours, ranging from hints of varnish to nail polish, intense tropical fruit notes and smoke, that may not be to every wine lovers liking. therefore, knowing a little about each vintage is important in picking wines that will prove most suited to your palate.

Sauternes and Barsac: the facts

Grape varieites: Semillion, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris and Muscadelle

Area under vine: 2,000ha

Cases produced: 480,000 a year

Estate size: Fewer than 20 estates own more than 20hs; 160 estates own less than 5ha

Classed growths (1855 Classification): Premier Cru Superieur (1-Chateau d’Yquem); Premier Cru (11); Deuxieme Cru (15)

Sauternes and Barsac: know your vintages

2014 Outstanding year of pure wines marked by lemony botrytis and high acidity.

2013 Very good year but uneven quality; for the most part, top names did well.

2012 Difficult year in which many estates did not make their grand vin. Barsac wines fared best.

2011 Opulent, very precise wines, with a light-on-their-feet quality.

2010 Discreet and ageworthy wines with high acidity, but very well balanced. More delicate than 2009 and 2011.

2009 Rich, decadent and opulent. Some blowsy and over the top, others among the best Sauternes ever made.