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Sauternes – shaken or stirred?

With consumer interest in sweet wines dwindling, some producers are looking to mixology as a new sales avenue.

Sauternes is one of the world’s most respected fine wines. Old vintages can fetch high prices at auctions, and Château d’Yquem is the quintessential show-off bottle on Instagram.

As people’s drinking habits change however and the appeal of sweeter wines lessens, the public is increasingly drifting away from Sauternes.

‘Over the last decade, we’ve seen consumption going down,’ confirmed Miguel Aguirre, vineyard manager of the historical Sauternes château, La Tour Blanche. ‘We produce more than we sell. For many, Sauternes is just a dessert wine. We need to promote a new way of consumption.’

Taking inspiration from the likes of Port and Sherry, some producers are looking at mixology as an avenue to ensure Sauternes’ future.

Premier Cru Classé Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey designed a simple serve to mark the 2018 launch of its new hotel and restaurant: ‘The idea was that people… could experience our own Sauternes in the form of a fresh and harmonious cocktail, served as an apéritif or as a simple drink throughout the day,’ explained Romain Iltis, wine director of Lalique Group, owner of the restaurant. Trademarked as Sweet’Z, the ‘Original’ serve is a simple, apéritif-style drink consisting of the château’s second wine – La Chapelle de Lafaurie – and orange zest, poured over ice.

More recently, Bordeaux’s wine council, the CIVB, embraced the concept by tapping mixologist Clément Sargeni, owner of local cocktail bar Cancan. ‘They realised that consumption had changed and wanted to introduce wine cocktails to new drinkers,’ said Sargeni. ‘I created some recipes… and now we do workshops based on those. I also present them at [official events] and at Bordeaux’s Cité du Vin.’

Asked to avoid the addition of other alcoholic components, Sargeni developed Sweet Cross, an austere serve featuring ginger and grapefruit zest-infused sweet wine and chocolate bitters.

In line with the CIVB’s philosophy, La Tour Blanche developed its own minimalist serves too, including Ginger Sweet, which involves ginger, mint, cucumber and ginger ale. ‘Now it’s served in restaurants and bars across Bordeaux, at La Co(o)rniche in Arcachon, in Tenerife and… in Miami,’ said Aguirre. ‘It’s a gateway to help people learn more about Sauternes.’

More complex serves

Despite the CIVB’s call for simplicity, more elaborate and complex cocktails have been inevitably popping up throughout the region.

Alongside Sweet’Z, Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey’s restaurant bar offers a comprehensive Sauternes-based cocktail list. ‘Our bartender creates new cocktails every season. And the sommelier too,’ said Iltis. ‘Our idea is that we can mix it, but never completely lose its character.’ On the list, La P’tite Vendange is a refreshing grape-themed cocktail featuring Sauternes, Crémant de Bordeaux, verjus and a low-abv white grape liqueur aromatised with cardamom and lemon peel. Meanwhile, Esprit d’Antan involves a Sauternes confiture mixed with Cognac, verjus and a mushroom emulsion. The bar’s signature cocktail however is From Bommes With Love, a spicy serve that combines the château’s wine with Sauternes cask-aged gin.

Sargeni has been offering more elaborate Sauternes cocktails in his own bar, too. A recipe involves Sauternes, Sauternes-finished Cognac, red grape reduction, verjus and China Calisaia bitters; another consists of gin and Bordeaux’s quintessential pastry, the canelé. Another cocktail, a Sargeni favourite, mixes Sauternes with Jamaican rum and vin d’orange – a Provençal fortified wine flavoured with bitter oranges.

Sargeni isn’t alone in betting on rum as Sauternes’ ideal spirit companion. Building on La Tour Blanche’s established relationship with Martinique distillery Habitation Saint-Etienne – which uses the winery’s barrels to finish some of its rum – Aguirre is currently developing a Sauternes and rhum agricole recipe. ‘We need to define the exact ratios but the ingredients are rum, our second wine, ginger beer and orange. We hope to be able to present this cocktail for the first time at Rhum Fest Paris in April.’

While positive about the potential of his mixology projects, Aguirre pointed out that not everyone in the region is keen on the cocktail revolution. ‘Some say that Sauternes is too noble to be mixed. They say you can only have it on its own.’ He explained that, while he agrees about the wine’s exceptional virtues, he is aware that some people – particularly younger drinkers – need some convincing to embrace Sauternes.

‘I always say that everyone likes Sauternes, but not everyone opens a bottle. First we need to get them to go back to Sauternes. After that, people will be open to learning how it’s made, the magic of noble rot, why it’s so expensive and precious, and why we can’t make it every year… what Sauternes is all about.’

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