In January at Auberge les Vignes in the village of Sauternes, France, Candice Hunt, the director of media and communications at Château Guiraud described the premier cru classé estate’s upcoming hotel, then poured golden-blonde Petit Guiraud to pair with an unexpected dish: fire-roasted dorade. The bright apricot flavor of Guiraud’s second wine contrasted beautifully with the fish’s salty, crisp skin. Though Guiraud’s blossomy grand vin got a less nervy pairing, magret is still not the part of the duck traditionally eaten with Sauternes.
Beyond the foie gras, cheese, and desserts with which Bordeaux’s fabled sweet wine is associated, châteaux like Guiraud are working to expand Sauternes’ appeal. It’s a strategy for survival. Fifty years ago, Sauternes sent 650,000 liters of wine to the United States. By the late aughts, exports had slid to less than a third of that, and though the U.S. is now Sauternes’ biggest market, the numbers have remained flat.
Now, the appellation is welcoming new consumers, revamping the winemaking, and changing the way Sauternes is packaged and poured. Producers are shaping a game plan for promotion that they hope will lead a revival.
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Sauternes’ Image Problem
Sauternes and its lesser-known companion, Barsac, encompass 140 growers with two percent of Bordeaux’s plantings. Their wine is notoriously dicey to produce. It relies on Botrytis cinerea, also known as noble rot, a fungus that desiccates grapes, leading to elevated, complex sweetness. Located where the Garonne and chillier Ciron rivers meet, Sauternes has historically had ideal conditions for botrytis. Morning fog rises off the waters during harvest to encourage fungal growth, while sunny afternoons ensure concentration.
But the presence of noble rot is no guarantee of a successful vintage. It takes many passes to harvest bunches with the right amount of botrytis, so production is limited and labor-intensive. Oak aging adds to the expense, and Sauternes’ residual sugar makes it so long-lasting that it’s often destined for cellars. Add to that a history that includes fans such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and you’re looking at the makings of a luxury good.
When yields are low and collectors are flush, Sauternes’ elite status sells it. In 2020, 2021, and to a lesser extent, 2022, climate change—frost, hail, drought—kept botrytis from forming until late in the season, resulting in small harvests. Consequently, prices for fine wine marketplace Liv-Ex’s normally sleepy Sauternes 50, an index of the top 50 traded Sauternes producers, rose 13.8 percent in 2021 and 6.7 percent the following year. Though most of that reflects the performance of one wine—Sauternes’ only premier cru supérior classé, Château d’Yquem—other brands saw price increases, too. The shortage helped small growers move surpluses at a profit, as bulk prices rose to a quarter-century high. Still, Jean-Jacques Dubourdieu, the managing director of Domaines Denis Dubourdieu and co-president of the Sauternes and Barsac AOC, says “it’s not enough.” So Sauternes is looking beyond collectors to the wider market.
However, there are obstacles to reaching a broader audience. For example, in the early-2000s came Atkins-style diets. “Suddenly, anything that had sugar was bad,” says Nick Daddona, the U.S. trade representative for Graves-Sauternes. With 120 to 220 grams of sugar per liter, Sauternes became an avoidance. Sandrine Gabray, Guiraud’s winemaker, points, too, to the global decrease in wine consumption. “We were the first wines forgotten because we were consumed at the end of the meal.”
Compounding those trends is Sauternes’ absence from stores, which tend to carry it only at the holidays. “People don’t see us on the shelves because the wine is not offered on a regular basis by distributors,” says David Bolzan, Dubourdieu’s co-president at the appellation. “And people have in mind that Sauternes is only for aging.” That might raise prices on exchanges like Live-Ex, but nowadays most people drink wines young.
“The truth is there are things at different price points, including half bottles of younger, second and third wines for $14.99 to $19.99,” says Daddona, “and as the wineries are going after specific markets and importers, we’re seeing more of that inventory.” But buyers’ adoption of new Sauternes SKUs is gradual, so the first order of business for several châteaux is tourism. If the wines aren’t getting to consumers, they will bring consumers to the wines.
The Rise of Tourism in Sauternes
Bordelais châteaux used to be famously off-limits, but that’s changing. “In the past five years,” Daddona observes, “Barsac and Sauternes have changed their minds. They are promoting hospitality to build community around wine.”
Bolzan, now the associate director of the négociant Vins+Vins, was the managing director of Vignobles Silvio Denz in 2018 when they launched a 12-room hotel and two-star Michelin restaurant at Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey, Denz’s premier cru classé estate. There, chef Jérôme Schilling incorporates Sauternes into dishes and features it in pairings, and the shop sells wine-related items from Lalique, which Denz also owns. “Wine tourism can communicate about the product and place,” says Bolzan. “That’s key to imprinting the name of Sauternes at the top of the mind, and we know that when people come to Sauternes, they buy wine.”
Château La Tour Blanche, also premier cru classé, launched a concert series in its vineyard, which sells 300 tickets per event. “We serve a lot of Sauternes, and people have a moment with the wine that they didn’t think was possible,” says winemaker Miguel Aguirre. “Afterwards, we have a nice picture to communicate on social media to try and captivate the young generation with our wines.” In 2016, 2017, and 2019, La Tour Blanche and five other first-growth estates created a lavish souvenir for their tasting rooms: a six-pack including one bottle per producer and a six-estate grand vin blend.
“Wine tourism can communicate about the product and place. That’s key to imprinting the name of Sauternes at the top of the mind, and we know that when people come to Sauternes, they buy wine.” – David Bolzan, Vins+Vins
In 2022, Maison du Sauternes, in the center of the village, was renovated. Carrying wines from 60 producers, the shop “is the only place to find so many Sauternes references in the world,” says Bolzan. Staff there walk visitors through tastings to shore up demand in export markets. “At least we have a place in the world where people can enjoy the wine, understand it, and buy it. They go back home and drink it with friends, then go to their local wine shop and ask for more. That is what we are looking for.”
Maison’s overhaul has led to a 30 percent boost in sales, and Dubourdieu is convinced that tourism has helped make the U.S. Sauternes’ number one export market. “We have a huge amount of American tourists in Bordeaux, and Sauternes is one of their biggest destinations because they love the little village.”
To lure even more tourists, the AOC is planning an interactive museum similar to Bordeaux city’s Cité du Vin that will tell the story of botrytis and Sauternes’ unique ecology. “Châteaux have created hospitality, and after four or five years, we have a very nice offering of restaurants and hotels at the mid- and high levels,” says Bolzan. “But the booster could be a national attraction. We want to change the perception of Sauternes, which is a very contemporary wine.”
Changing the Winemaking
If Sauternes has, indeed, become contemporary, that’s because the wine itself has “changed considerably,” according to Bolzan, in the past 15 years. “Consumer tastes changed, so the premiers crus have worked on the balance of alcohol, sweetness, and acidity, so the wine is more refreshing. People can enjoy it as an aperitif.”
Château d’Yquem has decreased sulfur and switched to wild yeast “to increase the clarity and precision of the aromatic expression of younger wines,” says estate manager Lorenzo Pasquini. Nearly every grower—90 percent, Daddona estimates—is now at least practicing organic. Château Rieussec, Lafite’s first growth estate, will be certified organic next year and at Château La Tour Blanche, they’re using sheep to fertilize and weed without chemicals. “We concentrate these days on less vines, but manage them better organically,” says Vincent Cruège, the winemaker at Lafaurie-Peyraguey. “We can improve the wine’s quality and value. It is also the demand of the consumer.”
Earth-friendly farming and what Daddona calls small producers’ “authentic stories” have potential to draw the attention of American buyers, who may be surprised to find these aspects in glitzy Bordeaux.
Expanding Sauternes’ Role at the Table
Producers are also marketing Sauternes’ versatility. At La Tour Blanche, the big push is cocktails. Served during the concerts and in the tasting room, Ginger Sweet blends Sauternes with ginger ale, mint, and, for astringency, cucumber peel. Similarly, Lafaurie-Peyraguey’s minimalist Sweetz enhances its second wine, called La Chapelle, with three ice cubes and an orange peel.
Others are pairing grand vins with unexpected dishes, like the tuna tartare served at Château Guiraud. “The restaurant is a good way of giving new ideas about pairings,” says Gabray. “Because of its fruity notes, aromatic complexity, acidity, and spice, there’s a big palette of possibilities for pairing Sauternes with seafood, poultry, and salty foods. Last year, we had really good sales, perhaps because of this message.”
Though it’s “still a struggle for people to wrap their heads around,” says Jeff Harding, the wine director at New York’s Waverly Inn, Sauternes as an aperitif makes sense. “Sweet wine makes your mouth water, which is the point of wine, so your appetite is primed.” The practice is a return, argues Dubourdieu, to regional tradition. “In the past, Sauternes was an aperitif wine,” he says. “The comeback of our original way of consumption helps a lot. People are thinking of Sauternes for many occasions.”
Bolzan sees precedence for Sauternes’ overhaul in rosé’s transformation. “Ten years ago, it was only consumed in summer,” he says. “Now people drink it in all seasons. That is our goal, to be enjoyed all year.”
While Daddona focuses on getting Sauternes into local U.S. wine shops, Château d’Yquem is concentrating on fine dining. Now in its second year, its Lighthouse program includes 50 restaurants around the world that act as brand ambassadors, offering glasses of Yquem with bespoke dishes: Parmesan tortellini at Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy; gravlax at Paris’ Le Bistrot du Sommelier. “The idea is to put the highest amount of people in the best conditions to have the best experience possible with Yquem in a pairing that pushes the boundaries,” says Pasquini.
Going to Market
One enthusiast for Rieussec’s new packaging is chef Alain Ducasse, who partnered with the estate to pour its Sauternes at his restaurants in France. “It’s easier to get people to taste Sauternes in restaurants,” says Daddona. Stocking shops, however, is much more challenging. “We are providing seminars to buyers across the country and doing outreach to importers and distributors, so suppliers have an inventory when buyers look for the wines.”
For an individual château, “the next step is for our sales manager and me to work with one of our best U.S. importers and organize events in five or six cities where we can do new pairings,” says Gabray. “I did that in Asia this year, and we had success showing how our sweet wines pair well with local food in Vietnam, Japan, Thailand, and Singapore.” Guiraud’s entrance into the Asian market in 2010 boosted flagging sales.
Other producers, who once relied on négociants, are moving some marketing and exporting in-house. In Barsac, producers that only sold locally are now looking to small importers to bring their wines to the U.S.
All this activity has generated excitement and cooperation in Sauternes, and producers there are sanguine. “But we need more time to know if our efforts increase commerce,” says Aguirre. “The price has gone up. I hope it’s not only because of the lower quantity but because we have communicated a lot about Sauternes. I say often, the more we work together to promote the name of Sauternes, the more each estate will benefit.”
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