Sauternes Fights to Regain a Foothold with U.S. Wine Drinkers

Candice Hunt, director of media and communication at Chateau Guiraud, described the upcoming estate’s new hotel in January at Auberge les Vignes, Sauternes, France. She then poured golden blonde Petit Guiraud for an unexpected dish, fire-roasted dorado. Guiraud’s second wine, with its apricot flavors, paired beautifully with the crisp and salty skin of the fish. Although Guiraud’s flowery grand vin was paired with a less nerve-wracking duck, magret still isn’t the part of the bird that is traditionally served with Sauternes.

Chateaux like Guiraud, which are known for their Sauternes, want to make the wine more appealing. It’s a survival strategy. In the 1950s, Sauternes exported 650,000 Liters to the United States. Exports were down to less than one-third of this amount by the late 2000s. The U.S., though Sauternes’ largest market, has remained stable.

The appellation now welcomes new consumers and revamps the winemaking. It also changes the packaging and pouring of Sauternes. Producers have mapped out a promotion plan that they believe will help them achieve a revival.

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Sauternes’ Image Problem

Sauternes and its less-known partner, Barsac (which is also planted in Bordeaux), encompass 140 growers, with 2% of the plantings. It isn’t easy to make their wine. It is based on Botrytis Cinerea (also known as Noble Rot), a fungus that desiccates the grapes and leads to a complex, elevated sweetness. Sauternes, located where the Garonne River and the chillier Ciron meet, has always had perfect conditions for botrytis. During harvest, morning fog is lifted off the water to promote fungal growth. Sunny afternoons are also conducive to concentration.

The presence of noble rot does not guarantee a good vintage. The production is labor-intensive and limited because it takes several passes to get the right amount of botrytis. The oak aging increases the cost, and Sauternes is so long-lasting because of its residual sugar that it’s usually destined for cellars. You can also add a rich history, which includes George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as fans.

Sauternes’s elite status is what sells it when yields are low and collectors have a lot of money. Climate change (frosts, hails, droughts) delayed botrytis formation until the end of the season in 2020, 2021 and 2022. This resulted in a small harvest. In 2021, the prices of Liv-Ex’s Sauternes 50 index, which is a list of the 50 most traded Sauternes producers on the fine wine marketplace, increased by 13.8 percent and by 6.7 percent. The majority of the increase is due to one wine, Château d’Yquem, which is Sauternes’ premier cru superior classe. However, other brands also saw price increases. Small growers were able to sell surpluses for a profit as bulk prices reached a 25-year high. Jean-Jacques Dubourdieu is the managing director of Domaines Denis Dubourdieu as well as the co-president of Sauternes & Barsac AOC. He says that “it’s still not enough.” Sauternes has, therefore, decided to look beyond collectors and into the wider market.

Winemakers at Château La Tour Blanche believe that reaching out through tourist events helps bring in new consumers. Photo courtesy of Château La Tour Blanche.

There are still obstacles to reaching a wider audience. In the early 2000s, Atkins diets were popular. Nick Daddona is the U.S. representative of Graves-Sauternes. He says, “Suddenly, everything that contained sugar was bad.” Sauternes, with 120- 220 grams per liter of sugar, became a wine to avoid. Sandrine Gabray of Guiraud, the winemaker, also points to the worldwide decrease in wine consumption. “We were the very first wines to be forgotten, because we were consumed right at the end.”

Sauternes is not available in stores. They tend only to carry it during the holidays. David Bolzan is the co-president of the appellation and Dubourdieu. He says that people don’t notice us because distributors do not offer the wine on a regular schedule. Sauternes, they think, is a wine for aging. This might increase the price on exchanges such as Live-Ex, but today, most people drink young wines.

Daddona says that there are a variety of wines at various price points. “We’re seeing half bottles of younger and second-tier wines priced between $14.99 and $19.99. As wineries target specific markets, we see more inventory.” However, buyers are gradually adopting new Sauternes SKUs, so tourism is the priority for many chateaux. The wines will not reach consumers if they are not available.

The rise of tourism in Sauternes

But that’s changing. Daddona notes that “Barsac, and Sauternes changed their minds in the last five years.” They promote hospitality in order to create a community around wine.

Bolzan is now an associate director at Vins+Vins. In 2018, he was the managing director for Vignobles Silvio Denz when a 12-room luxury hotel and a two-star Michelin-rated restaurant were launched on Denz’s premier classe estate, Chateau Lafaurie Peyraguey. Chef Jerome Schilling uses Sauternes in his dishes, as well as pairings. The shop also sells items related to wine from Lalique, which Denz owns. Bolzan says that wine tourism is a great way to promote a product or encapsulate a place. Bolzan says that this is the key to ensuring the Sauternes name stays in the minds of visitors. We also know they will buy wine when they visit the region.

Chateau La Tour Blanche is also a premier cru classe. It has launched a concert in its vineyard that sells 300 tickets for each event. Winemaker Miguel Aguirre says, “We serve Sauternes a lot and people get to experience a wine they never thought possible.” Then, we can use the picture on social media in order to captivate young people with our wines.

Wine tourism is a great way to promote a product or place. It’s important to keep the name Sauternes at the forefront of people’s minds. We also know that visitors to Sauternes buy wine.

The Maison du Sauternes in the village center will be renovated by 2022. Bolzan says that the shop, which carries wines from 60 producers around the world, is the only place where you can find so many Sauternes references in the world as a whole. The staff there guide visitors through tastings in order to boost demand in export markets. “At the very least, we have a place where people can buy wine, enjoy it and understand it. Then they go home to drink the wine with their friends and then ask for more at their local wine store. “That is what we’re looking for.”

The renovation of Maison has resulted in a 30 percent increase in sales. Dubourdieu believes that tourism is the reason why Sauternes has become America’s number one export. We have many American tourists visiting Bordeaux, and Sauternes has become one of their favorite destinations.

The AOC plans to create an interactive museum, similar to Bordeaux’s Cite du Vin, that will tell about botrytis in Sauternes and its unique ecology. Bolzan says that chateaux have fostered hospitality and, after four to five years, there is a nice selection of mid-range and luxury hotels and restaurants. But the boost could be an attraction at a national level. We want to change people’s perception of Sauternes. It is a modern wine.

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