Sauternes - History
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Sauternes - History of Sauternes

Two popular stories tell the birth of Sauternes wines. The first is said to have taken place in 1836. The Bordeaux wine dealer Focke, of German descent, apparently waited until the end of the long autumn rains before starting to pick at his Château. When the sun finally returned, the bunches of grapes dried, and the noble rot developed. The beautifully sweet wine was a great success.

The second story is also based on supposed serendipity. In 1847, the Marquis de Lur-Saluces, who owned Château d’Yquem, was delayed during a trip back from Russia. Having left specific instructions that harvesting should not begin before his return, not surprisingly the noble rot was well-developed when picking finally started. The wine produced in this outstanding vintage was highly acclaimed.

Historians provide more complex explanations, though they do not go out of their way to refute these two anecdotes. In particular, they agree that from the end of the 16th century, Dutch merchants, who dominated maritime trade at that time, were very fond of white wines. They added sugar, alcohol, syrup and marinated plants in order to satisfy their Scandinavian customers, who preferred sweeter drinks. In the 17th century, the Dutch presence was very strong in Bordeaux and its surrounding vineyards.

Although the main winegrowing area ran parallel to the Garonne at the beginning of the 18th century, by 1770-1810 it had extended away from the river bank to include the gravely hillsides of Bommes and Sauternes. The role of the Sauvage d'Yquem family (later called Lur-Saluces) owners of Châteaux d’Yquem, Saint Cricq, Filhot and Coutet was very important in terms of chosing vineyard sites, introducing the finest white grape varieties and perfecting the techniques for selecting only the most overripe, botrytised grapes.

In 1787, Thomas Jefferson, future president of the United States of America, was captivated by the wines of the region when he visited Bordeaux. On returning to America, he placed an order for 85 cases of 12 bottles, including Sauternes. As early as 1741, the Intendant of Guyenne described the manner in which these wines were harvested, stating that the owners waited "until the grapes were almost rotten" and added that picking “was carried out several times to give a sweeter wine”.This provides very early confirmation of the presence of the noble rot and the use of selective harvesting.

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