Le Sauternes se bat pour retrouver sa place auprès des consommateurs

Sauternes is fighting to regain its place among wine consumers around the world.

After decades of declining sales, the famous sweet wine of Bordeaux is testing new strategies to revive its popularity. 

In January, at the Auberge les Vignes in the village of Sauternes, France, Candice Hunt, director of media and communications for Château Guiraud, described the upcoming hotel for this Premier Cru Classé, then served a Petit Guiraud golden blond to combine with an unexpected dish: sea bream roasted over a wood fire. The bright apricot flavor of Guiraud's second wine contrasted beautifully with the salty, crispy skin of the fish. Although the great floral wine of Guiraud has benefited from a less nervous pairing, the duck breast is still not the part of the duck traditionally consumed with Sauternes. 

Beyond the foie gras, cheese and desserts that Bordeaux's legendary sweet wine is associated with, châteaux like Guiraud are working to broaden Sauternes' appeal.

Today, the appellation welcomes new consumers, reorganizes winemaking, and changes the way Sauternes is packaged and poured. The producers are developing a promotion plan that they hope will lead to a revival.

The image problem of Sauternes

 Sauternes and its lesser-known companion, Barsac, bring together 140 wine growers and 2% of Bordeaux plantations. Their wine is notoriously difficult to produce. It depends on Botrytis cinerea, also known as noble rot, a fungus that dries out grapes, resulting in a high and complex sugar concentration. Located at the confluence of the Garonne and the colder Ciron, the Sauternes region has always benefited from ideal conditions for botrytis. The morning mists that rise from the waters during the harvest encourage the growth of mushrooms, while the sunny afternoons ensure concentration.

But the presence of noble rot is not a 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. Aging in oak barrels increases expenses, and the residual sugar in Sauternes gives it such longevity that it is often destined for cellars. Add to that a history that boasts admirers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and you have the makings of a luxury product. 

 When yields are low and collectors are on the prowl, Sauternes' elite status makes it sell. In 2020, 2021 and, to a lesser extent, 2022, climate change - frost, hail, drought - prevented botrytis from forming until the end of the season, resulting in small harvests. As a result, prices on fine wine marketplace Liv-Ex's Sauternes 50, an index of the top 50 traded Sauternes producers, increased by 13.8% in 2021 and by 6.7% the following year. Although most of this increase reflects the performance of a single wine - Château d'Yquem, Sauternes' only premier cru classified superior - other brands also saw their prices increase. The shortage has allowed small producers to sell their surpluses profitably, with bulk prices having reached their highest level in a quarter of a century. However, Jean-Jacques Dubourdieu, general director of Domaines Denis Dubourdieu and co-president of the Sauternes and Barsac AOCs, believes that “this is not enough”. This is why Sauternes wines are not limited to collectors, but are aimed at a wider market.

Bottles of Sauternes from Château La Tour Blanche

The winegrowers at Château La Tour Blanche are convinced that tourist events help attract new consumers. Courtesy of Château La Tour Blanche.

However, there are obstacles to reaching a wider audience. For example, at the beginning of the 2000s, Atkins-type diets appeared. With 120 to 220 grams of sugar per liter, Sauternes has become to be avoided. Sandrine Gabray, winegrower from Guiraud, also highlights the overall decline in wine consumption. “We were the first wines to be forgotten because we were consumed at the end of a meal.”

Added to these trends is the absence of Sauternes in stores, which generally only offer it during the end-of-year holidays. “People don’t see us on the shelves because the wine is not regularly offered by distributors,” explains David Bolzan, co-president of Dubourdieu for the appellation. "And people think Sauternes is only for aging. That might drive up prices on exchanges like Live-Ex, but these days most people drink wines young.

“The truth is that there are products at different price points, including half bottles of young, second and third wines for 14.99 to 19.99 euros,” says Daddona , “and as wineries cater to specific markets and importers, we are seeing more and more inventory of this type.” But buyer adoption of Sauternes' new SKUs is gradual, so the first order of business for many châteaux is tourism. If the wines don't reach consumers, they will bring consumers to the wines.

The rise of tourism in Sauternes

Bordeaux castles were once notorious for being off-limits, but this is changing. “Over the last five years,” observes Mr. Daddona, “Barsac and Sauternes have changed their minds. They encourage hospitality to create a community around wine.

Bolzan, now associate director of négociant Vins+Vins, was managing director of Vignobles Silvio Denz in 2018 when they launched a 12-room hotel and two-Michelin-star restaurant at Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey, M's first growth. .Denz. Chef Jérôme Schilling incorporates Sauternes into dishes and pairs it with other wines, and the store sells wine-related items from Lalique, which Denz also owns. “Wine tourism allows you to communicate about the product and the place,” explains Mr. Bolzan. “It’s essential for the name of Sauternes to remain engraved in people’s minds, and we know that when people come to Sauternes, they buy wine.

Château La Tour Blanche, also a Premier Cru Classé, has launched a series of concerts in its vineyard, which sells 300 tickets per event. “We serve a lot of Sauternes and people are experiencing a moment with the wine that they didn’t think was possible,” says winemaker Miguel Aguirre. “Then we have a great image to communicate on social media to try to captivate the younger generation with our wines.” In 2016, 2017 and 2019, La Tour Blanche and five other premier cru estates created a sumptuous souvenir for their tasting rooms: a six-pack including one bottle per producer and a blend of six great estate wines. 

“Wine tourism can communicate about the product and the place. This is essential for the name of Sauternes to remain engraved in people's minds, and we know that when people come to Sauternes, they buy wine.” In 2022, the Maison du Sauternes, in the center of the village, has been renovated. Offering wines from 60 producers, the store “is the only place where you can find so many Sauternes references in the world,” says Mr. Bolzan. The staff supports visitors in their tastings in order to support demand in export markets. "At least we have a place in the world where people can appreciate wine, understand it and buy it. They go home and drink it with friends, then go to their local wine shop and ask for more. This is what we are looking for.

To attract even more tourists, the AOC plans to create an interactive museum similar to the Cité du vin de Bordeaux, which will tell the story of botrytis and the unique ecology of Sauternes. “The castles created hospitality and, after four or five years, we have a very good offer of restaurants and hotels of medium and high standard,” says Mr. Bolzan. “But the trigger could be a national attraction. We want to change the perception of Sauternes, which is a very contemporary wine.”

Change winemaking

If Sauternes has become contemporary, it is because the wine itself has "changed considerably", according to Mr. Bolzan, over the last 15 years. "As consumer tastes have changed, the first growths have worked on the balance between alcohol, sweetness and acidity, so that the wine is more refreshing. People can enjoy it as an aperitif.

Château d'Yquem reduced sulfur and adopted wild yeasts "to increase the clarity and precision of the aromatic expression of the youngest wines", explains Lorenzo Pasquini, director of the estate. Almost all wine growers - 90%, according to Mr Daddona - now practice at least organic farming. Château Rieussec, Lafite's premier cru, will be certified organic next year and at Château La Tour Blanche, sheep are used to fertilize and weed without chemicals. “Today we focus on fewer vines, but we manage them better organically,” explains Vincent Cruège, the winemaker of Lafaurie-Peyraguey. “We can improve the quality and value of wine. This is also consumer demand.”

Close-up on Sauternes grapes

Winegrowers are changing the image that consumers have of Sauternes, by promoting tourism and modernizing the production process.

Environmentally friendly farming and what Mr. Daddona calls the "authentic stories" of small producers have the potential to attract the attention of American buyers, who might be surprised to find these aspects in glitzy Bordeaux.

Expanding the role of Sauternes at the table

Producers also market the versatility of Sauternes. At La Tour Blanche, the emphasis is on cocktails. Served during concerts and in the tasting room, Ginger Sweet mixes Sauternes with ginger ale, mint and, for astringency, cucumber peel. Likewise, the minimalist Sweetz from Lafaurie-Peyraguey enhances its second wine, called La Chapelle, with three ice cubes and an orange zest.

Others combine great wines with unexpected dishes, like the tuna tartare served at Château Guiraud. “The restaurant is a good way to give new ideas for pairings,” explains Mr. Gabray. "Due to its fruity notes, aromatic complexity, acidity and spice, there is a wide range of possibilities for pairing Sauternes with seafood, poultry and savory foods. Last year, we had very good sales, perhaps thanks to this message."

  1. Bolzan sees in the transformation of rosé a precedent for that of Sauternes. “Ten years ago, it was only consumed in summer. “Today, people drink it in all seasons. This is our goal: to be appreciated all year round.

Château d'Yquem focuses on gastronomy. Its Lighthouse program, now in its second year, includes 50 restaurants around the world that act as brand ambassadors, offering glasses of Yquem with custom dishes: From parmesan tortellini to Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy; gravlax at the Bistrot du Sommelier, in Paris. “The idea is to bring together as many people as possible in the best conditions to have the best possible experience with Yquem, in an agreement that pushes the limits,” explains Mr. Pasquini. 

Go to the market

One fan of Rieussec's new packaging is chef Alain Ducasse, who has partnered with the estate to serve its Sauternes in its restaurants in France. “It’s easier to get people to taste Sauternes in restaurants,” explains Mr. Daddona. On the other hand, it is much more difficult to supply the stores. “We hold buyer seminars around the country and reach out to importers and distributors, so suppliers have stock when buyers are looking for these wines.

For a given château, "the next step is for our sales director and I to work with one of our top US importers and organize events in five or six cities where we can make new deals." , explains Mr. Gabray. “That’s what I did in Asia this year, and we managed to show how our sweet wines pair well with local cuisine in Vietnam, Japan, Thailand and Singapore.” Guiraud's entry into the Asian market in 2010 revived flagging sales.

Other producers, who previously relied on traders, are taking part of the marketing and exporting in-house.

All this activity has generated enthusiasm and cooperation in Sauternes, and producers there are optimistic. “But we need more time to know whether our efforts have increased trade,” says Aguirre. "The price has increased. I hope that this is not only due to the drop in quantities, but also to the fact that we have communicated a lot about Sauternes. I often say, the more we work together to promote the name of Sauternes, the more each area will benefit from it."

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