The process of the first fermentation of wine involves yeast turning sugar into alcohol. Typically one of the challenges for the wine maker is to ensure there is enough sugar in the grapes to meet the minimum alcohol rules of the appellation – in France, where you see a % alcohol by volume, it refers to the minimum allowed for wines of that appellation. Until the original gravity (the sugar content) of the grapes reaches a minimum level, the local assay office won’t give permission for the harvest to begin, and any winemaker who jumps the gun cannot sell their wines with the Appellation label. And ‘Chateau I Wish I’d Waited A Day’ doesn’t sell nearly so well on the international markets as ‘AOC St Emilion’, for example!
Makers of dessert wines face altogether different challenges. There are different sorts of dessert wine, but they all use grapes with high concentrations of sugar so that when fermentation is complete there are still significant amounts of sugar in the wine . Enhanced sugar levels can be achieved through late harvest, or by drying the grapes after picking, but the most famous examples are ‘ice wines’ and ‘pourriture noble’ , the noble rot.
The noble rot is like a miracle. It doesn’t just attack grapes, it attacks all manner of fruit and usually leads to a rotten decomposing grey mush. But in some special regions like Sauternes and Monbazillac, the combination at the end of the season of damp, misty mornings followed by blazing hot sunshine in the afternoons prevents the fungus from following its usual course. The daily dehydration prevents the fungus from developing normally, so it spreads through contagion, from grape-to-grape, so that clusters of rotten grapes can be seen within healthy bunches of semilion or sauvignon blanc, the classic botrytis varieties.
The mycelia penetrate the skin which becomes porous, so as well as a horrible-looking brown rotten appearance, the grapes dehydrate through the skin so that their sugar concentration becomes amazingly high. We used to visit a vineyard in Monbazillac where Dominique Vidal, the owner, told us some of his grape must contained up to 600g of sugar per litre.
Noble rot will attack any grape if you let it, so all over the world wine growers spray against it. It’s only in those special regions which have the damp to encourage the rot and the daily sunshine to slow it down, that they can afford to let the rot take hold. The grapes look disgusting, but the taste is exquisite. One of the most satisfying aspects of our Bordeaux Winetrail is the reaction of our cyclers to a quality vin liquoreux, served chilled.
And served with what?
In the UK, it seems to get trotted out with pudding, i.e. dessert wine is served with dessert. Disgusting. Serve it chilled with something savoury and sharp for contrasting flavours, for example roquefort cheese or foie gras (you see, the main reason for inventing dessert wine is an excuse for eating more foie gras). Or just as an apéritif.
Monbazillac is a well-known appellation of dessert wines. Next door is the more subtle, lesser-known Saussignac, but further downstream on the other side of the valley is a little secret, AOC Haut Montravel.
Montravel is a dry-white appellation on the North bank of the Dordogne near Ste Foy La Grande. Haut Montravel is the appellation name for a Vin Moelleux made from the same grapes in the same vineyards, but where the rot has struck and sugar content is high enough to make a dessert wine.
A Moelleux is a dessert wine, typically not quite as sweet as a Vin Liquoreux. Visitors to France tend to prefer these ‘sweet, but not as sweet’ wines, but the French revere the extra sweetness – it’s a mark of a more special vineyard, where the rot strikes harder, where the owner is prepared to harvest in several passes, taking only those grapes that are rotten. I’ve seen this myself, in Chain Gang groups. We always get an astounded, positive reaction to these fantastic wines, but at our tastings the favourite of each group will often be the not-quite-so-sweet wine, the Moelleux.
The ‘secret’ is Chateau Puy Servain. Here, as well as dry white wines and celebrated reds, Daniel Hecquet makes the most sublime dessert wines. In very good years he is able to produce a ‘Supreme’, a very sweet, complex dessert wine. In an ordinary appellation close to Bergerac, the Supreme sells for 90€ a half-bottle, it’s very special. But the ordinary Puy Servain Haut Montravel sells for less than 10€ a bottle, and it is quite simply the most delicious wine I know. Above all the vineyards we visit, in Tuscany, Bordeaux, Burgundy, yes, even Devon, if I could go to one vineyard this afternoon and taste one wine, I would go to Chateau Puy Servain.
In a good Monbazillac, or Haut Montravel, you’ll be able to sense honey, citron, even melon. Apparently ‘petrol’ is a recognised characteristic smell of Monbazillac, but I’ve never noticed. But forget all that, if you ever have the chance get your self a bottle of Puy Servain (failing that, any Monbazillac will do) and treat yourself.