Sweet Wines: A Noble Pursuit

08 December, 2014

Driving force

The driving force behind the Sauternes market has been its star player, Château Yquem – the most famous sweet wine of all. In 1999 Yquem was bought by Bernard Arnault, who decided to put prices up considerably, from an already high position. As a result some negociants ended up losing money on the 2005 Yquem, when in previous vintages they would have snapped up any allocation they could get their hands on. 

This has likely had an effect on the market for other top Sauternes, which haven’t kept pace with the price increases for top red Bordeaux. Dubordieu acknowledges that Sauternes is difficult to sell, but “here at Doisy Daëne we have no stock, it is all sold.” He says: “The price is not what we prefer, but we have no problems selling.” 

An interesting initiative to spread the message of the sweet wines of Bordeaux to a new generation is sweet bordeaux.com, a social media-savvy enterprise promoting their consumption. 

A particular emphasis of the site is food and sweet wine matching, aiming to encourage people to open sweet wines not just at the end of a meal, but also during it. 

“People don’t know when to drink Sauternes,” says Elizabeth de Pontac-Chabot of Château Myrat in Barsac. “Because they can keep for a long time people forget them in their cellars, but they are nice as young wines with lobster, for example.” 

Alsace producer Etienne Hugel also wants to see sweet wines being used outside of a dessert context. “I have started a crusade against sweet wine being paired with dessert. I pair it with savoury dishes – there are so many more exciting pairings with savoury dishes.”

The approach of François Chartier – a noted food and wine matching expert from Canada who discovers innovative, synergistic pairings by looking not at tastes but rather shared families of aroma molecules – could help people discover more of these successful combinations.   

Historically, fortification – the addition of neutral grape spirit to wine – was a sure-fire way of making wines stable for shipping, and the two most significant fortified wine styles are port and sherry, both of which are still very important. 

All port is sweet because the grape spirit is added after just a few days of fermentation. A while back it looked as if wines such as these – sweet, high in alcohol and with a very traditional
image – would be consigned to a historical niche, but they are actually gaining in popularity at the important end of the market. 

“Port continues to outperform other fortified wines, notably sherry, by a country mile,” says Paul Symington, head of Symington Family Estates, one of the two largest players in the port market. “Last year total port sales were 8.8m cases with 89% exported and 41% of all sales being in the premium category,” he adds. [This category encompasses LBV, age-designated tawnies and vintage port.] 

“But port continues to lose volume at the standard quality end,” he continues. “Basically, the loss is of cheap young port drunk as an aperitif in France and Belgium.” 

Indeed, the biggest market for port in terms of volume has for a long time been France, where it is common for people to keep a bottle of cheap tawny in the fridge. “However, there is growth in the premium port categories and the level of innovation by some port companies has been very high, helping to build port sales at the higher value end,” Symington says. 

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