Avoiding the “Taste of Light” in Young Sauternes

Attending the Sauternes tasting at the ’09 Primeurs reminded me a bit like a scene out of Goldfinger—nearly all bottles were draped in shiny gold foil. For sure, it made quite the impression. However, I wondered why producers would go through the effort of individually wrapping each barrel sample—was it really just for show?

This was not the case for the red Bordeaux samples. Producers either used the same label (with the prior vintage being crossed out and the current vintage written in) or employed a special label devoted just to barrel samples. However, for the Sauternes samples, each bottle was wrapped individually, a producer label placed on the outside of the foil, and the usual neck label added to complete the packaging.

As I’ve learned these past few weeks while re-visiting ’09 Bordeaux samples together with my colleagues at Millesima, this rather exquisite packaging is not reserved solely for the Primeurs tastings. Even now, the half-bottles of Sauternes we receive on a weekly basis are still arriving decked out in their gold foil.

So, I decided to investigate further…

Going straight to the source, I asked a friend and fellow Wine MBA grad, Guillaume Forcade, who is now the Marketing & Export Manager at Château Broustet. According to Guillaume, the reason behind using the gold foil mostly has to do with keeping the wine from spoiling at such a young phase in its development.

Though completely fermented at the time of Primeurs (end of March), dead yeast is still present in the wine. Generally, these dead yeast cells would fall to the bottom of the barrel and be racked off. However, at the time the samples are drawn, the yeast has not yet made it to the bottom and consequently, continues to float around in the wine. However, when the dead yeast is exposed to UV rays, it will start to break down and impart acrid, bitter flavors to the wine—what Guillaume refers to as “the taste of light”. Therefore, the outside wrapping is necessary to shield the light and prevent the dead yeast cells from decomposing. However, in the case of red wines, this isn’t necessary because the tannins are there to shield the UV rays.

On a further note, Guillaume did add there is indeed also an aesthetic reason for using the outside wrapping—-the wines are not clear at the time of Primeurs, which could give tasters (accustomed to viewing pristine bottles of Sauternes) a bad initial impression. In this regard, I’d say the gold foil more than solved that concern—these bottles are dressed to impressed!

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