When the average drinker thinks of Bordeaux, bold red blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot or rich Bordeaux Blancs might come to mind. But under the right conditions, the grapes Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle produce exquisite bottlings of Sauternes, a deeply flavorful sweet white wine you don’t want to miss. These wines are nothing like the subpar-quality, sugar-laden offerings that historically have contributed to sweet wine’s poor reputation in the U.S.
Haven’t tried Sauternes yet? Consider this your signal to snag a bottle.
What Is Sauternes Wine?
Sauternes is a smaller wine sub-region of Bordeaux known for a sweet white wine of the same name. It’s made with grapes that have a super-concentrated flavor due to Botrytis (also known as noble rot). The primary grapes found in this wine are Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, but may also include Muscadelle. The Sémillon grape is particularly susceptible to Botrytis and is well known as the most important grape variety in Sauternes for this reason. The wine is full-bodied with high acidity, which helps balance out the wine’s sweet notes and helps with longevity, explains Wine Enthusiast Senior Tasting Coordinator Craig Chamberlain.
What Does Sauternes Taste Like?
The flavors of Sauternes vary slightly depending on the exact bottle, but typical flavors include honey, butterscotch, coconut and tropical fruits, Chamberlain says. The wine may also have notes of apricot and sometimes smoke or vanilla when oaked.
Sauternes Bottles to Try
96 Points Wine Enthusiast
This wine is pure Sémillon, giving richness. The weight gets a massive lift from acidity and aromatic, spicy honey. The wine’s balance is impeccable, with poise and elegance, and it will age well. Drink from 2026. —Roger Voss
93 Points Wine Enthusiast
With its high proportion of Sémillon, the wine is luscious and finely honeyed. The wine has depth and layers of dry botrytis mingling with the yellow fruits and orange zest flavors. It is still young, ready to age for many years. Drink from 2026. —R.V.
91 Points Wine Enthusiast
This estate, located partly in Barsac, has produced a concentrated wine. With dense orange marmalade and apricot flavors, the wine has an unctuous character that will develop. Vanilla from the wood aging lingers, so wait and drink from 2025. Editor’s Choice —R.V.
90 Points Wine Enthusiast
This is an open, welcoming sweet wine. It has freshness and citrus flavors against a honeyed background. Light wood aging has softened the wine’s acidity and enhanced its spicy aftertaste. Drink the wine now. —R.V.
88 Points Wine Enthusiast
With some luscious marmalade flavors, this velvet textured wine is deliciously rich. Acidity is a good balance to the ripeness of the wine. It is likely to be ready to drink from 2023. —R.V.
Do You Chill Sauternes?
Similar to other full-bodied whites, you’ll want to chill your bottle before serving. Chamberlain recommends refrigerating the wine and pulling it from the cold 10 to 15 minutes before you plan to serve it. The wine should be “a little bit warmer than what you would serve a beer,“ he notes. You can read our cheat sheet for serving wine for more information.
How to Pronounce Sauternes?
Sauternes is pronounced “so-turn.”
How Is Sauternes Made?
Sauternes is made like any other white wine, but the key difference is the high level of sugar in the grapes used. This is a result of the fungus that grows on the grape, called Botrytis, which causes the grape to shrink, its flavor to concentrate and become very sweet. “Where the appellation is, there is a bunch of water from rivers and it’s very foggy and damp with lots of moisture in the air, so it’s very easy to have a rot or fungus grow,” Chamberlin says.
What Food Can You Pair with Sauternes?
It can be difficult to pair sweet wines sometimes, but Chamberlin suggests trying two tactics: The first is to serve Sauternes with big, bold flavors like blue cheese or foie gras. Alternatively, you can try it alongside cheesecake or fruit-based desserts, like a tart. You simply want the dessert to be less sweet than the wine.
Why Is Sauternes So Expensive?
Though the price on the label may at first seem similar to other bottles of wine, most bottles of Sauternes are sold in a 375ml bottle instead of a standard 750ml, meaning you’re paying more per ounce. Chamberlin says “anything worthwhile” will likely hit between $30 and $50—and that’s for a half-sized bottle. The high price is likely due to the Botrytis, he explains. Because the Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon berries are smaller when fermented, they produce less wine than a typical vine would produce.
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All products featured here are independently selected by our team, which is comprised of experienced writers and wine tasters and overseen by editorial professionals at Wine Enthusiast headquarters. All ratings and reviews are performed blind in a controlled setting and reflect the parameters of our 100-point scale. Wine Enthusiast does not accept payment to conduct any product review, though we may earn a commission on purchases made through links on this site. Prices were accurate at the time of publication.
Published on March 17, 2023