American wine drinkers are often accused of “talking dry but drinking sweet.” This slightly snobby claim is not as true today as it was a decade ago and that is good news for winery owners and winemakers in Barsac, the small enclave in Bordeaux known for its unctuous sweet wines.
Barsac is an appellation within an appellation. That is, the smaller Barsac appellation lies within the larger Sauternes appellation. At the close of the 2004 vintage, Barsac had about 1,300 acres planted compared to 4,300 acres in Sauternes. Vineyard acreage, though, is just one example of the dominance of Sauternes. Wine consumers and trades people are constantly reminded of the often-heard adage -- “All Barsac wines are Sauternes, but not vice versa” -- that makes it clear which wine is top dog.
There is a kind of haughtiness to that saying, with Sauternes allowing that Barsac may legally use the Sauternes name but Sauternes sees no need to use the Barsac name. Ignoring the implication of suggested superiority, some Barsac producers, like Chateau Coutet, simply add AOC Sauternes-Barsac to their labels, nicely benefiting from the Sauternes image while telling the consumer that the wine in the bottle is from Barsac; a clear example of “If you can’t beat them, join them.”
When I asked Aline Baly, proprietress of Chateau Coutet, how a Barsac producer like Ch. Coutet handles the Barsac-Sauternes question, she said straight away, “We mention both appellations on the label because the name Sauternes is better known than Barsac.” She adds that knowledgeable consumers know the stylistic differences between Barsac and Sauternes, but for those consumers still discovering the sweet wines of Bordeaux, they have probably been exposed to Sauternes but maybe not Barsac. Therefore, Barsac has little meaning to them and having Sauternes on the label gives them a reference point to what to expect when they taste the wine.”
The reality of updating label language, mainly to influence contemporary wine consumers, got me rooting around in my own wine collection and I came up with an old Ch. Coutet. The label on my wine reads Chateau Coutet a Barsac, 1st Grand Cru de Sauternes under it in smaller print, rightfully positioning Barsac over Sauternes. And for those readers with long memories, this Coutet from another age was an Alexis Lichine Selection. More on whether my ’75 Coutet stood the test of time and my less-than-optimal storage conditions later.
Barsac and Sauternes are both made from the same three grapes: Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle, a variety that despite its name is not related to the Muscat family of grapes and according to Baly contributes spice and complexity to the Barsac blend. And while Sauvignon Blanc is a major player in the dry white wines of Bordeaux, it is Semillon that stars in the sweet wines. Barsac is on the left bank of the cool Ceron River, a fortuitous location that aids in the development of Botrytis cinerea, the so-called “noble rot,” an ugly fuzzy grey mould that dehydrates the grapes, forming a golden nectar that with a little cellar work, becomes Barsac.
But there’s still the differences in style that makes Barsac lighter and less opulent than Sauternes. “We have our own appellation because of our soil composition,” says Baly, daughter of the owners of Chateau Coutet. There is a lot of sand and gravel in the soils of the four Sauternes communes, but in Barsac the soils are red and brown clays with limestone in the subsoil.”
As for the general Barsac style, Baly says that Barsac wines “lean towards freshness and are usually less opulent then our neighbors’ wines.” Narrowing the differences even more, Baly says that Coutet is distinct from other Barsac “because the estate benefits from an exceptional terroir, giving the grapes freshness, richness and strength. In their youth Coutet wines display generous notes of white flowers, citrus fruits, honey and vanilla. Time brings out deeper, warmer notes in which spice combine with exotic nectars and candied fruits and it enhances the harmony of its botrytis character with the aromatics and flavors.”
These factors have encouraged Baly to promote the relationship of Barsac and specifically Chateau Coutet wines and food, a subject she finds is alien to many wine drinkers. Drawing on her experience at home in Bordeaux, Baly says that Barsac is an all-purpose wine. “In France, Barsac is served as an aperitif and over the course of dinner, most often paired with foie gras-based dishes or the cheese course, especially if there is Roqueford or another type of blue cheese. It is also typical to enjoy a glass of an older vintage (Barsac) after dinner as a digestive.”
However, Baly accepts that foie gras is not a big menu item today, because of the concern about animal fats and cholesterol in their diets. So, Chateau Coutet and other Barsac producers are working to acquaint wine consumers with the idea of pairing sweet wine with savory food. “A lot of effort has been put forward to partner with local chefs and in planning Sauternes-Barsac dining experiences with local specialties, especially in North America and Asia. In this way we can show that our wines not only go well with French classics but are flexible enough to be paired with local specialties,” says Baly.
Partnerships with numerous chefs have given Baly new insight into what works and what doesn’t when pairing sweet and savory. “I have three rules to follow when I am in a restaurant and need to create an all-Coutet dinner: Complement using the citrus aromatics in the wine with citrus components in a dish; contrast sweet and salty; and most important to me is the texture. Barsac wines have a fabulous texture and if you want to complement the wine’s texture, pair it with lobster, or to contrast the texture, think of roast turkey. Also, we are big fans of pairing our wines with some savory Asian cuisines, like Thai, with the ginger notes in the Coutet that compliment nicely the ginger so often found in Asian dishes.”
A closing note on older Barsacs and pairing them with food: My 1975 Chateau Coutet, with a low shoulder fill, had a very clear orange-tinted amber color, a possible indicator of excessive oxidation. But despite the suspect color, the wine smelled and tasted like pineapple upside-down cake, with a hint of botrytis that was nicely integrated into the flavors, supported by fresh clean acidity. I worried a little about the wine, but it was a pleasurable match with a dessert fondue of fresh pineapple chunks dipped in chocolate. And while it’s nice to visit these old timers, maybe I should have drunk this Coutet earlier.
As good as it is, Barsac is still a tough sell. In 2009, just over 1% of Bordeaux AOC wines exported to the United States was sweet wines and 43% of that tiny amount was from Sauternes and Barsac. So, get out there and do your part!