Arriving in Sauternes feels like landing in the middle of a French feel-good movie. You roll into the village, some 40km south of Bordeaux, along winding roads that run past meticulously tended vines bordered by low stone walls – and wish you were in an open-top car.
You park by a 12th-century church with a towering spire. A statue of Joan of Arc out front is receiving a fresh lick of silver paint from what could be a pair of elderly stagehands, but turn out to be locals. Over the road, people are eating lunch on the sunny terrace of a restaurant called Auberge Les Vignes, and a passerby is eyeing bottles of wine in the window of Cave des Lauréats next door.
Next to the church, a four-square building with honey-coloured render and pale blue shutters informs you in vintage red lettering that you are in “Sauternes, capital of the best white wines in the world”. It is not an idle boast: in 2011, a bottle of 1811 Château d’Yquem, just up the hill, set the Guinness World Record for the most valuable bottle of white wine when it sold for £75,000.
The lettering proclaims that this is the office de dégustation, or tasting house, for the area’s famous sweet white wines. But a newer plaque informs you that the historic building is now a four-bedroom guesthouse, called La Sauternaise.
A couple of years ago, nearby Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey hogged the spotlight when it reopened as a luxury five-star hotel after four years of renovations under Silvio Denz, owner of Lalique crystal. It is decorated with works by the firm’s founder, glass designer René Lalique; 120 gold crystal sémillon vine leaves are embedded in the dining room ceiling; and Damien Hirst’s Eternal Belief crystal cross adorns the 18th-century chapel.
Didier and Pascale Galhaud, owners of La Sauternaise, also spent four years remodelling their property. And while it was a more modest project than Hôtel Lalique, the renovation has been done with no less care, with every effort to retain the historical integrity of a building that is the centrepiece of the village.
Didier hired a master sign painter to copy the exterior calligraphy from 1970s photos of the building. “It took René three weeks to paint, and he had to do it all in the middle of a heatwave,” Didier says.
Inside, original features such as exposed limestone walls, wooden floors, open rafters and winding staircases complement more modern touches such as a sauna and hammam in two of the four bedrooms. Furnishings are tasteful period-style pieces such as cabinets, desks and rattan-backed dining chairs. But there’s a warmth and homeliness to La Sauternaise that starts with Pascale serving still-warm bread and pastries for breakfast in the long dining room or in the courtyard.
Didier works at another nearby winery, Château Guiraud, and enthusiastically explains the alchemy that produces the rich, sweet, amber-coloured wines that leave connoisseurs breathless and grasping for superlatives. Contemporary leftwing philosopher Michel Onfray was so enamoured of his first taste that he wrote a book about the local terroir called Les Formes du Temps, expounding his “theory of Sauternes”. He says it is the “prince of wines”, and when you pour it, “your glass is filled with sunshine”.
Apparently, this is all thanks to the microclimate of this part of the Gironde département – where early morning autumnal fogs roll off the Ciron river and up the hills, casting a blanket over the vines before burning off in the late morning sun. This encourages the botrytis mould, otherwise known as noble rot, to form on the grapes and make them shrivel, concentrating the sugar inside. They are harvested much later than other vines, the grapes picked individually according to the progress of the rot.
This labour-intensive product is vulnerable to the vagaries of weather: 95% of Château Guiraud’s grapes were wiped out by a freak hailstorm in July 2018. Estate director Xavier Planty said he had never experienced such an event in his 40 years of working the vines. And that is why the wines can be considerably more expensive than other whites.
So much for the theory, but I had yet to taste a Sauternes.
On my first evening, I pointed the bike I’d hired in the village up the hill and rode to Château Trillon. Over a dinner of confit of duck on the terrace, I took my first sip (they’re not just pudding wines). As I sat watching the sun slip behind the vines, it really did taste like summer in a glass.
A bike is a practical means of transport in wine country, and over the next couple of days I used it to tour the many wineries. The landscape is also dotted with magnificent historic buildings. I took in the six-towered 14th-century, Château Roquetaillade in nearby Mazères, and stately Château Malromé, once owned by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s mother, in Saint-André-du Bois. I couldn’t leave without also visiting the painter’s grave in the village of Verdelais, with its line drawing of the artist at his easel.
Rolling back into Sauternes on my last night, guided by the floodlit church spire, I caught the sound of Daft Punk’s Get Lucky drifting over the houses, and followed the music to the bottom of the village. Behind a big open door, a band was playing in a garden strung with fairy lights. There was a trellised bar at one end, and seating in an open barn.
This was La Petite Guinguette, a pop-up summer party house with mismatched tables, sofas and chairs strewn across the lawn. People were drinking wine and beer, eating charcuterie, frites and plates of melon, figs and tomatoes. A few people were up dancing to the band, squeezing the last drops out of summer. It felt a bit like a movie wrap party.
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