Many sweet wines are fascinating. I say “many” as some are mass produced with nothing but sweetness. I’m talking about those that see botrytis (noble rot) or that hang on vines and shrivel (late harvest). Some remain there waiting (and hoping) for a first frost at which time they’re harvested frozen specifically for Ice Wine (common in Germany and Canada). Others are picked when ripe then partially dried on straw mats or pallets in large, airy spaces which concentrates grape sugars. This ‘appassimento’ method is common in Italy, and is used to produce red and white Passito style wines.
Bordeaux is the largest wine producing area in France with about 900 million bottles of wine produced each year. Of the roughly 75 million cases, about 7 million are white.
Map courtesy of cellartours.com
The sweet wine scene in Bordeaux is dominated by Sauternes in the Graves district. It produces between 475 and 500,000 cases of wine depending on the year. However, lots of fabulous semi-sweet and sweet wine is found beyond the Sauternes AOC. There are 11* AOC that produce sweet wine in Bordeaux: Barsac, Bordeaux, Bordeaux Superieur, Cadillac, Cerons, Graves Superieurs, Haut-Benauge (used or dry and sweet wines and sweet are fairly rare), Loupiac, Premières Cotes de Bordeaux, Sainte Croix du Mont, and Sauternes. Within the Sauternes AOC, only five towns or “communes” can produce a Sauternes wine and label it as such: Sauternes, Barsac, Bommes, Fargues and Preignac. Sweet wine from the other AOC are called Bordeaux Supérieur or just Sweet Bordeaux. Sauternes and Barsac are the two most prestigious of the five. The following map shows the location of these two areas in relation to Bordeaux.
Grape varieties used for these wines are Sémillion, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle. Botrytis tends to love Sémillion, which brings body to a wine along with citrus, grassiness and honey. On occasion, a lanolin like quality surfaces.
Sauvignon Blanc provides the crispness that Sémillion lacks, bringing citrus, gooseberries, nettles and more to the blend. Muscadelle is used in small quantities bringing floral and grape aromas; it smells just like Muscat grapes, although they aren’t related. Sometimes a Sauternes is made with 100% Sémillion (the Cérons and Sainte-Croix-du-Mont AOCs) .
Mark and I went to “Portes Ouverts” in Sauternes last year. Wineries in a given area of Bordeaux open their doors for a weekend inviting people to taste, learn and enjoy. We tried a plethora of wines from demi-sec to doux (half sweet to very sweet), and came home with a case.
While I believe there should be a bottle of dessert wine open in the house at all times, I was challenged to find a savory way to pop these bottles. Thus started my journey to develop a complementary main dish that when combined with a sweet wine, would result in a harmonious palette.
This dish does just that. I wanted flavors and textures that would stand up to the wine’s sweetness level. It has components that are creamy (coconut milk), acidic (lemon), spicy (red curry paste), and a slightly crunchy texture from searing the meat which cuts through the wine’s body. And having sweet components in the dish (corn, coconut milk, and mango) helps to decrease the perception of sweetness in the wine.
I made it a few times finding an increase in the heat component, using a fattier salmon, and garnishing with diced mango complimented the pairing. In addition, a squeeze of lime over the top adds just enough acid to balance flavors.
It’s easier to grab a few of the classic pairings- soft, washed rind and blue cheeses, terrine or foie gras, however it’s always interesting to try something new. So grab your bottle of Sauternes or other sweet wine and surprise your guests. This is a perfect opportunity to explore the savory side of Sauternes!
- 1 pound (16 ounces) salmon fillet, cut as directed below.
- 2 teaspoons sea salt
- 1 tablespoon curry powder (mild or medium)
- ½ teaspoon cayenne powder
- 1½ tablespoons olive
- 2 tablespoons grape seed or canola oil
- 1½ heaping tablespoons curry powder
- 1 teaspoon red curry paste (Thai style)
- 3 large shallots, minced (or 1 medium yellow onion, minced)
- 2 ears of corn, cut off the cob
- 2 medium sized ripe red tomatoes (1 cup), cut into small pieces (about ½-inch)
- 200 ml coconut milk
- 1 teaspoon fish sauce (Nuoc Mam)
- 6 large basil leaves, chiffonade
- 1 lime, cut in half, then half again so you have 4 pieces
- 1 mango, peeled and cut into small diced pieces (optional)
- Cut salmon, place on a plate and set aside. Note: If serving as an appetizer, cut salmon into 4 equal sized pieces. If serving as a main dish, cut in half.
- Mix the salt, curry and cayenne powders in a bowl. Add the 2 tablespoons olive oil and mix. Pour over the salmon and spread so all sides of the fish are covered in the spice mixture; set aside.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a fry or sauté pan over medium-high heat (do not let the oil smoke but you want your pan fairly hot). Quickly place the salmon in the pan skin side down, sear for a minute then gently shake the pan to make sure the salmon is not sticking. Sear for another minute or so; you want a nice golden brown crust.
- Turn each piece and sear the second side to brown the fillets (about 1 or 2 minutes depending on the thickness of the fillets). Remove to a plate, cover lightly with foil, and set aside. The middle will be medium-rare.
- If needed, wipe out the pan, add 1 tablespoon of oil, and heat over medium. Add the curry powder and red curry past then cook for a few seconds. Add the minced shallots (or onions) and cook covered until translucent (just a few minutes).
- Add the corn and tomatoes; stir to combine. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes or until the corn and tomatoes start to soften. If the mixture starts to stick, add just a little water.
- Next, turn the heat down to medium-low then add 100 milliliters of the coconut milk; stir to combine. (The mixture should barely bubble.) Note you do not want a soupy, liquidy mixture.
- You want enough coconut milk so the vegetables are moist but not runny. Add more if needed so the vegetables are moist. You may not end up using all of the coconut milk so save it for another use!
- Taste and season with salt or a pinch of cayenne pepper if more heat is desired. Turn the heat to low and place each piece of salmon into the mixture to warm just for a minute.
- To Serve:
- Spoon vegetable mixture onto each plate (from ½ to ¾ cup). Sprinkle with basil, top with a piece of salmon. Top the salmon with a few tablespoons of diced mango or peach, then squeeze a little lime juice over the salmon. Repeat with each piece of salmon.
- Serve immediately with your favorite bread, over quinoa, or with rice.
- Note King (or Chinook) will work best having the highest fat content of all salmon, but it can't be found in every part of the world!
Other dishes and desserts, in addition to a library of information about the sweet wines of Bordeaux, can be found at Sweet Bordeaux.
Sweet Wine Tid-Bits for Wine Geeks
Sauternes and Sweet Bordeaux:
- Sauternes AOC law mandates wines from the appellation must be grown in one of the 5 specified communes: Sauternes, Barsac, Bommes, Preignac, and Fargues. Cerons used to be included but was expelled to make room for Fargues.
- Maximum allowable yield is 25 hectoliters per hectare.
- Sweet wines from Barsac can be labeled as either Sauternes or Barsac.
- Wine must be made from grape musts that yield a minimum of 221 grams of sugar per liter.
- Minimum alcohol level for a wine labeled Sauternes is 13%.
- *Appellations that some consider Bordeaux and some do not are Cotes de Bergerac, Saussignac, Sainte Foy, and Saint Macaire.
Botrytized wine is made in:
- France (Bordeaux, Montbazillac, Saussignac)
- Loire Valley (l’Aubance, Coteaux de Layon, Quarts de Chaume, Bonnezeaux, Montlouis and Vouvray)
- Austria (Burgenland)
- Hungary (Tokaj)
- Romania (Cotnari)
- Parts of Italy, Spain and Portugal
- Australia (Griffin in New South Wales)
- New Zealand
- South Africa