The cost of Sauternes

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Including reviews of the 2006 vintage

A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing (Oscar Wilde).

Much as in Oscar Wilde's quote, understanding the economics of vineyard management, here a Premier Cru in Sauternes (Barsac), should not in itself make you appreciate this remarkable wine any more than you did before. However, understanding the care taken and investments made helps one appreciate the value of these wines. It also explains why the quality of the wines we review in this article are so high. They all compete in the same marketplace on quality and there are no shortcuts available.

Chateau CoutetMaking a sweet white wine once the grapes are in the cellar is neither particularly difficult nor more costly than making other white wines, or even red. It is the work in the vineyard which is the most significant aspect of ensuring a healthy and sound crop for harvest. The other, crucial and extraordinary event in the creation of this wonderful drink, is the way the grapes are attacked by the fungus Botrytis cinerea. The spores which form on the skins of the grape suck the water from the pulp producing grapes which are higher in sugars (less diluted) and other components. In order for the infection to work the grapes must be left for as long as possible on the vine. This has the accompanying economic impact of requiring longer care, taking more risk, and because it is such a delicate balancebetween the kind of rot (grey, unwanted rot) and the so-called 'noble rot', even more care and attention at harvest time. Botrytis infections are sporadic rather than uniform, creating additional work and expense by requiring several passes through the vineyard to gather the grapes at the optimum moment. Harvesting requires properly trained people who can recognise the qualities required and make distinctions about the type of rot and the stage of its evolution. Highly trained people cost more to employ and retain. The length of the harvest adds to the wage bill significantly. Another consequence of this is the impact on yield. The vineyards in Sauternes will normally yield at best one third, or more likely a fifth of their red wine counterparts. Less wine means, perversely, more cost.

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References   [ + ]

1, 2. There are 12 women who work in the vineyard undertaking all the tasks there. Each woman is responsible for 30,000 feet (vines) which corresponds to a parcel (approximately 30-34,000 vines). Each parcel has 45 rows and each row is 1,000m long. Thus, each woman who works in the vineyard walks 45km along the row, and 45km back, and works each row 11 times during the year. Each woman thus walks a minimum distance of almost 1,000km per annum. This is an enormous physical effort, quite apart from the work involved at each vine or post.