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Edward Peters

Personal Dessert Wines

Sauternes I: Felix culpa


         According to legend, a vineyard owner in France once left on a journey, giving instructions to his workers not to touch the grapes during his absence. As fate had it, however, he was delayed in his return, and his workers, following instructions, left the grapes hanging on the vines well past usual harvest. Upon his return, the vintner was dismayed to see his shriveled grapes still on the vines, covered with a mold whose roots had penetrated the fruits and drawn off much water, leaving the shrunken remains with a sugar concentration nearly double that of typical wine grapes. With nothing else to do that winter, he ordered the grapes picked and crushed, their juices fermented and bottled. The wine yield per acre was severely reduced. There were probably no meats at the Yule table that year.


            Later, however, when the owner tasted his first bottle, he is said to have sworn never again to pick grapes until they were shriveled and moldy. The miracle born in the bottle that season was christened “Sauternes” after its locale, the mold on the grapes henceforth regarded as “noble rot”, and the amber-hued queen of dessert wines began her undisputed reign. For a hundred years or more, she has castled at Chateau d’Yquem.

            I cannot afford d’Yquem, and have never had one. But as Chesterton once remarked about the classical symphony, I take it on faith that it is beautiful, not on experience. Wiser people know these things, they tell me it is so, and I have no reason to doubt them.

            Happily, there are several other fine sauternes on the market that domestic drones like me can afford and, second only to port, nothing gives Angela and me as much pleasure as sharing, or introducing, sauternes with friends. Besides the wine, which I feel deserves one’s undivided palate, sauternes is an opportunity to revisit an important scene from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and to reflect on a difference in vinoculture that existed between Evelyn and his wine-writer brother Alex. Let’s do that in our next installment. +++

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