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Sauterne and Sediment


"What ever happened to sauterne?" asked the reader's letter. The lack of the final "s" was the tip-off. She was not asking about the gorgeously rich French dessert wine called Sauternes, but about the American "sauterne" we sipped and cooked with back in the 1960s.

Properly speaking, Sauternes (note the capital letter and the final "s") is the name of a village in Bordeaux that makes a wine of the same name from the Semillon grape variety, occasionally blended with Sauvignon Blanc. Wine can't be marketed as Sauternes unless a special mold has hit the grapes in the vineyard, concentrating the juice. So Sauternes is always a rare wine, and the best Sauternes, the luxuriously flavored Chateau d'Yquem, is incredibly expensive (about $200 a bottle on release).

American sauterne (no capital, no final "s") is what is known as a "generic" designation, one of several names the U.S. wine industry appropriated from European wine regions. There were no legal definitions for names such as burgundy, chablis, rhine and sauterne, but over time the first three at least developed de facto definitions. Burgundy meant a dry red, chablis a dry (or relatively dry) white, rhine a slightly sweet white.

Sauterne loosely meant a white table wine that was sweeter than chablis. How sweet? There was no definition--and that was the problem. The name sauterne was given to wines that were not much sweeter than chablis and to wines that were definitely sweet. The buyer never knew what to expect.

So what happened to sauterne? People stopped buying it, so wineries stopped making it. Lou Foppiano, of Sonoma County's Foppiano Winery, once put it to me this way: "We made two white wines back then, a chablis and a sauterne. They both came from the same tank and they were the same price. "One year we sold 10 times as much chablis as we did sauterne. The next year we didn't make sauterne."


Another reader wrote asking about a recent dispute in a restaurant. He had ordered a bottle of 1990 Bordeaux and found the wine had sediment. After a minor flap with the staff, he sent the wine back. He wrote that he was concerned about the "chemistry experiment going on before my eyes," as he called it, in the wine glass, but said the staff of the restaurant told him the wine was sound.

In most cases, sediment in a red wine is no cause for alarm, especially if the wine is old. Most red wines get their color and flavor from the grape skins, which remain in contact with the juice while the juice is fermenting. The color and flavor components are unstable; over time some of them precipitate out.

The matter formed by the precipitate can be a fine-grained sediment that can cling to the inside of the bottle (the French have a lovely term for this: chemise ), or it can be chunks of dark matter that float around when you pour the wine. This sediment is tasteless and harmless, but it can be slightly bitter, which is one reason to decant a wine, leaving the sediment in the bottle.

So the wine was probably fine, and the restaurant, to its credit, took the wine back--just another of the ways restaurateurs can lose money even though it's not their fault.


Probably the question readers most often ask is: "Why did they start adding sulfites to wine? Ever since they did, I get headaches."

They didn't just start adding them. Sulfites have always been present in wine, and there's actually less in wine today than ever before. The reason people are aware of sulfites now is mainly because a decade ago the federal government, concerned about how sulfites in food affect asthmatics, began requiring the sulfite statement on wine labels.

Sulfites are natural byproducts of fermentation, so trace amounts of them are present in all young wine. (Old red wine typically has little or no sulfite content.) Because sulfites have fungicidal and antioxidant qualities, winemakers have long added small amounts of them to wine to protect it from spoiling.

These days, better techniques in fermentation and bottling procedures and improved winery equipment have led to smaller and smaller additions of sulfite. The average bottle of young wine today contains so little that you'd get as much sulfite from one dried apple as from four full bottles of wine.

Doctors say non-asthmatics have little to fear from sulfites in wine because the pH of wine (between 3.0 and 3.9) is high enough to keep it from becoming a problem. A sulfite solution commonly sprayed on salad bars to preserve the bright color of the greens is far more volatile, and it's rendered dangerous by the low pH of vinegar- or lemon juice-based salad dressings (well below 2.8). These could react with the sulfites on the greens and create a reaction in asthmatics and others with respiratory ailments.

Scientists say there is probably no connection between sulfites and red wine headaches. Research continues into why some people get headaches after consuming red wine.

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