Accent on Living

A HOLIDAY at home, in the wintertime, might well become an occasion, along toward noon, for a venture with sauterne, a neglected and often underrated wine which has long seemed to me uniquely interesting and rewarding. Few households use it at all, yet at the right moment no other wine can take its place.

Sauterne, in the period since Repeal, seems to have declined in popularity, more or less in proportion to the rise in the prestige of the word “dry.” Everything must be dry or extra dry, with all drinks headed for an absolute of dryness. But sauterne remains outside this movement, a nonconformist, stubbornly on the sweet side and, as such, for most tastes too sweet for preceding or accompanying a meal. Since dessert wines have never gained much of a place at the American table, sauterne is a wine without a following. There seems to be no occasion for it.

Now, all this may be true enough, but the fact is sauterne needs no occasion. A fine sauterne is itself the occasion, and the sampling of it and, ideally, the chance to compare it with one or two others can be as pleasant an experience as one could wish. It is not the wine to accompany something to eat; the edibles — and the simpler they are, the better — are simply a foil for the wine. Plain saltine crackers will do; a creamy old Cheddar, or the imported Bel Paese (to which the domestic version seems sadly inferior), or a Munster — any of these will fit, provided the host has the forethought to get it out of the refrigerator the night before and let it reach room temperature.

If one is striking up an acquaintanceship with sauterne for the first time, a safe way is to begin at the top and experiment, subsequently, on the way down. That is how it happened to us, back in the mid-thirties, when a departing guest pressed on us a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem. It sat on a shelf in the worst possible storage conditions for a year or so, and I put it on ice one night as my wife and I were setting out for the theater. We happened to have a quarter-pound jar of caviar on hand, and around midnight we sat down to this, with buttered toast and the Yquem. I am still awed in recalling the perfection of the wine, its deep golden color, its speckless brilliance, and the distinction of its bouquet and flavor. A fine sauterne is tough; One gets the impression of an almost indestructible quality that enables its subtlest virtues to withstand any amount of mistreatment. I am sure that the Yquem, that night back in the thirties, was the best wine I have ever tasted or ever will taste.

As a wine in limited supply and regarded as pre-eminent throughout the world, Chateau d’Yquem of any year is expensive, but it certainly ought to be tried from time to time as a check on all others. Below it, yet still profoundly satisfying, are other chateau-bottled sauternes, and one which we have found dependable, in the middle price range, is Chateau La Tour Blanche. “Dependable” in this case means a wine that is good in an indifferent or even a bad year, wonderful in a good year, and indescribably fine in a great year. It means, also, fidelity, year after year, to the standards that made its reputation — no short cuts, no false enlargement of the supply to meet a greater demand.

I drew the cork, a couple of years ago, from the last bottle of a case of La Tour Blanche, 1937. I did not learn until recently that 1937, a bad year for many wines, was classified as “very great” for sauterne; but no matter: it was perfection, and I remarked to the friend who was sharing it with me that one could hardly believe anything so vital, so seemingly alive, could dwell so long in a bottle in a constant state of improvement.

My friend smiled. “Never forget,” he said, “that the French are a highly civilized people.”