As the new year approaches, many thoughts turn to celebrating the passing of the last year and the coming of the next. Champagne is usually the beverage hauled out for a toast. But I’d like to suggest that instead of a toast, we drink something that makes time stop, and we take a thoughtful moment to soak up the celebration. Sipping a sweet wine from Sauternes is such an explosion of flavor, it makes you pause for a moment to understand its power and depth. And on the eve of a new year, it’s a lovely moment to think on the passing of time, on the progress we’ve made, and on the exciting things coming our way.
Sauternes is a wine that combines the mystery of botrytis, a temperamental and capricious fungus that requires a magical combination of moisture and sunlight. Fog is generally the bringer of moisture which collects on the grapes and lets the botrytis mold get to work, and sunlight burns off the moisture so a concentration of sugars can develop. The interplay of these two features is extremely dependent on the weather and so, more than any wine, is affected by the climate of that year, creating a vintage that really speaks of itself.
Such an expression of time and concentration of flavors always make me pause when I taste Sauternes. Knowing the multiple passes that the harvesters must take through the vineyard, this wine speaks of hard work; but as a glass of Sauternes is roughly equivalent to the annual work of an entire vine, it speaks of vitality, of passing time, and of sunlight and earthly nutrients reduced down by rot and fermentation.
When I taste Sauternes, I think of baked apples and Christmas spices. And these flavors take me back to my grandmother’s kitchen on a South Dakota farm. She fed the fire of her wood burning stove, while I sat by the window looking out past the little forest out back, hoping to catch sight of a steam engine howling across the horizon. Grandma baked apple pie of course, but I remember best her honey cookies made with dried ginger and raisins, and cinnamon dusted elephant-ear pastries. These are the flavors I taste in Sauternes. This is my bass note in the glass, and then I seek out each unique blend of exotic spice, electric fruit, evanescent flower aromas, and a texture like that last sip of a hot toddy where the spices and sugar settled to the bottom.
I would suggest finding a bottle, possibly a half-bottle for easier fitting into your coat pocket, and bringing it to your New Year’s Eve celebration. Whether alone, or with your spouse, partner, or friend, sneak off a little before the mandatory champagne is broken out, and pour a little of your smuggled bottle into the biggest wine glass you can find. Take a moment to sniff out the wonders of this concentrations of a year’s work and close your eyes to taste. Let your mind wander and follow your sense memories into the past. Stay there for a couple of beats. Look your companion in the eye, head back to the party. Now you’re ready to embrace the new year.
Jeff Harding has worked in the hospitality industry for over 20 years as a server and bartender, and now as a Wine Director at the famed Waverly Inn. He spent a summer in France as manager of a château, where he developed a passion for food and wine. Upon returning to New York he focused his career on wine, becoming the sommelier at the Waverly Inn and as a freelance wine writer. Find him on Instagram @jeffharding and Twitter @jeffharding.