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Sweet wines like Sauternes have arguably never been more misunderstood than they are today. Unfortunately, we’ve been programmed to think of Sauternes as a dessert wine. At restaurants, sweet wines are often listed on the dessert menu. They may not even be found on the wine list itself. In many cases, this approach means we’re losing occasions to offer guests a pour of one of the world’s great Botrytis-affected wines. People are drinking less, which means they may be less inclined to have another glass of wine by the time dessert rolls around. No wonder sales continue to struggle.

We often approach the order of wines at a meal the same way we would if we were tasting them blind, leaving the sweet wines to the end. That’s a mistake; the right palate cleanser easily allows a meal to meander back and forth between wines styles. I also think the best food and wine pairings happen when the glass in your hand brings something that the dish is lacking. That’s why I don’t typically pair a Sauternes with dessert. Sweet on sweet? It’s too much – at least for me. I’m more likely to go with a digestif like Calvados or Armagnac.

Increasingly, people are understanding what Sauternes producers have known all along: Botrytis-affected sweet wines are ideal pairings for savoury dishes. Yes, there’s always the traditional pairing of Sauternes and foie gras. I personally lean towards a terrine-style, but pan-seared foie gras is also excellent. But the sweetness of Sauternes also makes it a fantastic pairing for salty foods like a simple prosciutto appetizer (the more aged the better!) or spicy dishes, especially those that incorporate flavours like ginger that are also found in a glass of Sauternes. Maybe a Scallion Ginger Cantonese Crab.

It’s also important not to overlook a wine’s vintage when considering food pairing options. For example, Sauternes from vintages like 2010 have less pronounced Botrytis character and are fresher in style. They could pair well with shellfish towards the beginning of a meal. Lobster, in particular, is a natural choice, with its subtle sweetness complementing Sauternes that have less residual sugar. I would suggest a more delicate preparation such as a lobster veloute with chilled lobster salad.

Pairing Sauternes with Roast Chicken

In contrast, concentrated vintages like 2009 may be best reserved for later in the meal. Aline Baly of Chateau Coutet vouches for roasted chicken, and Sauternes definitely has the versatility to pair with all of the accompaniments like roasted potatoes or candied sweet potatoes. I would then save older vintages, which show complex tertiary characteristics with softened sweetness, to end the meal. And, wow, do these wines age well. I think a simple dessert is the way to go, such as a vanilla pound cake, as the Sauternes is going to be the star of the show.

The best part: Sauternes now offers some of the best value in the world of wine. So, you can be adventurous with your food and wine pairings without breaking the bank. Let me know what you discover. Here are some of my recommendations:

2016 Chateau Coutet (375mL) – $19.99 at wine.com

2014 Chateau Rieussec (375mL) – $39.99 at wine.com

2010 Chateau Giraud (375mL) – $27.99 at wine.com