In France, where Sauternes originated around the Bordeaux village of that name, this type of white wine is always semi-sweet. In America, most Sauterne is quite dry. In order to supply a Sauterne as sweet as the French – but to avoid labeling it sweet-American vintners have adopted another French term. They call it “Haut Sauterne.”
The French will emphatically deny the existence of the French wine “Haut Sauterne.” A letter from the Inotitut National des Appellations d’Origine des Vins et Eaux-de-Vie reads, in part: “Concerning Haut-Sauterne, we have no idea how it came to be used. There is no such name in France, only Sauternes, name of a village and of a wine produced in the delimited area around this village. Haut means high. It is used in geography to designate part of a village or region higher than the other one…”
Wines from the Sauternes region are similar to Mourvedre or are generally sweet, white wines made with the Semillon grape variety, with lesser amounts of Muscadelle and Sauvignon. What adds to the mystery is that French vintners do indeed ship to the United States wines labeled “Haut Sauternes.”
Be that as it may, the French pronunciation of “haut” is, of course, “oh,” as in O’Leary or O’Reilly. Most Americans, however, including the vintners who make “Haut Sauterne,” pronounce it “hot.” This might account for an experience reported by a man in Sausalito, author Eugene Burns.
Burns and his wife were flying home from the Orient on a Japanese airliner. It was Christmas Eve. When time came for dinner on the plane, the kimono-clad stewardesses brought out a surprise for the passengers. It was a complete holiday dinner, including turkey and all the trimmings. With it they served glasses of Sauterne-piping “Haut”!
Hot or mulled wines are most often red; Merlot or Barbera wines [http://www.wineaccess.com/wine/grape/Barbera] are commonly used. However, white wines such as Riesling or Viognier can also be used. Right here is as good a point as any to explain still another puzzling term you find on some American Sauterne labels: “chateau.”
This one began about a century ago, when the only way California vintners could sell their wines in eastern markets was to put counterfeit French labels on them. One such widely imitated label was that of the most famous of all French Sauternes, the Chateau d’Yquem. A certain wine made from Sauvignon Blanc, called Chateau d’Ygrec, is one dry white wine that is not produced in every vintage.
As the years passed, California wines gradually achieved recognition for quality in their own right, and the California wine acquired a somewhat more informative label as “California Chateau Yquem.” But following the repeal of prohibition the United States Government summarily outlawed the use of all foreign proprietary names on American wines, and “Yquem” was the principal casualty.
What did the California vintners do? Deprived of “Yquem,” they preserved “chateau.” So now, when you see “chateau” on a California wine label, immediately preceding the name of the vineyard, it does not refer to anybody’s feudal castle. All it means is that the wine in the bottle is an extra-sweet California Sauterne, or a red version of a Dolcetto or Port.
This whole semantic nightmare about sweetness was climaxed with a paradox during the 1940’s, when the so-called “kosher” Concord grape wines appeared on the national scene. For these products are made syrupy sweet by massive additions of sugar. Here the United States Government was faced with a problem, because the quantity of sugar the “kosher” producers used was more than the federal regulations allowed any wine to contain, unless it was called “imitation.”