Brasserie Dunham Meets Sauternes: A New Take on Wine Barrel Aged Beer
An article by Noah Forrest
Okay, so here’s the deal – I’ve never actually tasted Sauternes. Every time this comes up in conversation, wine folk are like, “What? You’ve never had Sauternes? What’s wrong with you? You HAVE to try it!” I thought, ya ya, whatever. Then Brasserie Dunham goes and creates two new sexy beers, each having been aged in barrels that previously housed Sauternes wine. Given my love affair with Dunham, I needed to get my hands on these bottles, and I needed to write about them.
However, as everyone keeps telling me, Sauternes is special. How was I supposed to write an article about beers aged in Sauternes wine barrels when I’ve never actually sampled this supposed divine nectar. It felt wrong. So, although I don’t generally seek out wines, I began looking for some. Having been entrenched in the beer scene for so long, I had forgotten how challenging and intimidating it can be to look for something in a medium where you have little experience. I decided to ask some friends, and they had some good advice. But I quickly realized I needed the help of a professional.
I contacted Simon Gaudreault, a wine expert, author, blogger, and all around nicest guy ever (you can read some of his work here). Simon is also a beer enthusiast who has worked with Brasserie Dunham on different projects. He was one of the three minds behind the highly successful “Cèrbère,” a brilliant, Vermont-inspired wine barrel aged saison that was released about a year ago. I reached out to him because I wanted recommendations for a bottle of Sauternes that was half-decent, but still reasonably priced (I’m broke these days and Sauternes is expensive!). Instead of a recommendation, Simon just told me that if I swing by his place, he’ll give me a bottle to try. Ummm… Okay! Clearly I’m a very lucky man. Thanks again Simon!
So I had a good bottle, but I needed to understand what the hell Sauternes was all about. And what makes it so damn special? I’m not sure why I’m swearing so much; it must be the excitement! The Sauternes region of France is located about 30 kilometres southeast of Bordeaux. The area has a very particular microclimate that is integral to the production of this wine. There are two rivers that meet there, and during the autumn months their difference in temperature produces a mist that descends onto the vineyards during the evening and morning. This environmental process creates the perfect conditions for Botrytis Cinerea fungus (noble rot) to take hold of the grapes and do its thing. Basically, the grapes start rotting, and this fungus removes almost 60 per cent of the water found in the fruit, creating a concentrated, partially raisined grape. However, because it gets so hot midday, this “rotting” is unable to continue, which halts the emergence of unwanted and unpleasant flavours. This is kind of amazing, isn’t it? And if that isn’t complicated enough, these grapes are meticulously hand-picked in order to make sure the right ones are selected. As you might infer, given the reduction in liquids and concentration of sugars in the gapes, Sauternes is a sweet, dessert-like wine. That being said, my understanding is that somehow this sweet wine finishes quite dry.
Where does beer come into all this? Well, as I mentioned above, Brasserie Dunham got their hands on some Sauternes barrels and decided to throw beer into them! Not only is that awesome on its own, but Eloi (Dunham’s brewmaster) explained to me that they found microflorae living in some of these barrels. There were strains of brettanomyces, lactobacillus, and various unspecified wild yeasts and bacteria. I’m extremely excited to taste what kind of flavours emerge from these infected Sauternes barrels; however, before I get to the beers, I need to actually try some Sauternes. Beerism does… wine!
Château D’arche – Grand Cru Classé
Château D’arche is located within the Sauternes commune of southwestern France. The wine is composed mostly of Semillon, however about 10 per cent goes to Sauvignon and Muscadelle. Their vines are about 45 years old on average and their soil is rich in gravel and silts, which according to the château “give[s] the power, flavor and finesse” to their wine. The grapes are harvested entirely by hand, with the botrytised examples being harvested first. This requires them to repeat the process several times, while they wait for the other grapes to ripen.
Well, now I’m excited to try some already. Grand Cru Classé pours out a beautiful golden orange colour. It looks thick and viscous as it hits the glass. The aroma is an intoxicating mix of oak, almond paste, rich candied fruits, pears and golden raisins. There is a hard-to-describe zesty acidic note that works to pull all these scents together. It’s incredibly rich and robust, with intoxicating and bold aromatics being launched at my senses from different angles.
Wow, never have I had something so sweet finish so dry. I’ve certainly had incredibly sweet beer finish dry with a crushing bitterness, but that’s not what’s happening here. The body has a nice viscosity, which showcases the beautiful fruity flavours of pears, apples and plums. There are lots of sherry-like components as well, adding a full-flavoured richness to the whole thing. There are definite notes of figs and dried fruits, but it finishes with a beautiful and unobtrusive acidity, which cuts all the sweetness magically. It leaves a long and dry finish, which is surprisingly clean, consisting only of the essences of the fruits that preceded it, alongside some subtly acidic notes.
The oak really starts to explode as it warms, adding lots of dank woody complexities. I also get a very subtle, almost fungal or rotting note, unlike anything I’m used to in a beverage. It carries a certain “funk” with a slight astringency that I believe accounts for part of the magically dry finish. It is extremely subtle, and could possibly be all in my head, but there is certainly something special about this wine. I will definitely seek it out again.
Hors Serie – Jane Doe #4
For several years now, Brasserie Dunham has been doing a lot of experimentation with beer blending. Generally speaking, it involves blending two or more beers, aging them in wine barrels, and doing secondary fermentation with wild yeasts, like brettanomyces. They have two series going, the first being their “Assemblages” line. The second, the “Jane Doe – Hors Series,” involves slightly more complex and experimental blends.
The bottle above, which I’m about to talk about, is the fourth installment in the Jane Doe series, and like usual, the blend is a multiplex of beer diversity. This iteration is a blend of four different beers, totaling 8.1% alc./vol.
- Double Red Ale — aged in Sauternes barrels (50%).
- Orange de Dunham — Flander’s style ale Aged in Red wine barrels (16,6%),
- Troïka — Wheat Farmhouse IPA (16,6%)
- Double Dose Sauternes — West Coast IPA aged in Sauternes barrels (16,6%).
Each one of these beers has their own particular character and I’m very excited to see what blending them has produced. So let’s see!
Jane Doe #4 pours out a beautiful rich and bold burgundy colour, with orange highlights. The head is off white and sticks around, never going anywhere. The aroma is a brett bomb, throwing fruity esters at your senses with explosive veracity. The phenols are dusty and spicy, carrying dank basement and musty dust funk. The Sauternes is present, lending echoes of vinous notes that have rich and sweet grapes alongside waves of wine-soaked oak. There are strawberries and cherries, mixed with milk chocolate and a hint of charred wood. This nose is particularly complex and multilayered.
Up front, like the nose, it’s extremely vinous, carrying beautiful fruity wine components alongside a tannic, dry finish. The brett yeast phenols lend even more drying characteristics, transforming this potentially rich and robust eight per cent beer into an easy drinker — almost allowing it to go down with the same ease as a session ale.
There are so many layers here that it’s hard to pin point every nuance. The Sauternes is there, and although I certainly wouldn’t be able to specifically pick out this wine variety in a line-up of other wine-barrel aged beers, it certainly carries a certain sweet but not sweet honey-like apricot thing, mixed with an earthy rot component that’s hard to put into words (this again, however, could all be in my head).
Like most Dunham beers, the bitterness is above average, and just like the other elements, it adds even more drying depth to the whole thing. There is an amazing amount of fruit complexity, with each brewing element or process lending its own unique but different fruity aromatic essence. Cherries and red fruit from brett yeast meets vinous apricots and citrus rinds, while the hop backbone lends a subtle pine citrus thing that lingers on your palate. My only criticism of this one might lie in the finish. It is bone dry, which I love, but also lacks a certain potency and presence when it leaves your palate.
It’s slightly acidic, but nothing particularly apparent, or a least not any more than a glass of wine. The brett is at the forefront, with the very typical “Dunham” quality that so many of us have fallen in love with. The carbonation is basically perfection, with a beautiful snow capped roof-like frothy head that rests atop this blood-red coloured sexy specimen.
Double dose Sauternes
Double Dose as a base beer is an American west coast IPA that has never been bottled (as far as I know). However, several years ago I was fortunate enough to have a few pints of it when visiting the brewery. I remember loving it at the time. Then, back in October 2014, they released Double Dose Éditon Spécial, aged in white wine barrels from Niagara. It was such an interesting and brilliant beer; not at all what I expected. It was incredibly vinous, with a rich body and a balanced but aggressive bitterness. Even more surprising? It got better with age, drinking beautifully after a year in my cellar. Who would have thought that an IPA could age so well? So, with that said, let’s taste the latest iteration of this grand offering, which is, as you might have guessed, aged in Sauternes barrels.
It pours as a crystal clear, burnt orange colour with some pinkish highlights. The nose is extremely vinous, loading my senses with oak, tannic aromatics, and some tart wine-like earthiness. There are hops flowing as well, lending some tropical fruit accents to the winey bomb of a nose. Some of the fruitiness reminds me of the Sauternes, with apricot and peaches, mixed with a subtle honey presence.
It has an incredibly silky body that coats your mouth, again like the Sauternes. However, unlike the wine, it has an exceptionally crushing bitterness that attacks yours senses, stripping your tongue of anything that happened to precede it.
It is very similar to the Sauternes nose, composed of fruity vinous notes, such as apricots and peaches. But it also echoes the aromatic hops that have faded while in the barrel, lending strawberries and grapefruit to the mix. Although the sugars are virtually undetectable given the crushing bitterness, this beer has a viscosity to it that brilliantly mimics the Sauternes body and sweetness. And just like the Sauternes, the finish is dry. The wine-soaked oak is very present, giving off an earthy and spicy wood flavour that compliments everything. Alongside the unearthly bitterness is some tannic wine remnants that further help dry the finish and cut down the monstrous body and mouthfeel.
There is also a tangy, almost tart thing happening, however it is quite subtle. As I mentioned above, Dunham’s brewmaster said these barrels were infected with microflorae. I’m not, however, getting the typical brett phenols or “funk” that I normally perceive with wild beers. Not, at least, to the same degree as Jane Doe #4, which was a brettanomyces bomb. That being said, just like with the Double Dose White wine, I feel like this will age amazingly.
Both these beers carry attributes from the Sauternes. Jane Doe #4 seemed to have a bit of that noble rot thing going on, but Double Dose has a lot of those extremely fruity and sweet complexities you find in the wine. That being said, trying to find all the nuances of a particular wine just from a beer aged in the same barrel might be a bit of a stretch, and could all be in my head. However, I certainly felt like the vinous notes in both these beers carried something that other wine barrel-aged beers didn’t have. Even if the subtleties of a particular wine varietal don’t completely transfer to the beer, I think Dunham did a great job at selecting the proper beers to mesh with this sweet, subtle, and simply beautiful wine. I’m very glad and grateful to have been able to sample all these amazing products. Thanks again Simon and Brasserie Dunham!
An article by Noah Forrest
Photography by Noah Forrest