Named after the eponymous commune, Monbazillac was amongst the very first batch of appellations to be granted AOC status by INAO (Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité) in 1936. Situated on the south bank of the Dordogne and bordering Bergerac in the north, Monbazillac possesses just under 4,000ha of vineyards, the overwhelming majority of which is planted with white varieties. Curiously, only those botrytis cinerea-affected noble sweet wines are labelled as Monbazillac, whereas dry whites are labelled as Bergerac.
The viticultural and winemaking history of Monbazillac can be traced back to the 11th century, with the arrival of the Benedictine monks. Legend has it that the normally conscientious Benedictines, for some unknown reasons, once failed to harvest the grapes on time. Although the grapes had already developed rot, the men of god decided to make wine out of the rotten berries nonetheless so as not to be wasteful, hence the birth of Monbazillac’s sweet wines. The vicinity of Monbazillac is a chequered board of rivers and streams, therefore ideal topography for developing botrytis cinerea.
Monbazillac’s sweet wines used to be semi- sweet rather than lusciously sweet, similar to half-sweet whites from Gaillac, Jurançon and Madiran in the 21st century. It was not until the late 20th century that Monbazillac went fully sweet, mirroring its illustrious neighbour Sauternes. With its seaport and international connections e.g. the English and Dutch, Bordeaux as a region has for long overshadowed other nearby appellations of Sud-Ouest (South West France), an umbrella collection of stylistically diverse appellations.
In very much the same way as Bergerac, Buzet and Côtes-du-Marmandais reds are regarded as the country cousins of the bourgeois and cosmopolitan Bordealais reds, Monbazillac is often seen as budget Sauternes. This would be unfair, as Monbazillac is entirely capable of producing high quality dessert wines at salivating prices. Comparing with Sauternes, Monbazillac tends to use a higher proportion of Muscadelle rather than Sauvignon Blanc, along with Sémillon. It generally possesses less acidity, exhibits more fruitiness and is lower in alcohol than Sauternes, perfect for mid-term drinking.
Is it because of the Zeitgeist of the 21st century, or conspicuous consumption, or simply fashion trends, that the price of full-bodied dry reds keeps reaching new heights, whereas that of noble sweet wines continues to be depressed? Until the end of WWII, sweet wines have for much of history been the most highly regarded and expensive nectars. For all its reduced yield, prolonged production, outstanding longevity and not least drinking pleasure, it is almost baffling to see that sweet wines nowadays do not command a fair price which they fully deserve. In relative terms, the early 21st century might be the best time ever, in human history, to enjoy quality sweet wines.
Bright amber with rich golden reflex, the nose is aromatic and exuberant, effusing longan, dried apricot, cinnamon, marzipan and mango blossom. Braced by juicy acidity and palpable minerality, the palate is hedonistic and tantalising, emanating hami melon, dried peach, gingerbread, white clover honey and osmanthus. Lusciously sweet and full bodied at 12.5 percent, the sumptuous entry evolves into an expansive mid-palate, leading to a moreish finish. Pure joie de vivre in a bottle…
Jacky I. F. Cheong is a legal professional and columnist. Having spent his formative years in Britain,
France and Germany, he regularly comments on wine, fine arts, classical music and opera.