Cooking with wine is an adventure in flavor for home cooks, an opportunity to try new combinations and more sophisticated sauces. Most wine-based recipes call for common white or dry table wines, making it easy to pair the finished dish with the same wine or a similar one. Others call for a sweet wine, such as sauterne. You can choose from several substitutes if you don't have any sauterne on hand.
About Sauternes and Sauterne
Sauternes is one of Europe's legendary dessert wines, like Hungarian Tokaj or some of Germany's lush Rieslings. Made in the Bordeaux region from a combination of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle grapes, Sauternes is capable of aging for a century or more. It's produced from grapes infected with the botrytis fungus, known to winemakers as the "noble rot." The fungus shrivels and dries the grapes, concentrating their juices. The resulting wine combines sweetness with powerful, complex flavors and balanced acidity. Domestic "sauterne" is entirely different. It's an inexpensive white wine, with enough sugar added to make it dessert-sweet.
Most dessert wines from reputable producers belong to a category called "late-harvest" wines. The grapes for these wines are left on the vine until the very end of the season, resulting in very high levels of naturally occurring sugars. When the grapes are fermented into wine, the residual sugars remain high and produce a rich, lush flavor. The wine's label will usually use the phrase "late-harvest," or the description on the back will make it clear. Using a late-harvest wine in place of a generic sauterne will improve your sauce noticeably.
Botrytized and Ice Wines
If you're working with a recipe from a famous chef that calls for genuine Sauternes, your best substitute is another botrytized wine or ice wine. These usually carry a heftier price tag, but their subtle balance of sweetness and acidity is irreplaceable in the finest dishes. Botrytized wines are available from most growing regions, and some growers in California and elsewhere deliberately emulate the style of a classic Sauternes. Ice wines are primarily produced in Canada and Germany, with small quantities coming from a few other regions.
Basic Dessert Wines
If your recipe is not elaborate and simply calls for sauterne, you can substitute almost any white dessert wine. Most are simply sweetened white wines, though a few stand out from the pack. White ports lack the sophistication of their red cousins, but are superior to most low-priced dessert wines. Whites based on versions of the Muscat grape are usually sweet or semi-sweet, and have an engagingly floral character that works well in some recipes. Low-priced dessert wines tend to be sweeter than necessary, so you might need to add a small quantity of lemon juice or wine vinegar to balance the flavors in your sauce.