The appellation, named after the municipality of the same name, with around 1,700 hectares of vineyards, forms an island in the large Graves area in southern Bordeaux. It consists of the five communes of Bommes, Fargues-de-Langon, Preignac and Sauternes, as well as with the right to its own appellation Barsac with 600 hectares of it. All Barsac wines may also use the name Sauternes or Sauternes-Barsac, but not vice versa. For centuries, this appellation has produced mainly noble sweet white wines from botrytised grapes. The later US president Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), who was an envoy in Paris from 1785 to 1789 and visited many French wine-growing regions during this time, described Sauternes as the best white wine in the country after Champagne and Hermitage. His ranking was also used as one of the criteria for the 1855 Sauternes classification (see below).
The highly calcareous soil offers excellent conditions for white wines, the red wines are less important. The appellation only applies to noble sweet white wines. Dry white wines may only use the AC "Bordeaux", red wines only the AC "Bordeaux" or "Bordeaux Supérieur". The appellation regulations for sweet white wines require at least 13% vol. alcohol content and proof of the required degree of sweetness by means of a sensory taste test. The yield limit is 25 hectolitres per hectare. The most common and important white wine variety is Sémillon, which occupies around 80% of the total vine area of most wineries. The remaining white wine varieties are Sauvignon Blanc (also Sauvignon Gris) and some Muscadelle. The most common red wine varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. These are the typical grape varieties of the so-called Rive gauche (left bank).
The botrytis (noble rot) necessary for the noble sweet wines is favoured by the deep location of the area and the proximity of two rivers. When the cold waters of the Ciron river flow into the warmer Garonne, fog is created in the valley and the interaction of humid coolness and the heat of the sun creates the ideal conditions. Noble rotten berries are used throughout. The glowing gold-coloured wine has a green shimmer. The bouquet is characterised by the lush scent of apricots, honey and nuts. The full taste is intense and sweet, but the high alcohol content means that the sweetness is not obtrusive. Mostly a barrique maturation takes place. The white wines from the Barsac area are considered to be not so full-bodied, but racy.
For Sauternes and the neighbouring communities, a classification for white wines was established in 1855 as part of the Bordeaux classification, just as for the Médoc area. In Sauternes this was done in three classes. The Château d'Yquem was the only one in Bordeaux to receive the exclusive "Premier Cru Classé Supérieur" classification, which preceded the red wines in the Médoc. Since then there have been several changes due to changes in ownership and name. However, the classification is still valid and largely consistent: