The White Wines of Bordeaux

My recent article, Bordeaux Wine Region in France: World's Most Famous Fine Wine Region, offered a general overview on the wines of Bordeaux.  One group of wines in this region that doesn’t get as much coverage is the dry white wines.  There are quite a bit of dry white Bordeaux wines made.  Unfortunately, most of it is of less than stellar quality.  There are some, however, that are the best wines in the world, capable of ageing for decades.

White wines made from Bordeaux are primarily blends of two grapes:  Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.  Other white grapes permitted include Muscadelle, Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Merlot Blanc, Ondenc, Mauzac and Savignon Gris.  The Sauvignon Blanc provides the wines with lovely aromas and crisp acidity.  The Semillon adds more aromatics and gives the wine lushness.  Finally Muscadelle is less acidic and has lovely aromatics as well. 

Historically, the white wines made in Bordeaux were sweet.  While not at the level of sweetness of the great dessert wines of Sauternes or Barsac, producers allowed some residual sugar to remain in the wines to cover flaws such as rot or over ripeness.  By the 1960’s that style of wine was losing favor with the public so producers began to vinify the wines dry.  Unfortunately, the producers did not adjust their growing habits or grape selection processes to match and most of the resulting wines were under ripe with off flavors.  Certainly, many did not taste clean.  The wines back then relied much more heavily on Semillon or Muscadelle grapes which left the wines fatter and less crisp.  Today the wines contain a higher percentage of Sauvignon Blanc.  There has also been a shift to more new French oak being used and allowing the wines to ferment in barrel and stir the lees (dead yeast cells) to give the wines a fuller profile. 

Dry white vines account for around 36,000 acres in Bordeuax.  Of that, 58% is Semilion, 21% Savignon Blanc, 10% Muscadelle, and 9% Ugni Blanc.  They produce one hundred and forty million bottles annually, the majority of which are exported to Holland, the UK, the United States, Belgium and Canada. 

As a general rule, white Bordeaux wines do not undergo Malolactic fermentation in which the malic acid becomes lactic acid.  The wines retain crispness.  When drunk early in life the wines are snappish with floral and citrus aromatics.  With age the wines show honey and figs and nuttiness to them. 

In my opinion the best whites of Bordeaux come from the communes of Graves and Pessac-Leognan (which was historically part of Graves).  White grapes in these regions account for only 15% of the total vines.  The soils here are gravelly and seem more suited to wines with more Semillion.  Excellent white wine is also made on the clay and limestone soils found on the right bank which tends to favor the Sauvignon Blanc dominated wines.