Sancerre? Yawn. Chardonnay? Ho-hum. Albarino? So 2007. Looking for a new summer white to pair with fish, grilled veggies, and salads? Something fresh, different? Something crisp enough to sip in the sun, solid enough to drink with dinner, and complex enough to enjoy on its own? Look no farther than Bordeaux.
Yes. Bordeaux. Bordeaux’s red and dessert wines get so much press that many people don’t realize that the celebrated region produces dry whites as well. These wines – which often go by the name Graves, Pessac-Léognan, or Entre-Deux-Mers rather than Bordeaux – occupy a small but longstanding space in Bordeaux’s portfolio.
Long before critics and consumers oohed and ahhed over Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc or Hunter Valley Semillon, the Bordelais were blending the two varietals to great acclaim. The same British kings and dukes who made St. Julien and Pauillac famous served Bordeaux blanc at court. But one need not peer all the way back to Eleanor of Aquitaine to see Bordeaux’s terrain awash in white. As recently as the early twentieth century, the grapes that compose white Bordeaux – mostly Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon – outnumbered Bordeaux’s red grape plantings by a sizeable margin. Today, white varietals make up only 15% of Bordeaux’s annual harvest.
What happened? Opinions differ. I tend to think that as wealth increased in the latter half of the 1900s, good Bordeaux rouge became less of an aristocratic luxury and more accessible to ordinary folk. In combination with increasing regulations designed to certify quality in French wine production, this pushed winemaking resources away from inexpensive Bordeaux blanc – much of which was of dubious quality – toward the Cabernet- and Merlot-based wines that put Bordeaux on the map (and, to a lesser extent, toward the prized sweet white wines of Sauternes and Barsac). However it happened, there’s no doubt that in the modern mind Bordeaux is now associated primarily with red wine and secondarily with dessert wine, while dry white wine jogs in as an afterthought, if that.
As a result, white Bordeaux is a relatively rare commodity in wine shops and on restaurant lists, at least here in the United States. Its brand power has largely evaporated, and its production has radically decreased – no wonder most importers don’t carry it, most merchants don’t sell it, and most sommeliers don’t offer it. Where I live in the Bay Area, I rarely see white Bordeaux on a wine list, even at some of the most oenophilic establishments. A few retail shops will carry a modest inventory of Bordeaux blanc, but nothing approaching the volume of red Bordeaux or other famous white regions. By way of example, K&L – the most prominent retail purveyor of white Bordeaux I know of – lists 22 dry white wines out of its overall Bordeaux stock of 717 (a measly 3%).
White Bordeaux’s conspicuous absence from the American wine scene might suggest to some that it’s hard to find Bordeaux blanc outside of Bordeaux for the same reason it’s hard to find Texan wine outside of Texas – it doesn’t taste that good. Sure – as with Texan wine, a chunk of the white Bordeaux produced each year is plonk by any charitable measure. But that’s where the analogy ends. Much of Bordeaux blanc’s annual production is quite good; some of it is even excellent. And in the right vintage from the right chateau, it can go toe-to-toe with the greatest white wines in the world. If market price means anything (and as the growth classifications of 1855 taught us, the Bordelais have a long history of associating quality with market price), then certain wineries’ Bordeaux blanc are perhaps the most coveted white wines on earth. Laville Haut-Brion’s 2006 Pessac-Léognan Blanc currently retails for $579.99 per bottle. I can’t think off-hand of many Texan wines fetching triple digits.
The more expensive white Bordeaux tends to come from the smaller AOC of Pessac-Léognan – what was formerly the northern district of Graves (termed “Hautes Graves”) before it was separated out as its own appellation in 1987. Thankfully, not all Pessac- Léognan blanc resides in the stratosphere like Laville Haut-Brion and its rivals Chateaux Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion – although it’s rare to find one for much less than $25. Whites from Graves are better bargains, and many properties manage to far outpace their humble nomenclature (check out Clos Floridene’s Graves Blanc from 2005 – a $20 delight!). Wines labeled Entres-Deux-Mers (literally “between-two-seas”), named for the large swath of land between the Dordogne River to the north and the Garonne River to the south, are far less expensive. Although the quality here can be uneven, the region’s better offerings constitute some of the best deals in the wine world for racy, fresh whites.
Bordeaux blanc’s most distinctive feature is its age-worthiness. Few white wines can be aged with greater confidence (German Riesling and probably Vouvray, to name two). Much of the credit for its long shelf life is due to the high proportion of Semillon that finds its way into the best bottlings. Many of the nicer Graves and Pessacs contain as much as 70% Semillon (by regulation, Sauvignon Blanc must compose 25% of the final blend) – a grape that has a unique ability to age with grace and vigor. A recent visit to Australia’s Hunter Valley convinced me of this; I tasted 15- and 20-year old examples of Semillon that were just hitting their stride.
Unfortunately, aged Bordeaux blanc is hard to come by. Hugh Johnson, one of the great wine writers of our time and a man who has had uncommon opportunity to taste the best of what the wine industry has to offer, laments in his memoirs that “It is one of my regrets that white Graves in stately maturity is almost unknown today.” Those of us with patience and a decent storage space can put things right (at least for ourselves and our friends) by selecting a few well-regarded Graves and Pessacs each vintage and stashing them away for a decade or so.
Of course aging white Bordeaux rarely happens for the same reason that I’m urging you to make it your new summer sipper – it tastes so good right now. Unlike many high-end red wines, one needn’t wait for a good Graves blanc to reach “stately maturity” to enjoy what it has to offer: a perfect balance between vivacity and depth. Sauvignon Blanc lends the wines zip and freshness while weight and texture come from the Semillon. The crisper citrus and grassy flavors of Sauvignon Blanc meld with the rounder stone fruit and honeyed flavors of Semillon to form a wine uniquely equipped for the exigencies of summer – one that can act as aperitif or pair with the main course. Bordeaux blanc seems to go with everything, and in the $20 range it outperforms most comparable Sancerre, Chardonnay, and Albarino. This – rather than its pedigree or durability – is why you should give white Bordeaux a shake. And if you possess the patience to lay it down until it peaks, in a few decades you’ll have a uniquely appointed cellar and one less thing to regret.