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.
The best producer of white Bordeaux is also one of the best producers of red. I am speaking of Chateau Haut Brion from Pessac-Leognan. Haut Brion Blanc is one of the greatest wines in the world. Capable of lasting for decades in a good cellar, the wine takes on a sublime honeyed and fig quality with layer after layer of complexity. There was a time in the not so distant past that these wines, while expensive, were within reach of mortals. New releases are now in excess of $500 a bottle. For a bit less money, I really like Chateau Pape Clement although the prices on this bottle are rising fast too. This winery has really ratcheted up the quality of their whites in the last decade. The price has risen too, and is now fast approaching $200 a bottle. However, the excellent 2001 can still be found for under $100. While mature, it still has decades of life left in it. Still pricey but less expensive, I love Domaine de Chevalier. These wines cost closer to $100 a bottle and can be sublime. For around $75, look for Chateau Smith Haut Lafite, an excellent producer of both reds and whites. Although this chateau has a long history, it is another property in Bordeaux where quality has seen a meteoric rise as of late. All four of these properties are in the Pessac-Leognan region.
Another interesting white is Pavilion Blanc du Chateau Margaux. This is a white wine from the first growth Chateau Margaux which is much more famous for its red wine. Interestingly, the wine carries the Appellation Bordeaux label rather than the Margaux AOC. This wine is 100% Sauvignon Blanc and shows more honeysuckle and wax notes. In a good vintage, it is excellent. Don’t expect a wine resembling a New Zealand or Californian Sauvignon Blanc though. It is a much more rounder, fuller and classier wine. It typically also sells for closer to $100 a bottle.
By now, you are probably asking, are there any good white Bordeaux’s available for a reasonable price? Happily, the answer is yes. Cabonnieux, another white from Pessac-Leognan, is a great wine that can be found for under $30. It is capable of ageing and developing for at least a decade or two. Want to spend even less? Chantegrieve make a very nice wine for around $15. Also look for Guiraud, who also produces a sweet dessert wine. Their dry white can be found for less than $15.
White Bordeaux’s match to food pretty much in a classic style. That is seafood, shellfish and vegetable dishes. Many of the lighter less expensive ones make wonderful aperitifs. The better ones with age can also be served with foul.
Vintage, of course does, matter. Some vintages are considered better than others, that is true. But each vintage has its own personality. intriguingly, the best white vintages are seldom the best red vintages. A great example is 2001, whose wines can still often be found to purchase. I believe it was the best vintage for white wines in the past decade and probably since 1989, yet, it was not a great vintage for reds. It was also a great vintage for the sweet white wines. Much of that has to do with the different needs and maturing rates of white grapes versus reds. For your convenience, I have included a Vintage Chart for white Bordeaux.
There is a lot of white Bordeaux on the market so be careful what you buy. Many are inexpensive enough to allow the consumer to experiment. Look for the 2007’s which look to be stellar and should be appearing on shelves now. Perhaps, take a splurge with some of the ones I have recommended. It would be a great idea to lay a bottle or two down in the cellar. I would love to hear what you think of these interesting white wines.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.