Exploring White Bordeaux Wines

(Originally published June 2002)

Hanes was considering writing about inexpensive white wines to drink during summer, mentioning all the usual suspects like Albariño, Muscadet, Chardonnays from Burgundy's Mâcon region, or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. But that struck Hanes as lame and Hanes is way too cool to be lame. Instead, he decided to perform a public self-exhortation, specifically, to drink more dry white Bordeaux wines.

Bordeaux is most renowned for their dry red wines, based primarily on the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes. Many wine lovers are familiar with the sweet white dessert wines produced in the Bordeaux appellations of Sauternes and Barsac, the most famous of which is produced by Château d'Yquem. Crafted from the Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grapes, these dessert wines deserve their lofty status among the world's greatest dessert wines. But few spend the time to sample the broad array of dry white wines made in Bordeaux despite the fact that the best of these wines are as "world-class" as any of the red or dessert wines produced in Bordeaux. Let's try to redress this grave injustice, shall we?

White Bordeaux wines are made from the same three principal grapes as Bordeaux's dessert wines -- Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. They are produced throughout Bordeaux but the greatest quantity and highest quality wines are produced in the Graves and Entre-Deux-Mers appellations, especially the Graves sub-appellation called Pessac-Léognan. White Bordeaux can present an intriguing blend of crispness and a softer, heavier mouth feel, combining many different textural and flavor elements. This is a direct product of the grapes utilized so it makes sense to first discuss these grapes.

Sémillon more often than not makes up the majority of a given white blend, more or less in the area of 55% to 75% of the total (although the scales are tipping more and more towards Sauvignon Blanc). This grape is not especially aromatic until it ages a bit. It is lower in acidity than many other white grapes, particularly its primary blending partner in Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc. Its most interesting aspect is its mouth weight and texture -- Sémillon wines feel very round, heavy and fat in the mouth and rest forcefully upon the tongue with a semi-viscous texture. It produces a wine of a deeper, darker gold color, this becoming more pronounced with age. Sémillon can age very well so the higher the percentage used, the greater the wine's potential longevity.

Sauvignon Blanc gives these wines a racier edge and in some cases is the majority grape used in the blend (Château Smith Haut-Lafitte reportedly uses almost 100% Sauvignon Blanc in their white wines). Sauvignon Blanc can be highly aromatic, offering scents of citrus, stone and strong herbaceousness. It is a relatively high acid grape which helps make it crisp and sharp in the mouth. Its color tends to be lighter, so a lot of the color of white Bordeaux comes from the Sémillon. Sauvignon Blanc's primary flavors are most vibrant in their youth, the stone, steel, vegetal notes very bright and direct when from ripe grapes. The acidity from Sauvignon Blanc helps the blend age even as the flavors from the Sémillon becomes more dominant over time.

Muscadelle is used much less frequently than in the past. Today one finds it grown mostly in Entre-Deux-Mers and not Graves. It adds to the blend a youthful fruitiness and florality, softening the sharper edges of the Sauvignon Blanc and supplementing the mute nature of younger Sémillon. Muscadelle is low in acidity and on the light side in color. It feels soft and round in the mouth, more fresh than rich in texture and flavor. This grape more or less adds a little complexity to the flavors and bouquet of the wine, especially while young.

Other very minor grapes used in white Bordeaux blends are Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Sauvignon Vert and Merlot Blanc. These grapes are mostly used in the most inexpensive, everyday white wines produced in Bordeaux and lack distinction. While the wines they make may be eminently quaffable, these are not the wines Hanes is exhorting you and himself to drink.

Given the blend that makes up the usual white Bordeaux, it should be noted that these wines can be drunk young or aged for a period of 5-10 years, the very best wines much more. This makes white Bordeaux potentially some of the most ageworthy dry white wines in the world. That noted, there is a lot to be said for drinking these wines while full of youthful energy or just after a few years of cellaring, once the Sémillon begins to develop and shine. Most higher end white Bordeaux wines are barrel-fermented and this buttressing with oak (usually new oak) may positively contribute to the wine's longevity (but at the same time piss off the oak-phobic). It is advisable to try some young and aged white Bordeaux to learn not only which style you prefer but also investigate how the wines may change over time. Older vintages can be found in many swank restaurants and at auction (usually for a whole lot less than their red counterparts).

The soil composition of most of the areas where white Bordeaux is grown is mostly gravel, clay, limestone and sand, giving the wines a stony, minerally profile. These soils drain well, helping avoid dilution in the grapes and improving flavor concentration while also providing enough water catch basins to allow vines to survive extended droughts. The vines have to struggle mightily to survive in this type of poor soil but winemakers consider this "good" stress on the vines, forcing them to focus on producing fewer, more concentrated grape bunches. Hey, it works for Hanes.

Again, white grapes are grown throughout the entire Bordeaux region (for example, Château Lynch-Bages in Pauillac is a Classified Growth Château most known for their red wine but they also make a small amount of white wine) but the majority of production is concentrated in a few areas. Entre-Deux-Mers is a very large area between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers and they churn out a lot of the everyday stuff. You can find these on U.S. shelves for around $10 or so, sometimes a lot less. One of the more popular names is Château Bonnet. Hanes can recommend Entre-Deux-Mers wines for events like gallery openings or big parties but don't let these wines form your only impression of white Bordeaux.

The best wines come from the Graves region (French for "gravel") and its sub-appellation Pessac-Léognan. These wines have richer flavors, more mouth weight, greater balance and length. All the usual most excellent qualities. The prices for these wines run the gamut from moderately inexpensive (say, around $15 for wines such as Château Graville-Lacoste) to mega-expensive (over $200 in some cases for wines such as Château Haut-Brion). The ones most likely to rock your world without totally rocking your wallet will run from $25 to $40. The following is a non-exhaustive list of some of the most slamming, most happening white Bordeaux wines on the market, yo!

Drink these when your rich yuppie friends are buying:

Château Haut-Brion
Château Laville-Haut-Brion
Domaine de Chevalier
Château Pape Clément
Château Smith Haut-Lafitte
Château de Fieuzal
Château Malartic-Lagravière

These ain't cheap but they will make any occasion special:

Château La Louvière
Château L'Arrivet-Haut-Brion
Château Carbonnieux
Château Latour-Martillac
Château Couhins-Lurton

These are nice introductory and fairly priced white Bordeaux:

Château Bouscaut
Château Graville-Lacoste
Château Olivier
Château Le Sartre
Château de Chantegrive

The best recent vintages are 1998 and 1996, with 1995 and 1999 behind them. For older wines, look for 1990 and 1988.

Good food pairings for white Bordeaux include fish, shellfish, duck, roast pork, dried meats such as sausage or salami and pâté. Or just a second bottle of white Bordeaux!