In praise of white Bordeaux
Author: Barbara Drew MW
This weekend I discovered a serious issue in my cellar. I have too much white Burgundy. At first glance, this may not seem problematic: who wouldn’t want a white Burgundy for every occasion? Bottles of lemony Chablis for simple seafood dishes, rich and tropical Pouilly-Fuissé for Sunday roast chicken and taut Puligny-Montrachet for everything in between. I have three different wines from one vineyard in Meursault alone.
But this focus on the glories of white Burgundy means that my cellar is sorely lacking in aromatic wines. What I really wanted to open on Friday night was something fruity and grassy; something fresh but with gentle complexity. The bottle I was missing was a white Bordeaux.
The dry white wines of Bordeaux are, simply put, wonderful. They have plenty of character and can easily be drunk on their own. They have texture, acidity and subtlety, such that they can pair with almost any food. And, given many of them can age for up to 30 years, they are astonishingly good value. Dry white Bordeaux is, in my view, the most underrated wine in the world.
Why are these wines so often overlooked? Partly, this is due to volume. While 60 years ago the production of white and red wines in Bordeaux were roughly balanced, the tables have truly turned, and production of dry white wines is no more than around 10% of the region’s volume today. The reds are better known and, as summers get warmer and red grapes ripen even more readily, they’re increasingly approachable. Plus, being less well known, the market for white Bordeaux is simply smaller.
What to expect in the glass
Stylistically, white Bordeaux can be quite diverse. There are three grapes permitted. Sauvignon Blanc gives intense passionfruit, guava and tomato leaf aromas and flavours to the wine, as well as fresh acidity. Semillon lends a rich texture, nutty flavour and subtle, lingering finish. Lastly, Muscadelle, which is only planted in tiny quantities, can add a burst of floral attitude.
The wonderful thing about white Bordeaux though is there is no requirement for it to be a blend. Unlike the red wines, many are often single varietal. Due to the mild summers and protection from ocean storms, the grapes present quite differently here compared with their “native” regions. Sauvignon Blanc, in particular, produces vibrant, tropical wines with a richness and round texture not seen in the Loire or even Marlborough.
Build to last
Winemaking, too, is a matter of winemaker choice. While some of these wines are made in stainless steel tanks to preserve fruit character and freshness, others are aged in oak, to add weight and a sweet spiciness.
This oak maturation can also assist with the ageing of the wines and, despite Sauvignon Blanc being dominant in many blends, the best white Bordeaux will certainly give the whites of Burgundy a run for their money. Pavillon Blanc, for example, Ch. Margaux’s 100% Sauvignon Blanc white wine, can easily age for 30 years.
However, it is not just the Grande Dames of the Bordeaux whites that can age. What I love about dry white Bordeaux is the ability of often under-the-radar and extremely good value wines to age incredibly elegantly. I have been lucky enough to taste Ch. Langlet Blanc at 20 years old and it was stunning; complex, harmonious and still with plenty of life. And yet these same wines are equally delicious young, with layers of flavour one often would not expect from a white wine under £20.
It goes without saying that I’ve quickly rectified my cellar mistake and now have a healthy selection of bottles gracing my fridge.
My current favourites
2018 Berry Bros & Rudd Extra Ordinary White by Ch. Villa Bel-Air, £15.95 at bbr.com
This is a joyful white Bordeaux, with citrus juiciness from the Sauvignon Blanc, elderflower from the Semillon and a hint of smoke from some oak ageing as well. Perfect for parties and “what to drink” emergencies alike.
2013 L’Esprit de Chevalier Blanc, Pessac-Leognan, £28.50 at bbr.com
The second white wine of Domaine de Chevalier, this has all of the elegance and longevity of their Grand Vin, but for a fraction of the price. This eight-year-old wine is still remarkably youthful, with a beautiful lime zest and beeswax note coming through, and a long, silky finish.