Rémi Edange of Domaine de Chevalier seems almost to levitate, such is the exquisite theatricality of his intricate hand gestures and rolling eyes, and the rising cadence of his charming accent as he tries to evoke the ‘golden moment’.This is the point, early in the morning at his Pessac-Léognan vineyards, when the first rays of the sun strike the glistening berries of his Sauvignon Blanc. “That,” he says, “is the moment of perfect balance: you take only what the fruit wants to give to you.”
I leave my tasting with Rémi convinced that his white Bordeaux is not grown, fermented and bottled, but conjured from gossamer and dew drops by a band of Gallic pixies.
It would be a cliché to describe dry white Bordeaux as a ‘hidden secret’, but compared to the equal opportunity status enjoyed by white and red Burgundy, there’s no doubt the see-through version of the world’s most famous wine plays strictly second fiddle. Whilst Claret and Sauternes are essential components of any self-respecting cellar, dry white Bordeaux is as rare as hen’s teeth. To ponder why, is a delicious conundrum. There are terroirs in Bordeaux that are ideally suited to making the highest quality dry white wines. Here, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon combine to produce something very special indeed. The wines offer exquisite food-matching possibilities, immense drinkability and the capacity to age beautifully. So why are they so underrated? It is a puzzle, and to solve it we must begin with history, availability and fashion.
Always the bridesmaid
Unlike its sweet cousins from Sauternes and Barsac, dry white Bordeaux has always lived in the shadow of the region’s reds. But there was good reason for this: historically, quality simply wasn’t good enough. Of course there were conscientious producers who made great examples, but a wholesale upgrade in quality has only come in the past couple of decades with improved vineyard practises, better hygiene and advances in technology. The oxidised, rustic whites that were once all too common are now a thing of the past. The breed has improved beyond all recognition.
“we work as jewellers, not as farmers”
Another bon mot from the charismatic Rémi Edange (right) describes the one thousand hours his team spend in the vineyard picking grapes for his white wine: “selecting berry by berry in the morning, when the fruit is at its freshest.” And yet Domaine de Chevalier produces only 1200 cases of its white Grand Vin, with the volume of red around five times greater. Indeed, only 11% of Bordeaux’s overall planting is of white varieties, and much of that makes the ocean of inexpensive white wine from the Entre-Deux-Mers region between the rivers Dordogne and Garonne. White wine from the noble terroirs of the right and left banks is a far rarer commodity.
Sauvignon’s singular style
Sauvignon Blanc in recent years has been all about the aggressively pungent, vivacious style exemplified by Marlborough in New Zealand. Since this singularly impressive (if rather obvious) new expression burst onto the scene it has become a consumer favourite and template for the world’s Sauvignon producers. By comparison, barrel-aged white Bordeaux, a much more discreet and savoury interpretation, has been about as cool as Chris De Burgh in a pair of leather hot-pants. Ironically, the Anything but Chardonnay phenomenon may also have played a part: the fortunes of all oak-influenced wines have been bound-up in consumer prejudice against the whiff of barrel in their whites.
A wine of its time?
Could it be that white Bordeaux’s place in the spotlight is about to come? Talk to Sauvignon Blanc winemakers in New Zealand, Western Australia, South Africa or Chile, and more and more are citing white Bordeaux as their role model for the future, fearing the public love affair with the ‘Marlborough style’ cannot last forever. The corollary is that Bordeaux wines have changed subtly in a nod towards this style too, offering a little more verve within the traditional profile of smoky, mineral, refined aromas and flavours. The style of today’s white Bordeaux is deliciously balanced between opulence and precision, exuberance and restraint. It is true that in terms of the top Châteaux there’s still not a lot of white Bordeaux about, but the sheer quality of these wines now often exceeds their moderate prices. Leaving the wonders of the magisterial Haut-Brion Blanc to one side (£500 per bottle for the 2007), there is fabulous drinking and cellaring to be had in the £10 to £30 range. It’s not so long since I finished the last bottle from a case of 1959 Château Malartic-Lagravière Blanc, still drinking luxuriously well with its oily texture, melon and peach fruit and hint of Botrytis defined by a decisive, mineral edge. The fine 2007 is around £35 per bottle, duty paid.
Bordeaux Blanc today
Alongside the bedrocks of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, a smidgeon of the fragrant Muscadelle is often part of the blend and, increasingly, Sauvignon Gris. The two Sauvignons currently have the whip hand: plantings of Sauvignon Blanc having increased dramatically thanks to the variety’s world-wide popularity and crowd-pleasing freshness. It is now the dominant variety in most blends. Sauvignon Gris – a pink skinned mutation of the Blanc – is gaining popularity fast because of its tendency to fuller, fruity elegance.
The little wines of the Entre-Deux-Mers and the petits Châteaux of the Côtes shouldn’t be ignored – they have learned their lessons well and there’s huge pleasure to be found in the vibrant, daisy-fresh wines from established châteaux and big négociant firms like Sichel, Dourthe, Calvet, Michel Lynch and Yvon Mau. In terms of fine Bordeaux whites, whilst a few notable examples are made in the Médoc (the Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux and Blanc de Lynch-Bages spring to mind), the real stronghold remains in Graves and its sub-region of Pessac-Léognan. Monsieur Edange’s ‘golden moment’ does indeed seem to be captured in the best examples of these wines, where the gently smoky, Brazil nut fragrance of oak fuses with delicate, peach down finesse and bursts onto the palate with exuberant fruit. But all the time that shimmering core of citrus and mineral acidity propels the wine towards a very fine point in the finish. White Bordeaux makes an extremely adaptable partner to food too, and has the capacity to hold the drinker’s interest right through to the last drop in the bottle. That is something that can rarely be said for many of the New World’s most celebrated Sauvignons Blanc. Flavours unfold from the figgy richness of the barrel component, though the waxy textural weight of the mid-palate, to the pristine, razor sharp acidity of the finish. The best white Bordeaux has the same balanced, mineral clarity found in top Chablis or the most serious Austrian Rieslings. Try them with a carpaccio of scallops or lobster risotto for a little slice of heaven. Dry white Bordeaux is a hidden world, a secret garden of delights, that is just waiting to be explored.
Château Couhins-Lurton, Pessac-Léognan Blanc 2007
An all-Sauvignon Blanc cuvée, with beautifully mealy, refined notes of almond and lemon, with hints of flowers and wax. On the palate the fruit is intense and vital, the core of lemony acidity and firm, crunchy apple bite playing against discreet, well-handled oak. 92/100. £24.75, Bibendum Wines. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com
Château La Garde Pessac-Léognan Blanc 2008
Arresting nose, the deep, sweet peach fruit and peach down finesse is ethereal, melding with mellow oak and crushed oatmeal. On the palate, subtle but generous tropical fruit, a big core of tangy grapefruit and a long, fine finish. 91/100. £23.00, Berry Bros & Rudd. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com
Château Brown 2008, Pessac-Léognan
An elegantly oaked Sauvignon-dominated blend with biscuit and honey over cool melon fruit with a hint of green fig. The palate adds a ravishing lemony acidity, but the mid-palate is weighty and gutsy. 91/100. £30, Soho Wine Supply. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com
Clos Floridène, Graves Blanc 2007
Beautiful nose here, the oak obvious but of delightful quality, adding subtle honey and toast to burstingly ripe fruit and a hint of waxy green bean. The palate has tropical fruit verve, super-sweet on the mid-palate, yet racing through to the finish with lovely acidity. 91/100. £19.50, Berry Bros & Rudd. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com
Domaine de Chevalier, L’Esprit de Chevalier Pessac-Léognan Blanc 2007
The synthetic cork is a huge surprise in this second wine of Domaine de Chevalier, but the taut, subtle aromas are clear, with traces of Spring flowers and preserved lemon. Concentrated yet focused orange and mineral flavours out-power the oak in a long finish. 90/100. £21.00, Raeburn, Roberson, Corks Out. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com
Blanc de Lynch-Bages, Bordeaux Blanc 2008
The white wine from Château Lynch-Bages is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle aged in barrel, around 60% new. It has a vividly ripe, nectarine nose: the essence of smelling the skins of juicy ripe fruits, leading onto a palate with more of that character that is succulent and juicy, allied to crisp orangy acidity and a softening sheen of very well-managed, creamy oak. Distinguished stuff. 90/100. Around £27-£30, See all stockists on wine-searcher.com
Château de Rochemorin, Pessac-Léognan Blanc 2007
An all-Sauvignon Blanc wine with discreetly oatmeally notes, almond and an apple fruitiness. The palate is bright and vivacious, some toasty oak underpinning crisp citrus and juicy, crunchy apple and pear fruit. Deliciously drinkable but with ageing potential. 90/100. £14.99, Bibendum. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com
Château L’Avocat, Graves Blanc 2007
A blend of Barrel-aged Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris gives lemon and fresh-cut grass on the nose, with a background of quite toasty, nutty oak. On the palate powerful and mouth-watering, with hints of tropical nectarine and lychee constrained by the acidity. 89/100. £13.15, Justerini & Brooks. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com
Château du Seuil, Graves Blanc 2007
Barrel fermented Sémillon makes up 60% of the blend here. The nose is waxy and rich, with a lemon rind character. On the palate the definition of restraint despite bright fruit, with moderate concentration, effortless elegance and a refined, long finish. 89/100. £13.00, Virgin Wines. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com
Château Rahoul, Graves Blanc 2007
Deep, Brazil nut and espresso notes make for a sensuous start to this 78% Sémillon wine, with ripe apple and little acacia honey nuances. Terrific verve on the palate with a lime fruit intensity, a touch of more exotic mango and a white fruit acidity sharpening the picture. 89/100. £20, Champagnes & Châteaux. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com
Château Lafont Menaut Pessac-Léognan Blanc 2007
Made by Philibert Perrin of Château Carbonnieux, this 100% Sauvignon Blanc is very subdued, giving up its nutty, Cox’s Pippin aromas very slowly. The palate has a huge core of mineral, almost liquoricy character and whilst the acidity is crisp, the overall appeal is savoury and lean. 88/100. £11.99, Booths. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com
Clarendelle, Bordeaux Blanc 2006
A little Muscadelle joins Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc in this wine from the Clarence Dillon family, owners of Château Haut-Brion. There’s a leesy, pear skin richness on the nose, with bottle age giving the palate a dry, savoury appeal where nutty and mineral notes dominate. 88/100. £13.99, Averys. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com
Villa Bel-Air, Graves Blanc 2009
A wine from Jean-Michel Cazes, this blends 65% Sauvignon Blanc with 35% Sémillon has a fine, tight nose, with cool apple fruit and a touch of mint. Oak is judiciously placed in the background. On the palate there’s a great core of pithy, dry, lemony fruit and acidity that is lean though juicy, with some orange and grapefruit adding succulence and quite a long finish. Concentrated and impressive. 88/100. Priced around £10.00 this is good value but has few stockists in the UK. Berry Bros ‘Extrordinary White Bordeaux’ is made by this estate. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com
Michel Lynch, Graves Blanc Reserve 2009
Handsome, broad-shoudered bottle for this partially oak-aged Sauvignon/Sémillon. The nose has a peachy softness, a touch of youthful pear-drop and nice sense of citrus freshness. On the palate this is balanced and precise, with the lemony clarity of the fruit given structure by good acidity and creamy oak. 87/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com
Château Ducla, Experience XIV 2006 Bordeaux Blanc 2006
Based on the Sauvignon Gris, this has sweet vanilla, a touch of nettle and notes of nuts and seeds leading on to a palate that is still quite fresh and primary. The oak is perhaps a touch overdone, though the fleshy weight and boldness of the fruit does enough to match it. 87/100. £12.99, Averys. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com
Château de Bonhoste, Bordeaux Blanc ‘Prestige Cuvée’ 2009
Bonhoste’s top white has a powerful nose with toasty oak, lanolin aromas and a grapefruit note. On the palate the fruit is quite peachy, sweet and ripe, with a nice lemon and mineral crunch. Oak is a little prominent on the slightly short finish. 87/100. £13.99, Provenancewines.com. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com
Château Roques Mauriac, Bordeaux Blanc 2009
A 60/40 blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Gris, with fresh, candied lemon and lime aromas and a dry, but nicely-pitched palate of grapefruit and a salty, mineral tang. Stylish and quite sophisticated. 87/100. £8.99, Virgin Wines. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com
Château Bonnet, Entre-Deux-Mers Blanc 2009
This inexpensive Sauvignon-dominated wine from André Lurton typifies the modern face of ‘everyday’ white Bordeaux with its succulent pear and tropical fruit aroma, punchy, vibrant palate and crisply-defined finish. Intelligent, keen but easy to drink. 87/100. £9.00, Bibendum. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com
Château de Bonhoste, Bordeaux Blanc 2009
Fresh, youthful pear drop and lemon nose that leads onto a punchy, full-flavoured palate where a nectarine sweetness is steered neatly towards the finish by citrus acidity. Dry and modern Sauvignon-style. 86/100. £8.99, Provenancewines.com. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com
Château du Cros Bordeaux Sauvignon 2009
This Bordeaux Sec has a bright green hue and orchard fruit aromas that are quite subdued. On the palate it is a well tempered wine, with direct, lemony fruit and a nicely cool, stony quality, the compact, juicy fruit and apple acidity leaving it mouth-wateringly dry and tangy. 86/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com
Château La Rose Bellevue, Côtes de Bordeaux Blanc 2009
A belnd of 85% Sauvignon Blanc with the balance Muscadelle, this has a juicy, ripe, peachy quality with little lychee and floral notes. On the palate it is clean and bright, with a lemon juice freshness to moderately ripe fruit with just a touch of herbal character too. A juicy and perky little wine. 86/100. £7.90, DrinksofFrance.co.uk.
Château Carbonneau, Saint-Foy Bordeaux Blanc 2009
This all-Sauvignon Blanc cuvée is showing the pear-drop aromas of its youth, with some lemon rind fruit beneath. On the palate quite a bold, modern and vivacious style with lots of tropical fruit hints, though a slightly hot finish. 86/100. £9.99, General Wine Trading Co. Hampshire. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com
Château La Rose Bellevue, Côtes de Bordeaux Prestige Blanc 2008
An oak aged blend of Sauvignon Blanc with 15% Muscadelle, this wine from Blaye has rather a lot of barrel showing, giving a Bourbon-like edge to the aromatics and I suspect low-level cork taint. On the palate it is lean and lemony,the finish rather short. Unfair to judge this sample I think. £8.95, DrinksofFrance.co.uk.