- Wednesday 1 October 2003
White Graves is moving towards a fatter, creamier style in search of its former glory, writes ROGER VOSS
Graves today is the forgotten wine region of Bordeaux. While critics and wine drinkers rave about the glories of the Médoc and St-Emilion, Graves, to the south of Bordeaux, is neglected. And if this is true of the red wines, it is even more true of the whites.
Certainly the estates of Pessac-Léognan are discussed and their red and white wines rated. But that is not the true Graves. The real Graves starts south of Léognan. It is a region of stone walls, small vineyards and ancient towns. It has an antique feeling, a place where time really has stood still.
A few years ago, winemaking in Graves could have been described as 'static'. The quality of many wines was dire, and the region's reputation tarnished. This explains why the big estates of Pessac, Léognan and Martillac (the likes of Pape-Clément, Haut-Bailly, Domaine de Chevalier and Haut-Brion) were firmly behind a move engineered by André Lurton to break away and create the separate Pessac-Léognan appellation.
The move left southern Graves isolated, a region of have-nots compared with the wealthier haves of the north. To the observer, the region's renaissance since then has been spearheaded by the whites: the reds have followed.
At the head of the charge for white quality in Graves is Denis Dubourdieu and his wife Florence. Although resident at Château Reynon in the Premières Côtes, they also own 18ha (hectares) in Graves, an estate called Clos Floridène.
It was here that the revolution in white Graves started, with the introduction to Bordeaux of a Burgundian style of white winemaking. 'We have both the alcoholic and malolactic fermentation in barrel,' explains Florence Dubourdieu. 'Then we age the wine in barrel, with lees stirring. It was something producers used to do in Bordeaux, and then forgot about.'
These techniques produce rich, creamy wines with a greater depth of flavour than stainless steel-fermented whites. The Dubourdieus don't use entirely new wood – 'the wine can't take it' – but wood as an element in the taste and the winemaking is an accepted part of their practice. It may represent a return to an old technique, but comes with additional knowledge and understanding.
Others have followed. One of the most successful white Graves producers is Château de Chantegrive. Created from nothing a little over 30 years ago by Henri Levêque, when he bought 3ha, the estate now encompasses 90ha, making it by far the largest estate in southern Graves. The prestige wine of the estate is Cuvée Caroline, which gets nine months of lees stirring in barrel after fermentation. This is ripe, smooth, almost California style wine, certainly more Burgundy than traditional white Bordeaux.
At many southern Graves estates, whites dominate production. Typical is Château Villa Bel Air, a property created from nothing by the Cazes family of Château Lynch-Bages in Pauillac. It was bought in 1989, and at that stage, no wine had been made on the property since 1950. The white is vinified in wood and aged on the lees for nine months.
Another outsider who has invested in Graves is Alain Thiénot, from Champagne, who bought Château Rahoul in 1986. By then, Rahoul was already a leader in white wine production, thanks to the efforts of Peter Vinding Diers, a Dane now working in Italy. He introduced stainless steel for white wine fermentation, insisting on must that was protected from oxidation, a novel idea for Graves in the 1970s. Although the estate has returned to barrel fermentation, the lessons have not been forgotten.
A sense of history
At Château Magneau vignerons have been in place for generations. The Ardurats family can trace their ancestors back to the 16th century. As at both Villa Bel Air and Rahoul, whites dominate production. Bruno Ardurats is keen to promote Graves whites: 'When people think of Bordeaux, they always think of reds. We have to work harder to persuade them that Bordeaux can make great whites as well.' Ardurats' prestige white, Cuvée Julien, is in the new-wave style of white Graves: nine months in barrel with lees stirring. Just as the reds of the region reached a new level of quality in 2000, so the whites have followed closely behind. The rewards have been evident in 2001 and 2002. The image of Graves as somewhere supplying cheap white wine of dubious quality is on its way out. The price is still good, but the quality is firmly heading for the top.
Roger Voss is the author of Mitchell Beazley Pocket Guide: Wines of the Loire, Alsace and the Rhône; and other French regional wines, £8.99.
Names to look out for
Chateau de Chantegrive
The largest of the southern Graves vineyards, produces a value white and a prestige wine, Cuvée Caroline.
Named after the daughter of the owner, this smooth, creamy wine has ripe acidity and toasty flavours. £87 (case 12 in bond); F&R
Chateau perin de naudine
Two whites are made at this 12ha property. Château Périn de Naudine is rich and complex.
Château Périn de Naudin 2001 ****
A great aperitif wine, light and fresh. Also goes well with seafood, with its green and crisp flavours. N/A UK
The Dubourdieus own this 18ha estate. The white is one of the stars of the Graves, in a creamy, Burgundian style.
Clos Floridène 2001 **** Ripe, creamy flavours make this a powerful wine, with the density of white Burgundy. £87 (case 12 in bond); F&R
The Cuvée Anaïs is a blend of 50/50 Sauvignon and Semillon, a lees-stirred barrel-aged wine from the 22ha vineyard.
Château Brondelle 2001 *** Spicy new wood with butter and toast aromas. The honeyed fruit has crispness and balance. £104.89 (case 12); Evy
The Ardurats family has 25ha of white vines. Two whites are made: one is stainless steel tank fermented, the other, Cuvée Julien, is barrel fermented and wood aged.
Château Magneau, Cuvée Julien 2001 *** Fresh, summer flowers with just a hint of wood, give a lightness and poise to this attractive wine.
This 25ha property is owned by Champenois Alain Thiénot, and its techniques owe a lot to his knowledge of Chardonnay.
Château Rahoul 2001 *** Delicious, fresh fruit salad flavours and a light touch with the wood. A drinkable wine which will age over 2–3 years. £15.95–17.49; OFo, Vrt
Chateau Villa Bel Air
The Cazes family, of Château Lynch-Bages in Pauillac, have put huge efforts into this 46ha vineyard. The white is barrel aged on its lees. Château Villa Bel-Air 2001 *** An attractive combination of honey, spice and floral fruits. A fresh, clean, fruity wine. £60 (case 12 in bond); F&R
Chateau de l'Hospital
Grown on 3ha, the white of this estate is barrel aged over a period of six months.
Chateau du Grand Bos
This 40ha vineyard only makes small quantities of white, but the wine is rich and creamy.
Chateau du Seuil
Welshman Robert Watts has been especially successful with his white Graves, a rounded, barrel-aged wine.
Vieux chateau gaubert
This 25ha vineyard is owned by the president of the Graves Syndicat, Dominique Haverlan. Château de Chantegrive, Cuvée Caroline 2001 ****