Think the Médoc only produces reds? Think again. With roots reaching back centuries, top dry whites can be found throughout Bordeaux – if you know where to look. James Lawther MW acts as guide...
The Rhone’s iconic strapline ‘Think Red Think…’ could be equally applied to Bordeaux. With 88% of Bordeaux’s 112,600 hectares (ha) dedicated to the cultivation of red varieties, white Bordeaux is definitely a minority act, with dry white running to around 9% of the region’s total yearly volume.
If white Bordeaux appears to be an afterthought today, this was by no means always the case. Post-World War II, with roughly the same surface area as today, white Bordeaux amounted to 45% of the total yearly harvest with an exceptional 56.7% registered in 1946 (Vignobles et Vignerons du Bordelais, Philippe Roudié).
The figure fell to around 30% in the 1950s with a tightening of the rules of production (higher minimum alcohol and a reduction in the number of grape varieties permitted). It continues to slide further, with the growing consumer appetite for red wine, bigger government subsidies for planting red varieties and the proclamation of the health benefits of a daily glass (or two) of vin rouge.
In times gone by, white grape varieties were cultivated throughout Bordeaux, often co-planted with red. Château Ausone has documentary evidence of a white grape variety at the estate in the 17th century, as does Château Margaux, the latter’s Pavillon Blanc label now in existence since 1920. In the early part of the 20th century the white volume was to be found in the regions of Blaye and the Entre-Deux-Mers, the former now reduced to around 250ha and, as with the Entre-Deux-Mers, more heavily engaged in the production of red and rosé.
Nowadays, Bordeaux’s two distinctive (but small) dry white regions are the Graves and Pessac-Léognan, with most generic dry white still emanating from the Entre-Deux-Mers (1,300ha of AC Entre-Deux- Mers and a good percentage of the 6,000ha of Bordeaux Blanc declared). But hunt around and you will also find dry whites being produced in atypical regions such as the Médoc, St-Emilion and Sauternes. The problem in terms of visibility is that they must all carry the AC Bordeaux Blanc designation.
The Médoc is perhaps the quirkiest of these regions, as its free-draining gravel soils are more closely associated with the cultivation of Cabernet Sauvignon and production of a good percentage of Bordeaux’s finest reds. In short, the terroir is not equated with the production of dry whites of distinction. All the same, the rough estimate is that there are about 100ha of white varieties being cultivated and 20 châteaux involved.
These include several from the landmark 1855 classification, the most illustrious being Châteaux Cos d’Estournel, Mouton Rothschild (Aile d’Argent) and Margaux. Most are produced from grapes grown outside their communal appellation, in part because the communal land is too valuable for whites but also in an attempt to find cooler zones and soils. Sauvignon Blanc is generally the dominant grape variety, and barrel fermentation the preferred method of vinification.
Seeking the right varietals
As mentioned previously, Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux is the most long-standing of these wines. The 11ha vineyard is located on the western edge of Margaux on deep gravel soils in a cooler zone often threatened by frost. Sauvignon Blanc is the only grape variety. ‘We’ve experimented with Semillon, but find it lacks the aromatic finesse of Sauvignon and doesn’t improve the wine in terms of volume and texture,’ says Paul Pontallier, managing director of Château Margaux.
Pavillon Blanc comes closest to exhibiting the finesse and complexity of a top dry white, particularly vintages from this decade, which have greater freshness and vivacity, but it comes with an elevated price tag. This is the case for a number of the classed growth whites, cushioned as they are by the reputation of their reds. The potential for long ageing is also questionable, with the majority being at their best over a period of two to six years.
If value for money is the objective it’s best to head inland from the Gironde estuary to Listrac. The clay-limestone soils found in the appellation are more attuned to the cultivation of white varieties and historically white wines have been produced here since the late 19th century. Châteaux Clarke (Le Merle Blanc), Fonréaud (Le Cygne) and Saransot- Dupré produce small volumes and they are soon to be joined by Fourcas-Dupré and Fourcas-Hosten. The wines may have less finesse than Pavillon Blanc but they still have the waxy, citrus notes imparted by Sauvignon and Semillon.
The dry whites of the Médoc are probably more of a curiosity than anything else, but those from Sauternes are a growing economic necessity. The haphazard nature of sweet Sauternes and the need to diversify has meant that several châteaux have taken the dry white path and recently increased production. With the limestone found in Barsac and the limestone and clay in areas of Sauternes they are also assisted by the terroir.
Pierre Dubourdieu (father of Professor Denis) was one of the first to introduce a dry cuvée at Château Doisy-Daëne in the 1950s and others such as Guiraud, Rieussec and Suduiraut have followed suit. Recently, Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey’s new owner, Silvio Denz, announced he would be cutting the production of sweet wine and is studying plots on his estate with a view to introducing a dry white. There’s even talk of producers lobbying for an AC Graves label, but that is further down the road.
One producer who clearly believes in Sauternes’ potential for dry whites is Olivier Bernard of Domaine de Chevalier in Pessac-Léognan. In 2011 he launched his Clos des Lunes label and now has 40ha in Sauternes geared to the production of dry whites. Contrary to the fashion for Sauvignon Blanc, his wines are all produced with a dominance of Semillon (70%). ‘It’s the grape associated with Sauternes and helps keep the identity of the terroir,’ explains Chevalier manager Rémi Edange.
The harvest date has to be absolutely precise, due to the persistent threat of noble rot and the savoir-faire of the Chevalier team is also an important part of the equation. Three different cuvées are produced: the easy-drinking Lune Blanche; the more complex, part-barrel fermented Lune d’Argent, and the longer ageing, top-of-therange Lune d’Or, which is a copy of Domaine de Chevalier in terms of vinification.
Dry white wines can also be found in St-Emilion, but as in the Médoc, production is limited and the appeal more one of curiosity. Rumour has it that Cheval Blanc and Pavie have planted small parcels of white varieties and these are likely to generate further interest. There’s plenty of clay and limestone in the region so the project is not without foundation. Those actually producing a dry white wine at the moment include Châteaux Fombrauge, Faugères, Monbousquet, La Grand Clotte (owned by Michel Rolland) and Valandraud, whose inspiration is more Burgundian than anything else.
In general, these dry whites from outside the ‘classic’ regions are difficult to pigeonhole as they do not belong to a specific family (like Pessac- Léognan). There’s an air of resemblance in terms of the competence of the winemaking, the citrus tones evoked by Sauvignon and Semillon, and a certain substance on the palate that makes them food friendly. New Zealand or Loire Sauvignon Blanc they are certainly not, but styles vary so try them with an open mind.
See James Lawther MW’s top 10 Bordeaux 2012 dry whites
Vintage guide: dry white Bordeaux
2013 Lively, fresh and vibrant. High acidity. Hail seriously depleted volume.
2012 Fine and racy in style. Both Sauvignon and Semillon a success.
2011 Long, fresh and concentrated. Another successful year.
2010 A great year. Intense and aromatic. High alcohol but balanced by the acidity.
2009 Rich, round and fat. A short-term proposition. Hail curbed yields.
2008 Fresh and steely with quite high acidity. Perhaps a little less expressive aromatically. Shortfall in volume due to frost.
2007 A better vintage for white than red. Fresh, tangy and delicate in style.
Written by James Lawther MW