Many think of Bordeaux as being solely about claret. Here David Peppercorn MW toasts Bordeaux's often neglected white wines.
It is one of the greatest ironies of the wine world today. In the last decade, Bordeaux has been producing the finest dry white wines in its history, yet even in the city of Bordeaux itself, one can search in vain for a Bordeaux white wine on restaurant lists. The great sweet wines are at least recognised, even if selling them is hard going. A few statistics are illuminating. The production of dry white wines in 2000 showed a decline of 29% in comparison with 1990, while the area under vine declined by 22%. But in Graves and Pessac-Léognan, the quality end of the market, the decline was only 8% in vineyard terms. The brunt of the decline was down to Bordeaux Blanc and Entre-Deux-Mers. The area of vineyards producing sweet wines actually rose over the same period by 13%, and that of Sauternes and Barsac by 13.5%, so the picture there is more positive.
The vinification of dry wines is now more technical and precise than in the past. In particular, the ability to bring out and emphasise the aromatic qualities of Sauvignon Blanc has made for more interesting wines, fruitier and also fresher than in the past. One result of these improvements has been to enable clever vinification to produce wines on less-favoured terroirs that are much closer in quality to those from famous sites than in the past. This means that the consumer can now find some delicious wines from lesser-known appellations at very attractive prices.
There can be little doubt that one factor inhibiting a revival in the fortunes of Bordeaux’s dry white wines is the impossibility of selling them under varietal names, because the most successful are invariably blends of Sauvignon with Sémillon. These two varieties perfectly complement each other, the Sauvignon providing fruity aromas from the moment the wine is bottled, the Sémillon adding complexity and ageing potential and filling out the flavour after about a year in bottle. Sauvignon Gris is a more spicy and aromatic variant of Sauvignon that has made its appearance in some vineyards of late, and adds complexity and fullness of flavour.
So what have these wines to offer today’s consumers? The answer, I believe, is versatility. They can accompany many different types of food and especially those with an oriental or Mediterranean spicy tang, which usually destroys Chardonnay-based wines. In my experience, when people taste these wines, they enjoy them. The problem is that they are difficult to pigeon-hole, so tend to get sidelined.
CLASSIC WHITES TERRITORY
The two great classics which have produced unfaltering quality without regard to fashion are Haut-Brion Blanc and Laville-Haut-Brion, since 1983 under the same Domaine Clarence Dillon ownership, yet some soil differences and a higher proportion of Sémillon give the Laville a little more weight. Quantities are small, the 2.7ha (hectares) at Haut-Brion producing no more than 900 cases on average, while Laville has 3.7ha and an average of 1,100 cases. These wines have always been cask-fermented and enjoy a remarkable track record for consistency and longevity. I have tasted examples more than 50 years old which were still superb: rich, powerful and fresh. When young, Laville can remind you of a great Montrachet in its power and complexity.
The only other dry white with anything like this record for consistency and long ageing is Domaine de Chevalier. Quantities are again small – around 2000 cases from 5ha of vineyard – and there is much more Sauvignon, giving taut, elegant wines with less body than Haut-Brion and Laville, but also requiring six to eight years to reach full maturity. This wine ages very well for at least 20 or 30 years. One feature of these three is that they often do very well in years that were poor for the reds, such as 1984.
Of the other Pessac-Léognan white wines, Carbonnieux is by far the largest producer with its 42ha of white wine vineyard yielding more than 20,000 cases. It has had its ups and downs but now produces consistently good wines, which are delicious when young, and also age well. Fieuzal has been making superb wines since 1985 when it moved to barrel fermentation under Denis Dubourdieu’s supervision. This has been one of the most notable performers during the 1990s. Under its new owners, the Cathiards, Smith-Haut-Lafitte has been making some superb Sauvignon-based wines since 1994 and small amounts of Sauvignon Gris and Sémillon are now giving more complexity. Since 1996, Larrivet-Haut-Brion has undergone a sea change and some glorious wines with real aromatic complexity are now being made. At Malartic-Lagravière, higher standards have returned since 1997, when new owners took over. André Lurton, a great figure in the revival of this region and the prime mover in establishing the Pessac-Léognan AC, produces classic wines at Couhins-Lurton. These are 100% Sauvignon but concentrated, with fine ageing potential, and La Louvière, with just 15% Sémillon, also produces consistent, elegant, crisp wines that age quite well. Wines on the way up and worth watching are: Bouscaut, where a new Lurton generation is making steady progress; Cantelys, now under the same ownership as Smith; and Le Sartre, now under the same management as Carbonnieux. Olivier, a famous old property, has had a chequered record and its high proportion of Sémillon – 48% – means that the rather traditional wines need time to express themselves, but there has been a marked improvement since 1995. Pessac-Léognan is where you expect to find classic dry white wines, but in recent vintages, some wines offering outstanding value are also to be found, not only in southern Graves, but also in the Premières Côtes (where dry wines only carry the Bordeaux AC), Entre-Deux-Mers and even Blaye.
It is interesting that the outstanding wines in the southern Graves come from communes that adjoin those producing sweet wines. For example, Chantegrive is in Potensac where Cérons, a sweet wine somewhat similar to Barsac, can also be made. For some years now, the barrel-fermented Cuvée Caroline from this property has consistently shown well at the annual Union des Grands Crus tastings. Full-bodied and aromatic, this is a wine that is both delicious when just bottled and ages well. The commune of Pujols-sur-Ciron adjoins Barsac and enjoys very similar soils. Denis Dubourdieu has pointed out that in the 19th century the finest white wines in Graves were made here, so it is unsurprising that, when the opportunity arose in 1982, he and his wife chose it to purchase and reconstruct the 17.5ha property they have christened Clos Floridène. The wines have body as well as breed and there is a really dry, crisp flavour with the length of a quality wine. It is also real value for money. In the same commune, St-Robert is an old property managed with some flair by Crédit Foncier. It is a wine that has consistently performed very well at tastings through the 1990s and, again, is excellent value.
WHITES BEYOND GRAVES
But Graves is not the only place today where exciting and delicious white wines can now be found. Across the Garonne, in the Premières Côtes, is Reynon, where Denis Dubourdieu, son of the proprietor of Doisy-Daëne and leading white wine guru, first put his ideas into practice. The wines are deliciously floral, fruity, have great consistency and give wonderful value. Not far away, Carsin has a Finnish owner and an Australian manager and has been producing excellent wines, especially since 1996. The cuvée prestige is cask fermented with lees stirring until the first racking, while the normal cuvée is fermented in stainless steel before spending about three months in different types of oak. In the Entre-Deux-Mers, Thieuley is owned by a professor of viticulture, Francis Courselle, and produces excellent, widely available wines. When I am travelling in France and am looking on a wine list for a reliable and delicious white wine at a good price, I am always delighted to see André Lurton’s Château Bonnet. This is his base and it’s where he started before he began expanding into Pessac-Léognan. If all Entre-Deux-Mers were like his, the future for white Bordeaux might be rather brighter! Most unlikely of all are the luscious, aromatic whites now being made by Bernard Germain in the Premières Côtes de Blaye. His Château Charron Acacia and Lacaussade St-Martin are well worth discovering.
SWEET WHITE WINES: STARS
Whereas quality improvements for dry wines have a technical basis, the quality of the great sweet wines is down to painstaking work in the vineyard, especially cleaning up the vines after each trie or passage through the vines to harvest botrytised grapes. This ensures that the remaining grapes can progress to a botrytised condition, if weather conditions permit. Perhaps the most notable feature of the last two decades has been the many good quality vintages. This trend began in 1983, along with the commercial recovery of Sauternes, and these are still the cheapest great Bordeaux you can buy. It was followed by 1986, 1988, 1989 and 1990. Then, after several difficult years, came 1996–1999, four successive successes. Finally, 2001 was the greatest year since 1990. There can be little doubt that Yquem has kept its status as primus inter pares. Two particular factors may be cited for this supremacy: the selection, both in the vineyard and of barrels for the final assemblage; and the 42 months the wines spend in cask prior to bottling. One feature here is the ability to produce delicious wines even in lesser years. Recent examples are 1994, 1993, 1991 – a great success – and 1987. When I came to prepare a new edition of my Guide to the Wines of Bordeaux (Mitchell Beazley, £9.99), I used a Michelin-style three-star system to categorise the relative standings of the châteaux. Obviously, Yquem is three-star but what about the others? I decided that both Rieussec and Climens deserved three-star ratings. The selection at Climens has served to highlight the intrinsic excellence of the famous vineyard, while at Rieussec the move back to barrel fermentation and the decision to keep the wines in cask for an extra six months has pushed its wines to new heights. Of the two-star wines, several are on the way up and could win a third star in the future. Among these are Coutet – definitely making a comeback since 1988 – and Guiraud, where a return to barrel fermentation and improvements in the cellar, have transformed the wines. So the 1990 is marvellous in spite of being only 45% barrel fermented, while in 1996–1999 and 2001, Xavier Planty has really shown what this cru is capable of. Lafaurie-Peyraguey reached a new plateau of excellence with its 1986, but since then has seemed to falter. There is clearly room for further improvement. Since coming under Lafaurie management in 1995, Sigalas-Rabaud has improved in quality and consistency. Suduiraut was bought by AXA-Millésimes in 1992 and selection soon improved so that 1996 onwards are high-class wines. Having said that, the evolution of both the 1989 and 1990 has also been impressive.
I also gave two-star status to the unclassified de Fargues, which is run by Alexandre de Lur-Saluces, with the same quest for perfection as Yquem; and the deuxième cru Doisy-Daëne, which is producing wines of elegance and breed. La Tour-Blanche improved greatly in the 1980s, especially since 1988, but more recently the improvements seem to have faltered. Among the single star wines, I would highlight Doisy-Védrines, Clos Haut-Peyraguey and de Malle. These are now great-value white wines.
Of course, Sauternes is not the only place to make good sweet wines in Bordeaux. Encouraged by the highly favourable weather conditions at the end of the 1980s, a number of properties in Loupiac, Ste-Croix-du-Mont and even Cadillac, Cérons and the Premières Côtes began to make seriously good wines again. Of these, I would single out Loubens, du Pavillon and La Rame from Ste-Croix-du-Mont; Loupiac-Gaudiet, Les Roques and Ricaud from Loupiac; and Fayau and Reynon from Cadillac.