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Anson on Thursday: Bordeaux’s phantom white wines

There was a flurry of Bordeaux 2005 ‘10 years on’ tastings a few months ago, as we ticked over into the traditional window for cracking open classified Bordeaux, but it got me thinking about a category of wines that wasn't represented.

Graves dry whites lined up for tasting during the recent Bordeaux 2014 en primeur week.

Of the recent ’10 years on’ tastings, I was lucky enough to attend the excellent one held by Bordeaux Index in London, and focused on 1855 classified Left Bank Medoc for a Decanter panel tasting.

In the general tasting upstairs there was a fuller line-up including classified and other ‘star’ names from St Emilion, Pomerol and Pessac Léognan, and we managed to sneak up there after finishing our own line-up. Almost without exception, the wines proved what an exceptional vintage Bordeaux 2005 is, with most estates barely out of the starting block and promising brilliant drinking over the next 10 or 20 years. But it got me thinking about a category of wines that wasn’t represented in London, and is often overlooked when opening older Bordeaux. It’s a category that Eric Asimov of the New York Times has called ‘phantom wine… seldom visible, rarely mentioned and hardly ever consumed, at least not with fanfare’.

It is, as you have probably guessed, white Graves.

I have long been (along with Asimov I am happy to say) a fan of white Graves, particularly the Pessac Léognan whites that are ranked within the Grands Crus Classés de Graves. I’d even say that it is perhaps the only category of wines to be unquestionably worth buying en primeur, because classified white Pessac Léognan is made in tiny quantities and if you don’t get a case early on, it can be increasingly difficult to track down later. Plus the wines tend to be released on to the market around four or five months after en primeur, so you don’t feel that you are subsidising estates for ageing wines in their own cellars. The subsequent price rises also make for a little happier reading than the reds in recent years; Domaine de Chevalier 2005 released at 47 euros ex-Bordeaux and is available now on the Place for 81 euros, a rise of over 70%. Château Pape Clement 2005 white came out at 92 euros ex-Bordeaux and has risen 52% to 141 euros. Pessac Léognan as a whole has risen 53% since 2005 en primeur, according to the Eleanor Fine Wine Index, and the whites tend to outperform the reds – although a search on the Place de Bordeaux for most of the 2005 whites brings back no results, as they are no longer available.

White Pessac is, like all of Bordeaux white wine, made mainly from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, with dashes of Muscadelle and Sauvignon Gris added for good measure. But unlike most Bordeaux white, which is aimed at early drinking and favours bright fruit flavours, white Pessac tends to be subtler, more savoury, aged in barrel and with a considerably longer life span. They get more serious as they age, ask questions that you might have ignored when they’re young. Technical director Jean-Pierre Masclef at Haut-Brion echoes many when he says white Pessac is at its best, ‘two to four years after bottling, then it shuts down until it is around ten years old, when it has a second life, almost another world entirely. The stone fruits of a young wine become savoury but can still cut like a knife’.

I recently tasted a 2003 white from Château Malartic Lagravière that struck me as being fresher and more vibrant than a whole host of sticky, rapidly-ageing reds from that unusually hot vintage. It got me wondering why the Cru Classé de Graves don’t talk about this aspect of the wines more often. They kindly agreed to line up a tasting of the 2005 vintage, 10 years on, of both red and white wines of the 16 classified Graves properties. Of these, only six are classified both red and white (Bouscaut, Carbonnieux, Chevalier, Latour-Martillac, Malartic Lagravière, Olivier), and two classified only for their whites (Couhins and Couhins-Lurton). Château Laville Haut-Brion was classified white in 2005 but has now been renamed La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc so has forgone its official ranking as of the 2009 vintage.

The best way to describe a 10-year-old Pessac Léognan white is to think of turning a lemon inside out. Where the young wines are full of the fleshy citrus juice, sharp and tingling with a wet stone minerality, by 10 years old the flavours have deepened, taken on spice and sharper edges, more reminiscent of lemon zest, even rind. The colour deepens to a pale gold and on the palate are hints of bitterness and salinity perfectly interspersed with rich seams of quince jelly, saffron and almond nuttiness. The ageing process then seems to slow down, move into suspension, allowing you to keep enjoying the subtler charms of an older Pessac for 10, 20, even 30 years.

The whites that I tasted were, by and large, perfect examples of this. Of the ones that were truly stunning in both red and white I would single out Domaine de Chevalier as the standout, followed closely by Smith Haut-Lafitte and Malartic Lagravière – all wines that touched the intellect as well as the tastebuds. The Couhins-Lurton tasted as fresh as it did last time I tasted it five years ago – this was billowing cotton sheets, orange blossom and citrus zest, even a touch of reduction signalling a young white at the very start of its life, to the point that I kept checking the vintage on the bottle. The Latour Martillac was not far behind, with mouth-watering lemon zest again dominant. The Laville Haut Brion expressed perfect balance between vertical lift and softly encroaching age; white pepper, saffron, gentle honey, lean and savoury fruit. This was a heart-stopping tasting, all the better for being so unlikely.

Classified Pessac Léognan represents 120 hectares of white grapes. Compare those figures to the 747 hectares of classified Premier Cru and 105 hectares of Grand Cru in Chablis, or the 130 hectares of Premier Cru in Mersault, even with the 56 hectares of Grand Cru in the rarefied Corton Charlemagne. Those estates that made the grade for the Crus Classés de Graves ranking are the only classified whites that you will find anywhere in Bordeaux – just eight out of 8,000 châteaux. If any part of Bordeaux can rival the scarcity factor of Burgundy, it is surely this.

See full Bordeaux 2014 coverage:

Bordeaux 2014


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