At this year’s conference of the Society of Wine Educators, I had the opportunity to attend a great tasting of one of my favorite categories, dry white Bordeaux. The tasting seminar was led by Master of Wine Mary Gorman-McAdams, who until last year was the U.S. market advisor for the Bordeaux Wine Council (she’s now the Director of the International Wine Center in New York). The tasting re-affirmed my belief that white Bordeaux — the real thing, or Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blends from elsewhere in the world — is one of the most interesting categories out there. Why wine drinkers perpetually overlook it is beyond me.
Bordeaux, it is true, is mostly about red wine. Historically white wine grapes had occupied a much more significant portion of the vineyards, going back to the 19th century when the Dutch market used the region’s vineyards as a source for brandy production. Frosts in the 1950s destroyed many white wine vineyards, which were subsequently replanted to red varieties. Today white wine plantings are growing, moving from 4% of production in 2006 to over 10% in 2018.
Gorman-McAdams credits two figures to raising awareness of Bordeaux whites. The first is the late Denis Dubourdieu. A professor of oenology at the University of Bordeaux and manager at several properties, Dubourdieu introduced a great number of viticultural and winemaking innovations. Most importantly, perhaps, he identified and isolated aroma precursors in the grapes in the vineyard and pioneered methods to bring them out. In the winery he introduced pre-fermentation maceration, temperature controls, and reductive processes to limit oxidation and maximize freshness.
The second figure Gorman-McAdams mentions is Andre Lurton. Lurton passed away in 1994, but in his lifetime he shined a spotlight on the potential on two Bordeaux terroirs with great potential for white wine, Pessac-Leognan and Entre-Deux-Mers. Building on Dubourdieu’s and Lurton’s advances, today’s white winemakers are paying closer attention to their raw materials. For example, Sauvignon Gris, a mutation of Sauvignon Blanc, was often lumped in with the latter grape; today producers are recognizing it as its own thing and handling it appropriately. It adds body and palate weight, but is less aromatic than Sauvignon Blanc.
It turns out the U.S. is in fact the number one market for white Bordeaux, which is encouraging even if I still find them exceedingly uncommon. It’s an unknown category to many, an addendum to “real” Bordeaux rather than a wine with its own spot on the shelf. The fact that they are mostly blended wines probably keeps them off the radar of many white wine drinkers. While American wine drinkers have become more open to blends, when it comes to whites, wine drinkers still seem to think varietally. While some Bordeaux Blanc are indeed single-varietal, they can’t be labeled as such, so that’s little help.
White Bordeaux does show a great deal of stylistic range. There are still outliers, generally at the budget end, that I suppose one can praise for being crisp and fresh, but which lack the textural interest that I find is the most pleasurable and satisfying feature of the category. But the set of wines Gorman-McAdams showed were great values across a range of price points; there was no doubt that these winemakers were making the effort and giving their white grapes the attention they deserve. We wine drinkers should do the same.
Château Couronneau, Bordeaux Blanc 2018: A 50/50 blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris, grown biodynamically, this shows a generous nose of mango and melon with a pleasant hit of exotic spice. It’s medium-bodied, with a smooth and rounded textured, not as firm and structured as the Platonic “Idea” of white Bordeaux in my head, but very pleasurable in any case.
Château Peybonhomme-Les-Tours “Le Blanc Bonhomme” Blaye, Côtes de Bordeaux 2018: Another wine one wouldn’t recognize immediately as a white Bordeaux, but only because it comes in a Burgundy bottle. Another 50/50 blend, but this time the combination is Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Racy but still firm and textured, with juicy, stone fruit and pear aromas. There are some hints of spice and flint as well.
Château La Dame Blanche, Bordeaux Blanc 2017: 100% Sauvignon Blanc, and it shows, with canned pea and asparagus aromas as well as some juicy, pink grapefruit aromas. Mineral touches give it additional depth and interest. Medium-bodied, firm, and dry, with good length.
Château de Cérons Blanc, Graves 2016: Half Semillon, and almost half Sauvignon Blanc except a 5% touch of Sauvignon Gris. A fuller-bodied wine, supple and muscular. Really complex, with a generous nose of stone fruit and floral touches; spicier on the palate, with a touch of anise on the long finish.
Château Les Charmes-Godard, Côtes de Bordeaux Francs 2016: Brings a refreshing blast of fresh apricot juice, exotic spices, and sandalwood. Medium-bodied, well-balanced. Aged in 15% new wood, but you’d never guess. This and all of the preceding wines retail for around $20 or less, making them great values from a classic region.
Château Doisy-Daëne, Bordeaux Blanc 2017: One of Dubourdieu’s wines, though from after his passing in 2016. He had been a big fan of Sauvignon Blanc in Bordeaux, and this is a single-variety example. Medium-bodied, firm, and toasty, with vibrant fruit. Citrus notes dominate, along with straw and a touch of salinity.
La Sémillante de Sigalas, Bordeaux Blanc 2013: A rare 100% Semillon example, and one with a bit of age on it as well. Shows less fruit, and the beeswax note so typical to Semillon comes through clearly. Medium-bodied, with lots of textural interest.
Château Picque-Caillou Blanc, Pessac-Léognan 2017: The classic blend, here: 70% Sauvignon Blanc, 30% Semillon. And with that, a somewhat classic application of 20% new oak – classic for higher-end white Bordeaux, anyhow. The toasty note integrates well with a mix of apricot, nectarine, and pear notes. Crisp and fresh.