This may shock a fair number of readers: One of the greatest wines in Bordeaux is a dry white. It is made by first growth Château Haut-Brion. Quantities are small, as these wines are rare. And if or when you can even find them, they can be quite expensive. The 2014 vintage received a 100-point score from Wine Enthusiast; previous years have regularly achieved 97 points or more.
Sense of Place
What is it that makes this white Bordeaux, and many others, so impressive? “It is balanced, aromatic, complex and, above all, marked by its terroir,” says Fabien Teitgen, managing director at Château Smith Haut Lafitte, also in the Pessac-Léognan, and adds that, when done right, these wines have a strong identity and an ability to age.
Pessac-Léognan is perhaps the most renowned appellation for dry white wines in the Bordeaux region. Along with neighboring Graves, it forms the oldest vineyard region of Bordeaux, dating back to Roman times. But the quantity of white wine that comes out of the region is small compared with the reds from the same estates.
This notion goes back to Teitgen’s comment about terroir: There is only so much vineyard land in Pessac-Léognan with the idyllic mix of clay and limestone soils that suit white varieties. Thus, only 20% of production is dedicated to white winemaking.
And looking at Bordeaux as a whole, according to the Bordeaux Wine Council, only 10% of all wine produced is white. This, then, is why Bordeaux is known as a red wine region. But until the 1970s, says Philippe Bascaules, managing director of first growth Château Margaux, “white vines were in the majority in the whole region.” Red varieties eventually took over because there was more money in red wine sales. That is a shame, comments Bascaules, because while Bordeaux of course makes great reds, it also makes many that “are mediocre,” because in an effort to increase production, many vines were planted on land more suited to white varieties.
White Blends or Single Varietal
White Bordeaux is typically a blend. Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon are the principal varieties while Muscadelle and Sauvignon Gris play small, but increasingly important, roles, bringing in perfumey notes. Stephen Carrier, winemaker at Château de Fieuzal in Pessac-Léognan calls Sauvignon Blanc “the vertebral column of the blend with its acidity and freshness,” while Sémillon “brings roundness and elegance.” Specific to Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc has notable tropical fruits that are never part of the more steely expressions of Sancerre.
Many pure Sauvignon Blanc wines are made in the most productive white wine region: the Entre-Deux-Mers, from which comes the good value allied to quality that makes it a fertile area for bargains.
This is a naturally cooler area, ideally situated among hills and valleys between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers. Some of the best white wines come from the heart of this region, in a band that passes eastward from Créon, at a relatively high altitude and with idyllic chalky soils. Estates making fine white wines here include Château Thieuley, Château Roquefort and Château Tour de Mirambeau. Some of these wines go by the Entre-Deux-Mers appellation, while others simply are Bordeaux Blanc, an appellation that, for the moment, also includes the white wines from the Médoc (although an appellation for white Médoc was made in 2023).
Although relying on freshness, some of these wines also have oak aging, such as those from Pessac-Léognan and the Médoc. It’s an important issue for some producers. Monique Bonnet, owner of Château Suau near Cadillac in the Entre-Deux-Mers, believes that “it is best for powerful wines possibly with a proportion of Sémillon and made for aging.” Bascaules at Château Margaux believes “wood adds complexity, density and weight to the wine,” while Teitgen at Smith Haut Lafitte cautions that overenthusiastic use of wood is dangerous: “It is important to make sure the wood is behind the wine.”
The judicious use of wood was one of the many legacies of Denis Dubourdieu, professor of oenology at the University of Bordeaux. His family have been wine producers in Bordeaux since 1794 and own Clos Floridène in Graves, Château Reynon in EntreDeux-Mers and Château Doisy-Daëne in Barsac. He brought white Bordeaux into a modern era, creating aromas and expressions that were unthought-of by using many Burgundian techniques for white wine, including barrel aging with new and once-used barrels, lees stirring, extended barrel aging—all techniques that bring richness and aging ability. For this, the French newspaper Le Monde named Dubourdieu “the Pope of white wine.”
It is a pity there is not more white Bordeaux—but there is a desire for it. Monique Bonnet of Château Suau comments, “We’ve just planted more Sauvignon Blanc. We believe that there is a market for dry white Bordeaux wines, which are so accessible and still too little known.”
Whether searching for a cellar-stasher or a drink-me-now sipper, here are a few BDX whites spanning the style and price spectrum.
Château Pape Clément 2018 Pessac-Léognan
Always high on the richness scale, this estate’s white wine is vibrant with white fruits and hints of apricots. It is structured with wood aging and a tight texture that shows that the wine needs to age. The wine will be ready to drink from 2023. 96 Points — Roger Voss$110 Wine.com
Château la Louvière 2018 Pessac-Léognan
From one of several estates owned by the Lurton family in Pessac-Léognan, this wine is floral, ripe and packed with tangy, citrus acidity. Wood aging has smoothed the tight, mineral texture and brought up the fruitiness. Drink the wine from 2022. 93 Points — R.V.$ Varies Wine-Searcher
Clos Floridène 2021 Ambassadeur de Graves (Graves)
A full, ripe wine, this offers great acidity and ripe white fruits in balance. The wine is spicy, full of fruitiness and promise, finishing with a swathe of freshness. Drink from 2024. Editor’s Choice. 91 Points — R.V.$30 Total Wine & More
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Published: December 4, 2023