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Bordeaux, but not as we know it

by Tom Cannavan, 2010

Rémi Edange of Domaine de Chevalier seems almost to levitate, such is the exquisite theatricality of his intricate hand gestures and rolling eyes, and the rising cadence of his charming accent as he tries to evoke the 'golden moment'.

This is the point, early in the morning at his Pessac-Léognan vineyards, when the first rays of the sun strike the glistening berries of his Sauvignon Blanc. "That," he says, "is the moment of perfect balance: you take only what the fruit wants to give to you."

I leave my tasting with Rémi convinced that his white Bordeaux is not grown, fermented and bottled, but conjured from gossamer and dew drops by a band of Gallic pixies.

Unsung heroes

It would be a cliché to describe dry white Bordeaux as a 'hidden secret', but compared to the equal opportunity status enjoyed by white and red Burgundy, there's no doubt the see-through version of the world's most famous wine plays strictly second fiddle.

Whilst Claret and Sauternes are essential components of any self-respecting cellar, dry white Bordeaux is as rare as hen's teeth. To ponder why, is a delicious conundrum. There are terroirs in Bordeaux that are ideally suited to making the highest quality dry white wines. Here, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon combine to produce something very special indeed. The wines offer exquisite food-matching possibilities, immense drinkability and the capacity to age beautifully. So why are they so underrated? It is a puzzle, and to solve it we must begin with history, availability and fashion.


Always the bridesmaid

Unlike its sweet cousins from Sauternes and Barsac, dry white Bordeaux has always lived in the shadow of the region's reds. But there was good reason for this: historically, quality simply wasn't good enough. Of course there were conscientious producers who made great examples, but a wholesale upgrade in quality has only come in the past couple of decades with improved vineyard practises, better hygiene and advances in technology. The oxidised, rustic whites that were once all too common are now a thing of the past. The breed has improved beyond all recognition.


"we work as jewellers, not as farmers"

Another bon mot from the charismatic Rémi Edange (right) describes the one thousand hours his team spend in the vineyard picking grapes for his white wine: "selecting berry by berry in the morning, when the fruit is at its freshest." And yet Domaine de Chevalier produces only 1200 cases of its white Grand Vin, with the volume of red around five times greater. Indeed, only 11% of Bordeaux's overall planting is of white varieties, and much of that makes the ocean of inexpensive white wine from the Entre-Deux-Mers region between the rivers Dordogne and Garonne. White wine from the noble terroirs of the right and left banks is a far rarer commodity.


Sauvignon's singular style

Sauvignon Blanc in recent years has been all about the aggressively pungent, vivacious style exemplified by Marlborough in New Zealand. Since this singularly impressive (if rather obvious) new expression burst onto the scene it has become a
consumer favourite and template for the world's Sauvignon producers. By comparison, barrel-aged white Bordeaux, a much more discreet and savoury interpretation, has been about as cool as Chris De Burgh in a pair of leather hot-pants. Ironically, the Anything but Chardonnay phenomenon may also have played a part: the fortunes of all oak-influenced wines have been bound-up in consumer prejudice against the whiff of barrel in their whites.

A wine of its time?

Could it be that white Bordeaux's place in the spotlight is about to come? Talk to Sauvignon Blanc winemakers in New Zealand, Western Australia, South Africa or Chile, and more and more are citing white Bordeaux as their role model for the future, fearing the public love affair with the 'Marlborough style' cannot last forever. The corollary is that Bordeaux wines have changed subtly in a nod towards this style too, offering a little more verve within the traditional profile of smoky, mineral, refined aromas and flavours. The style of today's white Bordeaux is deliciously balanced between opulence and precision, exuberance and restraint.

It is true that in terms of the top Châteaux there's still not a lot of white Bordeaux about, but the sheer quality of these wines now often exceeds their moderate prices. Leaving the wonders of the magisterial Haut-Brion Blanc to one side (£500 per bottle for the 2007), there is fabulous drinking and cellaring to be had in the £10 to £30 range. It's not so long since I finished the last bottle from a case of 1959 Château Malartic-Lagravière Blanc, still drinking luxuriously well with its oily texture, melon and peach fruit and hint of Botrytis defined by a decisive, mineral edge. The fine 2007 is around £35 per bottle, duty paid.

Bordeaux Blanc today

Alongside the bedrocks of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, a smidgeon of the fragrant Muscadelle is often part of the blend and, increasingly, Sauvignon Gris. The two Sauvignons currently have the whip hand: plantings of Sauvignon Blanc having increased dramatically thanks to the variety's world-wide popularity and crowd-pleasing freshness. It is now the dominant variety in most blends. Sauvignon Gris - a pink skinned mutation of the Blanc - is gaining popularity fast because of its tendency to fuller, fruity elegance.

The little wines of the Entre-Deux-Mers and the petits Châteaux of the Côtes shouldn't be ignored - they have learned their lessons well and there's huge pleasure to be found in the vibrant, daisy-fresh wines from established châteaux and big négociant firms like Sichel, Dourthe, Calvet, Michel Lynch and Yvon Mau. In terms of fine Bordeaux whites, whilst a few notable examples are made in the Médoc (the Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux and Blanc de Lynch-Bages spring to mind), the real stronghold remains in Graves and its sub-region of Pessac-Léognan.

Monsieur Edange's 'golden moment' does indeed seem to be captured in the best examples of these wines, where the gently smoky, Brazil nut fragrance of oak fuses with delicate, peach down finesse and bursts onto the palate with exuberant fruit. But all the time that shimmering core of citrus and mineral acidity propels the wine towards a very fine point in the finish.

White Bordeaux makes an extremely adaptable partner to food too, and has the capacity to hold the drinker's interest right through to the last drop in the bottle. That is something that can rarely be said for many of the New World's most celebrated Sauvignons Blanc. Flavours unfold from the figgy richness of the barrel component, though the waxy textural weight of the mid-palate, to the pristine, razor sharp acidity of the finish. The best white Bordeaux has the same balanced, mineral clarity found in top Chablis or the most serious Austrian Rieslings. Try them with a carpaccio of scallops or lobster risotto for a little slice of heaven.

Dry white Bordeaux is a hidden world, a secret garden of delights, that is just waiting to be explored.

Go to Part II - tasting notes on 23 white Bordeaux wines

This article first appeared in Decanter magazine, June 2010.