Neal Martin MW describes Graves AOC in Bordeaux as the “forgotten” part of this illustrious French wine region, even though some of its chateaux are right in the centre of the city of Bordeaux. If this is true, it may well be because the region’s top wines are arguably the white wines – though it should be remembered that one of the five first growths is actually from Graves: the close-to-perfection Chateau Haut-Brion.
The best whites are almost certain to be among the Cru Classes de Graves. This classification of 16 chateaux (though some are red-only) was created in the 1950s, 100 years after the landmark Bordeaux 1855 classification that highlighted fewer than 70 chateaux in the five-tier system.
Some of the top classified Graves whites are the focus this week.
Only a few decades more white wine was produced in Bordeaux than red (and indeed, Hungarian tokay and German riesling, both whites, both ranked as the most expensive wine in the world in the nineteenth century).
But that white Bordeaux tide turned a long time ago. Even Bordeaux’s sauternes, the king of sweet white wines, is being seen to flounder.
Not only has the broader region gone down the red route, it has increasingly emphasised cabernet sauvignon, a grape which generally makes big, tannic wines which can dry out the mouth when young, and slowly mature into quite savoury wines.
The dry whites of Graves move along an entirely different trajectory. They are highly aromatic and often lusciously textured, but dry on the finish and defined by crisp but integrated acidity. Graves whites are usually a blend of semillon and sauvignon blanc, with some producers incorporating just a few per cent of muscadelle and sauvignon gris.
Fabien Teitgen, winemaker at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte (whose white is one of the most famous from the region) approves of a touch of sauvignon gris (but only a touch) because of its unusual warm spice and white pepper aromas.
The wines usually contain a significant proportion of semillon, a grape that needs age to show well, like the marvellously long-lasting semillons from Australia’s Hunter Valley. So as a general rule these wines should be given some time in the bottle. For example, the 2007 white Graves are just entering their drinking window now, though some will go on improving for another 10 or 20 years.
The 2007 vintage was particularly good and, as an important aside, it is interesting to note that the whites tend to be at their best in the years when the reds are deemed to not show as well. Teitgen explains that 2007 was a cool year, particularly during the summer, and there was unprecedented rainfall during August. Anyone holidaying in Bordeaux that month had a miserable time, he laughs. September, though, was dry and the temperatures pleasant.
This weather pattern resulted in the grapes showing a lovely acidity, bringing the all-important freshness to the wines. But acidity alone, Teitgen says, does not necessarily lead to ageability; rather it is about balance.
Eric Perrin, owner of Chateau Carbonnieux, which produces half white and half red wine (though is probably best known for its whites), says the best wines from Graves simultaneously show power and elegance. It is this combination that he is always hoping to achieve. “I try to preserve freshness, in order for a wine to be interesting and to be able to age.”
Producers such as Chateau Couhins-Lurton bottle a 100 per cent sauvignon blanc wine that is much paler in colour than a white blend. The 2007 shows the classic “cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush” nose often associated with the grape and has a refreshing salinity at the back palate. Graves whites show differently as the proportion of semillon rises.
Chateau Couhins 2007, with just five per cent semillon, already shows some peach and apricot characters but the sauvignon blanc comes through more clearly. Chateau Bouscaut 2007, with 30 per cent semillon, is rich yellow in colour and seductively honeyed on the nose. Both this kind of colour and this kind of aroma are properties of semillon. But at this stage, the semillon is less identifiable on the palate, though it will emerge with ageing.
For the Chateau Latour-Martillac 2007 its 40 per cent of semillon is already very integrated, with a quite delicate orchard nose. The wine is richly coloured and luscious – but has beautifully balanced acids at the back. It is a delicious, salivating wine, and a stunning example of how well semillon and sauvignon blanc can complement each other. And why this “forgotten” region should be firmly embraced.
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