Bordeaux is France’s biggest wine-growing region and most people associate it with red wine. White wines – dry and sweet – represent a mere 10 per cent of current production.
But that was not always the case. Until the 1970s white wine production was about the same level as red in the region. Trends and fashion influence wine as much as anything else in society.
Bordeaux’s whites have improved markedly in recent years. One of the reasons is the work of Professor Denis Dubourdieu and his team at Bordeaux University. They have identified specific aromas that give Sauvignon Blanc its characteristic aromas and taste. This insight has led to improved winemaking techniques.
Bordeaux whites are typically blends of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle, sometimes with a touch of Sauvignon Gris. Some wines designed for early drinking are made only with Sauvignon Blanc, and these can be refreshing and charming on a summer’s day.
Sauvignon Blanc gives Bordeaux whites acidity and minerality, and a sense of freshness or crispness combined with citrus aromas. In riper years the aromas tend to be more tropical. Muscadelle offers floral aromas and a sense of roundness, and generally represents less than 10 per cent of the blend.
Semillon provides roundness and gives a creamy mouthfeel plus aromas of apricot and honey. The Semillon component in blended dry wines tends to become more apparent with time. When over-ripe Semillon grapes become infected with the botrytis fungus, known as “noble rot,” they produce some of the world’s most luxurious dessert wines. Only 3 per cent of Bordeaux’s production is given over to this style of wine.
Dr Valerie Lavigne has worked closely with Professor Dubourdieu as a research fellow. Her PhD described flavours in Bordeaux whites and received several academic awards. She helped present a range of whites at a tasting in Brighton in the UK earlier this month, organised by the R&R PR company. All of the 30 wines tasted ranged from good to excellent. The 2014 Chateau Doisy-Daene, which is 100 per cent Sauvignon Blanc, was especially fine. It has a pronounced nose and elegant texture. Dr Lavigne consulted in the making of this wine and confirmed that 15 per cent spent 10 months in new oak, which contributed to its smoky and refined texture.
Other highlights were wines from the Dourthe label. All were elegantly dry and had a pleasant citrus zing combined with mineral hints and a pleasing mouthfeel. They would pair beautifully with fried dishes, the acidity cutting through the fat, or shellfish. Find them at http://www.dourthe.com/.
White Bordeaux represents a bargain compared with reds from the region. The non-vintage Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux, for example, is a delightful sweet wine that is available in many supermarkets. It is a blend of the three grapes mentioned earlier. Aromas and flavours of honey and apricots flow on the tongue, combined with a pleasant acidity.
The Bordeaux Wine Council or Conseil Interprofessionel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB) represents the industry. It reports that six bottles of Bordeaux are sold every second in French supermarkets. Three in five bottles are sold on the domestic market.
Roland Quancard is president of the CIVB’s promotions committee and chairman of Cheval Quancard estate. He has made finding international markets a priority. “The more you consider Bordeaux whites the more you discover their quality,” he told the Brighton tasting. “They are very affordable.”
Bordeaux exports to 170 countries. Last year the region exported 279 million bottles worth 1,800 million euros. Among the top 15 overseas markets, the main Asian destinations are China, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore.
China is Bordeaux’s biggest overseas market, and was worth 221 million euros in sales last year. Hong Kong was a close second in terms of value, with exports worth 214 million euros. Interestingly, both markets were down compared with 2013. In China’s case the decline was large, at 21 per cent. The fall was almost the same, at 20 per cent, for both Singapore and Taiwan.
The fall is not as disastrous as the numbers suggest. Exports since 2005 have been almost exponential, jumping from 12,000 hectolitres in 2005 to 452,000 hectolitres in 2013. So a fall of 20 per cent in 2014 to 366,000 hectolitres merely reflects a balancing of the market, the CIVB said. “The market has caught its breath and is headed towards greater maturity,” its annual report said.
Hong Kong is a somewhat different story. That city has traditionally purchased the expensive end of Bordeaux. In 2014 the price range of wines sold was more evenly distributed, and volume increased as prices fell. Hong Kong’s decline was 11 per cent.
Almost all of the Bordeaux exported to Asian countries is red – 97 per cent – but that is likely to change, given the improvement in the quality of whites. The white harvest last year was good – about 64 million bottles, up 12 per cent on the previous year. An interesting angle for Hong Kong was the significant rise in white wine sales last year, up 26 per cent on 2013.
The CIVB spends 1.2 million euros a year on research. It has at least 20 laboratories and more than 200 researchers. One of the major developments has been the delivery of a geographical information system tool that allows winemakers and viticulturalists to create customized maps of their area. It provides information on things like distance from sensitive environments, or to measure the impact of a weather problem like hail. In the latter case the tools overlay weather maps on vineyard plots to determine the extent of damage.