The 2015 vintage has proved exceptional for Bordeaux’s often overlooked white wines, and offers a great chance to investigate the “other” Bordeaux. For publication in week starting Monday 28 March 2016.
A sip of Haut-Brion white is one of the world’s great wine experiences. It’s rare, ergo expensive (upwards of US$1,000), and utterly exquisite. White Bordeaux in a nutshell: Haut-Brion is situated in Pessac-Leognan, regarded as the epicentre of quality white wine production, with Graves hard on its heels.
Elsewhere in Bordeaux, the white wines of Entre-deux-Mers, which outnumber the reds, are generally simple wines. Good producers tend to avoid using the region’s name on their labels.
In the years after the second world war, white wine accounted for 50 per cent of Bordeaux wine production until a devastating frost in 1956 led growers to switch to red varieties. Indeed, today, white grapes are not even official in the Medoc or in St Emilion, with the result that white wine bottlings are generically labelled as coming from Bordeaux (though they can be seriously good).
Most makers of Bordeaux white wine focus on a blend of Sauvignon Blanc with Semillon, though there are disciples of Sauvignon Gris. Sauvignon Blanc brings the freshness, while Semillon brings volume, texture and breadth. Those working with Sauvignon Gris, such as Dominique Bessineau of Chateau Cote Montpezat in the Cotes de Castillon (east of St Emilion), whose vineyard is 40 years old, credit it with contributing layers of perfume. His 2015, which is 30 per cent Sauvignon Gris, is fresh and mineral and offers a huge floral-citrus fruit nose.
Another terrible frost hit Bordeaux as recently as 1991, when Francis Boutemy, owner of Chateau Haut Lagrange in Pessac-Leognan, made just 133 bottles from three hectares. In a good year, he could make 21,000. “We lost the market that year, and it is very difficult to pick it up again,” he says. Even Parisians, he says, don’t show much interest: they think white wine comes from Burgundy or the Loire.
Perhaps the 2015 vintage could change perception, though Boutemy says that the vintage variation is not as great for white wine compared with red.
Philipp Aubertin, winemaker at Chateau Saint-Robert Cuvee Poncent Deville in Graves, believes that the 2015 may be the best wine he has made in 26 years – though he admits that his wealth of experience has probably complemented such a good vintage. He says that white Bordeaux has not enjoyed a very good image, but believes that quality is now up across the board. Certainly his 2015 has great balance and structure, it is fresh and lively, and shows a classic white Bordeaux nose of grass and grapefruit.
Arnaud de Butler at Graves property Chateau Crabitey says: “When you have a good market for your red, it is more easy to sell your white.” He has two hectares of white as against 26 of red, but very much enjoys making white wine, and is planning to plant an extra two hectares of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, in a ratio of 70 per cent to 30 per cent. “White wine making is more technical,” he says. Picking time is critical to get the perfect balance of acids to preserve freshness. Pick a day too late, he says, and you lose the acidity. He is constantly tasting the white grapes to get the harvest date exactly right.
Gerard Martinez, winemaker at St Emilion’s Chateau Magrez Fombrauge, is also very interested in white wine making, and it shows. “There’s a lot of work at the beginning,” he says. He works with a very successful blend of 40 per cent Semillon and 30 per cent each of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris. The 2015 is complex, beginning with violets, showing interesting savoury notes, and finishing with the spice-nutmeg associated with Sauvignon Gris. The 2013 is a lovely rich and fruity wine, with hints of green mango. In a word, delicious.
For Rene Leriche at Chateau Le Sartre in Pessac-Leognan, Sauvignon Blanc is king, accounting for 90 per cent of his 10-hectare vineyard. He believes that grape performs well in the Loire because that region is towards the limits of where grapes will grow. Sauvignon Blanc is better there “except for one miracle, and that’s in Pessac-Leognan!” Those often destructive April frosts blow in sea air and prevent temperatures from rising too much.
Leriche lost more than 20 per cent of his crop in 2013, but with the remaining grapes produced a fresh wine with a perfect acid balance and similar rich, orchard and tropical fruit that are evident on his richly perfumed 2015. “Grow Sauvignon Blanc somewhere too warm and it becomes a caricature of itself,” he says.