Bordeaux sprouts dry whites


This is a longer version of an article also published by the Financial Times. 

If I were a white wine, I’d complain of colour prejudice. Far more white wine is drunk than red in the US, the world’s biggest market for wine, and in the UK, yet much more attention seems to be paid to red. 

Of all the wines I come across in column inches, professional tastings and the many unsolicited samples I am sent, I’d say reds outnumber whites almost four to one. I see that more than 70% of the tasting notes in my website database are red.

It was not always thus. In the 1970s and early 1980s the world’s wine trade was in desperate search of a new, ultra-fashionable wine called Chardonnay. There weren’t nearly enough Chardonnay vines in the ground and many a wine labelled with the magic C-word was stretched by a proportion of other, cheaper white wine grapes. Then the pendulum of fashion has swung redwards but, as described by Newton’s third law, for every action there is a reaction.

I suspect we may see a revival in the fortunes of white wines – not least because whites are in general so much more food-friendly than heavy reds. It is noticeable how many more whites than reds tend to be offered in any multi-course food-pairing menu. And as the planet warms up, we may well find ourselves demanding refreshment rather than intensity from more and more of our wines (as witness the recent success of rosé).

So perhaps it is not so surprising that an increasing number of high-profile wine producers in the world’s biggest fine-wine region Bordeaux are turning their attention to making dry whites as well as the reds that have traditionally been their strong suit.

The vineyards dotted among the woods of the old Graves region to the south of the city of Bordeaux have a long history of producing dry whites from the classic Bordeaux grape varieties of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and sometimes a little Muscadelle – with the whites of Chx Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion being some of the world’s richest dry wines from these varieties, often going through a bit of a midlife crisis. Domaine de Chevalier and Ch Smith Haut Lafitte routinely produce some of my favourite dry white bordeaux, and Ch Pape Clément Blanc can also be extremely seductive for its first few years.

Just south of here in Sauternes, sweet whites are the rule, however difficult and unprofitable to make. But, partly in an effort to make sweet whites from only the finest grapes, more and more Sauternes producers are now also making a dry white from the rest. And no longer are they as heavy as Ygrec, the dry white traditionally made at the Sauternes flagship Ch d’Yquem, used to be.

Bordeaux’s other classic fine-wine districts, St-Émilion and Pomerol on the right bank of the Gironde and the Médoc on the left, have tended to concentrate on reds, but an increasing number of serious dry whites are emerging even from here.

When a dry white is planned by the team at St-Émilion first growth Ch Cheval Blanc with its close links to LVMH, you know something is afoot. Cheval acquired nearby La Tour du Pin nine years ago and, finally establishing that one part of its vineyard was never going to make top-quality red wine, they have planted it with Sauvignon Blanc and aim to make a wine in the image of Sancerre.

The financial director of Cheval Blanc told me that they were partly inspired by the dry white Champs Libres launched in 2013 by their neighbours at Pomerol’s famous Ch Lafleur. The Guinaudeaus have planted 0.8 ha of limestone with a mixed collection of Sauvignon Blanc plants from Sancerre and the wine really does taste eerily as though it comes from the upper Loire, albeit a little bit oakier in youth.

Gérard Perse at Ch Pavie in St-Émilion has been experimenting with a range of full-bodied dry whites for a good 10 years now, pioneering in his Ch Monbousquet Blanc the pink-skinned Sauvignon Gris grape that has become so fashionable that it now seems to be included in the revised regulations of virtually all French appellations in which Sauvignon Blanc is permitted.

He has been followed into increasingly sophisticated white-wine production by a host of smaller right-bank properties, notably well over a dozen of the right-bank members of the promotional organisation the Grand Cercle des Vins de Bordeaux.

The Entre-Deux-Mers region between right and left banks has long been the prime source of inexpensive dry white bordeaux but an increasing number of serious dry whites are now made on the left bank – not all of them dominated by Sauvignon and/or Sémillon.

A few dry whites – not always thrilling ones – have been made on the left bank for many years, notably at Chx Talbot and Lagrange in St-Julien, Prieuré-Lichine in Margaux, Chasse Spleen and Fonréaud in the central Médoc, and Loudenne and Vieux Robin in the northern Médoc.

The revival of Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux in 1978 by new owners the Mentzelopoulos family really signalled the start of serious dry white wine production in the Médoc. Like the increasing number of its peers, it qualifies only as generic Bordeaux since the local Margaux appellation is reserved for red wines.

The Mentzelopoulos’ richly oaked super-ripe Sauvignon Blanc is currently being refined but its initial success, commercial and otherwise, must have encouraged Jean-Michel Cazes of Ch Lynch-Bages to plant white wine grapes in 1989 and produce his first small vintage in 1990. His Pauillac neighbour Baroness Philippine de Rothschild followed him into white wine production with her Aile d’Argent at Ch Mouton-Rothschild the next year.

The quality of each of these wines, priced rather differently as one would expect of the produce respectively of a fifth and first growth, has been soaring. Mouton’s winemaker Philippe Dhalluin claims to be aiming to ‘compete with the best dry whites of France’, while at Lynch-Bages Jean-Michel Cazes’s son Jean-Charles has adopted freshening up Blanc de Lynch-Bages as a special project, in cahoots with maître de chai Nicolas Labenne.

Muscadelle has become a treasured ingredient in Blanc de Lynch-Bages and the proportion of Sauvignon Blanc can vary from 40% in the early years of this century to 67% in 2010. Grapes are now being picked earlier and not all of the Lynch white is fermented in oak.

Two other particularly glamorous dry whites grown in the Médoc are those made by the teams at Cos d’Estournel, who do not believe in undercharging for their Sauvignon/Sémillon blend grown in the Bas-Médoc well to the north of the gleaming winery in St-Estèphe close to the source of La Goulée, and that of Ch Retout, where the grape varieties are so exotic – Petit Manseng, Sauvignon Gris, Savagnin Blanc and Mondeuse Blanche – that the wine cannot even be sold as a Bordeaux but qualifies merely as a Vin de France.

Bordeaux is changing!


The associated wine is listed below in brackets.

Aile d’Argent 2014, 2013
(Ch Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac)

Les Arums de Lagrange 2012
(Ch Lagrange, St-Julien)

Blanc de Lynch-Bages 2014, 2013
(Ch Lynch-Bages, Pauillac)

Les Champs Libres 2014, 2013
(Ch Lafleur, Pomerol)

Cos d’Estournel Blanc 2014, 2012
(Ch Cos d’Estournel, St-Estèphe)

Ch Doisy Daëne Sec 2014
(Ch Doisy Daëne, Sauternes)

Girolate Blanc 2014
(Ch Girolate, Bordeaux)

Pavillon Blanc (all vintages)
(Ch Margaux, Margaux)

Le Retout Blanc 2014, 2012
(Ch du Retout, Haut-Médoc)