A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
Bordeaux is red, right? In fact it wasn't all that long ago that Bordeaux produced more white wine than red, and there is one man who could be said to have devoted his life to dry white bordeaux. André Lurton, 92, once said of himself, 'I come from that breed of dog that, when it bites your arse, it doesn't let go'.
One of the results of that tenacity celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year: Lurton's monument will be the creation of the Pessac-Léognan appellation, distinguishing the finest wines of the old Graves region south of Bordeaux. Lurton is the leading owner of white wine vineyards in Pessac-Léognan with a total of 70 ha. As well as producing seven children, including Jacques and François, who have most notably followed him into wine, he built up a white-wine empire that includes Chx Couhins-Lurton, de Cruzeau, La Louvière and de Rochemorin in Pessac- Léognan and, his home for 70 years, Ch Bonnet in Entre-Deux-Mers, the traditional stronghold of dry white bordeaux where his wines represent one in every three bottles exported.
Inevitably advised by the late white-wine academic specialist Denis Dubourdieu, Lurton is Bordeaux's dry-white-wine king, and a total devotee of Sauvignon Blanc, eschewing Bordeaux's other white wine grape Sémillon in all his Pessac-Léognans. With its particularly obvious acidity and piercing aroma, Sauvignon Blanc is good at standing up to Bordeaux's warming summers, but I have a certain tendresse for the distinctive, waxy, fuller bodied character of Sémillon that is blended with Sauvignon Blanc in most other Pessac-Léognans. I was once taken to task by Lurton, however, who made me taste fully mature vintages of Couhins-Lurton blind and guess whether there was any Sémillon in them. He almost cackled his pleasure at seeing me take his mature Sauvignon for Sémillon. Recent DNA analysis has shown that the two varieties are genetically very close, and certainly underripe young Sémillon can taste disconcertingly like Sauvignon Blanc.
But what Pessac-Léognan Sauvignon Blanc does not taste like is New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. It has more grunt and usually less sweetness, and tends to be denser, more food friendly and sometimes oakier than the Sauvignons of the Loire such as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. Unlike Loire Sauvignons, and very unlike Marlborough Sauvignons, the dry whites of Pessac-Léognan can age for decades. The back labels on Lurton's white Pessac-Léognans promise, with unusual precision, that the wine is 'in its prime at 3-10 years but can age for up to 20-30 years'.
A pair of recent tastings suggested that fine dry white bordeaux can indeed age longer than many a fine white burgundy. The team at the London wine retailer Theatre of Wine visited Lurton recently and were amazed to find substantial stocks of whites, generally in great condition, back to the beginning of this century. They recently showed them off to their customers at a tasting preceded by a masterclass presented by Vincent Creuge, André Lurton's technical director who arrived at La Louvière in 1991. The picture above was taken just before this masterclass in a room above Andrew Edmunds restaurant in Soho.
Creuge brought along some even more antique examples of Lurton dry whites: a magnum of Couhins-Lurton 1967, Lurton's first vintage at that then-dilapidated property, and La Louvière 1986 in magnum. The 1967 was in admirable shape and was probably the best 1967 dry white I have ever tasted. But Creuge looked visibly pained when both magnums of the 1986 proved to irredeemably tainted by TCA, the mouldy-smelling compound associated with faulty corks. 'You don't know how disappointing it is for me', he lamented, 'to produce the best wines I can, only to find they have cork problems'.
It was as a result of this sort of thing that Lurton took the brave step in 2003 to stopper a certain portion of his white wines with the screwcaps that are reliably TCA-free. But they were not a huge hit with Lurton's customers and Daniel Illsley of Theatre of Wine believes that this explains their unusually copious stocks of older vintages of (screwcapped) white.
In 2013 arse-biter did let go of screwcaps, and now uses two alternative versions with different permeabilities of the relatively new Diam cork that is sold as free of TCA taint. He uses the one based on Portuguese cork for wines that will probably be drunk young and the one based on Sardinian cork for wines more likely to be aged. 'But I don't tell the commercial team', Creuge confided, 'it's too complicated'.
As you can see from my recommendations, Lurton's Pessac-Léognans from the early years of this century were generally impressive in terms of both quality and likely longevity, with screwcapped wines slower to develop than cork-stoppered versions of the same one. But I do wonder whether global warming, and possibly new winemaking techniques, will make dry white bordeaux age faster.
For many of us, Ch Laville Haut-Brion was the quintessential dry white bordeaux. Notes on a Laville tasting I attended in 1987 unearthed by a hard-working librarian at the University of California at Davis show that vintages 1934, 1945, 1948 and 1950 were all showing beautifully then. But I wouldn't expect the wines made today to last half a century. Some of the smartest dry white bordeaux, such as Ch Haut-Brion Blanc and Ch La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc (as Laville Haut-Brion has been renamed) look fully mature at our regular 10-year assessments.
My 1987 notes record that the grapes for these wines used to be picked at the end of September. Nowadays the Haut-Brion team regularly pick in August and the struggle is to retain enough acidity. Prices are rather different, too. I noted that the opening price of Laville of the 1979, the first vintage to be offered en primeur, was 53 francs (about €8 in today's money) a bottle, the same as the red wine from the same address. The 2016 was offered at €400.
Another big change is that much less sulphur is used today. This is laudable as asthmatics react badly to it, and sulphur can deaden aromas and bleach the colour of a wine in its youth. But it also preserved it for a long life. A recent tasting of the smartest dry white bordeaux with dinner suggested that the wines of the 1960s were very different creatures – gorgeously rich and tangy – from the plumper, softer, more bumptious (and in the case of Laville Haut-Brion 2004 oxidised) wines of this century.
This is a unique and serious wine style that, like white burgundy, is made to be enjoyed with food rather than sipped absently before a meal.
EXCEPTIONAL DRY WHITE PESSAC-LÉOGNANS
These are those I have tasted most recently.
Ch Laville Haut-Brion 1961, 1966, 1972, 1983
Ch Haut-Brion Blanc 1992, 1999
Domaine de Chevalier 1983
Ch Couhins-Lurton 2004 (£29 Theatre of Wine), 2005, 2008, 2009, 2015
Ch La Louvière 1998, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2011, 2012
See Getting André Lurton out of the closet for tasting notes.