White Bordeaux Wines Are Picking Up Steam. Here’s What You Should Know

For casual wine drinkers, they know Bordeaux for classic red wine. Some may know the sweet white wines of Sauternes. But few know the dry whites.
September 22, 2019 11:30 AM UTC
FRANCE-WINE-AGRICULTURE
Workers collect grapes on Sept. 3 in a vineyard near Rauzan in the Entre-Deux-Mers region near Bordeaux, in southwestern France. - Harvest began in the reknown Entre-Deux-Mers white wine region, AFP reports on September 6, 2019. (Photo by GEORGES GOBET / AFP) (Photo credit should read GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images
GEORGES GOBET—AFP/Getty Images

It would come as a shock to many people, if having ordered a Bordeaux, the sommelier then appeared with a bottle of white wine in hand. While Burgundy needs to be qualified—the reds of Gevrey-Chambertin, the whites of Puligny-Montrachet—most people assume Bordeaux to be red unless otherwise stated. And for good reason; as recently as 2006, 96% of dry Bordeaux was red—and that number used to be even higher.

But white Bordeaux is expanding, making up more than 10% of the vineyards these days, and the U.S. is the top destination for the wines.

“It’s a growing market,” says Jean-Jacques Dubourdieu of Denis Dubourdieu Domaines. The winemaker produces white Bordeaux at several of its properties, including Clos Floridene and Château Doisy-Daëne. “Few people know white Bordeaux, but as long as someone proposes it, as long as someone explains to customers what white Bordeaux is, it’s a real market, and quite loyal,” Dubourdieu says. “People buy it one year, and then they continue to buy.”

Dubourdieu’s family have been advocates for quality dry white wines since 1948, when his grandfather released the first vintage of a dry Doisy-Daëne. The property is in Barsac; like the neighboring region, Sauternes, it’s traditionally known for sweet white wines. At that time white grapes made up the majority of the region’s plantings, but most of those were destined for distillation or simple plonk. After severe frosts decimated Bordeaux’s vineyards in 1956, many growers replanted with reds. Over the next several decades, wine drinkers around the world started buying more red wine over white, and Bordeaux’s reds commanded higher and higher prices. Wasting a vineyard by planting less remunerative white grapes made little sense to most growers.

Denis Dubourdieu, Jean-Jacques’ father, was a leader in revealing the potential for white wines in Bordeaux. “My father brought in improvements like skin contact maceration before pressing, and after pressing, the cold stabilization.” These techniques help manage the natural nutrients that make for a good fermentation; too little and the yeast don’t finish fermentation, but with too much they can produce reductive, sulfur-matchstick aromas. In the vineyards, Dubourdieu developed vineyard techniques that would get the most aromatic character out of the grapes—Sauvignon Blanc, in particular.

Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon are the leading grape varieties for white Bordeaux, most often blended together. In lighter styles, a small amount of Muscadelle might be added to provide more floral notes. “The good thing about Sémillon is that it gives good structure in the mouth,” Dubourdieu says, “so it’s quite interesting to blend them. I’m less convinced by Muscadelle. It’s a lot of work to make a good Muscadelle.”

Sauvignon Gris, a variant of Sauvignon Blanc with a pinkish hue to it, has long been an unacknowledged part of some vineyards and was mixed in Sauvignon Blanc somewhat indiscriminately. “We find this variety interesting because it gives structure and long aromas in the mouth,” says Benedicte Piat, co-owner of Château Couronneau. They favor it in their blend over Sémillon, which Benedicte says is “too soft and flat.”

Soon other varieties may appear as well. In June, the Bordeaux & Bordeaux Supérieur Association approved the addition of Liliorila, Petit Manseng, and Alvarinho in those appellations.

White Bordeaux used to be an all-or-nothing affair, but that’s changed, too. “Textbooks polarize white Bordeaux as being cheap and cheerful, or even not so cheerful,” says master of wine and Bordeaux authority Mary Gorman-McAdams. “And then the great whites at the other end, but the really interesting stuff is that diversity in the middle.” A top white Bordeaux like Château Haut-Brion Blanc can cost $800 or more, but many great examples like Clos Floridene, Doisy-Daëne, or Château Couronneau can be found in the $20 to $50 range. For Gorman-McAdams, that represents a maturity for the category, and an embrace of what different vineyards can do best.

While in the past quality white Bordeaux was mostly in the hands of people like Denis Dubourdieu and Andre Lurton, another early advocate, today more producers are pursuing a greater range of expression. “For a while, back in the early ’90s, people were using the toolboxes Denis Dubourdieu and his team had developed more rigidly, but now there’s a comfort level and a confidence level in white winemaking,” Gorman-McAdams says. “It’s not just in the whites. In all things Bordeaux there is this going back into the vineyard and focusing on the manifestation of the terroir.”

Stylistically, these white Bordeaux wines fill a gap whites from other parts of the world don’t address.

“The first time I went to California with some white Bordeaux samples people were like, What were you doing?” says Christophe Orlarei, sales manager for the Bordeaux specialist distributor WineBook. “You’re in Chardonnay land. But the beauty of white Bordeaux is that it’s obviously not Sauvignon Blanc, it’s not Chardonnay, it’s somewhere in-between the two. As a former sommelier, I used to love that kind of wine because that’s your transition between a bone-dry white wine and something more oaky, more creamy, and more powerful.” Orlarei says that dual nature makes them great wines at the table. “If you get a white Bordeaux, you can definitely go the whole way through your meal,” he suggests, and not need a different wine for each course.

Red Bordeaux is known for aging well, and that’s true for the whites as well. “The Sémillon grape is what makes all the difference in the white Bordeaux,” Orlarei explains. “When it’s young it’s a bit more mellow than the Chardonnay but a little more sophisticated than the Sauvignon Blanc, and then the Sémillon starts showing all of its power and you get that creaminess and maturity. It’s a great wine to drink over the course of a few years.”

For all its qualities, white Bordeaux is probably not going to take over the world. Dubourdieu says that volume may have peaked; all the places best suited to white grapes are planted.

However, the wines themselves will keep getting better. “When my grandfather started the Doisy-Daëne dry in 1948,” Dubourdieu says, “it was the shame of the village because he was making a ‘simple’ white Bordeaux on a classified estate.” But, as Dubourdieu continues, his grandfather insisted it was a good place to make dry wine: “In terms of soil and terroir, I think in some places it’s quite easy; we just have to promote that taste.”

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