Dry whites may be in a minority, but their quality is astounding Most of them are great value and very food friendly.
Sweet or dry?
There are two main white styles in Bordeaux, sweet or dry. Less than 11% of Bordeaux is dedicated to white production. Dry white at around 70 million bottles accounts for the lion’s share of this (9% compared to 0.5% for sweet wines of total Bordeaux vineyards).
The classic appellations are Bordeaux Blanc, Entre-Deux-Mers, Graves, Pessac-Léognan and the Côtes. Now they are even in the sacrosanct land of red – the Médoc and even Fronsac! So in appellations where only red wine is permitted (such as St-Emilion or Fronsac), then white wine will be Bordeaux Blanc. These dry white wines are delightful young and, with barrel fermentation and battonage (stirring of the lees), offer lovely ageing potential. In the main, they represent wonderful value for money.
Dry white appellations
Although white wine is made across Bordeaux, the two classic terroirs for dry whites are the Entre-Deux-Mers, where producers often also use the Bordeaux Blanc appellation, and the Graves. To qualify as an Entre-Deux-Mers the wine must be a blend. Bordeaux Blanc can be a single varietal.
As well as the blend, wine making techniques also make a difference, especially in white wine. Bordeaux whites rarely undergo malolactic fermentation, a secondary fermentation that can reduce acidity. Stainless steel fermentation and ageing creates bright, fresh, fruit forward wines. Barrel ageing adds structure tannins and oak flavours, but you’ll rarely find a heavily oaked white in Bordeaux, the fresh acidic and bright fruit beautifully balances the oak from the barrels.
Stirring the lees, the deposit that forms in the bottom of the barrels or vats, also changes the mouth feel. Putting these proteins from the yeast back in suspension makes wines feel smoother and rounder on the palate. Great for making them more food friendly. You can see Sally stirring the lees in her George 7 white here.
The Graves whites tend to be more complex, with a longer finish than the classic Bordeaux Blanc. Why? They are cropped lower, increasing concentration and are often barrel-fermented and aged increasing their capacity for ageing.
To the North of the Graves is the Pessac-Léognan appellation, the only classified dry white wines of Bordeaux.
In the South Western corner of the Bordeaux region, the cool waters of the small Ciron river, run from the Landes Forest into the warmer Garonne River, creating morning mists. This encourages the development of Noble Rot (Botrytis Cinera) on the ripe grapes. The photo is of morning mists in Sauternes.
Sémillon is particularly sensitive to this rot, it makes the skins porous and when the sun comes out, the fog burns off, the berries warm up, and combined with a gentle breeze, water evaporates naturally concentrating the sugars whilst preserving the acidity. The rot also adds an extra layer of aromatic complexity. Yields are very low, about a glass per vine, compared to a bottle for dry white or red wines. It is also extremely labour intensive as the harvest is picked berry by berry over several different passages. Not all the sugar will be converted to alcohol by fermentation, some remains, giving the natural sweetness to the wine. The most famous sweet appellations in Bordeaux are Sauternes and Barsac.
Keep an eye open for the lesser known but very affordable appellations such as Saint Croix du Mont, Loupiac, Cadillac and Cérons.
Château de Cérons carries the name of the appellation as benefits the elegant sustainably farmed chateau at the heart of the village. The wine is mainly Sémillon with a tiny bit of Sauvignon and Muscadelle. It is sweet but fresh and very aromatic. Don’t limit it to a pudding wine, it’s great with spicy food, especially ginger and lemongrass, anything with blue cheese or garnished with roasted nuts. Try it really chilled as an aperitif with some spicy grilled nuts.
There’s a trend in Sauternes toward a lighter expression of the appellation, one of my favourites in this style is Les Brumes de La Tour Blanche. Brumes references the morning mists responsible for the Noble Rot. Less concentrated and sweet than the top wine from property, it is made and aged in stainless steel to keep all the freshness and made to the same quality and sustainble standards as the 'grand vin'
Château Sigalas Rabaud is the smallest of the classified growths of Sauternes. Owner wine maker Laure de Lambert is the 6th generation at the helm of this family property and she is constantly innovating, making a range of dry and sweet whites including a no added sulphur wine. Her top wine, the Château Sigalas Rabaud, is delightful, it has a lightness of touch, fresh and elegant that make it a perfect pairing wine: lobster with mango, tajine of vegetables, and yes, dessert but not too sweet, tropical fruits, roasted pineapple, perhaps? The property is certified sustainable
This introduction is an excerpt from Bordeaux Bootcamp – Wendy’s Guide to Bordeaux Basics