The Dark Horse of White Wine

The Dark Horse of White Wine

Three times this past  summer I had the opportunity to enjoy a delicious bottle of white wine that made me say, “Ah, yes! This, this is the wine I’ve been craving!” Each wine was different but they shared one big thing in common: They were all white Bordeaux. If you want to find a category of wine that is out of favor, look no further than white Bordeaux.

You may think Australian Shiraz (or maybe California Merlot?) owns the trophy in the out-of  favor wine style race, but, in fact, the popularity of white Bordeaux has fallen so far that even the Bordelaise seem to have capitulated. The story is a similar one: Popularity leads to over-production, which leads to decreasing quality. Poor quality leads to boring wines lacking personality, then no one seems to remember why they drink the stuff, which in turn leads to a full-blown collapse of the category. In this case, the collapse led eventually to dramatic bankruptcies and replantings in the sub-regions of Bordeaux that were most responsible for both the rise and the fall of the style. Production of white Bordeaux is a mere shadow of its once proud self.

Traditionally, white Bordeaux is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon and occasionally a third varietal (usually Muscadelle) thrown in for fun—but even when that is included, it is a decidedly junior partner. Even Sémillon is not always included, and some bottlings are 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc.

My take on these wines is that there are two reasons why white Bordeaux fell out of favor. First, producers needed the cash flow and therefore focused on the Sauvignon Blanc, which is fresh and crisp and easy to drink. Sémillon is more finicky and can be made into the more valuable sweet wines, which we know most often as Sauternes and Barsac, although there are other appellations that produce these wines as well. Sauvignon Blanc will grow almost anywhere, and will do so plentifully—and for cheap.

The second reason white Bordeaux fell out of favor was the perception among producers that as wine consumption boomed, their customers were changing and would be less patient, wanting more immediate gratification, and that their wines should be styled to accommodate this. I can’t be certain, but I suspect that there was some truth to this. But in pursuing this small truth, the larger one was lost. The 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc bottlings that come out of Bordeaux can be very good indeed, but are often not terribly interesting. Sémillon is the key to giving these wines personality. As it ages, Sémillon develops remarkably from a high-acid, lean and crisp wine into a rich, textured, almost fat wine—making white Bordeaux almost completely unique to anything in the modern winedrinker’s recent experience.

The wines I enjoyed this summer were full of vitality, personality, flavor and complexity. They were utterly delicious, intellectual and deeply gratifying. None of them were expensive, and the youngest was from the 2008 vintage. It is virtually impossible to enjoy this pleasure from a bottle purchased at your retailer earlier in the day. You must age these wines for a few years. Fortunately, you need more patience than money in this project. Good bottles of white Bordeaux can be purchased between $15-$40 (although, yes, there are some that are considerably more expensive). The bottles I had were purchased between $18-$28 each. I encourage you to give this a try. Spend $100 on your future self, and sock away a few bottles of white Bordeaux for five to 10 years. It may seem like a long-shot from your current vantage point, but let me tell you, when you open those bottles, you’ll want to tell someone about the experience.


 

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Wines to Try:

Château Brondelle “Classic” Blanc 2013 (Graves) – My Staff Selection for the Fall Wine Sale –  This small property, like most properties in this area, produces mostly red wines. Their white, however, has always impressed me as their best and most interesting bottling. This is unusual in that it has a relatively high percentage of Sémillon (50%). Our experience suggests that this wine reaches maturity fairly quickly. Try a bottle early to see what it is like, then open the others in 3-5 years. On Sale : $13.49 per bottle. (Regular $16.99)   BUY NOW

Château Graville-Lacoste Blanc 2014 (Graves) Imported by Kermit Lynch, this bottling has survived the culling of this category the best. Still widely distributed and very popular (both well-deserved, mind you), it is however altogether too frequently consumed young and fresh. It’s 75% Sémillon, 20% Sauvignon Blanc and 5% Muscadelle. I’ve never had a disappointing bottle—young or old. On Sale: $14.99 (Regular: $19.99)  BUY NOW

Château Picque-Caillou Blanc 2012 (Pessac-Leognan) One of my personal favorites, and one of the bottles I had this summer that compelled me to write this piece (it was a 2008 by the way), this wine has everything going for it quality-wise. Small production, careful winemaking, premier location and soils—all it lacks is fame. I’ve been fortunate enough to have several bottles over a variety of vintages, and this drinks (typically) in its peak at 6-10 years past its vintage date. On Sale: $27.99 (Regular: $34.99) BUY NOW

 

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