Miss White is now Miss Right

A revolution in the red heartlands of Bordeaux has transformed the white Cinderellas into regal wines of sublime complexity. John Stimpfig reports.

October 03 2009
John Stimpfig

Have you ever found yourself talking to someone at a wine tasting, but can’t quite work out whether they’re a bluffer or a connoisseur? If you have, there are various ways of working out whether they’re the real McCoy. One tried and tested method is to enquire about their favourite domaines in Morey-Saint-Denis. Another is to probe about their preferred growers’ champagnes. But for the clincher, simply solicit their opinions and knowledge on dry white bordeaux.

Obviously, if they stare back at you with blank incomprehension – as most people do – you have your answer in an instant. However, if the person really knows their stuff, you may end up with information overload. I recall asking the question on one occasion only to be gripped firmly by the hand. Limpet-like, the connoisseur clung to me for the rest of the evening while droning on about every bottle he’d ever tasted.

Generally, though, wine bores and white bordeaux don’t mix. That is certainly the case with Alun Griffiths MW and wine director of Berry Bros & Rudd, who has been anything but a closet fan of this niche category for years. Among his particular favourite châteaux are Carbonnieux, Clos Floridène, La Garde and Smith Haut Lafitte – all of which he personally buys and drinks. “Unfortunately, though, selling them to customers has been a bit of an uphill battle,” he says regretfully. “It’s still the region’s Cinderella wine.”

Another devotee is the head of Sotheby’s international wine department, Serena Sutcliffe, who proudly admits to having something of a fetish for the classic, long-lived wines of Domaine de Chevalier and the cult Laville Haut-Brion. But it’s not just the upper echelons of the wine trade who pay court to these extraordinarily rare and complex whites. A handful of diverse and sophisticated collectors also covet them with equal passion. For instance, the American novelist and famous oenophile Jay McInerney has been a fan for years. The same goes for Marks & Spencer supremo Sir Stuart Rose, particularly when it comes to his predilection for Haut-Brion Blanc.

Yet despite such high-profile references, it’s a sad fact that dry bordeaux blanc has disappeared without trace from most collectors’ cellars. There are plenty of reasons for this, not least among them the fact that they have been totally obscured by the region’s ubiquitous reds. As claret soared in popularity so the whites plummeted to the point where all but a few languished in obscurity and obsolescence. Largely unknown, they became increasingly unfashionable.

That said, the current colour prejudice for red bordeaux is a relatively recent phenomenon. Fifty years ago, 60 per cent of it was white, with most of it coming from the Entre-Deux-Mers and the southern Graves. Unfortunately, the vast majority of it was so execrably awful that many vineyards were replanted with increasingly de rigueur rouge.

Since then it has become the first duty of bordeaux to be red, which is what nearly 90 per cent of it now is. Despite this, in the Graves and Pessac-Léognan, the dry whites were never in serious danger of extinction and their flame was always kept alight – especially at the boutique end, where the “big three” of Haut-Brion Blanc, Laville Haut-Brion and Domaine de Chevalier continued to produce tiny quantities of the most sublime and sought-after wine.

But now there are real signs of a broader revival taking root in Bordeaux. Indeed, there must be two dozen or more châteaux that have dramatically upped their white wine game in recent years – most notably Smith Haut Lafitte, Pape-Clément, De Fieuzal, Malartic-Lagravière, LaTour Martillac, Bouscaut, Clos Floridène, La Louvière and Couhins, to name but a few. Not only that; the ripple effect has also spread to the neighbouring appellation of Sauternes. Here, châteaux such as Yquem, Rieussec, Suduiraut and Guiraud have also upgraded their dry whites with an extra dash of freshness and finesse.

But what is most surprising about this micro trend is that it isn’t just restricted to Bordeaux’s traditional white wine heartlands where Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon have their natural domicile. Instead, it is spreading to more northerly and easterly appellations where Cabernet and Merlot dominate the landscape.

In pockets of the Médoc, some seriously good vin blanc is very much back on the agenda. Not that long ago, Mouton Rothschild launched its very own dry white, as have Lynch-Bages, Talbot, Loudenne and Lagrange. More recently, Cos d’Estournel and La Tour Carnet have also followed suit. Of course, the quantities are tiny and each château must label it as humble AC Bordeaux Blanc. Nonetheless, the quality and price tags clearly imply no lack of ambition. For example, Lynch-Bages’ brilliantly remodelled white is now selling for up to £45 a bottle for the indecently good 2006. In Saint-Estèphe, Jean-Guillaume Prats’ new Cos d’Estournel Blanc is priced at the same exalted level as his flagship red.

Meanwhile, by far the best white wine of the Médoc is Margaux’s rare and exquisitely ethereal Pavillon Blanc. “It will never match the quality of the red,” declares Paul Pontallier, its long-standing, respected director-general. “But it is a very serious wine which we are extremely proud of and pay great attention to. What surprises many is that white grapes were always planted in the Médoc peninsula.” In fact, 100 years ago all the major châteaux produced a vin blanc. But Margaux has probably been doing it longer than anyone. “Margaux was making white wine commercially as early as 1715. We still have some old labels from the late 1800s as well as few vintages from the 1920s.”

But how many people are familiar (or comfortable) with the concept of a white wine from the hallowed Right Bank terroir of St Emilion? Now it’s already a physical reality thanks to a trio of ground-breaking proprietors. Gérard Perse of Pavie fame was the first at Monbousquet. Most recently, he has been joined by the arch iconoclast Jean-Luc Thunevin of Valandraud and the maverick Bernard Magrez at Fombrauge.

No doubt many traditionalists will regard this as flagrant attention-seeking at best; and sheer heresy at worst. Nonetheless, some commentators have actively welcomed the innovation, including the great French critic Michel Bettane. Indeed, he is so taken with the results to date that he would actually like to see more dry white from the appellation.

Could white become the new red? It seems inconceivable in Bordeaux. And yet the latest research indicates that palates and preferences are shifting slightly in that direction. Perhaps this partly explains why the opportunist Magrez has become such a white wine evangelist. Ever one to spot a gap in the bordeaux market, Magrez astutely points out something that many appear to have missed: “Whereas there is too much competition in red wines, there is very little in white.”

But it’s not just the novelty factor nor consumer trends that are driving a small but significant shift in sales. What is really making the difference is the quantum leap in style and quality. “In the past, too many of its premium dry whites were leaden-footed with too much oak and fatness,” says Griffiths. “Now the fashion is for fresher, brighter and more balanced wines with a touch more Sauvignon and less overt oak.”

The winning formula has attracted the notice of a growing number of critics including the FT’s Jancis Robinson and The New York Times’ Eric Asimov. In her Purple Pages website, Robinson has been urging her readers to “take advantage of the revolution in white wine making in Bordeaux”.

“People rarely talk about it, so it’s paradoxical that the real scientific advances over the past 20 years in Bordeaux have been in white wines,” says Professor Denis Dubourdieu, who is widely regarded as the genre’s wine­making guru. Apart from owning Clos Floridène, Reynon and Doisy-Daëne, Dubourdieu also consults at about 40 Bordeaux châteaux.

A big change has been the move to pick the grapes at optimum ripeness. For a number of châteaux, this necessitates hand-picking in “tries”, as in Sauternes, which makes the process much more labour intensive. According to Olivier Bernard, managing director of Domaine de Chevalier, it takes 1,000 man hours for every hectare of white grapes.

However, this is typical of the perfectionist, hand-crafted approach that some châteaux have adopted. Magrez has focused on “precision viticulture” – matching varieties to soil types – in his case, planting on clay rather than gravel. He and others have also been experimenting successfully with batonnage (lees stirring) and, somewhat controversially, sourcing their barrels from Burgundian coopers. The objective is to make the oak more integrated and less intrusive – giving the wine greater complexity, minerality and ageing potential. Moreover, it’s clearly paying dividends at properties such as Pape Clément, particularly in vintages such as 2006 and 2007. Significantly, Parker awarded both the wines 96-100 points apiece.

“There’s a real sense of competition among the leading châteaux which has raised the quality bar,” says Florence Cathiard, co-owner of Smith Haut Lafitte, where progress has also been rapid and impressive – as have sales in the past two or three years. But every château has what it regards as its own competitive edge. “Ours is a dash [five per cent] of the grape variety Sauvignon Gris, which adds spice and seasoning,” she asserts. “It’s our secret weapon.”

Moreover, with each passing year, the châteaux become more and more experienced, while the vines get older and better. And whereas the past three vintages have been mixed for claret, the whites have been consistently good. In 2007, for instance, they were far superior to the reds.

The other good news is that quality has improved at the more commercial end of the market. A classic example is the exquisitely made and very affordable Château Fonreaud, which is highly rated by several Bordelais, including Jean-Charles Cazes, owner of Lynch-Bages. “There’s still a lot of dull stuff around. But you can buy some very good wine either side of £10 a bottle,” says Griffiths. For instance, sales of our Good Ordinary White and Extra Ordinary White are really starting to fly. People just need to taste how good the best wines are. Once they’ve done that, they usually come back for more.”

But making boutique white bordeaux isn’t for the faint-hearted. According to Dubourdieu, “A good white is far more demanding to make than a red.” It is also much more expensive, which partly explains why the white wines of many châteaux cost more than their red counterparts. In the case of Domaine de Chevalier, this is as much as a multiple of two. A bottle of its 2006 red will set you back £32, whereas the white can cost up to £65 – if you can find it.

The other reason for this differential is the rarity factor. Domaine de Chevalier’s paltry but priceless five hectares of Sauvignon and Semillon yield just 1,500 cases of grand vin. And Pape-Clément produces just 1,000-1,200 cases of white wines per vintage. At Haut-Brion and Laville-Haut-Brion it is even less. These are burgundian quantities.

At the same time, these prices still stack up well compared to Bordeaux’s greatest rival. “Our prices are cheap compared to my friends Dominique Lafon and Anne-Claude Leflaive,” says Florence Cathiard. And in relation to its own region’s reds, “the prices of the whites didn’t double or treble in vintages such as 2005,” explains Olivier Bernard.

But what are we to think when Cathiard also says she is “no longer modest about putting our white wine against a montrachet”? Is she really right to make such comparisons? “It depends,” says Sutcliffe, “but I would say that the crème de la crème can and do stand shoulder to shoulder in depth, complexity and profundity with the best of white burgundy.”

Coming from Sutcliffe, that’s quite some compliment. So the next time someone asks your opinion on dry white bordeaux, you’ll know precisely how to answer. Just make sure you don’t go on about it for too long.

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