As incomprehensible as it might seem, a century ago more white grapes than red grapes were planted in Bordeaux. “These included the sweet whites of Sauternes and Barsac as well as the ocean of dry to semi-dry ‘vin ordinaire’ that was labeled Bordeaux Blanc.” (The Wines of Bordeaux, Clive Coates)
Currently only 10% of the mammoth 650 million bottles produced on average in Bordeaux annually are white. (Bordeaux in Numbers. Jancis Robinson) However, the percentages are changing just a bit.
Looking at the production of white wines across the Bordeaux appellations, there are numerous examples of increased interest in Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, with a few other varietals such as Sauvignon Gris and Muscadelle.
One of the regions experiencing the most dramatic turnaround in white wine production is Sauternes, where only a few years ago growers were struggling to sell their production. Paul César Rival, owner of Château Guiraud is credited with the region’s new popularity when he introduced “G” – considered the first Sauternes Sec. Made from 50% Sauvignon Blanc and 50% Semillon, “G” is aged for approximately 7 months in oak barrels from the previous year’s Grand Cru. The result is stone fruit and spice on the palate, finishing with a luxurious texture and body.
The success of “G” prompted many top estates — Yquem, Doisy-Daene, Rayne Vigneau, Suduiraut and Rieussec — to follow suit. All the producers have adopted the single letter moniker as well. Châteaux d’Yquem, not surprisingly, has produced a particularly successful Sauternes Sec. Their “Y” is selected from Sauvignon Blanc plots harvested at the beginning of the vintage, then combined with Sémillon picked right when botrytis has begun to show. With ten months of lees stirring during both fermentation and maturation, the end result is a rich, beautifully supple wine that now fetches over $200 a bottle.
Immediately adjacent to Yquem is Château Rieussec, acquired by the Rothschild family in 1984. One of the largest properties in Sauternes and Barsac, the vineyards are on gravel and sandy-clay soils. Grapes for ‘R” de Rieussec Sauternes Sec are harvested by hand. The Sémillon is placed in new oak barrels to undergo alcoholic fermentation, while the Sauvignon is predominantly fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks. Once fermentation is completed, the wines in barrels are aged on the lees for six months. The result is an expressive, complex nose with a concentrated and long finish. Best of all, “R” is priced at $26.00.
Most Sauternes Sec are modestly priced — another reason for the category’s success in wine markets. Producers utilize grapes picked before the Sauternes harvest at substantially higher yields per hectare for a significantly lower cost. Christian Seely, Managing Director of AXA Millésimes recently announced increased production of Sauternes Sec at Château Suduiraut: “We feel the time is right for a strategic reorientation of our wine production. In the future Château Suduiraut will be known for its two Grands Vins, one Liquoreux, and one Sec, both of them unique expressions of our terroir.”
Clos de Lunes
Meanwhile, Clos de Lunes, founded by Domaine de Chevalier’s superb winemaker, Olivier Bernard, has never produced anything but Sauternes Sec since the first vintage was released in 2012. “The objective of Clos des Lunes,” says Bernard, “is clearly defined: To create a fine dry white wine that will become part of the same legend that describes the sweet wines of Sauternes.”
Very lofty goals, but Bernard, who is also a partner in Château Guiraud, is certainly up to the task. His Clos des Lunes is 70% Sémillon and 30% Sauvignon Blanc. The palate is rich and ample with good tension. The Sauvignon Blanc delicately marries with the exotic lychee and mango of the ripe Sémillon. Mineral notes bring good salinity for an elegant, textured finish.
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Château Cheval Blanc
In Saint-Émilion, Château Cheval Blanc has launched an ambitious new project to produce white wine. After acquiring an eight-hectare vineyard from Château La Tour du Pin in 2006, the Cheval Blanc technical team realized that 12 different plots of sandy and clay soils, were a perfect fit for Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon.
After pulling the Merlot vines previously grown on the plots, five trail vintages were produced. Freshness and mineral notes are derived from ageing in large vessels for 16 to 18 months — an unusually lengthy period, but estate managers feel this allows the wine to achieve greater purity. Some 10 years later, the first Petit Cheval Blanc white Bordeaux was finally released.
We recently sampled the 2020 vintage as an apéritif before a dinner at the estate. We were immediately taken with the the nose — delicate white flowers contrasting with chalky minerality and an unctuous, sensual texture that literally left us speechless. There is something absolutely ethereal about the Petit Cheval Blanc white!
Located in the Côtes de Francs — past Saint-Émilion, at the far eastern edge of Bordeaux, Château Puyanché possesses similar clay-limestone soils — perfect, in other words. The Côtes de Francs also benefits from some of the highest elevations in Bordeaux, as well as some of the lowest average annual rainfall. Those two factors allow the grapes there to ripen slowly, and to benefit from a great deal of sunshine. It’s no wonder the appellation has seen significant investment by established winemakers such as, Alexandre and Guillaume Thienpont (of Vieux Château Certan) and Hubert de Boüard (Château Angélus)
At Château Puyanché, a family-owned property for five generations, Joseph and Bernadette Arbo produce an exceptional Bordeaux Blanc from 75% Sauvignon Blanc and 25% Sémillon. The wine is fermented in steel tanks then aged for 7 months in 30% new French oak. Complex fruits with fresh lemon, green pear and hints of vanilla are characteristic of Puyanché Blanc, with hints of toasted oak for textural complexity. Beautifully crafted and one of our favorites. This wine goes for a mere $14.00 — an extraordinary value.
In Pomerol, Ronan Laborde, owner of Château Clinet, recounts the history of his estate, during the Middle Ages. At that time, the Knights of Jerusalem had established hostels throughout the region for pilgrims traveling to Santiago de Compostela. These visitors particularly enjoyed the hearty, locally-produced white wine on their arduous journeys.
Ronan continues to make an excellent Bordeaux Blanc, blending Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, from fruit procured in Castillon, Lussac-Saint-Émilion and Côtes de Bourg. An entry level wine, priced at $11.00, it is a tremendous value.
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In the late 1980s, the northern part of Graves, considered the best area for making dry whites, was renamed Pessac-Léognan after two towns in the region. Today, the area remains the home of more than a few renowned châteaux: Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion, Pape Clément, Malartic La Graviere, Domaine de Chevalier and Smith Haut Lafitte, to name but a few. All these estates continue to make Bordeaux Blanc.
Further north, along the legendary Châteaux Road of Bordeaux’s Left Bank, Margaux produces the highly-rated Pavillon Blanc, almost always 100% Sauvignon Blanc and treasured for its aromas of white peaches and pear with a saline finish.
Château Pape Clément
With its richly graveled soils providing excellent nutrients and great drainage, Pape Clément produces a truly stunning white wine. Additionally, the estate employs a unique vinification process: the wine is aged in Burgundy barrels and a mixture of egg-shaped concrete vats for added lees contact. The resulting ripe tropical aromas and rich density make for a classically styled Bordeaux Blanc.
The Château also offers a second tier Bordeaux Blanc called Clémentin made from 83% Sauvignon Blanc, 15% Sémillon and 2% Sauvignon Gris. Produced very much like the Grand Vin, Clémentin is vinified with whole bunch pressing. The juices are drained by gravity, directly from the press into barrels. The wines are then aged on fine lees in French oak barrels and in cement eggs. This truly elegant wine is priced at an exceptional $40.00.
Named for founders Denis and Florence Dubourdieu, Clos Floridène consists of 40 hectares in the Graves appellation, although much of the vineyard lies on the limestone plateau of Pujols sur Ciron near Barsac. The vines are maintained organically and composted with plant mulch. A blend of 55% Sémillon and 45% Sauvignon Blanc, the wine is structured, dense and powerful. “Green apple, pear and jasmine are some of the many nuances laced into this silky, beautifully textured white. The Clos Floridène Blanc is a huge over-achiever.” (Antonio Galloni)
Entre-Deux-Mers, located directly east of Bordeaux City, was once almost entirely devoted to the production of white wine and continues to offer up outstanding Bordeaux Blancs. Our personal favorite, Château Thieuley, is owned by two sisters — Marie and Sylvie Courselle. The talented pair produce a gorgeous blend of 45% Sémillon, 40% Sauvignon Blanc and 15% Sauvignon Gris — a perfectly balanced wine with exotic fruit aromas and lively citrus.
The production of white wines is clearly an expanding category in Bordeaux, with numerous options in a broad range of prices and styles. And, with recent vintages of white Burgundies less available — and hyper-expensive as a result — the timing couldn’t be better!
Here is our selection of Bordeaux Blanc including both dry and sweet wines. Linked products can be ordered directly online. For additional information, write firstname.lastname@example.org or call 850-687-1370.
2020 Château Guiraud “G” Bordeaux Blanc Sec. JA-92. 17.99.
2021 Clos des Lunes “Lune d’Argent Blanc” NM 91-93. $16.99
2021 Château Rieussec – Barons de Rothschild “R” Bordeaux Blanc. JA-93. $24.99.
2003. JS-98. $199.99. 375 ml
2005. WA-97. $195.99. 375 ml
2006. WS-96. $204.99. 375 ml
2010. RP-98. $199.99. 375 ml
2014. JS-98. $204.99. 375 ml
2016.. JD-99. $389.99. 750 ml
2019. NM-98. $178.99. 375 ml
2019. NM-98. $359.99. 750 ml
2009 Château Suduiraut Sauternes. RP-98. $68.99. 750 ml
2019 Château Rieussec – Barons de Rothschild. AG-97. $97.99. 750
Château Pape Clément
2017 Pape Clément Blanc. JS-96. $134.99.
2018 Pape Clément Blanc. JS-98. $134.99.
2018 Clémentin de Château Pape Clément Blanc. JS-98. $41.99.
2019 Clémentin de Château Pape Clément Blanc. JS-93. $40.99