Bordeaux’s Best Whites
Bordeaux is a region of blended wines, producing styles that have influenced many of the world’s wine producers. Today, the red varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are nearly ubiquitous. It’s wines made from these grapes (plus Cabernet Franc) that made Bordeaux famous.
That blending principle also applies to Bordeaux’s white wines. Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon (sometimes blended with Muscadelle and Sauvignon Gris) produce offerings ranging from fresh, fruity examples that should be enjoyed within a year to some of the finest and ageworthy wines in the world.
“The blend may be a tradition, but it’s a tradition with a good reason,” says Thibault Despagne, whose family’s Vignobles Despagne owns several estates in the Entre-deux-Mers, including Châteaux Tour de Mirambeau and Rauzan Despagne.
“The Sauvignon Blanc is a grape that brings aroma and freshness, but which doesn’t age so well,” says Despagne. “The Sémillon is more reticent when it’s young and takes three to four years to show real intensity. It also lends itself to the flavors from wood.”
Put the two together in differing proportions, and you either have wines to drink young or ones for aging. Prices generally match winemaker intent, with light whites starting at $12 per bottle, while the top wines can sell for well over $100.
Photos by Ben Fink
While most of Bordeaux is now given over to red grapes, whites have their own niche. They are widely found between the Dordogne and Garonne rivers, the attractively hilly area known by the Bordelais as Entre-deux-Mers, which means, “between two seas.”
White grapes are also found in scattered pockets of the Côtes de Blaye and other Côtes de Bordeaux. But their spiritual home is in the backyard of the city of Bordeaux, in the vineyards of Graves and Pessac-Léognan.
These different areas are distinguished by their terroirs, a French word that describes the influence of climate, soil and human on wine.
“The best places for white wine in Bordeaux are where you can harvest late without losing acidity,” says Despagne.
“We are looking for the cooler parts of the vineyard for our whites,” says Eric Perrin, whose family’s Château Carbonnieux in Pessac-Léognan has a fine reputation for its white wines.
But, says Laurent Congombles, who runs neighboring Château Bouscaut with his wife, Sophie Lurton, “We’re also looking for a blend between the clay soils that give richer whites and the chalk that gives a more austere style.”
Chalk soil dominates the central ridge of the Entre-deux-Mers, a relatively cool area just right for white wines. While the region used to be almost entirely planted with white grapes, things changed in the 1980s and ’90s as the demand for red wine skyrocketed.
Still, Entre-deux-Mers remains a source of good-value white Bordeaux. These dry, fruit-driven wines are light, fresh and ready to drink within a year. Some producers also make more serious, wood-aged wines that deserve cellaring for three to five years. Flavors range from crisp, herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc-dominated wines to more perfumed offerings that include Muscadelle and the rare Sauvignon Gris.
Good producers from here include Château Thieuley, Château Bonnet, Château Turcaud, Château Bel Air Perponcher and Château Tour de Mirambeau, which are all available in the United States.
Further north, the ancient river fort of Blaye dominates the surrounding vineyards. Under the Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux appellation, dry whites are the classic Bordeaux blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. They’re generally richer than Entre-deux-Mers, while commanding similar prices. Quantities of whites here are small, as producers concentrate more on red wines.
At the northern end of Graves, closest to Bordeaux, Pessac-Léognan’s white wines enjoy a greater reputation than its reds. But quantities are tiny.
The top white wine of the appellation, Château Haut-Brion Blanc, is produced from only seven acres out of the estate’s 126 acres of vineyards. Yet it often commands prices in excess of the estate’s reds. In 2013, white Haut-Brion’s average price has been $942 a bottle, while the red has averaged $345.
“It’s amusing that we have this extraordinary reputation for whites, when they are in such a minority,” says Perrin.
Supply and demand may play a part in that, but it’s also because of the impressive quality of these whites, which are more consistent and less impacted by vintage variation than the reds.
($30 or less)
92 Château Bois de Rolland 2013 Bordeaux. This well-balanced, ripe and toasty wine has all the elements in the right places. It’s rich, packed with spice, apricot and red apple fruits, and given a creamy texture by wood aging. Serge Doré. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 12% Price: $25
91 Cheval Quancard 2013 Réserve Sauvignon-Sémillon (Bordeaux). Toasty aromas give this wine a strong, spicy character. They also bring out a ripe side to the wine, rounded and rich, full of wood and warm fruit flavors. Cheval Quancard USA. Best Buy.
abv: 12% Price: $14
90 Château Boisson 2013 Bordeaux. This is a wine with a serious side, its fruitiness balanced by a firm, steely texture. Apples and lime flavors are outlined by minerality, a chalky character and intense acidity. Fruit of the Vines. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 13% Price: $20
90 Château Saint-Genès 2013 Bordeaux. There’s an attractive vanilla-caramel flavor to this ripe wine. Although it’s herbaceous, it also has rich apricot and quince flavors that bring out a warm side. Wirtz Beverage. Best Buy.
abv: 12.5% Price: $12
90 Mission St Vincent 2013 Sauvignon (Bordeaux). There’s a fine balance between the wine’s acidity and its full fruitiness. That shows in its lively, fresh character as well as in its rich apple and pear flavors. Metrowine Distribution. Best Buy.
abv: 11.5% Price: $15
89 Château Penin 2013 Bordeaux. A round and ripe wine, full of rich fruits and with spice from light wood aging. It’s a dense wine that’s developing layers of creaminess and tropical fruits. Spec’s.
abv: 12% Price: $16
Below are wines not pictured:
91 Les Hauts de Lagarde 2013 Bordeaux. Rich and full, this is a concentrated wine. It has a good mix of herbaceousness, fresh citrus and pineapple that are intense and fruity. It could age a few months, so wait until 2015. Natural Merchants LLC. Best Buy.
abv: 12.5% Price: $13
90 Château du Seuil 2012 Graves. There’s a strongly herbaceous, almost feline character in this wine that hints at New Zealand. At the same time, the weight and structure is all Bordeaux. APS Wine & Spirits.
abv: 12% Price: $28
90 Château Haut Bertinerie 2012 Vieilles Vignes (Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux). This is a spicy, wood-aged wine, made from old-vine fruit. Ripe apricot and pear flavors are layered with toastiness and a spicy, aromatic character. Wine Partners.
abv: 13.5% Price: $25
94 Château Carbonnieux 2012 Pessac-Léognan. This is pure fruitiness, but with a tense, tight structure underneath. It has such a fresh exterior, all citrus fruits and acidity, while behind is a texture that demands aging. Multiple U.S. importers.
abv: 13.5% Price: $45
94 Château de Fieuzal 2012 Pessac-Léognan. The wine is beautifully balanced, poised between ripe yellow fruits and a tight, taut acidity and minerality. It gives a rounded wine initially, then offers the long-term prospect of intense fruit and a strong structure. Multiple U.S. importers.
abv: 13.5% Price: $60
94 Château La Louvière 2012 Pessac-Léognan. Pure Sauvignon, this is a tropical-fruit-flavored wine. It’s bright and fruity while also showing the dense texture of grapefruit and steely minerality. Drink this intense wine from 2017. Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits.
abv: 13.5% Price: $50
Below are wines not pictured:
95 Château Malartic-Lagravière 2012 Pessac-Léognan. This dense, wood-aged wine brings richness, intense fruit and acidity together in one bottle. It’s a serious, complex and concentrated wine for aging, so drink from 2018. Multiple U.S. importers.
abv: 13.5% Price: $60
95 Château Pape-Clément 2012 Pessac-Léognan. This is a powerful, rich wine. It’s developing its fruitiness well, bringing out tropical flavors and a ripe, full-blooded, no-holds-barred density. Multiple U.S. importers.
abv: NA Price: $144
95 Château Smith Haut Lafitte 2012 Pessac-Léognan. Dense and powerful, its ripe tropical and green fruits are integrating well with the toast from wood aging to give great swathes of complex fruit and structure. Multiple U.S. importers.
abv: 12.5% Price: $90
Fresh, grassy white Bordeaux, often primarily Sauvignon Blanc, pairs well with fish, lobster and even “difficult” vegetables like fennel or artichoke. These herbaceous young wines provide good contrast to cream sauces.
Other favorite accompaniments are smoked salmon, especially if served with a rich European-style butter or soft cheese, or any savory dish with lemon or capers.
The wood-aged wines can match rich dishes like chicken, turkey or salmon, or anything with plenty of garlic or thyme in the sauce. Aged examples are ideal with soft and blue cheeses.
There is something surreal about the idea of the Médoc, that bastion of red wine, producing white wines. Yet, increasingly, some of the top estates are producing small quantities of whites from cool sites, sometimes with a patch of limestone.
Leading exponents of Médoc whites include Château Margaux, Château Mouton-Rothschild, Château Cos d’Estournel, Château Talbot and Château Lynch-Bages. The work expended on these wines has produced concentrated, wood-aged wines that will always be expensive rarities. The wines are labeled Bordeaux Blanc.
- 2Location, Location, Location
- 3Best Value Bordeaux
- 4Top-Rated Cellar Selections
- 5Pairing White Bordeaux