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Bordeaux 2019: Pessac-Leognan and other Bordeaux blancs

Quite a lot has already been written about the white wines of Bordeaux in 2019. And I am not sure that I agree with all of it. For me they represent something of a mixed bag. And, perhaps alarmingly, the issue here is linked clearly to climate change. The trouble is that, year after year and in an accelerating way, these wines have a tendency to become richer, fuller, and higher in alcohol, writes Colin Hay.

They are saved a bit in 2019 by the characteristic freshness of the vintage. But, for me at least, many of these wines still do not have enough balancing acidity for their elevated alcohol levels. The effect is that they lose the sense of brightness, structure and mid-palate delineation that I for one look for in the leading whites of Bordeaux – and, indeed, in France more generally.

As this suggests, the issue is far from specific to Bordeaux. Arguably it is common to the whole of France and more noticeable still in the Rhone (in Condrieu and Chateauneuf-du-Pape especially). But that does not make it any less troubling in Bordeaux.

That said, there are undoubtedly some great successes in this vintage amongst the whites. And, unremarkably perhaps, for the most part these are concentrated in Pessac-Leognan. In the Medoc and St Emilion, with a few notable exceptions, I found my tastings a little more challenging.

Let me draw attention to some of the highlights, safe in the knowledge that the tasting notes below reveal a little more of the details of a complex if intriguing vintage (and the devil, as ever, resides in those details).

At the very highest level we have, as we have in practically every vintage, La Mission Haut-Brion blanc and Haut-Brion blanc. Even more so than the reds of each estate, in this vintage these are very different from one another.

For me La Mission has the slight edge, with its glorious Semillon imparting a rare and exceptionally structural beauty to a white wine with an extraordinary potential for aging. Haut-Brion is ultra-refined, ultra-seductive and rather more classical. Both, frankly, are sublime.

Elsewhere in Pessac-Leognan, the star whites glisten brightly in 2019, even if they tend to come from the usual suspects. There were no great surprises here. There are plenty of reliable and consistent whites, well made and well-priced from properties such as de Fieuzal, Latour-Martillac, La Louviere, Malartic Lagraviere (a wine I liked rather more than I have typically done in the past) and Carbonnieux.

Each of these I would happily recommend in 2019. But, with the possible exception of Malartic, each I think has made better wines in at least some recent vintages. It is this that makes the performance of Domaine de Chevalier, Smith Haut Lafitte and (especially when one considers its price) Bouscaut all the more remarkable. For these I find to be at another level altogether.

Indeed, whilst amongst the left-bank reds in 2019 one finds a certain bunching of the pack (with lesser crus closing in on their must illustrious neighbours), the opposite is the case amongst the Pessac-Leognan whites. Unremarkably, this is largely a product of the quality of one’s terroir.

But it is also a product of the lengths one was prepared to go to (not least in terms of selection) to lock in freshness and acidity. Though strikingly different in their personalities, each of these wines is massively recommended precisely because each has succeeded in responding to the challenge of the vintage.

Outside of Pessac-Leognan things were more difficult. Indeed, so difficult were they that I have decided to limit the tasting notes I publish, concentrating on those wines I feel most comfortable in recommending.

But the stars here sparkled at least as brightly – perhaps because they did against the backdrop of a rather more uniformly dark firmament.

At least on a par with Domaine de Chevalier and Smith Haut-Lafitte we have Les Champs Libres. This is the Guinaudeau’s exceptional and unique wine crafted from massal-selection Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc (with just a little touch of Semillon in this vintage) grown on the argilo-calcaire Plateau de Menet in Fronsac. Sadly, only around 300 cases are made each vintage. In 2019 it is truly sublime – and like their reds, perhaps the most structural white wine of the vintage.

Similarly excellent, though very different in style, are a suave and stylish Pavillon Blanc (perhaps the best I have tasted in recent vintages) and a light, crisp and breezy Cos d’Estournel blanc (with its lovely salty-iodine hint of the breakers crashing on the Atlantic seaboard just a few kilometres away).

Descending just a couple of rungs on the ladder, we also find three wines that excel in this vintage and that represent quite exceptional value for money: the Guinaudeau’s Grand Village blanc (in effect, the parcels of the estate that are not selected for Les Champs Libres), S de Suduiraut (for me now reliably the best Bordeaux sec made in Sauternes) and a new and very welcome arrival, Brane Cantenac blanc (another wine with a lovely chiselled structural dimension and a beautiful form in the mouth).

Wines of the appellation:                           La Mission Haut-Brion blanc; Haut-Brion blanc

Outstanding:                                              Les Champs Libres; Cos d’Estournel blanc; Domaine de Chevalier; Pavillon Blanc; Smith Haut-Lafitte

Discovery:                                                 Brane Cantenac blanc (1st ever vintage)

Quality/price ratio:                                     Bouscaut; Grand Village blanc; S de Suduiraut

Colin Hay is Professor of Political Science at Sciences Po in Paris where he works on the political economy of la place de Bordeaux and wine markets more generally. His Bordeaux 2019 coverage will conclude with a piece on the wines of Sauternes and Barsac in the coming days.

Detailed tasting notes 

All tasted from samples supplied by the chateau unless otherwise stated. Samples tasted, at least twice, from Zalto, Grassl and Reidel stemware over a two-month period from early May to early July. Around 5% of samples were rejected as damaged and/or unrepresentative of the barrel from which they were drawn.

Aile d’Argent (61% Sauvignon Blanc; 38% Semillon; 1% Muscadelle). Tasted with Jean-Emmanuel Danjoy at Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. One of the advantages of tasting en primeur samples at the very end of June is that a wine like Aile d’Argent, so often closed and unexpressive in April, has started to reveal more of its charms.

That is certainly the case here with the wine already in bottle. Limpid, with attractive green-golden highlights. This is cool and smoky, big and rich and yet juicy and fresh. Pink grapefruit and white nectarine, guava, orange blossom, saffron and honeysuckle, with a touch of all spice. It dances on the palate. Reminiscent of a Chassagne-Montrachet in its opulence. The best recent vintage of this wine, certainly on the basis of an en primeur tasting. 

Bouscaut blanc (68% Sauvignon Blanc; 32% Semillon; 14.0% alcohol; yileds of 42 hl/ha, picked 2-17th September). Re-tasted at the UGC in Paris after a problematic first sample, with a revised note. Lovely. No problems this time and the oak is far less prominent. Pure. Clean. Floral in a very Pessac-blanc/Bouscaut kind of way. Nutty. Walnuts and white flowers – jasmine, lilies, mimosa too (I think they’re yellow actually).

Ginger and lemongrass, but only very subtly present. Sappy; juicy; sprightly. Citrus and grapefruit notes, with a little hint of more exotic fruits – guava and passion fruit. Spicy too – cinnamon and crushed fennel. Pronounced acidity. Quite rich for Bouscaut but plenty of freshness and lift to keep everything in balance. Flinty, with notes of struck matches too. This is excellent and likely to be somewhat underappreciated, as ever.

Brane Cantenac Blanc (80% Sauvignon Blanc; 20% Semillon). Tasted at the Chateau with Henri Lurton and Christophe Capdeville on the day of its bottling; also tasted from barrique, varietal by varietal, in October. A new wine is born. Remarkably impressive even to someone who has not always been a huge fan of the blancs of the Medoc. A study in citrus. Pure and nutty – walnuts and white flowers. Jasmine.

A little hint of fresh ginger. Fennel seeds and a hint of mace. Rich and impressively puissant at first. But then a wave of juicy freshness recharges the palate, giving a wonderful sense of progression and evolution as the wine gathers itself anew and refocuses around an acidic mineral-charged core. Very long and racy on the mid-palate as the acidity engages and the sappy fruit starts to dance on the tongue. Lovely tension. Just 3000 bottles or so. This, I guess, was number one! Not released en primeur. Look out for it.

Carbonnieux blanc (65% Sauvignon Blanc; 35% Semillon). Tasted at the UGC in Paris. Interesting notes of seaweed, dried seaweed (nori) and, of course, oyster shells and coquillage (or am I just taken in, once again, by the label?). Sappy and fresh, hints of leaf tea, citrus and lemon cordial. Just a little hint of sweetness, but plenty of crunchy acidity too. Fine.

Les Champs Libres (95% Sauvignon Blanc; 5% Semillon). Tasted at Chateau Lafleur with Omri Ram. This is often 100% Sauvignon Blanc, from parcels now famously replanted with Sancerre massal selection clones. Here there is just a little Semillon – a varietal that really enjoyed the vintage conditions. I should now know how good this wine is going to be; but it still shocks and surprises me every time I taste it just how good it actually is. The only other Bordeaux blancs that come close to this in quality cost at least five times the price.

This is vinified in new oak barrels, but there is no direct sensation of oak at all. Silver highlights and a slight glistening of green in the glass. Limpid and quite viscous for a Bordeaux blanc. Chalky. Intensely floral – orange blossom, mimosa, verbena, little white flowers whose names (always) escape me, blood oranges too. This is analytically rich, but it doesn’t feel rich in the mouth because there is sappy freshness everywhere.

The effect is two-fold: first, it cuts the sensation of richness that would otherwise come with a wine with so much amplitude; and, second, it gives energy, lift and, above all, a forward focus and thrust to the wine on the palate – instead of sensing breadth (which is certainly there in abundance) one senses drive and progression. Like all of the Guinaudeau’s wines, this is very structural – and I adore that. This is very umami – saffron, dried petals, little hints of iodine and fresh pink grapefruit. Radiant and energetic. There is never very much of this wine. You’re really doing yourself a favour if you can find some!

Le Clarte de Haut-Brion (51,7% Sauvignon Blanc; 48,3% Semillon). Tasted at Haut-Brion. Crystalline and lifted. Powerful, but like the best wines of the vintage, very fresh. Grapefruit, peach skin, pear with a little grating of fresh ginger root and a hint of lychee and guava. Very Pessac. Good definition and delineation on the palate. Pleasing grassy, herby notes and flint too, almost a hint of struck matches. Little white flowers. Crisp, yet ultra soft and with a sensuous minerality. The opulence is nicely kept in check by the tart crispness of the acidity. Very bright and very attractive. More like Haut-Brion blanc than La Mission Haut-Brion blanc and with a more similar composition.

Clos des Lunes, Lune d’Or (typically 70% Semillon; 30% Sauvignon Blanc and this feels something like that). Slight green highlights. Interesting and engaging nose of grapefruit, greengages and white flowers, jasmine, lily of the valley and a hint even of saffron; also a little note of fresh ginger. Nice pointy acidity – almost pushed too far, but not quite. Good depth on the palate – the Semillon in this is top notch. Has something of the mineral character of a chalky Chablis 1er cru (La Forest for instance) – and there is some limestone in the sub-soil. Long, fresh and fruity, this is nicely poised and balanced. White flowers and grapefruit again feature on the palate.

Clos Marsalette blanc (53% Sauvignon Blanc; 47% Semillon; aged in 30% new oak; yields of 56 hl/ha). Nice pleasant Pessac nose. White flowers and peach blossom and gentle citrus notes, with a touch of grapefruit, and the tiniest hint of more exotic/tropical fruits – pineapple and guava. More of that on the palate; nice energy and a dynamic tension between the quite pronounced acidity and the richness of this wine. Very much a success in this vintage.

Cos d’Estournel Blanc (65% Sauvignon Blanc; 35% Semillon; alcohol 14,4%; pH 3,15; aged in just 8% new oak). Tasted over Zoom with Dominique Arangoits. The alcohol here is actually higher than in any of the reds. Slightly lighter and with more green highlights than Pagodes blanc. More complex on the nose – the same citrus/agrume notes – grapefruit, lemon zest, that touch of lime; but now with exotic fruits too – guava, mango, passion fruit.

Seaside air, almost a touch of iodine – one can imagine the breakers on the nearby Atlantic coast. Passion flower and Jasmin. Rich and dense but with nice structure and evolution on the palate. Lots of freshness. Not as harmonious and integrated at this early stage as the reds. But definitely one of the top Medocain whites of the vintage.

La Definition de Domaine de l’Alliance (massal selection Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, co-vinified en barrique). Tasted from a sample provided by Daniel Alibrand. Now here’s a wine I bet you’ve never tasted. And it’s very good too. Golden with green tints and highlights. Sapid, sappy and juicy. Lovely and crisp and fresh on the nose. Greengages, green apples, lime cordial, homemade lemon curd, grapefruit. Intense freshness and intense saline minerality bring a lot of bite and crispness to this. Quite rich too, the Semillon adds quite a lot to this, though the there is not in fact a great deal of complexity here. Good length with a lovely finish of citrus pith; very refreshing and engaging. Captures the dynamism of 2019 very well.

De Fieuzal blanc (usually about equal proportions of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon). Tasted from a sample supplied by the chateau. Green highlights. Lovely, focussed almost crystalline nose that reminds me of previous vintages of de Fieuzal blanc en primeur with an interesting mix of tropical – passion fruit and guava – and citrus fruit notes – lemon and grapefruit. Broad-shouldered and rich. Greengages and grapefruit, but floral notes too – passion flower, acacia and orange and cherry blossom. Aerial. Good length. Nutty. The oak is just a little prominent at this early stage, giving a hint of vanilla and clove, even a suggestion of curry leaf. Long, slightly spicy finish. Good potential; quite distinctive; good value.

Domaine de Chevalier blanc (70% Sauvignon Blanc; 30% Semillon, alcohol 14.1%; just 5ha). Tasted from a sample supplied by the chateau. Wow. An extraordinary wine to taste. A shade more golden in the glass than others, with attractive green highlights on swirling. An incredibly complex nose. Eucalyptus and passion flower, wild heather, orange blossom, grapefruit, guava and that signature Chevalier touch of fleur de sel. There is a lovely distinct slatey-flinty-saline minerality on the long and ethereal finish. Very lifted and well defined. Precise and focussed. A wine with great energy, brightness and liveliness, built around a core of pithy, zesty lemon and grapefruit. Every bit as good as the 2018.

Grand Village blanc (74% Sauvignon Blanc; 26% Semillon). Tasted at Chateau Lafleur with Omri Ram from the last sample taken from the barrique literally just before bottling. Limpid, very clear and with a lovely semi-viscous sheen on swirling; flecks of silver in the light. Very Sauvignon Blanc on the nose – gooseberries, gooseberry flowers and gooseberry leaves – redcurrant leaves too.

A touch of exoticism too – guava and ginger. Taut; lively; sprightly and with a lovely saline minerality. This, too, is very focussed on the palate with a pronounced sense of a centre and a spine – structural, a signature of the Guinaudeau’s wine-making as much in their whites as in their more famous reds. Impressively puissant, but stays so fresh. Great length too, elongated by the notes of fleur de sel that come from the minerality of this terroir. Super value. If you had to guess the price, you’d be wrong (perhaps by a multiple of 2 or 3)!

Haut Brion (64,4% Sauvignon Blanc; 35,6% Semillon). Tasted at the chateau. Very fine, very compact, very classical if a little reticent at this nascent stage, as it often is. This is much more obviously of its appellation than La Mission Haut-Brion blanc with a similar proportion of Sauvignon Blanc to La Mission’s Semillon. At first, spicy and rich, with slightly exotic notes of ginger, lemongrass, saffron, stamens and petals.

Then the purity and the freshness of the citrus notes arrive. Rich, but phenomenally fresh, generating an exquisite sense of poise, balance and a lively tension. All varieties and forms of lemon – tarte au citron, citron presse, preserved lemon, lemon cordial and, of course, bergamot lemon too. A field of little wild flowers. And both flinty and sappy with a rolling, rippling freshness. Extraordinarily long and very beautiful. Dense yet light; rich yet energetic – a study in tension. Exquisite.

Latour Martillac blanc (58% Sauvignon Blanc; 42% Semillon; pH 3,18; alcohol 13,8%; aged in 25% new oak; yields of 50 hl.ha). Tasted at the UGC in Paris. Lemon and grapefruit, jasmine and elderflower, hints of elderberry too and nettles. Quite Sautern-esque in its fruit profile and personality. Big and rich on the palate from the 42% Semillon which is very impressive in this vintage (the wines with more of it seem to have more character in 2019).

Pronounced acidity which creates an interesting and dynamic tension with the richness, depth and weight of the Semillon. I rather like that, though it’ll be interesting to see how it evolves. Tarte au citron, with a strong citrus bite yet at the same time a gentle natural sweetness. Tense and energetic. Interesting if not that harmonious at this nascent stage.

Lespault Martillac blanc (70% Sauvignon Blanc; 30% Semillon ; aged in approximately 25% new oak). Tasted from a sample provided by the chateau. Light, with slight golden highlights. No hints of green. Distinct Pessac nose. A slight hint of the oak, hazelnuts, white flowers and citrus/lemon notes, with a little touch of ginger root. Crisp and ultra-dry; lemon and pink grapefruit. Pronounced acidity, almost a hint of grapefruit pith. Tense and lively, crystalline. Sappy on the finish. Nicely done.

Malartic Lagraviere blanc (76,1% Sauvignon Blanc; 23,9% Semillon; aged in 55% new oak – less than it used to be I think). Interesting and very different from Bouscaut. A little more linear but also more upright on the palate – almost a little four-square in fact. White flowers, but presented very differently – in fact it’s a little more herby. Verbena perhaps and even black currant leaf (from the Sauvignon Blanc); a mix of citrus fruits and then more pear and apple skin notes. Rich but with a nice vein of acidity. Grated fresh ginger. Interesting. A wine I always used to find too marked by the spicy oak. This I like this much more.

La Mission Haut-Brion blanc (30,1% Sauvignon Blanc; 69,9% Semillon). Singular and fascinating. Unlike any other wine of the vintage and a brilliant success. This is a typical blend for La Mission; but nothing else about it is typical! A shimmering, crystalline nose that is so inviting, so intriguing and so dynamic. White flowers, bergamot lemon, white grapefruit and elderflower. A study in white! An interesting hint of strawberry, raspberry and blackberry leaves. This is opulent and ample on the palate and both very structured and very rich.

But it is so amazingly fresh that there is no sense of weight. Instead one has a wonderful sense of levity and energy and of a fruit that is both crystalline and pixilated. Radiant and juicy. Pure, precise, racy and with enough tension for a Hitchcock movie. For now, this comes across as more structural, more intellectual and more complex than Haut-Brion blanc; but it is a little less classical too. For me it has the nod over its stable-mate; but this is a question of subjective preference and certainly not of quality.

Monbousquet blanc (60% Sauvignon Blanc; 30% Sauvignon Gris; 5% Semillon; 5% Muscadelle; 13,8% alcohol; pH 3,6). Tasted at Chateau Pavie. Exotic and rich. Despite the elevated acidity this does not, for me at least, have enough freshness to cut the richness. The oak is also rather prominent at this stage. Others clearly like this more than I do.

Le Nardian (formerly Clos Nardian) (70% Sauvignon, 15% Sémillon, 15% Muscadelle) (14.2% alcohol; pH 3.46). Tasted from a sample provided by Jonathan Maltus. Nice acidity. Less obvious residual sweetness than in some previous vintages. Peaches, grapefruit, touch of lime, saline notes, seaweed. Interesting on the nose, but just slightly clumsy on the palate – a combination of somewhat clashing ingredients; though this may well resolve itself with a little more time. A bit fat and rather flat on the palate. Lacks sparkle and definition, but again this may just be a passing phase. There is an odd, and certainly interesting, note of the skin of a fresh roasted farmyard chicken (honestly). Very distinctive and I rather like that.

Les Pagodes de Cos Blanc (88% Sauvignon Blanc; 12% Semillon; alcohol14,4%; pH 3,16; aged in just 8% new oak). Tasted over Zoom with Dominique Arangoits. Green highlights – always nice to see. Grassy. Agrumes – grapefruit, lemon, touch of lime, but a gentle sweetness too; greengages/reine-claudes. Sea salt (apparently conveyed by the wind off the Atlantic up here in the very Northern tip of the Medoc). Jasmine. Quite fat and opulent but with enough acidity and freshness to cut through it.

Nice tension between the two and it is well sustained across the palate. Indeed, the freshness builds on the palate to a crunchy, sappy, leafy finish. Quite lifted. A hot vintage Medocain white, with almost a Sauternes-esque fruit profile. Just enough acidity. The Sauvignon was picked on three different dates, helping to maintain that much needed freshness.

Pape Clement blanc (46% Sauvignon Blanc; 14% Sauvignon Gris; 40% Semillon). Tasted at the UGC in Paris. Fermentation in a great variety of different shapes and sizes of wood, concrete (eggs, of course) and stainless steel. Orange blossom very prominent on the nose with Asian spices – five spice and grated ginger. Lemongrass too. Jasmine and honeysuckle. Orange and citrus notes on the palate and a little touch of lychee. Almost that Sauternes note of Lanolin too. Quite toasty. And just a hint of residual sugar. Fine, but a little over-oaked for me – but that will resolve itself in time. Requires patience.

Le Pavillon blanc de Chateau Margaux (100%SB; alcohol 13,0%; pH 3,15). Tasted at the Chateau with Philippe Bascaules. Silvery-green highlights. Picked relatively early to lock in the freshness of the vintage. White flowers and citrus on the nose – celandine, magnolia, pink grapefruit, lemons and preserved lemons, verbena and gooseberry leaves.

This is broad on the attack but always fresh and lifted, with a gossamer mouth-feel. Analytically rich but stylistically lithe, bright, crisp and energetic – a lovely balance. Finely structured and very long on the palate. This has an almost Sancerre-like opulence whilst at the same time remaining very true to its terroir. Finishes with a delightful pinch of fleur de sel. Very suave and stylish in this vintage.

S de Suduiraut Vieilles Vignes (63% Semillon; 37% Sauvignon Blanc; 13,1% alcohol; aged in just 12% new oak). Highest proportion of Semillon in the blend here I think – and you would if you could! Nice to see a white wine in this vintage closer to 13% than 14% alcohol (a full % point lower than the 2018). Crystalline gold, with green highlights. A little closed on the nose at first, certainly in comparison with the Lune d’Or tasted alongside it. Nettles, white flowers, again a subtle hint of fresh root ginger, fennel seeds, pears, lemon zest and orange blossom, indeed fleur d’oranger, almost a touch of cedar too.

The orange blossom notes are something of a signature of this wine, and of Suduiraut’s terroir more generally. Complex, too, on the palate. Lovely and fresh, but there is an impressive breadth and density to this wine coming from the lovely Semillon fruit that always defines the character of this wine. Disguised richness and an excellent energy and focus. Very attractive. The 12% new oak is very well absorbed. If Lune d’Or is more Chablis La Forest this is Puligny-Montrachet! Lovely. One of the more unusual wines of Bordeaux – but generally, genuinely and invariably excellent as it is in this vintage.

Smith Haut Lafitte blanc (as planted, in other words, 90% Sauvignon Blanc, 5% Sauvignon Gris and 5% Semillon; alcohol 14,25; pH 3,2). Needs a little tempting at first to reveal itself – slightly reticent at first, but the nose is composed and harmonious – pear with a gentle hint of vanilla, though the oak is very nicely managed and already well integrated. Quite spicy, as it often is, with notes of vanilla, nutmeg, fennel seed, root ginger, but also floral notes – jasmine and passion flower – and toasted hazelnuts.

Brioche too. Pronounced citrus acidity on the palate balances the richness and sustains the breadth from the attack across the full length of the palate – lemon, grapefruit, but also orange zest and orange blossom. White flowers too, jasmine again and perhaps orange blossom. Rather lovely. Complex, focussed and engaging. Energetic and lively despite its depth and richness.

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