An invisible revolution: the new dry whites of Bordeaux

We tend to think of the pace of change in Bordeaux as glacial. The reputation of properties, of course, rises and falls but that has never been a very rapid process. And it is not made any more rapid by the moderating influence of a system of classification which dates back, in the case of the Médoc, to 1855. Stability, it seems, is hard-wired. 

The style of the wines produced also changes too. But, once again, watching that process unfold hardly makes for the most exciting of spectacles, even for the most seasoned of Bordeaux aficionados. That said, things have perhaps gotten a little more interesting in the last decade or so as the influence of international critics on the style of the wines being made seems slowly to have eroded. The effect is that, perhaps for the first time in a long time, wine-makers feel more confident in expressing themselves in the wines they are producing. Yet even that is something of a slow-burner. 

But things in Bordeaux do change; and sometimes they can change quite quickly too – especially if one knows where to look.

This article is about one of those changes – a new revolution, of a kind, in Bordeaux and Bordeaux winemaking. You might well be forgiven for not having noticed it but over the last decade or so – and more rapidly still in the last three or four years – a number of highly distinctive, very interesting and, in their own way, radical new wines have started to emerge on the Bordeaux scene. They are typically produced by leading estates, typically in very small quantities. They have two things in common: they are all dry white wines and they both seek to express and succeed in expressing the terroirs on which they are grown. 

This article pays tribute to them and to their creators by identifying a few notable examples of this new and exciting genre. But to talk of a single genre here is already quite problematic.  For what is perhaps most interesting about these wines is their sheer diversity. They are grown on a great variety of rather different terroirs in the vineyards of a disperse array of appellations (though none of these wines are entitled to use the appellation of the parent vineyard in which they are grown and from which they have been plucked). They use a sometimes surprising range of varieties. Some are made from a blend of traditional varieties (Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Sauvignon Gris), others are mono-varietal (of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon or, more radically still, Chardonnay). Some are vinified and aged in 100% new oak barrels, while others see no oak at all. Some seek verticality, lift, finesse and chiselled precision, others depth, richness and concentration. And despite their far-from-hallowed official status (as either simple Bordeaux blanc sec or, for the Chardonnay monocépage wines ‘Vin de Pays de l’Atlantique’ or simply Vin de Table) they span all Bordeaux price points.

My aim in what follows is to introduce you to a few of these wines. My selection is far from exhaustive, these are either wines and projects for wines that I was already familiar with or those that I was aware of and intrigued by. In each case I either visited the property or received samples of two recent vintages of the property’s choice. All of the wines were tasted in the last couple of months. For each wine I seek to provide both a sense of the project and the philosophy underpinning the project before turning to the tasting notes themselves.

‘Asphodèle’ de Château Climens

A new wine – the first blanc sec from the prestigious Château Climens in Barsac. The project was born out of the destruction of the frost of spring 2017. It is based on a clear and distinct vision: to create a wine that, in Berenice Lurtons’s terms, is “delicat mais charnu, vivant, pur, charmant et spiritual” (“delicate yet fleshy, lively, pure, charming and spiritual”).  She has succeeded in each and every respect, as she has the habit of doing. 

This is a comparatively rare varietal Sémillon and, as such, atypical of the blancs secs from Sauternes and Barsac. The parcels from which the wine comes are drawn entirely from the Climens vineyard – a pioneer of biodynamic winemaking in Bordeaux.

The 2018 is the first vintage. The grapes are harvested early and come from some of the younger parcels of the estate. They are picked to preserve and lock-in the natural, fresh crunch of the grapes. The consultant on this wine was Pascal Jolivet from Sancerre and Berenice has closely followed his method: picking on freshness, natural fermentation on the grapes’ own yeasts, élevage on the lees, with no wood.

The terroir is a combination of red clay and limestone and that gives an impressive sense of verticality and structure to the wine. 

The wine is named, simply, ‘Asphodèle’ – a plant, a wild lily of the field, growing on limestone soil with a reputation for resisting fire. It is a symbol of the transcendence of adversity, a link between the earth and the sky, the material and the spiritual – and it captures the very essence and soul of this passionate wine. 

Brane Cantenac blanc

Another very exciting and brand new project. The 2019 is the first white wine here and I tasted the Sémillon and Sauvignon from the barriques in which they were vinified and then on the day of the bottling itself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is much more like Pavillon Blanc than Aile d’Argent; but what is surprising is how close to Pavillon Blanc it is in quality.

For me, the best of the ‘new’ breed of white wines of the Médoc, though I have not (yet) tasted them all. From 3.2 hectares on a distinct clay-silica terroir, each variety is vinified in barrel, and aged for around eight months. Not yet released, but do look out for it. 

Hubert de Boüard single varietal whites

Another fascinating recent project; 2016 is the first vintage. This is a new range of single-varietal wines made in Bordeaux – each label marked with the pruning shears given to Hubert de Boüard by his father for his seventh birthday.

The new vineyard is a short four kilometre drive from La Fleur de Boüard on the plateau of Artigues de Lussac.

Its relative height and the diversity of its exposures and soils have offered the opportunity to plant some surprising varieties for Bordeaux – such as Chardonnay, Grenache and Syrah, alongside the more conventional building blocks of the wines of the region (Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot).

Each of the whites is a small-scale production: 3.45 hectares of Chardonnay on an sandy-clay terroir with crasse de fer; 1.5 hectares of Sémillon on an clay-limestone terroir and two hectares of more densely planted old-vine Sauvignon Blanc also on an clay-limestone terroir.

There is a lot of attention to detail in these wines. And, if it is not too much of a heresy to suggest it, this gives one the opportunity to conduct little blending experiments of one’s own.

After hours of fun, it turns out that there is quite a lot to be said for a blend of 80% Sauvignon and 20% Sémillon.

 

 

 

Le Blanc Sec de Lafaurie Peyraguey

A wine that has existed for a little longer, but for a property classified in 1855 this is still a very recent development. The first vintage was 2014 and the wine has certainly progressed since then, finding a lovely crisp, delineated, pure style that sets it apart from many of the Bordeaux blanc sec grown on Sauternes and Barsac terroirs. 

La Croix de Labrie’s whites

Here we have two very different wines, made in a rather different style. Both are quite distinctive in the context of the wider tasting and certainly in the pantheon of Bordeaux dry whites more generally.

The property itself is on a steep upward trajectory, and it is exciting to see a property like this turn over a small part of its excellent terroir to the production of two very different white wines. Stella Solare, in a way, is the more ambitious project here. It has been commercialised only since 2016, though most of the vines were planted over half a century ago.

A wine that is predominantly old-vine Sémillon (c. 60%), with around a fifth Sauvignon Blanc and a fifth Sauvignon Gris on limestone, chalk and clay; fermentation in oak and acacia wood barrels, 50% of which are new.

This is a big, rich and powerful wine not reticent to show the influence of the wood (well, woods – it is the acacia that brings the singular dimension to this). Unique in profile – and a wine one can imagine dividing opinions, but undoubtedly a wine of great quality.  Six barrels and only around 1,800 bottles per year. 

Altogether different and despite being made from 100% Chardonnay, this is rather less radical. Camille de La Croix de Labrie might easily be dismissed as simply ‘cheap and cheerful’, but that would be a mistake.

For there is a lot of wine here for the money. Planted on chalk, limestone and sandy terroir, this is one of the fresher Chardonnay wines of the region, the used of oak much more moderate (only 20% matured in barrique). This may lack a little in complexity, but it is fine, fresh and focused and superb value for money. 

‘Elena’ de la Grace Dieu des Prieurs’ (Arte Russe)

This is now one of the most interesting addresses in St-Emilion. An intriguing project – and not the only one being conceived and executed behind the impressive exterior of the fantastically restored, renovated and modernised new winemaking facility at Château Grace Dieu des Prieurs.

If the stratospherically classy, staggeringly interesting and, admittedly, somewhat expensive red has been the talk of St-Emilion in recent vintages, then it will not be long I suspect before attention starts to turn to Arte Russe’s new project – the blanc sec, made from 100% Chardonnay. This has now been christened ‘Elena’ after the wife of the owner, Andrei Filatov. 

It is, or will be, I think, the top Chardonnay made in the region. Like the fascinating, intriguing and ultra-distinctive St-Emilion itself, the consultant oenologist for this wine is Louis Mitjavile – and he brings that touch of Mitjavile magic to this St-Emilion Chardonnay, vinified and matured in barrel in, of course, the Radoux blend casks made so famous at Tertre Roteboeuf and Roc de Cambes by his father. That brings something magical and singular to this wine, which really needs to be tasted to be appreciated. And that’s not going to be easy, at least for now. 

But scarcity, attention to detail and exclusivity are certainly all a part of the mystique and appeal of this wine. The 2018, which I was lucky enough to taste, will not be released publicly and the glorious 2019 is to be bottled entirely in magnum and consigned to auction to raise money for charities supporting children with serious illnesses.

The gloriously indulgent packaging and the exquisite rareness of this wine combined with its undoubted quality will ensure, I suspect, some eye-watering prices. But if someone offers you a glass, please do yourself a favour and accept! This comes from a tiny vineyard (or parcels within a vineyard) of 0.8 hectares on sandy-clay soils particularly well-suited for this rare ‘Bordeaux’ variety (being significantly less prone to hydric stress).

Fermentation starts naturally on natural yeast in stainless steel, before the nascent wine is transferred to barrel. Malolactic fermentation is in barrel (in 100% new Radoux blend barrels, specifically selected for white wines) with a maturation of around 10-12 months. 

The dry white of Château Lafleur

When one thinks of the Guinaudeau family, one thinks first and foremost of Château Lafleur – the jewel of Pomerol and simply one of the most exquisite wines in the world today.  But, although much less well-known, they also produce some of the very best white wines of the region: the exceptional pair of Grand Village blanc and Les Champs Libres. 

The Grand Villages vineyard is on clay-limestone soils near Fronsac. The vineyard has been in the family since 1650 and even in its early days was reputed for the quality of its white wines. It was replanted in the 1960s with red varietie and then replanted again in the 1990s with Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. But it is only really since the turn of the century, under the guiding hand of Baptiste and Julie Guinaudeau, that the wine has become what it is today.

Famously (at least to those who know), the vineyard has been largely replanted with vine stock from Sauvignon Blanc of Sancerre – with its greater richness, complexity capacity to express the minerality of its terroir. They have also experimented with barrel ageing to add complexity. There are 2.3 hectares of vines in total,  sustainable viniculture is practiced, with manual harvesting and double-sorting, low-pressure inert pressing, with vinification in a combination of inox (50%), new (20%) and one-usage (30%) barrels. Maturation is for eight months in barrel with five months gentle lees-stirring.  Around 8,000-12,000 bottles are produced each year. 

In 2013 Les Champs Libres was created from within the Grand Village vineyard. In 2012, impressed by the notable complexity of a couple of barrels from a single parcel, these were held aside and bottled separately. The result was 240 bottles and 120 magnums of ‘A Louima’, a wine that existed only in the 2012 vintage named after the parcel from which it came. Inspired by the success of this, in 2013 it was decided to make a blend from the best barrels from three Sauvignon parcels (including A Louima).

This became Les Champs Libres (at that stage 100% Sauvignon Blanc); a further parcel was added in 2014. This is a truly spectacular wine, unlike any other from the region and invariably at least as good in my view as any other Bordeaux blanc sec. The four parcels from which it comes amount to just 0.7 hectares of vines. Around 4,500 bottles are produced each year. 

Le Petit Cheval Blanc

Another fascinating project with a very interesting history. This started, in a sense inadvertently, in 2006 with the purchase by Cheval Blanc’s owners, LVMH, of the neighbouring grand cru vineyard of La Tour du Fin (at one stage La Tour du Pin Figeac). The vineyard is, literally, across the street, with most of its eight hectares actually closer to the chateau of Cheval Blanc than the majority of its own extensive plantings. LVMH had its eyes on the prime Merlot plots closest to their own and bordering the road.

These, in due course, made their way into the grand vin from 2012. The remaining 6.5 hectares were deemed insufficiently dry for prime red but potentially ideal for Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. A process of replanting was duly begun after an exhaustive survey of the soil and drainage.  Initially, two small parcels of around half a hectare were top-grafted with Sauvignon Blanc onto the pre-existing root stock. The aim from the outset was to make a white wine of the quality of Cheval Blanc itself – the question being posed was, in effect, if Cheval Blanc had always been a white wine what would it have been like? The answer, ‘Le Petit Cheval’, was not initially intended for commercialisation. Indeed, though the first vintage was in 2009, it was only in 2014 that Cheval Blanc decided to release this first official vintage to the market. 

The wine itself comes from what is, in effect, an unusual microclimate and terroir combination peculiarly well-suited to the production of classed growth quality Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. The somewhat more moist and yet sandy soil is less subject to hydric stress, making it less well suited for red, but fully optimised for these classic Bordeaux white varieties.

Six different clones of Sauvignon and Sémillon have been used in an almost forensic process of matching varieties, clones and root stock to their terroir – with the entire Le Petit Cheval Blanc being essentially designed to optimise the expression its terroir from scratch (something now almost impossible in the red wines of Bordeaux where châteaux typically need to make do with the planting decisions of their predecessors and well as their choices for what might now be regarded as less optimal clone selections). The Sémillon was planted in 2016 on the highest and most water-retaining clay based terroirs and was first used in the 2018. Like Asphodèle, grapes are picked al dente for crunchy freshness. 

Technically, the aim is to secure a gentle and yet immediate extraction of grape juice in a horizontal pneumatic press; fermentation is in new oak barrels (from Austria, Sancerre and Burgundy), with barrel-specific batonnage depending on the tastings of the technical team.  Le Petit Cheval Blanc is also characterised by its unusually long barrel ageing (of 16-18 months). This contributes to the purity of the wine. Large oak vats (of around 1,500-3,000 litres) are used to moderate the oak influence. The blending (or ‘white wedding’ as they poetically put it) occurs in a single large stainless steel tank. 

Valandraud Blanc

The ‘oldest’ wine here – in the sense that this has been commercialised, in something very closely resembling its current form, since 2003 (originally, as Blanc de Valandraud No. 1).

The vines here were planted in 2000, in parcels contiguous with Château Valandraud itself in the commune of Saint Genes de Castillon, noted historically for the success of old-vine white varieties. The vineyard is of just two hectares on the south-western sloping clay-limestone slopes of St Emilion.

Typically this is 40-50% Sauvignon Gris; 30-40% Sauvignon Blanc; with the remaining 10-30% Sémillon. Maturation is of a relatively lengthy 10-12 months in 70-80% new oak (a combination of barriques of 225 to 500 litres, but with the sense of oak that is very moderated. The wine is classic, stylish, sleek and svelte yet with considerable underlying concentration and persistence. Only around 3,000 bottles are made. 

 

 

 

 

 

Tasting notes for all the wines can be found on the following page

Colin Hay is Professor of Political Science at Sciences Po in Paris where he works on the political economy of Europe, La Place de Bordeaux and wine markets more generally.

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