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‘Freshness’ is the watchword of the 2023 vintage of white Bordeaux

As he nears the end of his whistle-stop tour of the leading appellations of Bordeaux, db’s Colin Hay looks at the white wines of Pessac-Léognan and Graves, the blancs secs he’s sampled so far, and the sweet wines of Barsac and Sauternes. Here he finds the holy grail for whites – freshness. 

La Mission Haut-Brion

It seems sensible to put them together in a single article not just because Barsac and Sauternes now produce some of the leading dry whites of the entire region, even if many of them remain underappreciated, but also because what makes both great in this vintage is the same essential ingredient – freshness.

Freshness is the sine qua non of spectacular white wine because it is the source of tension and interest, turning what would otherwise be rich, flat and flabby into something vibrant, vivid and dynamic. And in an age of global warming, it is becoming ever more difficult to find.

But freshness is the watchword of the 2023 vintage in Bordeaux for the whites. In tasting these wines one might be forgiven for thinking that they come from a rather cooler and more classical growing season than in fact they do. But the secret to their greatness lies not in the average temperature over the growing season (which was relatively high and certainly above the ten-year average) but the comparatively overcast month of July as well as impressive day-to-night temperature ranges during the harvest itself. Both served to lock in freshness. The results, overall, are also rather more homogeneous than the reds and it was often both exciting and refreshing to taste them.

But if the dry whites are great, then it is important to emphasise that the Sauternes and Barsac reach another level altogether. In this vintage I find them truly exceptional – in part for exactly the same reason and in part because the rainfall that came in mid-September provided near perfect conditions for the even and rapid spread of Botrytis cinerea (noble rot) which formed on healthy and perfectly ripe grapes. The yields are, once again, often tragically small (with Climens, Nairac and La Tour Blanche all at less than 3 hl/ha, even if, as Table 1 shows, the average appellation yield is at a somewhat more healthy 12.2 hl/ha). But the quality of these wines, their interest, their individuality and their personality, is truly exceptional.

2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 10-year average Relative to 10-year average (% change)
Pessac-Léognan blanc 46.3 38.6 30.7 31.6 50.3 37.3 +34.9
Sauternes/Barsac 13.6 12.3 3.5 14.1 12.2 13.9 -12.2
Margaux 49.2 36.3 38.6 31.3 37.7 39.7 -5.0
St Julien 45.5 34.3 35.2 34.3 50.3 40.1 +25.4
Pauillac 46.7 37.4 35.1 34.8 47.1 39.7 +18.6
St Estèphe 49.7 41.2 40.7 31.5 51.6 43.4 +18.9
Pessac-Léognan rouge 47.2 34.6 30.7 35.7 38.1 38.5 -1.0
St Emilion (GC) 43.0 36.7 27.5 41.2 40.5 37.2 +8.9
Pomerol 43.0 39.8 28.9 32.3 45.2 36.1 +25.2

Table 1: Average vineyard yield by appellation (hl/ha)

Source: calculated from Duanes data compiled by the CIVB Service Economie et Etudes

We are accustomed to associating greatness with longevity and although these wines do have very significant aging potential (not least precisely because of all that natural acidity), I would nonetheless encourage you to consider opening at least some of them young – with all of that youthful fresh, sapid, vibrant tension and dynamic radiance still intact. Most of those who produce these wines today both quite consciously make their wines to be accessible younger and, no less significantly, drink them younger than we tend to do. They are on to something. And we should think of following their lead.

The wines themselves

Sauternes at the UGCB press

Given the quality of the vintage it is perhaps unsurprising that the two dry whites of the vintage come from perhaps the two most famous white terroirs of the region, those of Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion. But they are staggeringly different – almost mirror opposites of one another. Haut-Brion is classical brilliance, a grand scale, big tableau wine of staggering potential and harmony. La Mission Haut-Brion, by contrast, is in a way more redolently expressive of the vintage, tight, taut and tense to the core, dynamic and disruptive, utterly mesmerising.

Les Champs Libres is the freshest, the tensest, the most chiselled and structured of these wines and an utterly brilliant advert for Sauvignon Blanc on limestone. It is now reliably one of the truly great blancs secs of the region.

Amongst the Pessac-Léognan classed growth power houses, it is difficult to choose between the sublime but very different personalities of Domaine de Chevalier and Smith Haut-Lafitte. Each is instantly recognisable, each is likely to be seen in time as one of the strongest ever vintages from this duo of exceptional and truly reliable estates.

And Pavillon Blanc de Margaux is once again the star of the Médoc blanc secs, a wine of great purity, great elegance, great intensity and incredible crystallinity. It sets the benchmark for the Médoc, above all in this vintage.

It is exciting also for me to find, I think for the first time, two blancs secs from Barsac and Sauternes amongst my list of the truly greats. They are the beautifully elegant and refined Lilium de Climens (a further honing and elevation of the same style that Bérénice Lurton cultivated in the larger production Asphodèle) and the fantastically energetic Rayne Vigneau Grand Vin Sec, a wine almost pulsating in its combination of freshness and minerality.

Turning to the wines for which Barsac and Sauternes are, quite rightly, rather better known there is a veritable embarrassment of riches in this vintage. At the summit we find two wines of potential perfection – a truly exquisite, discrete and utterly beautiful Climens and a quite brilliant and rather shockingly delicate L’Extravagant de Doisy Daëne.

These are for me the twin super stars of the vintage. But every one of the first growths has made a wine of exceptional quality that seems to express its identity, personality and terroir as clearly as I have ever before witnessed. Whether it is Sigalas Rabaud with its levity and delicate white florality or Lafaurie-Peyraguey with that little hint of lanolin that is, for me, its signature note, each of these wines seems to express itself and its terroir so clearly. They deserve to be tasted together. But alongside those that I have already mentioned, I would also particularly single out a simply stunning Suduiraut (a wine on sparkling form in recent vintages and, something of a personal favourite, Doisy Dubroca. I don’t think I have ever tasted better en primeur samples from either property.

But, quite frankly, de Fargues, La Tour Blanche, Doisy Daëne and Rayne Vigneau, amongst a host of others, will all be very capable of having me in raptures any time following their bottling. If en primeur is the time you buy your Sauternes, then these all deserve your close consideration.

Highlights in 2023

Truly great: Pavillon Blanc de Margaux

Blancs secs (Graves, Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux blanc & Vin de France)

Wines of the vintage:

  • Haut-Brion (97-99)
  • La Mission Haut-Brion (96-98)

Truly great:

  • Les Champs Libres (95-97)
  • Domaine de Chevalier (95-97)
  • Smith Haut Lafitte (95-97)
  • Pavillon Blanc de Château Margaux (95-97)
  • Couhins Lurton (93-95+)
  • Lilium de Climens (93-95+)
  • Couhins (93-95)
  • Cos d’Estournel blanc (93-95)
  • Malartic-Lagravière (93-95)
  • Pape Clément (93-95)
  • Rayne Vigneau Grand Vin Sec (93-95)

Value picks:

  • La Garde (92-94)
  • Grand Village (92-94)
  • La Louvière (92-94)
  • Picque Caillou (92-94)
  • Fourças Dupré (91-93)
  • Lions de Suduiraut (91-93)
  • Le Merle de Clarke (91-93)

Sauternes & Barsac

Best of the appellation:

  • Climens (98-100)
  • L’Extravagent de Doisy-Daëne (98-100)

Truly great:

  • Suduiraut (96-98+)
  • Lafaurie Peyraguey (95-97+)
  • Doisy Dubroca (95-97)
  • De Fargues (95-97)
  • Sigalas Rabaud (95-97)
  • La Tour Blanche (94-96+)
  • Doisy Daëne (94-96)
  • De Rayne Vigneau (93-95)

Value picks:

  • Haut Bergeron (92-94)
  • Bastor Lamontagne (91-93+)

See here for Colin’s full tasting notes for Pessac-Léognan & Graves, Bordeaux blanc sec & vins de France, and Barsac & Sauternes 2023, as well as his appellation analysis for Margaux, St Julien, Pauillac, St Estèphe, Saint Émilion, Pomerol and Pessac-Léognan (rouge).

Read more:

A guide to Bordeaux 2023 in ten questions

Bordeaux 2023 vintage report part I: quality and quantity together, for once

Bordeaux vintage report part 2: a vintage of reactivity, vigilance and surveillance

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