They key to Bordeaux’s successful white wines is in the blend. Carefully crafted combinations of grapes can take these white wines up to another level and here’s what to look out for when hunting through what’s on offer . . .
There’s a certain amount of winemaking wizardry that goes into Bordeaux’s white wines. Chateaux here have been perfecting their techniques for centuries and the art of blending is the critical component that lifts these wines above the rest. High flying top white Bordeaux, both Dry and Sweet, rub shoulders with white Burgundies and take their place amongst the world’s most sought after wines.
White wine production is a tradition in Bordeaux and these whites are made by chateaux in every price bracket, meaning you can pick up a high quality white at a sensible price.
Big or small, ALL Bordeaux chateaux blend. The Bordelaise have long understood that to rely on a single grape variety spells disaster. If your one crop of Sauvignon Blanc is decimated by the weather you either go bust or what wine is produced is poor. So, over several hundred years, Bordeaux has learnt to pair up grapes that complement each other; bringing out the best characteristics of each grape, creating a consistent house style for each chateau, capturing the essence of terroir and enhancing the final wine. The results are dazzling: delicious wines that shimmer with flavour.
You may not believe it but once upon a time Bordeaux produced more white wine than red!
Bordeaux produces Dry, Sweet (Liqoroux) and Semi Sweet (Moelleux) white wines and the permitted grape varieties that are allowed in the blends are set in stone; being carefully regulated by the INAO (the governing body of Bordeaux’s AOCs). Not every permitted grape is used in the white blends as chateaux can pick and choose between them. Grapes that are stellar players are selected for their quality, properties and performance in the vineyard. Each chateaux favours their own combination of grapes and blending has evolved into a fine art. Science plays a part too and some in cases blending has moved into the lab.
There are 9 permitted white grape varieties in Bordeaux white wines, the principal ones are Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle. These are the keystones of various styles that suit a whole range of wine lovers.
The other 6 grapes are used in smaller percentages (usually below 15%). They are Sauvignon Gris (which is becoming more popular for use in blends nowadays), the more rarely used Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Merlot Blanc . . . and Ondenc and Mauzac (which are no longer used, although some plantings may be hiding in the rural backwaters). These seldom used grapes are known as ‘accessory grapes’ and hail from Bordeaux’s past. Once widely grown they succumbed to the phylloxera epidemic (1875 – 1892) which destroyed Bordeaux’s vineyards. They were seldom replaced and now represent distant echoes from Bordeaux’s past.
The Main Players
Adds rich plush texture, depth, body and longevity to the blend.
Semillion is the primary grape in the blends of Bordeaux’s finest Sweet white wines. It is also used extensively in Dry white blends and is the most planted white grape across Bordeaux. Percentages of Semillion used can vary in the blends, with the highest amounts being used in the AOCs that produce sweet white wines.
Semillon is famous for being susceptible to Noble Rot which shrivels the grapes, concentrating the juices and sugars to create bright Sweet wines of extraordinary quality, complexity and density with the capacity to age for decades. Semillion is native to Bordeaux and has been grown there for over four centuries. Although it’s thought to have originated in Sauternes there is a theory that it actually comes from red wine producing Saint Emilion. The grape was known as Semillon de Saint Emillion in 1736 and ‘Semillion’ could be a corruption of the town’s name.
Characteristics – flavours and fragrance of lemon, acacia flower, fig, sweet hay, peach and green apple. When used in Sweet wines Semillon’s flavour profile deepens to complex flavours of hazelnut or almond, tropical and candied fruits. It is known for giving a rounded, beeswax tone to the wine.
AOCs – Semillon is grown across all the white wine producing regions of Bordeaux but it is king in Sauternes and Barsac, where it can account for 90% of the blend. One of the famous Sauternes First Growths, Chateau Climens, is 100% Semillon. However these AOCs are increasingly showing a shift to Dry white production and notably First Growth Chateau Sigalas Rabaud began to produce an unusual Dry white 100% Semillon in 2013 named ‘La Semillante’.
Adds juicy acidity, freshness and its unique flavour profile to the blend.
Sauvignon Blanc is the backbone of Bordeaux’s white blends, being found in almost all of them. It dominates the blends of Bordeaux’s Dry whites. Sauvignon Blanc’s birthplace is south west France with both Bordeaux and the Loire laying claim to its point of origin. Bordeaux’s claim is that the grape was mentioned in texts as early as 1710 in AOC Margaux. Sauvignon Blanc takes its name from ‘sauvage’ (‘wild’) and ‘blanc’ (‘white’) meaning ‘Wild White.’ Although it’s a white grape DNA analysis shows that it’s the parent of the famous red grape Cabernet Sauvignon. Sauvignon Blanc is Semillon’s perfect partner and you’ll often see blends of 50/50 but percentages used can vary widely with as much as 95% and as little as 10%.
Characteristics – hall mark flavours of gooseberry, cut grass and hints of bell pepper accompanied by lime, apple and white peach. When used in Sweet wines Sauvignon Blanc plays a supporting role to Semillon, adding freshness and zest.
AOCs – Sauvignon Blanc is grown throughout all the white wine producing areas of Bordeaux. Highest densities tend to be within the Entre Deux Mers, Pessac Leognan and Graves. Well known estates also produce flag ship Dry whites on the Left Bank (notably Margaux, St Julien, Pauillac and Saint Estephe) and a rare few are made on the Right Bank in Saint Emilion.
Adds rich aromas, fruitiness and complexity to the blend.
Muscadelle is named after the Muscat grape thanks to its distinctive grapy, floral aromas. It’s very fragrant and bears the hallmarks of the typical musky notes of Muscat but it is actually no relation. DNA analysis shows that one of its parents is the ancient grape Gouais Blanc, the other parent is still a mystery. Muscadelle is thought to have originated in Bergerac, Bordeaux’s easterly neighbour.
Characteristics – Flavours and fragrance of sweet musk, grape and acacia flowers with notes of angelica and passion fruit. When used in Sweet wines Muscadelle’s aromas deepens to vanilla, raisin and honeysuckle.
AOCs – Muscadelle is grown in pockets throughout all the white wine producing areas of Bordeaux. Highest densities tend to be within the Entre Deux Mers, Graves, Sauternes and Barsac.
The Accessory Grapes – The Up and Coming:
Adds fruitiness, aromas, subtle richness and acidity to the blend.
Sauvignon Gris (also known as Sauvignon Rose) is a mutation of Sauvignon Blanc and has a dusky rose/apricot hue to its grapes. It contains higher sugar levels than Sauvignon Blanc and produces fuller bodied, rounder wines. It’s difficult to pin point when (or where) Sauvignon Gris originated but it’s included in the French book on grape varieties by Viala and Vermorel in 1901 -1910. It’s also been difficult to find as thanks to its low yields it has become quite rare. However, this is changing rapidly as Sauvignon Gris is currently undergoing a revival in Bordeaux with chateaux planting more hectares of the grape and using greater quantities of it (up to 30%) in their white wine blends.
Characteristics – Flavours and fragrance of red gooseberry, pink grapefruit, honeydew melon and mango with similar herbaceous notes to those of Sauvignon Blanc (hay, cut grass and herbs).
AOCS – Sauvignon Gris is still quite unusual in Bordeaux (it only accounts for 2% of the white grape varities of Bordeaux, 332 hectares). It’s gaining popularity and the highest amounts grown can be found in Pessac Leognan where the Grand Crus Classe Chateaux use it in their Dry white blends; notably Chateaux Smith Haut Lafitte, Haut Brion and Pape Clement. A few wine wine producing chateaux in the Medoc use it, Chateau Palmer in Margaux in particular. Sauvignon Gris is also used in Saint Emilion on the Right Bank and can be found in some pioneering chateaux across Graves and the Entre Deux Mers. Sauvignon Gris is also used in Sweet white blends in Sainte Foy.
The Accessory Grapes – Rare Remnants
Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano)
Adds acidity, body and smoothness to the blend.
Ugni Blanc is widely grown across France and is famous for its use in producing Cognac and Armagnac. It’s low in alcohol but high in acidity and has long been used in Bordeaux white wines for its refreshing juiciness and capcity for enhancing other white grapes in the blend. It’s thought that Ugni Blanc was brought to France from Tuscany, Italy in the 1300s when successive Popes resided at Avignon rather than in Rome. Ugni Blanc’s name comes from the old French Occitan ‘Unia’ which is derived from the Latin name ‘Eugenia’ (meaning ‘noble’ or ‘well born’) but it has lots of synonyms in Bordeaux – ‘Saint Emilion’ being one of them.
Characteristics – Ugni Blanc produces a light wine on its own but used together with other grapes it adds finesse to the blends. Flavours and fragrance of lemon, apricot and orange with notes of watermelon and quince.
AOCs – Most Ugni Blanc can be found in the Cotes de Blaye and Cots de Bourg.
Adds fresh acidity and aroma to the blend.
Colombard takes its name from the word ‘dove’ in the Saintongeais dialect spoken in it’s native Charente and northern Bordeaux. Whether this refers to the grape’s soft colouring or it’s because Colombard ripens when the pigeons migrate no one knows. Widely planted across France, Colombard’s parents are Gouais Blanc and Chenin Blanc. Similar to Ugni Blanc, Colombard is mostly used in the production of Armagnac and Cognac but it is also used in Bordeaux in small quantities for its vibrancy and for the aromatic qualities it gives to the white wine blends.
Characteristics – Flavours and fragrance of lemon, tangerine and apple with broom blossom and acacia flowers.
AOCs – The highest percentages of Colombard can be found in the Cotes de Blaye and to a lesser extent in the Cotes de Bourg. It also plays a supporting role in blends from the Entre Deux Mers.
Adds body and smoothness to the blend.
Merlot Blanc (sometimes known as White Merlot) is a cross between the red Merlot grape and white Folle Blanche. It’s difficult to discover data on this grape as it’s rare and plantings in Bordeaux have been in steep decline. In the 1950s Merlot Blanc covered 5277 hectares but now it is down to only 176 ha. Old vines are no longer being replanted in Bordeaux, the reason being that the grape produces wines that are fairly neutral and low in alcohol. It is more widely used nowadays in Pineau de Charentes (Liqueur). It’s said that Merlot Blanc was discovered in 1891 by Guinaudie who planted it in the vineyards of his Chateau de Geneau in Virsac (Cotes de Blaye). There are champions of the grape in Bordeaux blends today – Chateau Palmer in Margaux used 5% of Merlot Blanc in their rare white wine created in 2007 and Chateau Taillefer in Saint Emilion use it in their unusual white ‘Le Blanc du Vieux Chateau Taillefer’. Both these wines are testimonies to the chateaux’s history and heritage.
Characteristics – Merlot Blanc lacks strong fruit flavours and fragrances, producing light, neutral wine with a faint hint of golden raspberry.
AOCs – Small amounts of Merlot Blanc are grown in Graves, Entre Deux Mers, Cotes de Bourg and Haut Benauge.
The Accessory Grapes – Extinct but not forgotten
Adds suppleness and body to the blend.
Ondenc is now very rare in France and is only really found in Gaillac, south west France, where it’s thought to have originated. It’s thought to take its name from the town of Ondes on the River Garonne between Toulouse and Fronton. In the 19th century Ondenc flourished in Bordeaux but was practically wiped out in the phlloxera epidemic. The decline has continued and although a permitted grape variety in white Bordeaux blends Ondenc has been abandoned in Bordeaux. Close to extinction, Ondenc has a few champions in its native Gaillac where fine, lightly aromatic dry whites and concentrated sweet wines are produced from the grape (Domaine Plageoles). It’s also used in the production of Armagnac and Cognac.
Characteristics – Delicate flavours and fragrance of apricot, honey and quince with honeysuckle and rose.
AOCs – Only a few hectares of Ondenc exist in France and these are rapidly decling. Ondenc seems to have disappeared on the ground in Bordeaux but I suspect there may be one or two Bordealise Petits Chateaux out there with a pocket of old vines somewhere.
Adds aroma and substance to the blend.
Mauzac is rare in France, surviving mostly in Gaillac (mainly in sweet white production) and Limoux (where it is a traditional component of the sparkling wine Blanquette de Limoux). The old name for Mauzac in Bordeaux was ‘Moissac,’ after its supposed place of origin: the town of Moissac located where the Rivers Garonne and the Tarn meet in the Midi-Pyrenees. Little Mauzac is left in Bordeaux but it was once widely grown – one of its synonyms is ‘Blanc Laffitte’ in the Entre Deux Mers, perhaps First Growth Chateau Lafite had Mauzac plantings many years ago?
Characteristics – Distinctive hallmark flavour and fragrance of baked apple with more subtle quince, honey, lemon, gingerbread and yellow plums.
AOCs – A tiny percentage of Mauzac is grown in Sainte Foy and the Entre Deux Mers.
Bordeaux whites have a loyal fan base and command much affection. Their quality and craftsmanship sing out from the glass once you’ve tasted one. Little wonder they remain the most popular wines at tastings at the Shows and Events I take them to!