Bordeaux Blanc, making a comeback

Bordeaux once produced more white wine than red. Today, nine bottles in every 10 are red, but as Roger Morris reports, Bordeaux Blanc is riding a wave of interest.

Château Talbot in Saint-Julien is knwon for its Caillou Blanc
Château Talbot in Saint-Julien is knwon for its Caillou Blanc

In the early 1970s – before American wine drinkers began to see the appeal of buying Bordeaux futures (pay now, get the wine in a couple of years) and before Robert Parker introduced the 100-point rating system and became King of Claret – the region most associated with fine French wine was growing more white grapes than red, and sold more white wine. Sémillon was the most-planted grape.

The mass of this white wine, however, was medium-sweet and cheap. Apart from the fine late harvest wines of Sauternes and Barsac, the most famous of which did command premium prices, even Cru Classé dry wines from the Graves such as Château Carbonnieux struggled to sell for as much as an undistinguished Côte d’Or white Burgundy.
    
For more than two decades, economic devastation brought on by World War II had prevented many Bordeaux estates from being able to replant vineyards and modernize production. When they were able to invest, even in the parts of the region where both colours were produced, most of the expenditure naturally went into planting vines for what were seen as more profitable red wines. Over the last 50 years, as the price of top Bordeaux rouge has reached astronomic heights, white wine production has steadily shrunk to its current status of about 10 percent of total output.

 

Investment Grade

Yet, even though relative volumes remain low, white wine has been making a comeback. The trend arguably began in 1987 with the creation of the Pessac Léognan appellation to cover red and white wine from the finest estates and land in the Graves, while a number of chateaux in other Bordeaux regions that previously focused exclusively on red or sweet white have increasingly begun to add dry white wines to their portfolios.
    
Liv-ex, the London-based global exchange that tracks the sale and resale of investment wines, includes dry Pessac Léognan wines such as Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion, and le Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux in the Médoc that are traded for hundreds of dollars. Rising stars like Smith Haut Lafitte and Pape Clément are heading rapidly in that direction.

As sales of traditional sweet Sauternes and Barsac have faltered, estates have increasingly turned to making dry whites from the same vineyards – as have a growing number of top chateaux in the Médoc and even a handful of wineries in the Merlot-dominated territory of the Right Bank.

 

Stephane Dupuch, owner of Château Sainte-Marie in the Entre-Deux-Mers

 

All of these present their blancs at en primeur barrel tastings along with their reds and sell them globally through the Place de Bordeaux. Surprisingly for some, the Chinese market – once seen as wedded to red, is responding well to the blancs.

At the less lofty end of the scale, producers of everyday Bordeaux sec who are benefitting from the popularity of Sauvignon Blanc are also converting to organic and biodynamic practices, partially in response to customer demand. 
    
In the midst of this activity, U.S. retailers are looking to jump start sales of Bordeaux blanc in the region’s largest export market following tariff and Covid setbacks. “We saw large year-over-year growth in dry white Bordeaux sales from 2015 through 2018,” says Dave Parker, CEO of Benchmark Wine Group, “with annual sales growing from only $18,000 in 2015 to $28,000 in 2016, $40,000 in 2017 and $80,000 in 2018.” This trend reversed in 2019, to $73,000,  mainly due to the tariffs that were put in place in October of that year, but the foundations for further sales growth seem strong. 

 

Massive amounts of white wine

Bordeaux’s production is as massive as its reputation, consisting of more than two dozen wine sub-regions and categories. Twelve of those produce white wine, and the 2020 harvest resulted in more than 444,000hl of white wine being made – almost 58m bottles – from 9,259ha (22,878 acres) of vines. Even though the volume took a slight dip from the previous year, the number of hectares planted to white vines had a slight increase of one percent.

Over half of this dry white wine fell into the basic “Bordeaux Blanc” category – wine that can originate from anywhere in Bordeaux – while about 20% came from Entre-Deux-Mers, that vast countryside between the Dordogne and the Garonne rivers that is Bordeaux’s wine equivalent of an agricultural ‘breadbasket.’ 

Graves was next, followed by Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux and Pessac-Leognan. Today, Pessac Léognan has 267ha of vines that are reserved for white wine. This is still a small percentage of the 1,199ha total, but it represents over half of the area’s approximately 500 in 1975.

The typical white Bordeaux blend is built on a mix of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon with minor additions of other varieties.  Semillon plantings have dropped by a third over the past 20 years while Sauvignon Blanc has remained relatively steady. Of the six other primary components that go into white Bordeaux, Sauvignon Gris has shown the largest increase in plantings. It may still only account for 332ha - two percent of the white vines – it has caught the attention of estates such as Haut Brion, Smith Haut Lafitte and Pape Clément. 
  

Les Champs Libres from Château Lafleur in Pomerol

 

Premium quality

While it may surprise some drinkers, three of the five First Growths make white wines in addition to their signature reds. Haut Brion’s is the most expensive of them averaging €830 ($960) per bottle, while Margaux’s Pavillon Blanc – with a history dating back to 1920 -  is €250 ($290), and Mouton-Rothschild’s Aile d’Argent, whose first vintage was 1991 is €92 ($106). It is probably the reputation in China of these great Left Bank châteaux, and the collectability of their red wines, that is driving the sale of Bordeaux blanc in that country, as well as with other Asian buyers in general. Château Talbot’s “Caillou Blanc,” launched in the 1930s, and another of the Médoc’s oldest blancs, sells a quarter of its production in China and Hong Kong and only slightly less than that in Japan. 

While Chinese interest in white Bordeaux is growing, the top five export destinations for Bordeaux Blanc today are, in order, the U.S., UK, Belgium, Germany and Japan.

Crucially, while estates like Chateaux Margaux, Talbot and Mouton Rothschild all clearly declare the identity of the Médoc commune in which their red wines are produced, appellation laws require their whites may to be sold as Bordeaux Blanc. The same applies to white wines produced in Pomerol and St Emilion (home of recently-launched Blanc de Valandraud) as well as by a growing number of producers in Sauternes and Barsac.
    
The trend towards dry white in these last regions was launched as long ago as the early 1950s by Pierre Dubourdieu at Château Doisy Daëne, and at Yquem – with Ygrec – in 1959, but it was slow to catch on. Indeed, Berenice Lurton, owner of Château Climens in Barsac waited until the 2019 vintage to release her first dry Climens Asphodele to excellent reviews and sales.  “The launch has been a success, and I am exporting now in many countries apart from the States – northern and western Europe, Russia, Japan, Brazil,” Lurton says. “We plan to increase the production and wish to reach 70,000 bottles beginning in 2022, and more in the years after due to replanting, as we use the young vines for Asphodele.”

 Until the arrival of Phylloxera at the end of the 19th century, Pomerol was white wine country. Since then, except in Blaye, the Right Bank has made almost no white wines. However, one exception is the Guinaudeau family, owners of the highly regarded Château Lafleur in Pomerol who, in 2012 used a Sancerre clone of Sauvignon Blanc to make 240 bottles and 120 magnums of a wine they called À Louima. The following year they added grapes from two other parcels to produce Les Champs Libres, which, despite its humble Bordeaux Blanc designation has been ranked among the best whites in the region.

 “We are not really doing any marketing,” says Omri Ram, the winemaker at both estates, “but wine lovers and the media have slowly picked up on this unique wine, and, as the demand is growing fast, we have to allocate it very carefully.”

 

Berenice Lurton, owner of Château Climens in Barsac

 

Organic, natural, sustainable

Of course, not all innovation is taking place among the most illustrious producers, especially when it comes to issues of sustainability and climate change. “The big change of [our] region is the green revolution,” says Stephane Dupuch, owner of Château Sainte-Marie in the Entre-Deux-Mers, “and the new generation is really taking care of the environment.” 

Like most producers in Entre-Deux-Mers, Dupuch makes both red and white wines, in his case, 40% being the latter. “I am doing an organic certification over the next two years,” he says, “not only on the white, of course, and I just heard Bordeaux is becoming the largest organic region in France. And we in the region are also doing a lot of new wines – zero sulfur, natural, vegan – a big change in the Old World region.”

His second largest market, after Canada, is the United States. “We are now trying to rebuild what we have lost with both Covid and tariffs, but I am very confident of our brand and our ability to bounce back in the market…. The consumption of white is growing all around the world,” Dupuch says, enthusiastically adding, “We are in!”

With enthusiasm like this and, given the news – reported in Meininger’s Wine Business International LINK - that producers of Bordeaux Rouge in Entre Deux Mers now want to use that historically exclusively white appellation for their wine in order to be able to charge higher prices, it really does seem as though dry white Bordeaux is getting the recognition it deserves.

Roger Morris
 

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