Blending is an art form, and the Bordelaise are masters of the craft. So what better way to gain an understanding of dry white Bordeaux than a blending workshop?
On a sunny February morning, a dozen attendees gathered for “The Art of Bordeaux Blanc,” presented by the Bordeaux Wine Council. An airy penthouse overlooking Manhattan’s East Village had been transformed into something looking like a science lab class. Cylindrical measuring beakers, lab pipettes, and four wine bottles sheathed in silver sacks sat on each table. Inside each bottle was a tank sample:
Sauvignon Blanc on gravel
Sauvignon Blanc on clay and limestone soils
Sémillon on gravel
Sémillon on clay and limestone soils
Our mission, should we decide to accept it, was to create our own Bordeaux Blanc blend.
Overseeing this exercise were three potent powerhouses of Bordeaux: Dr. Valérie Lavigne, a consulting enologist and researcher at the University of Bordeaux; winemaker Valérie Vialard, of Château Latour Martillac; and biodynamic viticulturist Corinne Comme, of Château du Champ des Treilles.
Both Valéries had professional ties with the legendary winemaker and professor Denis Dubourdieu during his lifetime. It was Dubourdieu who’d discovered four hitherto unknown molecules in sauvignon blanc, all volatile thiols which impact its aromas. Present in the grapes in the form of odorless precursors, they’re released only under the action of yeasts during alcoholic fermentation, and yield aromas like broom, boxwood, lemon zest, grapefruit, and passion fruit—all the scents we know and love in sauvignon blanc. Dubourdieu also discovered farming techniques related to water uptake and nitrogen nutrition that would increase these compounds—and thus the varietal’s heady scent. His science was a great leap forward for sauvignon blanc, the most widely planted white grape in Bordeaux.
Most of us forget that Bordeaux was predominantly a white wine region until relatively recently. As late as 1969, it was 59% white. It was only in 1970 that the balance tipped towards reds. Today white wines make up just 10%, or 42.3 million bottles.
What else has changed is the types of grapes. There’s been a narrowing of varietals—as we’ve seen in all corners of agriculture compared to times past. Up until phylloxera hit in the 1860s, Bordeaux had a wide, diverse assortment of white grapes. Today just three dominant: Crisp, aromatic sauvignon blanc rules the roost at 54% of vineyard plantings. Its blending partner, lush sémillon, comes next at 32%. Floral muscadelle trails at 7%. All the rest—sauvignon gris, colombard, ugni blanc, et al—amount to 7%. Surely their presence was greater pre-phylloxera. But that sea of white wine didn’t necessarily remain as such; in the 17th century, much of it was exported to Holland for the production of brandy.
If you hear “Bordeaux Blanc” today, you expect a sauvignon blanc/sémillon blend (though increasingly winemakers are trying their hand at pure varietal bottlings of sauvignon blanc and sauvignon gris). Bordeaux Blanc falls into two stylistic categories. There’s the summer set: refreshing and fruit-forward, with notes of lemon, grapefruit, and acacia, made in stainless and meant for immediate quaffing. These prevail in bottles labeled Bordeaux Blanc (68% of AOC production), Entre-Deux-Mer (20%), and Cotes Blaye, Bourg, and Francs AOCs (3%). Then there’s the age-worthy set: weightier, fermented &/or raised in wood, with scents of boxwood, citrus, and tropical fruit. This style is favored in Graves (5%) and Pessac-Léognan (3%).
In making our own blend, we set our sights on the universal goal of all blenders: create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Easier said than done.
First we sampled the samples, then worked in teams to perform our magic. I partnered up with Linda Lawry, director of the International Wine Center.
It began like a scene from the Three Stooges. Though we both know our way around a wine tasting, the science accouterments were befuddling. How does the pipette work? Do you siphon from the bottle like a gas tank? Mouth or thumb? And why do the numbers run backwards up the pipette? (Only later did we turn it around and discover another set running in the opposite direction.)
We fumbled our way to a 60/40 blend of our two favorite tank samples: The sauvignon in gravel was zippy and bright, with an endless finish. We paired that with the clay/limestone sémillon, whose round opulence we imagined would tame the sauvignon’s aggressive streak. But nope, not enough. Our first effort was all sharp elbows, like a gangly adolescent screaming sauvignon. Hoping for more body and complexity, we tried throwing in all four samples, keeping the 60/40 ratio while attempting a 70/30 blend within each varietal (it was a guestimate, not having tackled that pipette). We liked the result. “I’d buy it!” Linda and I both said, like kids proudly managing a lemonade stand. I presented my glass to Valérie Lavigne, who sniffed, then tasted. “Lots of sauvignon,” she said, handing it back with a sympathetic smile.
Okay, so we didn’t hit the ball out of the park. But I’m sure I improved my tasting skills a notch, especially discerning that extra dimension that sémillon gives: the roundness, the supple texture, the peach and acacia notes. Immediately after, we had the chance to test our new powers of discernment right next door on a few dozen bottles, arranged by AOC.
Coincidentally, another tasting opportunity came two weeks later, when Bordeaux Blanc was the focus of the Wine Media Guild’s luncheon, organized by our very own Mary Gorman-McAdams MW, the North American market advisor to the Bordeaux Wine Council (who also MC’ed the blending workshop).
Between the two tastings, the breath of styles was on full display, ranging from a pure Sauvignon Gris from Château de Bellevue, offering delicate pink grapefruit and lemon aromas, to a 50/50 blend from biodynamic Château Peybonhomme-Les-Tours, a luxurious barrel-fermented wine with a seamless touch of vanilla oak.
These tastings reminded me how I’ve always enjoyed Bordeaux Blanc—ever since a college professor introduced me to an aged, honey-hued Grave many years ago (probably Château Carbonnieux, the only one imported in the 1970s.) Today America is the top export market for Bordeaux Blanc in retail sales (number three in volume), so there’s plenty of options available. Coming out of these two tastings, I’ve made my short list for the summer:
Château Les Charmes-Godard Blanc 2015 (sémillon/sauvignon blanc/sauvignon gris 50/25/25) – “The beauty is in the blend,” said Gorman of this vibrant wine from Cotes de Francs, the smallest of the appellations, and I couldn’t agree more. Showing green apple, citrus, and stone, it’s got old-vine intensity at a great price ($21) and finds that perfect sweet spot between richness and acidic zip.
Château Brown Blanc 2014 (70/30 sauvignon blanc/sémillon) This is an age-worthy beauty from Pessac-Leognan, with the floral notes of ripe sémillon, the grapefruit spritz of sauvignon, and richness from eight months on the lees in barrique. Beautifully balanced, with tremendous length. ($32)
Château La Rame Blanc Sec 2016 – From 25-year-old vines on an historic property overlooking the Garonne river, this 100 percent sauvignon blanc gains body and stature from cask fermentation and six months on the lees. It’s fuller bodied and more textured than Loire sauvignons—not to mention the alpine versions from Alto Adige that I’m used to, which are as lean and nervy as a racehorse. “This is more like a mare out in the field,” WMG member John Foy said. A steal at $16.
Le Sec de Château Doisy Daëne 2015 – A dry, barrel-fermented sauvignon blanc from Barsac—Bordeaux’s sweet-wine territory—this shows pretty floral aromas and a lively citric acidity. “You’re bringing shame to our region,” a neighboring winemaker told Denis Dubourdieu when he first produced this iconoclastic wine at his historic estate. But next year, that same neighbor followed suit. Little wonder. ($25)