Bordeaux Blanc: variety, refinement and affordability for any occasion


A selection of 'Everyday Bordeaux' white wines: image by Robin Goldsmith.

My last French wine article on these pages featured a Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeaux and described some of the typical characteristics of this style. However, other grapes are also used in ten AOCs (appellations d'origine contrôlées), so in this piece I want to illustrate the variety and versatility of dry Bordeaux Blanc in terms of aromas, taste sensations and food matches. Let's start with some background information to set the scene, before delving into some wines.

White wine has been made in Bordeaux for 1000 years and it was only in 1970 that red wine production surpassed that of white. Indeed, its global importance was such that in 1864, the first Sauvignon Blanc cuttings bound for California were taken from the region. According to the 2014 figures from the CIVB (Bordeaux Wine Council which represents the interests of the region's wine industry, incorporating growers, merchants and brokers), Bordeaux dry white wines now represent 9% of the total planted area (9,800 hectares), yielding around 64 million bottles of wine. This equates to 10.79% of total wine production in the region (Planète Bordeaux). Export sales are increasing year on year (32% since 2010), with the UK and the US now accounting for 16% and 11%, respectively.

Although there are probably three subdivisions of Bordeaux Blanc styles, these can be split into two principal expressions:-

  1. Refreshing and fruity dry white wines, typically greenish gold in colour with floral and citrus fruit aromas plus freshness and well-balanced acidity. These are usually drunk young and are perfect partners for lighter food. Most of these wines are from the generic Bordeaux, Entre-Deux-Mers or Côtes de Bordeaux appellations.
  2. Delicate dry white wine with more structure, greater complexity and ageing potential (8 years or longer), typically from the Graves and Pessac-Léognan appellations. These make great matches for Asian food and smoked fish, in particular.

Classic Bordeaux Blanc is based on a blend of the aromatic, floral, zesty Sauvignon Blanc, a grape variety thought to have originated in the region (although some experts consider it a Loire variety) and the fatter, richer, peach and honey notes of Semillon, the latter giving more structure, roundness and colour to the wine, along with an often oilier texture. Sauvignon Blanc, accounting for 55% of white grape plantings, grows well in Bordeaux's milder climate on limestone or clay soils. Here citrus and floral notes dominate, in contrast to the more grassy , herbal and acidic character of a Loire Sauvignon Blanc, for example. Semillon (34% of white grape plantings) prefers the well-drained clay, gravel or limestone soils of Graves, Pessac-Léognan and Côtes de Bordeaux. The third most planted varietal is Muscadelle (7%), grown mostly in Entre-Deux-Mers and Côtes de Bordeaux. This provides additional floral and musky orange zest aromas to blends, as well as softening out some of the acidic zestiness of Sauvignon Blanc. The remaining 4% of grape varieties are comprised of Colombard (sometimes used to improve ageing potential), Ugni Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Merlot Blanc, Mauzac and Ondenc.

The ten AOCs are listed below, with production figures based on 2013 (Planète Bordeaux). Unless otherwise stated, wines are destined for drinking within two years.

  1. AOC Bordeaux
  2. This regional appellation covers the Gironde Département and accounts for 70% (6,400 hectares) of white wine production. The wines are generally pale yellow with hints of gold and typical aromas include white flowers, citrus and peach.
  3. AOC Entre-Deux-Mers
  4. Lying between the natural boundaries of the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, enjoying clay, sand, gravel and limestone soils, 17% of Bordeaux whites are made here. In addition to the floral and citrus character, tropical fruit notes are often present.
  5. AOC Graves
  6. This 50km-long appellation, south-east of the city of Bordeaux, gets its name from the gravel soil and accounts for 6% of Bordeaux white wines. These are golden in colour and tend to show more complex aromas, including citrus, flower blossom, passion fruit, herbs, nuts and boxwood. Their smoothness, elegance and freshness on the palate are due to the blend of Sauvignon and Semillon, both of which ripen earlier due to warmer climatic conditions. These wines can often be aged for up to 10 years. Graves produces some of the top Bordeaux whites, including Château Smith Haut Laffite and Domaine de Chevalier
  7. AOC Pessac-Leognan
  8. On the left bank of the Garonne river, just south of the city and enjoying a mild microclimate, this region is thought to be where Bordeaux viticulture originated and has for many years been known for the quality of its wines. The soil consists of a layer of gravel and pebbles, which can be up to 3 metres deep, on a mixed subsoil. The wines are typically rich and intensely aromatic with floral, nutty, citrus and stone fruit notes plus a fuller-bodied palate. At least 25% Sauvignon has to be included within blends and they are often aged in oak barrels with good potential for several years' bottle ageing too. Only 2% of Bordeaux Blanc is made here.
  9. AOC Côtes de Bordeaux, AOC Côtes de Blaye, AOC Côtes de Bourg, AOC Graves de Vayres, AOC Sainte-Foy-Bordeaux, AOC Côtes de Bordeaux Saint-Macaire
  10. These appellations, making up the remaining 5% of Bordeaux Blanc, produce wines from blends on predominantly clay-limestone soils. Citrus aromas are typical, but other notes, including white peach and hazelnuts may also be found along with a degree of complexity.

Given this diversity of aromas and tastes, it is no surprise that Bordeaux whites are suitable for a wide range of foods, from light starters to BBQs or more elegant meals.

In order to compare a range of these styles, I held a tasting for a happy bunch of wine drinkers, eager to sample six examples from the CIVB's 'Everyday Bordeaux' Selection, which comprises affordable wines priced between £6 and £20 RRP. Surprised by how different these wines proved to be, each one prompted many discussion points. Tasting notes are as follows, in order of tasting, with appellation, grape varieties, price and UK stockist shown:-

  1. Dourthe Grands Terroirs 2014 - Bordeaux - Sauvignon Blanc - £8.50 Oddbins
  2. Colour: Pale straw with tinge of green.
    Nose: Highly aromatic with notes of elderflower, mandarin, white flowers and a herbal/vegetal touch reminiscent of celery leaf.
    Palate: Crisp, clean, steely and fruity with notes of fresh lemon zest and elderflower.
    Food match: Fish, salads or simply to enjoy on its own.
  3. Château Talmont 2014 - Bordeaux - Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc - £8.00 ASDA
  4. Colour: Pale gold with a tinge of green.
    Nose: Less floral than the previous one, this displayed notes of grapefruit, apricot and honey.
    Palate: Notes of elderflower, dry honey and minerality were noted with grapefruit and a hint of pineapple particularly on the end palate.
    Food Match: Fish, especially grilled salmon.
  5. Calvet La Fleur Baron 2013 - Bordeaux - Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc - £8.50 ASDA
  6. Colour: Straw with a slightly more noticeable green tinge than the previous wines.
    Nose: Creamier than the previous wines and fruity notes included banana.
    Palate: A slightly creamy mouthfeel with a mineral edge and notes of grapefruit and spice (white pepper and cloves), the spices building on the finish.
    Food Match: Light fish and chicken dishes or apéritifs.
  7. Château Haut Rian 2013 - Entre-Deux-Mers - Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon - £9.04 Nicolas/Spirited Wines
  8. Colour: Gold with a hint of green.
    Nose: Fresh, fruity and slightly herbaceous with notes of white peach, pineapple and melon.
    Palate: Initial notes of lemon and grapefruit lead to honey and minerality on the long finish plus a touch of smokiness, tea and a hint of nuts.
    Food Match: Apéritifs and a variety of grilled fish.
  9. Château du Druc 2012 - Graves - Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle - £13.99 Averys
  10. Colour: Light gold with a tinge of green.
    Nose: Floral and fresh with aromas of orange peel, bergamot and nuts.
    Palate: Orange and mandarin notes with hints of almonds, a herbaceous edge plus a mineral finish.
    Food Match: Various fish dishes, particularly grilled mackerel and also light meat dishes including veal.
  11. Domaines Denis Dubourdieu Clos Floridène 2012 – Graves - Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle - £19.00 The Wine Society
  12. Colour: Green gold.
    Nose: Notes of white peach, kumquat and ginger plus a touch of ground almonds and hazelnuts.
    Palate: Dense and long-lasting with notes of peach, kumquat, nuts, grapefruit and minerality. Made by the world-renowned doyen of white Bordeaux, Professor Denis Dubourdieu, this shows beautifully developing layers of complexity and will benefit from further ageing in bottle.
    Food Match: Chicken, fish, veal or goats' cheese.

An interesting comment made by one of the attendees was that there is often no simple relationship between the price of wine and whether you enjoy it (as opposed to whether it is of good quality). None of those attending knew the bottle prices until the end, apart from the fact that they all ranged between £8 and £20 and most were expecting to pay more, particularly for the Château Haut Rian and La Fleur Baron. I chose a delicious mild and tangy Lancashire cheese plus a smooth Somerset Brie with Bath Oliver crackers to accompany the wines and to refresh the palate, yet another indication (if ever we needed it!) that white wine is often a much better partner for cheese than red wine. All in all, this was a successful tasting enjoyed by everyone who attended with much discussion prompted by all the wines.

All images provided by R&R Teamwork, unless otherwise indicated.

This article is also available on The Alcohol Professor website.