What’s Old is New: Stunning Values in White Bordeaux
World-class Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc blends for a steal
Nothing excites me more than a good find. Whether thrifting for vintage glassware or visiting every seafood shack in a beach town to decide for myself which is the best, I’m relentless in the pursuit of a game-changing discovery.
In wine, that means seeking out the white space. What regions are not getting covered in the media? What grapes are deemed uncool? That’s often the starting point for my CSI: Wine Edition sleuthing.
My latest find is the ultimate convention-bucking recommendation: White Bordeaux. No one talks about dry whites from Bordeaux, much less drinks them. The wines are rarely offered at restaurants, and their place on retail shelves has declined over time, as production of white wine from the region has dropped. (The reason? Vintners can make more money growing red varieties.) White grapes now make up less than 10% of vineyard plantings in Bordeaux. That’s a historic reversal: Before 1950, more white grapes than red were planted in the region.
But the dry whites that do exist? They can be magical. Some that I’ve tasted recently — especially from small organic and biodynamic producers — are both delicious and phenomenal values. The quality for price, compared to Sancerre, Chardonnay, or other more popular wines, is very high. The bottles I’m highlighting here easily drink at twice their price. That’s to say, I’d peg any of these ~$20 bottles as $40 or more in a blind tasting.
But it’s not just these wines — I’m sharing my cheat sheet on what to look for, so you can buy any white Bordeaux with confidence. Let’s dive in!
The Grapes to Know
There are two main styles of dry whites being made in Bordeaux. One is fresh and fruity, led all or mostly by Sauvignon Blanc. These are fine, but they’re not what gets my heart pounding. What I’m after is the textural blends, where Sémillon is a dominant voice. These wines are a study in complexity: Rich and smooth, yet deliciously fresh.
Key white Bordeaux grapes:
Sémillon - A French grape that’s the most-planted white variety in Bordeaux, making long-aging, full-bodied wines with subtle aromatics of citrus, orchard fruit (peaches, pears), grass, and honey. In a blend, it gives weight, a smooth texture, and a rounded mouthfeel.
Sauvignon Blanc - Fresh acidity and distinctive aromas are the hallmarks of this French grape. Its flavors may be citrussy, tropical, or pungent depending on where it is grown. In Bordeaux, the grape tends to give citrus and grass notes. It’s bottled as a varietal wine, and used in blends, where it contributes acidity and bright flavors.
Muscadelle — A French grape that’s generally used as a blending ingredient, contributing floral aromatics and fruity freshness.
Sauvignon Gris — Added to blends in small amounts, this French grape offers apricot and peach flavors, and a rounded mouthfeel.
Along with the grape composition of a wine, there are also winemaking choices at play. The crisp, easy-drinking whites are fermented in stainless steel tanks to preserve their bright fruit flavors. Meanwhile, the textural whites have a richness and smoothness that comes partially from the grape, and partially from barrel fermentation and/or lees stirring. These techniques gives wine creamy flavors and a smooth texture.
A quick aside for sweet wines! These grapes are also blended to make the famous sweet wines of Bordeaux, including Sauternes. To make the dessert wines — among the most prized in the world — the grapes stay on their vines well past the point of ripeness, until a fungus shrivels the grapes and concentrates their juices into a sweet elixir (which sounds disgusting but is actually delicious).
The Sub-Regions to Seek Out
For the dry whites, there’s also regionality to consider within Bordeaux: This is a key take-away for finding those world-class, textural wines.
The highest quality whites in Bordeaux are made in Pessac-Léognan, with price tags to match (like a 2019 Château Haut Brion Blanc for $769 a bottle). These wines rarely show up on shelves for less than $50. They’re prized for their power and flavor complexity, and a finish that goes on and on.
But I’ve found that the complexity of Pessac-Léognan wines carries through in bottles from nearby Graves. These are the ones that way overdeliver at around a $20 price point.
And those structured wines are also being made by organic and biodynamic producers throughout the region, like the ones I’m highlighting here. Look for a higher proportion of Sémillon, at least one-third of the blend.
Three to Try
For ease of ordering, this week’s wines are all available at one of my favorite retailers, Astor Wines in NYC, which ships nationally.
Top value. I looked a little farther afield for this wine, to the easterly St. Foy area. Jean-Michel Comme is one of Bordeaux’s biodynamic pioneers, and coincidentally the producer who got me hooked on biodynamic wine. I spent some time with him in Bordeaux a few years back, learning the science behind the biodynamic philosophy. This wine is equal parts Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle, offering white flowers and citrus on the nose, and juicy flavors of lemon, pear, and sea salt. Lively acidity juxtaposes a creamy texture and a long minerally finish. This was a lovely pairing with garlicky sautéed shrimp, roasted asparagus, and blistered shishito peppers.
My favorite. A 50% Sémillon, 50% Sauvignon Blanc blend that’s at once fresh and rich, with bright aromatics and flavors of citrus and ripe stone fruit, counterbalanced by textural depth and a fuller body. The wine is made by the Hubert family, an early biodynamic farmer in Bordeaux. This was excellent with plank-roasted salmon and a vinaigrette-dressed green salad.
From a fifth-generation estate that is practicing organic, this wine is 50% Sémillon, 40% Sauvignon Blanc, and 10% Muscadelle. It leads with floral, citrus, and pear aromas and flavors that evolve into saline minerality and creaminess, with a rounded mouthfeel and long finish. I enjoyed this with Peruvian roasted chicken and fries (don’t skip the spicy cilantro sauce).