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Finding Hidden Value in the White Wines of Bordeaux

These bright, fresh Sauvignon Blanc-based wines overdeliver for the price

Lana Bortolot By August 24, 2021
Photo by Esperanza33/iStock.

The world of go-to white wines has plenty of players: quaffable refreshers like Pinot Grigio, elegant Chardonnays, and a dynamic range of Rieslings. But there’s an oft-overlooked contender deserving more attention: white Bordeaux. Still living in the shadow of its more famous red sibling, dry white Bordeaux wines remain an affordable, under-the-radar discovery.

“In the trend toward lighter styles, they fit right in. They really work with the way we eat lighter foods,” says Master of Wine Mary Gorman-McAdams, director of New York’s International Wine Center and an expert on Bordeaux. “If you want something bright and fresh, they’re a no-brainer, and so reasonably priced. It’s flabbergasting why they’re not selling more.” 

A familiar friend, in grape form

White Bordeaux is easy to get a handle on because it’s made primarily from a grape variety many already know: Sauvignon Blanc. As with the red wine, white Bordeaux is also a blend. The more racy Sauvignon Blanc drives the composition, with a balance consisting of Sémillon and Muscadelle. The latter two, used in smaller or greater proportions depending on the region, help round out the wine’s flavor and texture. Fans of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, with its hit of lime, fresh-cut grass, and feline aromas, will find white Bordeaux less tropical and with milder citrus notes.

“This partnership tones down some of the pungency of Sauvignon Blanc without completely hiding its vibrancy,” says Christy Frank, founder of Copake Wine Works, a shop in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Bordeaux’s white wines come in a variety of styles from producers big and small, with nearly a third of production coming from three areas: Graves, Pessac-Léognan, and Entre-deux-Mers. Much of the rest is produced under the AOC Bordeaux umbrella and blended from grapes across the regions. 

Graves and the adjoining Pessac-Léognan appellations sit just southwest of the city of Bordeaux. Across the Garonne River and just east of the côtes is Entre-deux-Mers — a name that, while it means between the seas, actually lies between two rivers — the large region that produces easy-drinking, wallet-friendly wines. But, really, bargains are found in any of the regions, even from prestige chateaux.

Blends are not mandated, except in Entre-deux-Mers, which limits the contribution from accessory grapes Colombard, Mauzac, Merlot Blanc, and Ugni Blanc to 30% of the blend. Elsewhere, the composition is up to the producer. There is the suggestion, says Gorman-McAdams, that typically Graves is more Sémillon-driven and Pessac-Léognan by Sauvignon Blanc.

“The grapes are obviously different, but just like white Burgundy drinkers would say it’s not Chardonnay … it’s Burgundy, the same can be said about the best white Bordeaux. It’s not about the grapes, it’s about the place and the style.”

From age-worthy to approachable

Sauvignon Blanc in Bordeaux often ages in oak barrels, a common practice in Pessac. Time in the barrel calms down some of the grape’s friskiness, and gives the resulting wine more complexity and longevity. Accordingly, here you’ll find higher-priced wines, but still excellent values when compared to other prestige wines.

“I always look for white Bordeaux with some age. It can be a glorious thing if you find it,” says Jeff Harding, wine director at Manhattan’s Waverly Inn, where he hosts a series of discovery dinners featuring lesser-known French wines and regions. He advises drinkers to “look to a chateau that knows how to use oak in its red wines and you’ll find it used as precisely in its whites.”

The white wines of Graves, according to Peter Plaehn, general manager of Stone Lake Bottle Shop in the Minneapolis metro area, lie somewhere in between the gravity of Pessac and the conviviality of Entre-deux-Mers. He sees them as somewhat of a wild card, which, like Burgundy, requires knowing the producers. 

“There’s a dynamic quality shift in Graves with more variety in flavor and minerality,” he says. That’s in part because Graves is a truly terroir-driven area, its name derived from gravel, the main soil component of the region. Plaehn likes to serve it with second and third courses. “With age, you can go with fuller courses because the wine brings the weight and complexity of development.”

Entre-deux-Mers features riper fruit, with rounder wines that are more approachable, earlier. A large region, the styles vary among producers with proportions and aging less use of oak, but supreme value remains constant.

Frank says she likes introducing white Burgundy drinkers to white Bordeaux not only for its relative affordability, but because, in the cases of Pessac and Graves, you can sometimes sway stalwart drinkers of other regions.

“The grapes are obviously different, but just like white Burgundy drinkers would say it’s not Chardonnay … it’s Burgundy, the same can be said about the best white Bordeaux. It’s not about the grapes, it’s about the place and the style.”

3 white Bordeaux to try:

bottle of Château Tour de Mirambeau Entre-deux-Mers 2020

Château Tour de Mirambeau, Entre-deux-Mers 2020 ($14)

A fresh and zesty 70% Sauvignon Blanc-driven  blend to drink on its own or with certain vegetables that are notoriously difficult to pair with whites. Also try it with a garlicky pesto of mustard greens. 

bottle of Château Graville-Lacoste Graves Blanc 2019

Château Graville-Lacoste, Graves Blanc 2019 ($17)

Six months in stainless tanks preserves the freshness of this wine. Sémillon, at 75%, takes over the blend, giving this a rounder and textured palate, layered with yellow apples and a tinge of honey. The 20% Sauvignon Blanc provides an energetic lift, and the remaining Muscadelle contributes floral aromatics.

bottle of Les Hauts de Smith Pessac-Léognan Blanc 2019

Les Hauts de Smith Pessac-Léognan Blanc 2016 ($39)

This is a rare example of 100% Sauvignon Blanc aged in 50% new oak. Subtle woods spices do not interfere with the purity of fruit, showing rich Meyer lemon compote and yellow apples. A slight saline aspect hints of the maritime influence that is uniquely Bordeaux. Pessac wines carry higher price tags, but still represent excellent bargains for a prestige category.