Friday, September 11, 2020

Bordeaux Dry and Sweet Whites

Of all the world's grapes, Sauvignon Blanc is the leader of the 'love it or loathe it' pack."
                                     Oz Clarke, British wine writer  

Versatility is the hallmark of a few wine grapes, none more so than Sauvignon Blanc.  Being versatile means that the winemaker can fashion the grape juice into a dry wine, a sweet wine or a wine that combines the best of both grapes.  

 In the Bordeaux district of Graves, Sauvignon Blanc blends with Semillon, Muscadelle and Sauvignon Gris to make some of the most distinctive dry white wines in the world. Further south, the same quartet of grapes are used for the unique classic sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac.  Similar in style to Sauternes, but lacking the complexity, are the less expensive sweet wines of Sainte-Croix-Du-Mont, Cadillac, Loupiac, Sainte-Macaire and Cerons. 

An Aside -- In the United States, the name Cadillac implies top-of-the-line luxury car. To the Bordelaise, though, Cadillac is a small wine town named for French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, who founded Detroit in 1701. There is, however, an apocryphal tale about the supposed connection between the Bordeaux town and the American car.  Supposedly, Gene
ral Motors named their new automobile Cadillac, after the company GM had sampled the local sweet wine and thought it had the taste of luxury.   
Graves Blanc One of the the unique features of the Graves is that it is the only region on the Bordeaux left bank to produce both white and red wine.  Red Graves (GDBOW, September 2, 2020) is made from the same five varieties as is its neighbors in the Medoc.  As for tasting a difference, some say it is the minerality found in Graves wines. 
Prior to 1987, dry white wines from the Graves were known simply as Graves Blanc. Local legislation renamed the most celebrated part of the Graves to Pessac-Leognan, a nod to the two best communes in the area. Noted chateau such as Haut-Brion now would become a Pessac-Leognan estate. The change affected all of the properties in the 1959 classification of the Graves as well as other chateaux in the area. 

Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon Sauvignon blanc Wine Grape, grape PNG clipart |  free cliparts | UIHere
Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Sauvignon Gris and Muscadelle are grown in Pessac-Leognan on light sandy soils, while the red varieties are planted on more gravelly soils. Still, Pessac-Leognan whites have that distinguishing Graves mineral character not found in Sauvignon Blancs elsewhere in France.

An exception might be Pouilly-Fume, a 100 % Sauvignon Blanc, from the upper Loire Valley. Pouilly Fume is often described as "flinty."  Another difference between Pessac-Leognan and Loire Sauvignon Blanc is the use of barrel fermentation and aging used in Pessac-Leognan. Traditionally, Pouilly-Fume and its better known neighbor Sancerre, were unoaked Sauvignon Blancs, but in recent years, younger winemakers broke with tradition so that there are now oak-aged wines from both Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume.

From the way Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon characteristics play off each other, the blending of the two grapes seems to be an ideal pair. Sauvignon Blanc's flavor profile leans toward green plums and passion fruit with a grassy note, while Semillon adds a warmer riper note of figs, honey and beeswax. Semillon tends to be a tad low in acidity, but in Pessac-Leognan white wine that deficiency is compensated for by Sauvignon Blanc's mouth-watering citrusy acidity.
Sauternes and Barsac
As the Garonne flows westward toward the Gironde estuary, it passes by the district of Sauternes and then the smaller Barsac, before eventually reaching the city of Bordeaux. The sweet wines of these two places are unique in Bordeaux.

A Remembrance: A number of years ago, on a visit to Sauternes, I was invited to dinner at a prominent chateau that made only a sweet wine. We gathered for an aperitif, the current vintage of the chateau wine, with savory finger foods. I was mildly surprised at the pairing, but more so when we sat down for dinner and saw only Sauternes on the sideboard.

My hosts, of course, wanted to convince me that Sauternes wasn't just for dessert and was an acceptable choice with various dishes, even beef steak. On my first trip to Bordeaux, Sauternes with pate de foie gras was served. I thought, what an odd pairing, but somehow the richness of the liver fat and sweetness and texture of the wine went surprisingly well. This was years before I had ever heard of umami. Each course brought a different vintage of the Sauternes, until the oldest was served with a simple dessert or plain cookies and fresh ripe pears and apricots.

For American wine drinkers, Sauternes and Barsac are synonymous with sweet white French wines often used as dessert or to accompany a simple dessert. But while they do share a number of similarities, the two are different wines. 

Sémillon - Wikipedia

The similarities: Both wines are made from Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris and Muscadelle; both derive their unique flavors from a beneficial mold called Botrytis cinerea (the so-called "Noble Rot"); they rely on conditions to be just right for botrytis to develop and not turn into damaging grey rot; because nature may or may not cooperate, the wines are expensive to make. 

The differences: Sauternes is more than twice the size of Barsac; Sauternes dominates the marketplace for French sweet wines; all Barsac wines are entitled to use the Sauternes appellation (although the reverse is not true); Barsac wines dominate the Second Growths, with 8 of 14 wines, in the 1855 Classification of Sauternes-Barsac, while Sauternes has 9 of 11 First Growths and Ch. d'Yquem, a Superior First Growth. 

The other important difference is the flavor and character of the individual wines. At its finest, Sauternes has a honied sweetness, with hints of ripe apricots and peaches and a trace of beeswax.  All of this, with impeccable sugar-acid balance. Overall, Barsac wines are lighter but follow the same flavor characteristics.

For botrytised Semillion and Sauvignon Blanc to develop properly, conditions must be just right. In the fall, when the cool waters of the Ciron tributary flow into the warmer Garonne, evening mists develop. The following day, the mists burn away encouraging the growth of Botrytis cinerea. The development of botrytis increases grape sugars, tartaric acid, while developing aromas and flavor. Without botrytis, you have only a sweet wine that lacks complexity.

Bordeaux wines are among the most diverse and best in the world. In recent years, prices have put some of the wines beyond many budgets, but there are still bargains to be had. In the future, we'll look at more moderately priced petit chateaux and St. Emilion satellite wines. 


Next Blog: "My Life in Wine" Episode 6

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