What does it mean to know a fine wine? Too often we only see what we have been taught to perceive. We measure wines against established categories and personal prejudices about what defines quality. What would happen if instead of rushing to identify or critique, we put aside the reductive methods championed in most wine education classes and afforded wines the necessary time and attention to unfold and reveal themselves naturally. What if we began to value presence over mastery?Read More
Denis Dubourdieu is the leading authority on the white wines of Bordeaux. Beyond being the Director of General Oenology at the University of Bordeaux, he manages four family estates, including Doisy-Daëne and Clos Floridéne, and consults with wineries such as Château Cheval Blanc and Château d’Yquem. Here, he guides us through Bordeaux’s distinctive white wines.
Sophie Menin: What are the hallmarks of a great dry white Bordeaux?
Denis Dubourdieu: Drinkability is the most important quality of a Bordeaux Blanc. They should be fresh and fruity without too much alcohol. A good one will quench your thirst.
SM: What distinguishes the region’s sauvignon blanc and sémillon, the two grapes that make up most white Bordeaux?
DD: Our sauvignon blanc is a wine of the Atlantic coast. It is more delicate than the intensely grassy and tropical wines you find in New Zealand and less flinty than sauvignon blanc from Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé. At its best, it exhibits flavors of grapefruit and white peach.
Bordeaux is at the northern limit of where sémillon can be cultivated and it does very well here. It is our chardonnay. The finest examples are grown on limestone. Bordeaux wines made from sémillon smell of hazelnut, almonds and brioche. After a few years, they develop aromas of fresh apricot or orange.
SM: How has dry white Bordeaux changed since you started making wine?
DD: Bordeaux Blanc as we know it did not exist thirty years ago. Our dry white wines used to smell like oxidized sweet wines. Things started to change in the mid nineteen eighties when I was directing white wine research in the enology department of the University of Bordeaux and we began to understand which molecules were involved in creating the characteristic aromas of sauvignon blanc and the role of the yeast in protecting wines from oxidation.
When we applied this knowledge to Bordeaux’s two main white grape varieties, sauvignon blanc and sémillon, we discovered their fruity taste and how well they complement each other in a dry white blend.
SM: Could you describe the sweet white Bordeaux known as Sauternes for us?
DD: Sauternes caresses the mouth. There is a quality of softness. You don’t sense any corners. No matter how long the wine has aged, you always encounter aromas of fresh fruit, not just jam and honey. Last month I opened a bottle of our 1934 Doisy-Daëne, a sweet white made next door to Sauternes in the commune of Barsac. It was a complex bomb of orange, smoke, chocolate, ginger and apricot.
SM: When do you drink Sauternes?
DD: I like young Sauternes as an aperitif and old Sauternes at the end of the meal.
Rosé de Provence is the kind of wine that fulfills a longing for a particular time and place. Its pale salmon hue, fresh fruit aroma and tumbling minerality evoke seaside lunches and sunset aperitifs. Typically made from grenache, cinsault, syrah and mourvèdre, the classic style is light and refreshingly dry. When the weather begins to warm, Americans have an insatiable appetite for Rosé de Provence. For eight consecutive years this bottled essence of Southern France has experienced double-digit sales growth here. As such, today we have access to more rosés from a greater variety of Provençal producers than ever before.
Achieving the elegant simplicity of a well-crafted rosé requires gentle handling of mature fruit. Corners cut in the vineyard lead to thin wines with an aftertaste that can be green or medicinal, wines that are the bad oysters of summer drinks. Good rosés should be light-bodied with mouthwatering acidity and taste of white flowers, seashells and just-picked berries. A few bottles that fulfill this tall order are Château de Pourcieux, Domaine de Saint-Ser, Château la Calisse, AIX and Domaine de l'’Abbeye Clos Beylesse.
Rosé de Provence is not a wine to be sipped slowly and pondered. It is meant to disappear quickly, by the magnum if possible, and its charming way of capturing the spirit of Mediterranean idyll should be delivered to the consumer without emptying their wallet.
Few people understand what distinguishes the red wines of Bordeaux from their New World counterparts better than Stephen Carrier, the winemaker at Château de Fieuzal in Pessac-Léognan. The son of grape growers from Champagne, Stephen began his career as the winemaker for Newton Vineyard in the Napa Valley before honing his skills crafting Bordeaux blends at Château Lynch-Bages in Pauillac. Here he shares his passion for mature red Bordeaux.
Sophie Menin: What makes for a great red Bordeaux?
Stephen Carrier: In one word? Time.
SM: We’re surprised you didn’t say vintage or terroir.
SC: Bordeaux has sixty appellations each with a distinctive terroir. Every year the potential exists for great wines to come from the Medoc where the presence of clay gives the wines the potential to be bold and lush, or the exacting gravelly soils of Pessac-Léognan, or the merlot based wines of St-Émilion and Pomerol. But in all these regions, the young and old wines taste very different.
SM: How so?
SC: Young Bordeaux is like a bright child in need of a good education. It is alive with aromas of fresh fruit and spice. If you hold your nose to the glass, you will experience the heady scents of blackberries, red currants, tobacco and vanilla. I assure you that you will want to drink this wine, but I don’t recommend it. All you will taste are the building blocks of a wine that has not yet reached its potential. A wave of fruit will be followed by the drying sensation of tannins on your tongue and gums.
SM: What changes over time?
SC: With time the fruit flavor grows deeper, the tannins become silky and aromas of spice and earth begin to dominate the wine’s perfume. This experience of depth, harmony and balance is what great Bordeaux is all about. Depending on the vintage, this transformation can happen after five, ten or twenty years in the bottle.
Many wines go through an intermediate stage when the tannins have softened and integrated into a wine that still possesses the expressive bloom of fresh fruit. I like these wines very much as well.
SM: What do you drink when you are waiting for the wines to mature?
SC: In France we drink the less celebrated vintages while we are waiting for the great ones to come around. Many of the less celebrated years produce wines with more delicate fruit. These wines are less tannic and mature earlier. Right now, the 2007s are very good!
At 41, Stephen Carrier of Château de Fieuzal may be among the youngest head winemakers at a Bordeaux Cru Classé winery, but that has not stopped him from challenging the conventions of the historic appellation. The son of grape growers from Champagne, Carrier’s first job as an oenologist was at Newton Vineyard on Spring Mountain in the Napa Valley.Read More
Gaia Gaja may be the world’s greatest ambassador for Barbaresco, Italy, the Piedmontese region renowned for its elegant wines made from one hundred percent nebbiolo grapes. Born and raised in the region, she is the fifth generation of her family to work at Gaja, the family’s celebrated estate. Tasting Barbaresco with her opened our eyes to what makes the wines so beguiling.
“For people who love Barbaresco, a lot of the enjoyment comes from forming a relationship with the wine while it is still in the glass. Nebbiolo (from Barbaresco) possesses ethereal perfumes. You can swirl the wine it and make it talk,” Gaia explains.
“When it is young, you can smell aromas of citrus zest -- oranges, tangerines, and bergamot. You can also detect aromas of plant roots. You will find hints of rhubarb, quinine and bitter herbs.”
Gaia emphasizes the special quality of the wine’s texture. “On the palate, Barbaresco is discreet in taste and bigger in texture,” she says. “There is this dryness that sweeps across your tongue and cleans everything up. It is best to pair Barbaresco with fatty foods. Most of the time we serve it with meat, but my favorite dinner when I go home and don't want to cook is Barbaresco and a cheese platter. In Japan, I like Barbaresco with sushi. The wine is delicate and does not overpower the fish, especially toro (fatty tuna belly), which is almost like raw meat.”
Few economic sectors see the effects of global warming as clearly as winemakers, for whom the words “weather” and “vintage” are synonymous. In Bordeaux, decades of records show that the harvests are occurring earlier and the wines tend to be less acidic and higher in alcohol. While these changes are not entirely linked to climate change -- technical improvements and new vineyard management regimes have made it easier to grow ripe healthy grapes -- the Bordelaise know it is a fact of life.
Aware that wine regions must implement strategies to preserve vineyards for generations to come, in 2008 the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB) commissioned a study to measure the Bordeaux wine industry’s greenhouse gas emissions. The study pointed to incoming goods, particularly glass bottles, as being the leading contributor to the region’s carbon footprint, followed by wine transport and energy use in the vineyard and cellar.
The CIVB responded to the study by launching The Bordeaux Wine 2020 Climate Plan with the goal of reducing the region’s total emissions by 20% by the end of the decade, while increasing its energy and water conservation 20% during the same period. For wineries seeking to reduce greenhouse emissions, here are a few lessons from the Bordeaux study worth considering:
Use Lighter Bottles: Move to bottles that retain the same physical properties and appearance as conventional bottles, but are lighter and made with fewer materials.
Collect Empty Packaging: In 2012, Bordeaux was able to collect and recycled 17.5 tons of empty packaging, which was used to produce alternative energy for cement manufacturing.
Study and Alter Wine Shipment Methodologies: Bordeaux plans to increase its use of maritime shipping, which generates 5.5 % less CO2 than ground transport.
Consider Groups and Support Networks: Collective efforts allow winemakers to share both the startup costs linked to setting up an environmental protection process and strategies for continued improvements.
Bordeaux’s dry white wines are too often overlooked for those of Burgundy and the Loire. Perhaps because the region’s signature white blend -- sémillon and sauvignon blanc -- lacks a clear new world reference like chardonnay from the Napa Valley or sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. Perhaps because the wines struggle for airtime, given Bordeaux’s identification with collectible cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Still, the category begs for discovery. There is very good dry white Bordeaux at every price point. Given its reputation for soaring prices, the region may be the world’s least expected source of value wines.
Dry white Bordeaux comes from three appellations: Pessac-Léognan, Graves and Entre-Deux-Mers, with the most exalted examples, such as Domaine Chevalier and Laville Haut-Brion, coming from Pessac-Léognan. But it is in Entre-Deux-Mers and Graves that the unexpected treasures are found. Gems from Entre-Deux-Mers, the area between the Dordogne and Garonne rivers, tend to be simple and well priced. At $12 Château Fonfroide, a blend of sauvignon blanc, sémillon and muscadelle, is as refreshing as it is pleasing, offering hints of white peach and honey on the nose and a soft yet lively expression on the palate.
In Graves, the appellation directly south of Pessac-Léognan, each wine tells its own story about why bright and herbaceous sauvignon blanc should be blended with fleshy honeyed sémillon. At $16, the award winning Château Les Clauzots, speaks generously of citrus and tropical fruit anchored by a firm mineral backbone. At $29.99 the Vieux Château Gaubert is a tightly coiled double helix of seashells, honeysuckle and lemon pith, suggesting a wine with true aging potential. Tuck it away for three or four years in the back of your closet and witness the transformation. You are likely to be rewarded with a textured wine possessing aromas of honeyed almonds that is supple and broad on the palate.
A helpful place to continue exploring Bordeaux’s value wines is Today’s Bordeaux, which features 100 wines from the region priced between $9 and $55.