3 Jan 2011

White wines from Pessac-Leognan

The most prestigious dry whites from Bordeaux

When most people talk about the wines of Bordeaux, they think red. And yet, not that long ago, the majority of wines from this, France’s largest area for the production of fine wines, were in fact white. Many of them were off-dry or sweet, and some still are, particularly around the Sauternes region on the Garonne’s left bank, just upstream from the city of Bordeaux which has given its name to the wines from the far-flung region that surrounds it. Yet, alongside the now dominant red type, dry white wines are also a speciality of this area known as Graves, whose name comes from the gravel-based soils that are one of its natural features.

 (in this map of the Bordeaux wine regions, the Graves region is bright green, and Pessac-Leognan is the yellow insert to the north of that green bit).

During Bordeaux’s complex vinous history, various classifications of wine estates have been attempted, in order to try to guide the consumer as to which wines are « the best ». Such necessarily vain attempts to put history and human endeavour into still-frame mode, whereas they are obviously moving pictures, have never been eternal, yet they have had consequences, not the least of which have been financial, for those involved: those who receive the sanction of classifications usually manage to sell their wines for more money than those who are less lucky.

The Graves region had some of its wines classified as « crus classés » in 1953 and 1959. Red and white wines from each château were considered seperately, some estates being classified for one, or the other, or both. Because all the classified châteaux were situated in the northern part of the fairly extensive Graves region, some owners felt that this justified the creation of a separate appellation including only the sub-region within which the classified estates are situated. This came about in 1987, with the birth of the clumsily named Pessac-Leognan appellation, which always sounds to me rather like a bus (or, to be more fashonable, tram) line. It takes its name from two small towns/suburbs that lie on the southern perimeter of Bordeaux.

What is hard to dispute is that this appellation, partly because its producers are able to invest larger sums of money in their estates as they earn more from every bottle sold, consistently produces (with few exceptions) the best and longest-lasting dry white wines to be found in the Bordeaux region. I decided recently to put these to the test in a blind tasting of 2 recent vintages, 2007 and 2008. The 50-odd wines were organised in 4 flights by vintage but also with the classified estates served in separate flights from the non-classified. This was done on the request of the group of classified estates. I would have placed them all in the same flight and in random order.  In any case, my notes show that the classified wines did not fare better than the others overall.

The wines are all perfectly dry in style, but may use one or both of two grape varieties, and occasionally other very minor ones. The traditional grape is sémillon, but sauvignon blanc is on the increase and is now probably in a majority, due to the fact that it is more reliable from an agricultural point of view, but also more instantly recognisable and appealing when the wine is young. I tend to have a preference for wines that include a high percentage of sémillon, but there are exceptions, as finally the style of a wine has to do with more complex issues than just its grape variety.

Although these wines will keep very well, very few people cellar them nowadays and they can all be drunk as of now. Domaine de Chevalier, for example, is reputed to show its paces best after a few years. Use of barrels in fermenting is fairly generalised for these wines, although the proportion of new barrels used will vary quite a bit. Prices range from around 15 euros for the unclassified wines to over 100 euros for the more prestigious of the classified growths, such as Pape Clement. But most of them lie within the 20/40 euro range.

It should also be noted that I did not taste the two most exclusive wines in the appellation, Haut Brion and Laville Haut Brion, as these do not submit samples for comparative tastings.

My favourite wines from the 2007 vintage

(non-classified wines : average mark = 13,85/20)

Château Baret

Château Lafargue, cuvée Alexandre

Château Larrivet-Haut-Brion

Château de France
(classified wines : average mark = 13,75/20)
Château Latour-Martillac

Château Malartic-Lagravière

(nb. Pape Clément 2007 was « corked »)

My favourite wines from the 2008 vintage

(non-classified wines : average mark =14/20 )

Château Baret

Château La Louvière
Château Ferran
Château Rochemorin

Château Lafargue, cuvée Alexandre

Château Larrivet-Haut-Brion

Château Roche-Lalande
(classified wines : average mark =14,04/20 )
Château Bouscaut
Château Carbonnieux
Château Smith Haut-Lafitte
Domaine de Chevalier

Château Malartic-Lagravière

Château Pape-Clément (which was my favourite wine of them all in this tasting)

Note: the wines that appear in bold type are those that stood out for me in both vintages. Here are a couple of labels from those wines