Great white

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 58, Spring 2019

Page 31

Everyone knows Bordeaux produces masterful wine – far fewer know it produces white as well as red, says Bruce Palling

any are surprised to learn that, a century ago, Bordeaux produced more white wines than red. But among the cognoscenti, it is known that Bordeaux produces some of the world's great white wines – rare examples of which are offered by Bonhams in May's wine sale.

What is puzzling about the lack of wider recognition is that a large percentage of the grapes used for white Bordeaux are Sauvignon Blanc, which is also the bedrock of whites from the Loire, as well as of the über-popular New Zealand wines. However, the characteristic taste of the best white Bordeaux is nothing like that of its rivals, with their aromatic, grassy overtones. Instead, with age, dry white Bordeaux takes on mineral, smoky, nutty overtones with extraordinary length of flavor. It is delicious.

Perhaps it is just a matter of price and time. The duo of famous white Bordeaux – Haut-Brion Blanc and La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc – cost a similar amount to their more famous reds and can take just as many years to fully express themselves. The ideal vintage to be drinking at the moment is 1999.

I have only tasted Château Haut-Brion Blanc once, and it was memorable. It was the fabled 1989 vintage, served at lunch by Prince Robert of Luxembourg, the current owner of Château Haut-Brion and the equally renowned La Mission Haut-Brion. The first thing I noticed was the extraordinary power and depth of flavor, far more intense than even the very best Chardonnays of white Burgundy. I immediately understood why people in the know rave about white Bordeaux. But bottles don't come cheap, partly because of their scarcity: for instance, only some 700 cases of Haut-Brion Blanc are produced annually, compared with upwards of 12,000 cases of this château's more famous red.

The reason white Bordeaux bears no resemblance to Sauvignon Blanc elsewhere is, first, to do with the terroir and climate of Bordeaux, as well as the fact that it is matured in oak barrels rather than stainless steel to preserve its freshness. The second factor is the combination with the Sémillon grape, which is what ultimately gives the wine its honeyed flavor with age.

The other renowned dry white Bordeaux from Graves/Pessac-Léognan are Domaine de Chevalier, Pape Clément and Smith Haut Lafitte, which has vastly improved under its current owners, the Cathiards. Interestingly, in the past 20 years, a number of other Bordeaux estates have begun to produce dry whites – the most famous being Château Margaux and Château Lynch-Bages.

What is the future for these acclaimed but overlooked wines? It is unlikely that any of the more famous producers will abandon them. Château Haut-Brion has always been ahead of the game when it comes to marketing – the son of an early proprietor opened a London tavern in 1666 to promote his wines. Perhaps a campaign to encourage the laying down of white Bordeaux rather than Port for the newly born would help. These wines are at their best after two decades, so what better way to celebrate coming of age than to open a fully mature Haut-Brion?

Bruce Palling is Wine Editor of The Week and a wine columnist for Spectator Life.

Sale: Fine & Rare Wines
Thursday 2 May at 10.30am
Enquiries: Richard Harvey +44 (0) 20 7468 5813
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