By: Maurice Lee
WE’VE LOOKED at the red wines of Bordeaux, but let us not forget the excellent whites, which can be sweet, dry, or medium.
When making Appellation Contrôlée white Bordeaux, the only grapes permissible are Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle. Other white grapes used, mainly for blending, are Ungi Blanc, Colombard and Riesling. So, don’t waste time searching for Chardonnay, Muscadet, or Chenin Blanc. You won’t find them.
White wine is produced in all the nine Bordeaux districts. The most popular sweet white is Sauternes, from the southern part of the region. The two main grapes here are Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, with Sémillon being very much the predominant grape. Most Sauternes will be 80 per cent or more of Sémillon. Muscadelle is also used, but in very small quantities, somewhere between one and five per cent. They are dessert wines and naturally very sweet. Barsac is another dessert wine made from the same grapes.
The natural sweetness is obtained by leaving the grapes on the vines until they are attacked by the noble rot (botrytis cinerea). This is a fungus, which occurs when humid conditions are followed by hot weather, making the grapes shrivel and turning them brown. The sugar is concentrated within the shrivelled grape and during fermentation, when the alcohol reaches around 14 per cent, the noble rot creates a natural antibiotic, which stops the fermentation.
Château d’Yquem is the great sweet wine of France. The grapes are 80 per cent Sémillon and 20 per cent Sauvignon Blanc. They also make a dry wine ‘Y’ (pronounced Ygrec), with equal amounts of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc.
Sauternes and Barsac are by no means the only whites produced in Bordeaux. The district of Graves, which surrounds Sauternes, makes other very good dry, medium and sweet wines. Most of the dry whites will have a high percentage of Sauvignon Blanc. Unfortunately, the French law does not allow a grape variety to be named on the label, so you are relying on the colour of the wine. As many of the bottles are made from green glass, it’s impossible to see how pale the wine is. If you find a clear glass bottle, the colour should be a pale straw, and not golden. Golden will be sweet, and the more golden the colour, the sweeter the wine. Although more famous for its red wines, look for white Graves.
Another well-known white is Entre-Deux-Mers. It is a large area lying between the rivers, Dordogne and Garonne. There was a time when the appellation covered red wines. However, the district was heading for bankruptcy when someone suggested that they make a dry white wine. This turned the fortunes of the district, and now only white dry wine is entitled to the appellation. The red wine is Bordeaux or Bordeaux Supérieur.
All Bordeaux wine is bottled in square shouldered bottles, like Douro wines, unlike the bottles with sloping shoulders, used for Dão wines.
A friend gave me a Food &Wine Matchmaker chart which had a footnote saying: “ For more detailed matching you can’t do better than consult Hugh Johnson’s 1996 Pocket Wine Book”, published by Mitchell Beazley. I took six copies of Mr. Johnson’s Pocket Wine books at random from 1977 to 2005, and compared them to the chart. I just took a few samples and was amazed at what I read.
To accompany roast lamb in his books 1977 and 1986, there was only ‘a very good red Bordeaux or its equivalents’, recommended. The only thing equivalent to a very good Bordeaux is another one. In the1992 edition, an Old Rioja Reserva was added, but you have to be in Castile. Why? I ask. The 1994 and 1995 recommendations were as for 1992. In 2005, the previous suggestions remained but they added a Spanish Ribera del Duero Reserva, Napa Valley or Coonawarra, Cab Sauvs, and a New Zealand Pinot Noir.
Curry was the most amazing. The chart said it was a tricky one, but suggested Alsace Gewurztraminer, cold beer or mineral water. All their books that I checked suggested a medium sweet white. One suggested Alsace Pinot Blanc (only one), but that’s not medium sweet and it’s very different to Gewurztraminer. They did add some very expensive wines like, NV Champagne, Barolo, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and Valpolicella Amarone. They must be very wealthy men if they can drink those wines with a curry. The curry would slaughter the Champagne. It would be better to drink chilled sparkling water. How would you like to pay around 150 euros for a bottle of wine to drink with your cheddar cheese? They would, seeing they suggested a Hermitage.
It was nice to see that they are finally recognising Portuguese wines, albeit to accompany barbecued meat and pâtés. They recommend Dão or Bairrada, two very different wines, the latter being the only Portuguese region dominated by one grape variety, the Baga. There isn’t any Baga in Dâo. Surely a wine made from, say Tinta Roriz, Jean and Touriga Nacional, all Dão grapes would be more suitable. Baga wines are solid, tannic wines.
In the 1994 edition of their book, they say that Master of Wine should eventually become the equivalent of a BA degree in the worldwide wine trade. They want to stop moving the gold posts first.
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