Whites from Loire & Bordeaux
by Janet Dorozynski
While Bordeaux may be better known for its classified growth red wines and the Loire Valley for Sancerre, both regions have long been producing white wines, across a range of styles. Dry white blends from sauvignon blanc and sémillon are found throughout Bordeaux and the “other whites” from chenin blanc and melon de bourgogne are common in the western end of the Loire Valley.
I revisited both regions this past spring after a long absence and many changes in the French and global wine industry. Although France is now again the largest wine producer in the world, with 46 million hectolitres (more than 6 billion bottles) in 2014, according to latest International Organisation of Vine & Wine (OIV) figures (see infographic @ Decanter.com), this news comes amid a decline in global and French wine consumption and the lingering economic crisis of the last decade. In spite of this, dry white Bordeaux blends and wines from chenin blanc are experiencing renewed interest among both wine producers and the wine cognoscenti around the globe.
What follows is a brief history of these storied and savoured white wines of the Loire and Bordeaux, plus suggestions where and when you can pair these whites throughout the winter season.
THE LOIRE VALLEY
Chenin Blanc, Queen of the Loire
Chenin blanc is currently one of the darling white grapes among sommeliers, due in part to the quality wine focus in places where it is widely planted like South Africa and the US, as well as along the western reaches of the Loire Valley from Blois to Savennières, where chenin reigns.
The Anjou region is south and southwest of the city of Angers, where Château d’Angers houses the hauntingly beautiful Apocalypse Tapestry series of the late 14th century. Here, 140 chenin grape vines were planted atop and within the fortressed walls as a testament of King René the First of Anjou’s interest in this noble grape. It is in this part of the Loire where chenin blanc, known locally as pineau de la Loire, is made into a range of wine styles including the fascinating dry Savennières, the long-lived botrytis-affected sweet wines from Bonnezeaux, Coteaux du Layon and Quarts de Chaume, and méthode traditionelle sparkling wines known as Crémant de Loire.
Chenin when it Sparkles
Bouvet Ladubay, of the adjacent Saumur appellation, has been making sparkling wine since 1851 when the family purchased eight of the hundreds of kilometers of underground tunnels resulting from excavations to build the Loire’s famous castles and palaces. These passageways now house the maturation cellars for the chenin blanc-based sparkling wines of the region. In the late 1800’s, Bouvet Ladubay was the largest shipper of sparkling wine in the world and has continued with a specialization in sparkling wine in a range of styles. In addition to a visit and tasting at the winery, visitors can get a sense of history and space thanks to a guided bicycle tour of their sparkling wine cave carved deep into the tuffeau limestone underneath the winery and vineyards. Bouvet Ladubay Brut de Blancs Saumur is a great introduction to this house.
While a number of grape varieties can be used to make Crémant de Loire, chenin blanc is the most common. Naturally, sparkling is well-suited to festive occasions but because crémant tends to be well-priced, it is also a perfect everyday wine and ideal as an aperitif. Crémant blanc matches well with seafood such as oysters and crab, while crémant rosé is a good partner for spicy Chinese dishes, salmon carpaccio and vegetable or meat terrines.
Dry and Complex Loire Whites
Beyond bubbles, chenin blanc is also responsible for the region’s impressive dry and sweet white wines. Domaine des Baumard, whose property has been in the family since 1634, produces a series (Clos de St. Yves and the Clos du Papillon) of dry, structured and nervy whites from the Savennières appellation, sweet wines from the Quarts de Chaume and Coteaux du Layon, along with Crémant de Loire – white and rosé, in both dry and off-dry styles. Like many estates in this part of the Loire, the majority (80%) of their production is dedicated to white wine, with sparkling comprising over half of overall production.
Others such as Pithon-Paille are newer to the scene and since 2008 have been negociants in addition to wine growers, producing predominantly dry white wines from chenin blanc, with a smattering of red from cabernet franc and grolleau. Although their production is small (approximately 7000 cases a year), they export slightly more than 50%; Quebec is their largest market with the 2010 Chenin Blanc and 2011 La Fresnaye available.
Savennières is also home to famed biodynamic producer Nicolas Joly of Château de la Roche-aux-Moines. Originally an investment banker in the US and UK, he took over the family estate in the late 1970s and produces just three wines: Les Vieux Clos from the Savennières appellation, Clos de la Bergerie from the Savennières-Roche-aux-Moines appellation and Clos de la Coulée de Serrant from the Savennières-Coulée-de-Serrant appellation, a seven hectare appellation d’origine protégée (AOP) of its own, under vine since it was planted by Cistercian monks in 1130 and belonging all to Joly. A vertical tasting of Clos de la Coulée de Serrant in the 1990s was my first Road to Damascus moment in wine, so it was a special treat to taste recent vintages and meet the man behind the wines. In recent years Joly has handed over much of the winemaking and management of the estate to his daughter Virginie.
The whites of Savennières show depth, concentration and richness and with higher levels of acidity, can definitely benefit from longer aging in bottle, These are rich, medium-to-full bodied, dry white wines, with no oak and a backbone of palate cleansing acidity. Because of this, they are well suited to hearty winter dishes such as fish in cream or butter sauces, grilled and roasted pork dishes or veal in a creamy mushroom sauce.
Just west of Anjou near the mouth of the Loire River is the Pays Nantais. This is France’s largest white wine appellation and the region known for Muscadet made from the melon de bourgogne grape. In contrast to the full-bodied dense whites of Savennières, Muscadet is lighter in body and style, displaying a tangy crispness and salty (some would say maritime) influence. Due to the process of aging on the lees or sur lie, many of the wines like the Château du Cléray Sur Lie Muscadet Sèvre et Maine are crisp but layered with good complexity though often overlooked in favour of similar trendier wines like Albariño. A newer generation of winemakers, such as Rémi Branger of Domaine de la Pépière, are also making complex and age-worthy Muscadet using a combination of new and traditional techniques and lower yielding clones. Standouts include the Cru Clisson and Château-Thébaud, benefitting from older vines, stony well-draining soils, 2 to 3 years of lees contact and stirring.
Bordeaux is an historic area for premier wine production in France. Unfortunately, this history also works to its disadvantage; the region is often thought of as being too complex, with too many appellations, and in the case of North American consumers, no varietal labelling to indicate what grapes are in the bottle. Though the region is better known for red blends, ranging from good value generic Bordeaux to stratospherically priced first growths, dry whites have been made in Bordeaux for centuries and outpaced red wine production up until the 1970s. Currently, dry white wine production represents around 8% of the total of AOP wines in Bordeaux.
As with other wine regions in France and throughout the world, the Bordelais are interested in attracting new consumers, in particular, seizing new-found market opportunities in China and throughout Asia. A new international promotional and branding campaign focused on authenticity, diversity and innovation aims to stimulate curiosity and a re-discovery of Bordeaux as a world reference in terms of wine quality and expertise. While much of the focus centers on the region’s red wines, there is a tacit acknowledgement that dry Bordeaux whites are not as well-known as they could be. Since consumers have globally embraced sauvignon blanc the goal is to promote the “original” white Bordeaux blends from sauvignon blanc and sémillon as exceptionally food friendly and emulated by winemakers from Australia to Canada.
Sauvignon blanc is the main white grape planted in Bordeaux (55% of all white plantings), followed by sémillon (34%) and muscadelle (7%). It is thought that sauvignon blanc originated in Bordeaux. Furthermore, the Faculty of Oenology at the University of Bordeaux, led by Denis Durbourdieu, has conducted extensive research on sauvignon blanc aromas and the ways in which viticultural and wine making practices can enhance quality wine production and aging potential.
Back to (Bordeaux) School
A good start to learn about Bordeaux whites, or any of the wines from this region, is by going to wine school. Bordeaux’s École du Vin de Bordeaux in the city centre is where professionals and consumers alike can learn about the region, history, grape varieties and winemaking, while tasting examples of the main wine styles.
Courses at the École du Vin range from two-hour workshops to intensive multi-day technical courses that include vineyard visits and dinner at a wine estate. If you can’t make it to the École du Vin, check out their partner schools and global tutors and find out more information on their website.
Winter Weight Whites from Bordeaux
While most shift to heavy, full-bodied reds during the cold winter months, there is still a place at the table for the two main styles of dry Bordeaux whites. The first is the fresh and vibrant whites such as Bordeaux Blanc, Entre-Deux-Mers and Cotes de Bordeaux. These generally are unoaked, light in body and made to be drunk young with lighter lunchtime fair such as salads or grilled fish or platters of oysters from the nearby Bay of Arcachon.
The second style is the richly textured and well-structured dry whites from the Graves and Pessac-Léognan appellations. They tend to be medium to full-bodied, usually vinified and aged in oak and can benefit from aging as well as decanting when served. This type of wine makes a great accompaniment to creamy soups and fish in cream sauces.
A Sea of Lively Whites
Entre-Deux-Mers is a pretty region located between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, hence the name meaning “between two seas”. After Bordeaux Blanc, it is the largest appellation for dry white wines, which are made predominantly from sauvignon blanc with sémillon added for weight and complexity and muscadelle for aroma. Producers like Château Sainte-Marie also add some pink-skinned sauvignon gris to their Entre-Deux-Mers for mouthfeel and aromatics. Most Entre-Deux-Mers are fermented and aged in stainless steel, resulting in dry, crisp and fruity wines with floral and citrus aromas. They are meant to be uncomplicated and consumed within a year or two of release. Chateau Sainte-Marie Entre Deux Mers Vieilles Vignes 2013 is a more stately example, not to be missed.
White Graves and Pessac-Léognan
The region of Graves and the well-known appellation of Pessac-Léognan lie to the south of the city of Bordeaux, encompassing some of its southern suburbs and on the left bank of the Garonne River. While Graves is considered the origin of red Bordeaux wines, dating back to the Middle Ages, the appellation of Pessac-Léognan is a relatively new addition created in 1987. Both reds and whites are produced in Graves and Pessac-Léognan, with white grapes accounting for approximately 20% of the vineyards of the latter.
This is an area of powerful, complex and aromatic dry white wines that spend a considerable time aged in oak barrels and continue to evolve and deepen in colour as they age in bottle. Sémillon and sauvignon blanc make up the blend, with appellation rules stipulating that sauvignon blanc must comprise at least 25% of the blend.
André Lurton is the owner of Château La Louvière, one of the key figures driving change in the area and behind the creation of the Pessac-Léognan appellation. Château La Louvière was the first winery to use screw caps in Bordeaux and they currently bottle their wines under both cork and screw cap, depending on the market of sale. The Château La Louvière Blanc is predominantly sauvignon blanc, with a small portion of sémillon depending on the vintage. The 2009 is 100% sauvignon blanc and though barrel fermented and aged, manages to retain a crisp freshness set against a backdrop of spicy, toasty notes with good depth and finish.
Although plantings of sauvignon blanc are more recent in this region, sémillon vines and vineyards are considerably older, with some reaching 120 years of age. Château Latour-Martillac oenologist Valerie Vialard explained that only the sémillon portion of the blend will undergo skin contact during fermentation to extract more flavour and add concentration, a move that has proven great success. So much so that Denis Dubourdieu, consultant to the winery, is considered responsible for the widespread use of skin contact for sémillon for white Bordeaux wines.
Bordeaux’s Golden Whites
Not all of the white wines from the Graves are dry and lovers of sweet wines are likely familiar with the golden elixirs of Sauternes and Barsac. The same grapes used for dry white Bordeaux are also used here, with sémillon being the principal grape, since it is particularly susceptible to “noble rot” Botrytis cinerea. Due to the grape’s desiccation, the shrivelled grapes produce intensely flavoured juice that results in concentrated sweet wines. The yield is much lower than for dry wines and the production process more labour intensive; botrytis does not affect each vine or bunch at the same time or way, so wineries are required to hand-pick the affected bunches or berries by passing through the vineyard up to a half-dozen times to complete the harvest.
Sweet wine production here dates back centuries though most Sauternes producers also make a dry white, which takes the first letter of the name of the Château, such as the Le G de Château Guiraud 2013. Although the golden sweet wines are revered by wine lovers across the globe, sales and exports have shown a decline since the financial crisis. According to Caroline Degrémont of Château Guiraud, the effect of the crisis seems to have been longer for Sauternes because these were “the first wines that you stopped drinking and the last that you start to drink again”. To make the wine accessible and affordable, the Château sells 100ml “tubes” of Sauternes in their tasting room which go over well with visitors.
Holding a slightly different view, Fabrice Dubordieu, a fourth generation family member of Château Doisy-Daëne in Barsac, hasn’t felt the impact of the crisis as much. He believes that the “sweet wine consumer is not your average wine consumer and is less concerned with showing off and more concerned with pleasure”. Dubordieu also explained that “to create a market for sweet wine, you need to create a ritual around it and a ritual for the food served with it”. Seems like timely advice as many of these wines have intense flavours that shout out for rich foods that you might only eat on special occasions and holidays. Think about Sauterne’s classic pairing with foie gras or Roquefort cheese, the less conventional pairing with sweetbreads that I once had in Sauternes (delicious!) or with a roasted pineapple tart to end a meal.
With the long winter ahead there are many whites from the Loire and Bordeaux, dry, sweet and sparkling and in a range of price points that will make your winter a little warmer.
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