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Great Dry White Wines from France
By Ed McCarthy
Nov 24, 2020
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A few weeks ago, I drank a magnificent white French wine that I had not tasted or known about before (more about this wine below).  It got me thinking: why do most wine writers (including me) write mainly—in fact almost exclusively—about red wines?  When I first started drinking wine some decades ago, Americans drank more white wine than red.  But that has changed, as wine consumption boomed in the U.S.  Today, consumers in the U.S. who drink wine consume about 58 to 60 percent red wines, with white wines hovering around 40 percent consumption.  Nevertheless, white wines receiving such little coverage in print remains a mystery.

These thoughts motivated me to write this column about some of the better white wines that I have experienced.  I will cover here dry white wines from France.

Some of the world’s greatest white wines come from France.  Bordeaux, famous for its red wines, also produces excellent whites from its southern part, both dry and sweet (Sauternes).  But I will mention Bordeaux’s dry white wines here.  The best Bordeaux Blancs come from the Pessac-Léognan region, directly south of the city of Bordeaux.  They are made from a blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc.  Three standouts are Château Haut-Brion Blanc, Château La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc, and Domaine de Chevalier Blanc—all great red Bordeaux wines, but equally superb white wines.  In fact, for me, the white Domaine de Chevalier is clearly better than the red version.

One of the greatest white wines I have ever experienced was the 1989 Cháteau Haut-Brion Blanc.  With its depth, richness, and complexity, the wine lasted on my palate forever, it seems, and left an indelible impression.  The great white Bordeaux wines, like red Bordeaux, age extremely well; they reach their peak drinking period after ten or more years of aging, but can continue to mature for decades.  Other fine Pessac-Léognan Blancs include Château Pape-Clement Blanc, Château Fieuzal, Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte, and Clos Floridene.

As great as white Bordeaux wines are, white Burgundies are even more renowned.  Many wine critics, in fact, will assert that white Burgundy epitomizes the Chardonnay grape variety at its best (almost all white Burgundy wines are made from 100 percent Chardonnay).  The greatest and most expensive white Burgundy is Montrachet, especially when it is made by an outstanding producer, such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti or Domaine Leroy.  Chevalier-Montrachet and Batard-Montrachet are almost as good and considerably less expensive.  Another great white Burgundy is Corton-Charlemagne.  Some other superb white Burgundy producers include Domaine Ramonet, Coche-Dury, Domaine des Comtes-Lafon, and Domaine Leflaive.  Reputable large producers include Joseph Drouhin, Louis Jadot, and Louis Latour.  The great white Burgundies age extremely well—generally speaking, even better than red Burgundies; Chardonnay, at its best, ages longer than Pinot Noir.  The best white Burgundies can age for decades.

The Rhône Valley is better known for its red wines, but three excellent white wines do come from the northern Rhône.  The renowned Hermitage wine, a powerful and full-bodied red, also is made in small amounts in a white version, from the Marsanne and Roussanne grapes.  Like its red cousin, white Hermitage is full-bodied, rich, and earthy, needs at least eight to ten years to fully develop, and can age for fifteen years or more.  The greatest white Hermitage is made by the excellent producer Jean-Louis Chave; the wine is complex and long-lived, and yes, expensive, but critics have called it one of the world’s greatest white wines.  Chapoutier also makes fine white Hermitage, including one called Chante Alouette (100 percent Marsanne), at about one-third the price of Chave’s Hermitage Blanc.

Two other white Rhône wines are made from the Viognier grape variety, and are arguably the best wines made from Viognier in the world.  One of the wines is a rarity, Cháteau-Grillet.  It is produced in very small quantities from its own very small appellation.  This is a wine to drink while it’s young.  At its best, it is an exquisite white wine.  Like Cháteau-Grillet, Condrieu is a small white wine zone, but larger than Cháteau-Grillet.  Condrieu is one of the most floral, fragrant, dry white wines in existence, with delicate but rich flavors of apricot and peach, and a rich, silky texture. It is best consumed when it is young.

A Condrieu wine was the inspiration for me to write this column, as I mentioned earlier.  Recently, I drank Guigal Condrieu’s luxury cuvée, the 2017 La Doriane.  I have had Guigal’s standard Condrieu before; it is quite good (retail price, around $50).  I consider Guigal to be the Rhône Valley’s finest producer, along with Jean-Louis Chave.  But I was unfamiliar with Guigal’s luxury cuvée Condrieu, La Doriane (retailing in the $100 to $110 range) although Guigal has been producing it since 1994.  The wine stopped me in my tracks: it was floral and honeyed, with touches of lemon peel, burned caramel, apricot, peach stone, and orange.  It has high acidity, with rich, lingering flavors on the palate.  Its extract gave the impression of amazing gravitas on the tongue.  A memorable wine!

While the Bordeaux and Burgundy white wines are well-known, the Rhône Valley’s white wines are not, and they deserve to be because they are excellent.  The real find for me was Guigal’s outstanding Condrieu, La Doriane.  It is a wine to seek out and savor.  



More wine columns:     Ed McCarthy