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Move Over, White Burgundy
By Michael Apstein
Jan 28, 2020
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Ask wine critics what is the best white wine category in the world…and their usual response is white Burgundy.  Yes, I know, some respond with Riesling, but I’m not speaking of greatest white grapes, I’m speaking of a category of wine.  After a tasting of Domaine de Chevalier organized by Panos Kakaviatos, friend and WRO colleague, held at the French Embassy in Washington, and from personal experience with wines from my cellar, I now add white Bordeaux to the list.  Not all white Bordeaux, mind you, but certain ones, such Domaine de Chevalier, Château Laville Haut Brion, the white wine from La Mission Haut-Brion, and, of course, Haut Brion Blanc.

White Bordeaux has fallen out of favor over the decades.  Up until the middle of the 20th century, Bordeaux produced more white wine than red.  Currently, the ratio is about 9 to 1 in favor or red.  Olivier Bernard, whose family has owned Domaine de Chevalier since 1983, notes that climate change makes it more difficult to produce a great white wine.  He explains that a cooler environment is essential to maintain acidity in white grapes, which translates to freshness and liveliness in the wine.

The best dry white Bordeaux comes from Pessac-Léognan, which is the northern part of the Graves region and which was split from that appellation in 1987.  Pessac-Léognan is also home to red wines, most notably, Château Haut Brion, which along with Latour, Lafite and Margaux were at the pinnacle of the 1855 Bordeaux classification.  (For completeness, Mouton-Rothschild was promoted from the second tier to the top one in 1973).  Most estates, like Domaine de Chevalier, make both a red and a white wine if their soil composition permits, but some, such as Haut-Bailly, makes only red because of the prominence of clay in their vineyards.

Like its red counterpart, white Bordeaux is usually made from a blend of grapes, primarily Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, though estates are permitted to use a single variety. ( For completeness, other permitted white grapes are Muscadelle, Merlot Blanc, Colombard, Sauvignon Gris and Ugni Blanc).  Domaine de Chevalier’s 15 acres of vineyards devoted to white varieties (of a total of 150 acres) are planted with roughly 70 percent Sauvignon Blanc and the remainder Sémillon.  Bernard notes that the blend of the wine usually mirrors the composition of the vineyard.  He explains that the Sauvignon Blanc provides freshness (it has 20 percent more acidity at harvest compared to Sémillon) and structure, similar to Cabernet for the reds, while the Sémillon, like Merlot, adds body. 

Though Domaine de Chevalier produces superb white and red wines, Bernard thinks that white wines are in another world, “heavenly,” he says.  By contrast, for him, reds are about the tannins, which come from the soil.  He finds something ethereal in the whites.  After tasting mature Domaine de Chevalier’s whites, I see what he means—they are heavenly.  The reds are sensational as well, but that’s a topic for another column.

The trio of whites from Domaine de Chevalier, 2000, 1990, and 1980, was truly show-stopping.  As the staff poured the wines for each table and guests tasted the trio, conversation at that table abruptly stopped.  Consider for a moment that the youngest wine was almost 20 years old, and indeed, its youthfulness was apparent in comparison to its older brothers, with more citrus and fewer peach-y flavors. The 1980, pushing 40 years of age, had developed magnificently with nuances of stone fruit, a lanolin-like texture, and amazing citrus-infused freshness.  The 1990, riper than the 1980, was generous, displayed layers of flavors, and was still invigorating. 

Amazingly, among the 24 attendees, each wine received eight votes as the favorite. Though I did not taste these wines in their youth, I have had the opportunity to taste Domaine de Chevalier’s white every year at the Union des Grands Crus tasting of the new release of the Bordeaux vintage.  Those wines are typically tightly wound, beautifully balanced, but lack the enormous complexity that bottle age provides.  Even at a mini-vertical tasting at the Domaine in 2007, the 2001 white at six years of age, was still incredibly youthful, exhibiting little of the stunning complexity of its older counterparts.

Bernard attributes the quality of his white and its ability to develop over time to a combination of terroir, precision, and compulsiveness.

Domaine de Chevalier’s terroir is unique.  The vineyards sit in a cool section of Pessac-Léognan and are surrounded by a pine forest, which, according to Bernard, keeps the vineyards even cooler.  He notes that they typically harvest two weeks later than neighboring Château Carbonnieux because of the cooler environment.  The importance of terroir is apparent when tasting the 2014 Domaine de la Solitude side-by-side with the 2014 L’Esprit de Chevalier, the second wine of Domaine de Chevalier.  Domaine de la Solitude, another white Bordeaux owned by Bernard, is only three miles away from Domaine de Chevalier and is made by the same winemaking team from a similar mix of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon.  The citrus-tinged Domaine de la Solitude Blanc is clean and cutting, displaying primarily the grassy Sauvignon Blanc varietal character, while the L’Esprit, even a second wine that comes from younger vines, shows an energetic and balanced combination of richness and stone fruit nuances atop a luxurious texture.

Bernard explains precision by describing the differences between 1983, when his family purchased the Domaine, and now.  Whether to leave grass between the rows of vines or not?  Whether to expose the developing grapes to the sun by removing leaves or not?  Whether to leave berries or not?  When they upgraded the winery, they were sure to include many variably-sized fermenting tanks so they could ferment and age the wine parcel by parcel.  None of these questions were being asked in 1983.  Nonetheless, that 1980 Domaine de Chevalier white was still stunning, showing the importance of terroir, and perhaps an element of compulsiveness instituted by the previous owners.

A critical aspect in the quality of their white is the care they take with the harvest, according to Bernard.  At Domaine de Chevalier, the team goes through the vineyard up to five times to be sure they are harvesting only perfectly mature grapes.  Even within their relatively small and seemingly homogenous vineyard, the harvest can span two weeks.  Bernard adds that he is not aware of any other producer of dry white wine who harvests in successive passes through the vineyard.  He explains that since making white wine relies only on the juice and the pulp of the grape, you must be compulsive to harvest only perfectly mature grapes.  The subtleties and nuances of white wine, which shine and are transparent in the absence of tannins, make the timing of harvest critically important.  He explains that, unlike red grapes, it is easy to identify healthy and mature white grapes by their color on the vine, which is why they can be so precise and selective in harvesting the whites.  To be sure, it is a labor-intense and expensive proposition.  Bernard estimates they spend about 400 man-hours to harvest an acre of red grapes, compared to 800 to 1,600—2 to 4 times as much—to harvest an acre of white grapes.  He credits Claude Ricard, the previous owner, with the practice.  As Bernard recounts, Ricard initially did it to enhance quantity.  He noticed that harvesting at average maturity, resulted in a less juice.  Harvesting successively increased his volume—and quality. 

In the cellar, the bunches are inspected again to remove diseased grapes.  The grapes are pressed and the juice collected, avoiding skin-contact. Nor is there malolactic fermentation.  The wine’s high acidity protects it, allowing the winemaking team to perform periodic batonnâge and prolonged lees-aging, about 12 months, which enhances future complexity.  It then spends about 18 months in small oak barrels (only 30 percent of which are new), which is longer than most other white Bordeaux.  Bernard feels that these techniques give the wine weight and structure, without wood flavors.  Even with this compulsiveness, only two-thirds of the white wine is bottled as the Grand Vin, leaving one-third as L’Esprit de Chevalier, which, at about $35 a bottle, is a spectacular bargain year in and year out.

After this tasting, I searched my cellar for older white Bordeaux and found six remaining bottles: two each of 1989 Château de Fieuzal, 1988 Château Laville Haut Brion, and 1983 Haut Brion Blanc, which I had with dinners over the following week.  All were stunning, displaying a complexity and freshness similar to that of the Domaine de Chevalier whites.  It is clear to me that, as with great red wines, great white Bordeaux needs decades to reveal their grandeur.  My regret: I didn’t buy more.

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E-mail me your thoughts about Bordeaux white wines in general or Domaine de Chevalier in particular at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

January 29, 2020