I sparked a series of comments on Facebook the other day with the opening line, “Life really is too short to drink average wine.” Some 100 comments – written or as emoji – reflected how widely that line is open to interpretation. Some took it to mean that life is too short to drink inexpensive wine. But the idea popped in my head not after sipping Mouton Rothschild, but, rather, cheap dry white Bordeaux.
Every summer the past several years, the AOC Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur Regional Wine Growers’ Syndicat – also known as Planet Bordeaux – designates “Oscar Awards” for top Bordeaux AOC summer wines. A jury of international wine writers and critics designate the winners, but COVID-19 concerns this year led to a virtual event. I joined 19 other judges who received “finalists” out of over 300 applicants in categories often associated with summer quaffing: AOC Bordeaux Blanc, Bordeaux Rosé, Bordeaux Clairet and Crémant de Bordeaux. Only 24 wines were chosen as Oscar winners for each category.
My category was dry white Bordeaux, which accounts for just over 10% of total Bordeaux wine production today. Most wine geeks know that in the mid-20th century, Bordeaux produced far more white than red wine. Producers then used white grapes to make sweet wine or sold them for distillation. But a combination of factors – from the popularized “French paradox” that led to more dry red wine consumption, to the power of influential critics like Robert Parker – turned production to favor red over white since then.
Before we get to the wines, let’s look at some current numbers first: The 2.64 million hectoliters of Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supérieur AOC wine produced in 2019 was slightly below the average over the last five years: 2.9 million in 2018, 2.1 million in 2017, 3.2m in 2016 and 2.9m in 2015. As expected, Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur reds, which accounted respectively for 59.9% and 20.4% of production, took up the lion’s share. Dry whites accounted for just a bit over 10% of total production. Other categories included Rosé (6.7%), Crémant (2.1%), Bordeaux Clairet (.75%) and Bordeaux Supérieur Blanc (.02%). Along with the UK, the U.S. tops consumption of dry white Bordeaux imports, each having imported 17% of the wines by volume, followed by Belgium (13%), Japan (9%) and Germany (7%).
Even as we muddle through a challenging 2020, many still overlook dry white Bordeaux, despite articles about “hidden gems.” And by such gems, I do not mean dry whites from the famous Graves region, specifically from the Pessac-Léognan appellation in the northern part of that region, which includes such well-known (and pricey) brands as Haut Brion Blanc, Smith Haut Lafitte and Domaine de Chevalier. Nor do I refer to dry whites produced by celebrated Médoc estates like Châteaux Margaux, Lynch Bages, Lagrange and Mouton Rothschild. No, the above average wine quality “gems” include dry whites recently bottled from the 2019 vintage. Most of these “Oscars” are readily available in the United States and cost between $10 and $20 per bottle; not only are they inexpensive, but also of above average in quality.
In recent years, I have been following scores of estates that are members of Planet Bordeaux, some of which took part in this year’s Oscar competition. I came across some duds and rather boring and… average wines. But suffice it to say, several wines I assessed proved both fun and appealing, even sophisticated palates. I would not grade any of these higher than 90 out of 100, but they all are very nice wines for very friendly pricing….
Examples include one Oscar winner: Château La Freynelle Blanc, which exudes freshness for the solar 2019 vintage. Apricot, lemon and white flower aromas and flavors enchant the palate, which is rather pleasingly creamy in texture, medium bodied and juicy. This would accompany grilled salmon nicely, and it had enough oomph to match the more complex course of Pad Thai, which I had over lunch with that wine. It has 13% alcohol, and I love the easy-open screw cap. Costs under $14 at Saratoga Wine Exchange in New York.
Another Oscar winner, Château Roc de Minveille, exudes a broader palate marked by Golden Delicious apple aromas and a touch of lime. I like the hint of spearmint freshness on the palate, with rather pleasing freshness that beckons drinking, leading to a cool, medium finish. It is available for $17 at NRS Wines & Liquor in the Chelsea area of New York City.
One of my picks that was a finalist, but did not get an Oscar, is the excellent Grain de Lune Sauvignon Gris. This straw colored wine blends 85% Sauvignon Gris and the rest Colombard. Certainly aromatically fresh with clean citrus fruit notes, brisk iodine and a touch of sandalwood. I like the palate, which is both smooth and pleasant and certainly impressed office friends for a Friday evening get together. Unavailable in the U.S. but importers should take note!
Another fine dry white, available in the U.S. at places like Calvert Woodley in D.C. for under $12 a bottle is Château du Cros, whose pale lemon hue preludes floral, acacia and some passion fruit aromatics no doubt coming from the warmth of the vintage. It features smooth texture, and the vivacity to serve with oysters, but perhaps even better with fish in a lemon cream sauce. It lacks the depth however of my overall favorite assessed for these “Oscars,” which was an official Oscar winner this year: Château La Rame. A thoroughly “bracing” white wine, and quite a nice feat coming from a solar vintage like 2019. At 14% alcohol, it shows better balance than many other dry whites I had tried with that level of alcohol. After a manual harvest, the grapes are fermented in temperature-controlled vats and left on the fine lees for six months prior to bottling. Enjoy on its own or with shrimp and cocktail sauce or with filet of cod in a cream sauce. On sale for $17 in New York, but worth every cent of the regular $24 price at Westchester Wine.