Picture a winery lab lined with brimming beakers. A racy sauvignon blanc white wine in one, an earthy sémillon in another. Like mixing up a monster martini, winemakers blend single-varietal wines together to find their signature cocktail. The painstaking process adds complexity to the final product and squeezes maximum flavor out of a vineyard. Getting the right combo, however, isn’t obvious — the wrong recipe can turn people off like this season of Top Chef. But as far as blends go, the French got this stuff down, especially in their Bordeaux white blends.
It’s unfortunate, but whites from Bordeaux cower under the power of their more popular red brothers. The white underdog, however, is beginning to prod the fickle affections of the masses – they now peek out from wine lists everywhere. And for a good reason: White Bordeaux’s lowly status means they’re cheap.
Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon make up the bulk of Bordeaux’s whites. Although these grapes grow everywhere now, they originated in this southwestern wine region and have co-mingled just as long. Crisp, grapefruity and sometimes cat-pee-ish, sauvignon blanc has risen to star status in New Zealand and California, among other places. But in Bordeaux, it has a certain je ne sais quoi — a well-bred sophistication sometimes lacking in their wacky foreign cousins. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Sémillon’s most notable feat its transformation into the highly-valued, lusciously sweet dessert wine called Sauternes.
Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillonare like the odd couple: total opposites. One is lively, fruity and likes The Office, while the earthy one prefers Inside the Actor’s Studio. Together, they’re as magical and evolved as Mad Men. But it’s not just about the flavor. In a particularly bad vintage year – France’s vineyards experience more unpredictable weather than the New World — the freedom to blend allows an artist to overcompensate for a bad crop of Sauvignon Blanc with a heavier dose of Sémillon or vice versa. A carefully crafted mélange safeguards against crappy wine.
White Bordeaux — often barrel-aged, resulting in a softer, more voluptuous flavor — has for millennia been the refreshing quaff of the people, drunk heartily at cafés, as aperitif, and with light meals. It’s the iced tea or beer of the Bordelaise. And why not? Most white Bordeaux are light, dry and citrusy with thirst-quenching acidity (from the Sauvignon Blanc) and an earthy, herby, full-bodied finish (from the Sémillon). They’re also frequently found under $20, inexpensive enough for everyday drinking on the porch or at the dinner table. Seek out newer vintages (under three years old) since, in cheaper bottlings, the fruit wanes over time.
White Bordeaux labels, with their fancy cursive font and umpteen lines of government-required BS, might be intimidating. Pessac-Léognan, a ritzier appellation, rules Bordeaux’s high-end whites but Graves and Entre Deux Mers (translated: “between two seas”), are less expensive. Ignore that the grapes are rarely listed and look instead for these regional names on the label. But don’t be afraid to venture into the lesser-appreciated and homely “Bordeaux Blanc” appellation since many a great wine comes from humble beginnings. You’ll be psyched you did.
Because they’re normally produced in small batches, finding the same White Bordeaux blends all over the place is challenging, so I hesitate recommending particular bottles — might be disappointing — but Chateau du Tertre de Launay, Chateau Graville-Lacoste and Chateau La Freynelle are favorites.