One of my earliest memories of drinking proper wine was with a university friend who liked to get out of Oxford on Friday afternoons and spend the weekend in London. There, we were able to prise open cases of her dad’s wine – Médoc something, I vaguely recall – stored in the garden shed and often more shed-cold than cellar-cool when we opened it.
The cool rasp of young claret implanted itself into my conception of pleasure more firmly than I realised. Many of us will have started our wine journey with a red Bordeaux and these wines have become so iconic it is hard to imagine a wine world that didn’t rely on their sense of vinousness by which we can judge all else.
How is it that white Bordeaux has been so overlooked? Unlike the red bandwagon, white seems to have missed every bandwagon coming. When Marlborough Sauvignon ruled the world, it seemed every wine region from Chile to Sancerre was able to capitalise with its own Sauvignons. But not Bordeaux. In the nineties, the world seemed obsessed with oak and richness, yet powerful, solidly-oaked white Bordeaux seemed forgotten in the mania for Meursault.
I confess I rarely thought about white Bordeaux either, until a bottle of Couhins-Lurton 2009 was opened for a tasting at the château. Here was a wine so pungently rich it recalled the pink grapefruit and ripe citrus of Campari, with smoky, sesame-seed oak providing a sumptuous counterfoil, all underpinned by a subtle current of sage and resin. I never really got on with the insistently high-pitched tone of most unoaked Sauvignon, but here was one with a bass line, and from then on I sought out oaked Sauvignon from California to Margaret River.
Fast-forward three years and I’m part of a Theatre of Wine team organising an ambitious vertical tasting of white Bordeaux across several André Lurton châteaux, focusing on Pessac-Leognan and with an array of older vintages that are still commercially available. It’s an exciting and challenging project I didn’t imagine when tasting that Couhins-Lurton 2009.
The reason such an extensive stock of library vintages remains commercially available is down to the closure. Part of the production of all the top white Pessacs was sealed under screwcap from the early 2000s until recently, but the conservative French and Asian markets, while buying up cork-closed stocks, resisted the same wine under screwcap. This ongoing resistance in traditional markets is undoubtedly depriving drinkers of some delicious mature wines from leading estates, as well as a consistent and efficient closure. Although we must all do more to dispel the fake news around screwcaps, we have been too slow for white Bordeaux – future Lurton vintages will move to Diam.
Tasting the wines that afternoon, I was struck by how Sauvignon, even when not barrel fermented and without any Semillon, absorbs oak well. So well, in fact, that it transforms the flavour of the grape. Far from adding a veneer of richness, it seems to penetrate and transmogrify the green herb and citrus quintessence of the grape and give it an additional dimension of concentration and richness. It was noticeable how many of the wines tasted as good in the first flush of youth as in full maturity – not so often the case for their red counterparts.
Perhaps we should accept that, for as long as red Bordeaux is the paradigm by which fine wines are judged, the white wines will forever live in its shadow. Yet they are every bit as good as the reds, and the extensive array of commercially available library vintages that exist are both considerably cheaper and more reliably sealed than most of their more lauded cousins.
Yet, these top Pessac whites are every bit as good as the reds, and the extensive array of commercially available library vintages that exist are both considerably cheaper and more reliably sealed than most of their more-lauded cousins. The only question that remains is: when will oenophiles catch on?
* Jason Millar is retail director at independent wine merchant Theatre of Wine. He can be contacted at email@example.com