2011 Bordeaux: Dry Whites

The 2011 vintage is a very good one for the dry white wines of Bordeaux, and much better than it is for the region's reds.  Quality is surprisingly consistent across the board, and, even better, you don't have to mortgage the house or be a millionaire to snag great bottles to drink.  The better wines are endowed with a lovely tropical fruit character, plenty of minerality, and the structure and length to age well.  The less successful wines show a slight lack of grip on the finish and are a  little less full in the mid-palate, but for the most part the 2011 dry whites from Bordeaux display bright, nicely focused aromas and flavors. 

I probably like this vintage more than some of my colleagues do, but then I particularly appreciate the combination of early-drinking appeal and the capability to age well that the better examples possess.

Growing conditions in 2011 helped the white wines perform well for the same reasons it hampered the reds. The long, cool summer permitted the preservation of mouthwatering acidity and resulted in vibrant aromas and flavors in the finished wines.  Not surprisingly, wines born from grapes grown on limestone soils are marked by greater freshness than those made from sandy graves soils, which tend to be a little less vibrant but are still very successful in 2011.  The grapes were often harvested early, even in late August, but the wines smell and taste ripe and offer very little in the way of green or astringent notes.

Technical director and chief winemaker Jean-Philippe Masclef of Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion told me that 2011 was a much harder vintage to work than 2010, but feels that the dry white wines are of comparable excellent quality.  He harvested twice as long in 2011 as in 2010, picking for roughly 15 days, from August 18 through September 1.  Summer was marked by a few days of extreme heat, leading the sauvignon blanc to grill on the vines just like the cabernet sauvignon, so yields of sauvignon blanc were very low, and careful selection was required at harvest time.  But according to Christian Seely, general director of Chateau Suduiraut, the quality of what was ultimately harvested was extremely high and the aromas very pure and penetrating.  Masclef felt the semillon was generally not as interesting (at Haut-Brion there were only 18 barrels made), but where the vines are older, with deeper root systems (such as at La Mission), the semillon yielded grapes with more richness and aromatic intensity.

Readers should note that although Bordeaux's red wines gather most of the attention and ink, the dry white wines have a long and illustrious history in Bordeaux wine circles as well.  Though total production of dry white wines is trending downward in Bordeaux, with almost everyone wanting to produce more of their remunerative red wines, an increasing number of estates are producing new dry whites.  Cos d'Estournel, for example, is a recent player in the dry white wine sweepstakes, with Cos d'Estournel Blanc being shown alongside their reds for the first time at the 2011 primeurs.  Of course, Châteaux Margaux, Talbot and Lagrange have long made very good to outstanding dry white wines in the Médoc, and many Sauternes estates have also been making very strong dry whites, often identified simply with the initial letter of the sweet wine (so Y from d'Yquem, or G from Guiraud).  Clearly, it makes sense for the Sauternes estates to produce dry white wines as well, since they cannot always count on making a world-class sweet wine; as much depends on the presence of noble rot.  Having the capacity to make a world-class dry white wine could prove to be a financial windfall for these cash-strapped estates.