Winter is a great time to host wine tasting events. It’s cold and dark outside and nothing is better than to get together with some friends by the fire and discuss wine which The Advice Sisters really feel is “just sunshine in a bottle.” My own wine group has started discussing wines of the Loire Valley this winter and they are very sunny indeed.
Unfortunately, winter is also a time when walk-around tastings in New York can be difficult to cover because they so many people (including consumers in some cases) are crowding in to see what’s new (and do something interesting and warm inside), and because they often feature thousands of different wines. As a wine columnist, I tend to take a curated approach if it is possible to come out of a tasting with a coherent story, instead of just trying to taste everything and remember nothing.
One of the very interesting tastings I attended was scheduled on one of the coldest, stormiest days of the Winter to date. In fact, most events were cancelled the day of the 40th anniversary event for the Grand Crus of Bordeaux, held at Cipriani 110 East 42nd Street, in Manhattan which featured nearly 200 wines,. I did attend however despite the storm. Perhaps, inspired by the fact that New York City was blanketed in white snow, I decided to focus solely on the white wines of the Bordeaux region.
Bordeaux is one of the oldest and most famous wine regions of France, and is home to some of the most dominant varietals in wine making world wide. The white wines in the region are built around the Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle varietals. Most Bordeaux producers produce blended wines, using all of the available varietals in some mixture. This is because the weather in the region is very volatile, and the best grapes each year may be from different varietals or different vineyards, and vines are generally replaced every 60 years or so. This means that Bordeaux wines are all about style and vintage, and less about varietal and place.
In Bordeaux, white wines are produced in three basic styles. The dryer wines, which are Bordeaux Blanc, are based on both the Sauvignon blanc and Sémillon varietals and are usually a blend of both. The dry wines generally are either light and citrus-y, or more apply and rich in character depending on the varietal blend, the specific terroir or the production style. The third style, which is dominated by late harvest Muscadelle grapes which have been allowed to begin to rot in the field, are sweet and rich. These are generally from the Sauternes appellation of Bordeaux.
In the brief period of time that I had to sample wines at this event, sponsored by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, an association consisting of 133 estates with specific quality standards and located in the best appellations, I sampled a total of 14 different white Bordeaux wines which spanned the gamut of taste profiles. Across the board, the winemakers and their representatives said that the quality of 2012 production – particularly of white varietals – was excellent and while the wines can be consumed right now, that they will age forever, and over time will become nuttier, less fruity and more complex. Most recommended aging for between four and 10 years to allow the minerality present in all of the wines to fall out and the structure to begin to show.
Starting with the most citrus-y of the wines that we tasted was the Chateau Picque Callou from the Pessac-Leognan region. The wine, which was a 60/40 blend of Sauvignon blanc and Sémillon and is priced at about $35 was very mineral with a bit of lime and lemon on the front of the palate. There was almost no nose to this wine and while it would age would drink well right now. Another wine with this profile was Chateau Latour Martillac from the same region and priced at about $28 per bottle. The representatives said that this as an aging wine – to hold for at least 10 years – and we have to agree. The strong minerality overpowered the fruitiness of the 70/30 Sauvignon blanc and Sémillon blend, which did feature a lot of peach, nectarine and lemongrass flavors.
There were a lot of more complex wines in the tasting. Chateau Carbonnieux (Pessac-Leognan: priced at about $35) as a Sauvignon blanc and showed some citrus up front but this was quickly replaced by apply and raisin notes (like baked) apples. Another Pessac-Leognan, Chateaux Larrivet Haut-Brion a 80/20 blend featured very floral notes with a lot of honey up front. Its nose was strong with raisin.
Heading to the Graves region, the Chateau de Chantergrive was a 50/50 Sauvignon blanc and Sémillon blend with a floral, tea rose nose, and strong minerality. There were nuts and mushroom notes that came out over time as well. This wine was priced in the $20 range.
The two most complex wines that we tasted in the dry selection were the Chateau Malartic Lagraviere (75/25 Sauvignon blanc and Sémillon) and the Chateau Olivier (75/25 Sauvignon blanc and Muscadelle), both from Pessac-Leognan. Both had similar noses with rose and wood notes, with the Olivier delivering some locker-room smells as well. The Lagraviere was woody on the plaatte and the Olivier buttery and apply but it was obvious that both wines would become fatter and richer with some age.
On the sweeter side, the Bordeaux region is famous for its Sauternes which come from an area surrounded by the southern part of Graves. The wines are made from Sémillon, Sauvignon blanc, and Muscadelle grapes that have been affected by Botrytis cinerea, also known as noble rot. Production of these wines can be hit-or-miss, but according to the representatives at the tasting, 2012 was an excellent year. We tried 5 of these wines, and they ranged wildly in taste profiles. The Chateau Guiraud Sauternes (65/35 Sémillon and Sauvignon blanc: $70) was rich in flavors with a citrusy nose and mango, tropical fruits and melon on the palette, while the Chateau Climens ($60) was floral to milky on the nose (like condensed milk) with a nuttiness to the palate. Our favorite was from an old estate – one actually visited by Thomas Jefferson – Chateau Coutet (75/23/2 Sémillon, Sauvignon blanc and Muscadelle) has a sweet raisin nose with honey, pears and raisin on the palate. This wine will age forever becoming richer and more nutty over time.
These white Bordeaux wines are more complex and will age better than most traditional chardonnay and pinot grigio varietals. The dry wines, which can provide good alternatives to chardonnay, particularly when a more acidic and minerally wine is called for. And don’t forget Sauternes not only for desert but for pairing with spicier foods like Thai, Indian and even Mexican cuisine. If you really want to be a gourmet, try this recipe, Lobster with Sauternes and Curry, via Snooth.com.
A little wine can go a long way so its important not to let the higher price tag be a barrier to the Grand Crus of Bordeaux.
Established in 1973, the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux includes 133 properties located solely on the prestigious appellations of Bordeaux. Learn more about the region and its wineries from the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, and look for a tasting at your favorite wine store.
The Advice Sisters want to thank our “wine columnist,” John Dunham, for this report.