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The White Grapes of Bordeaux

Many are surprised to learn that “Bordeaux” is not a grape varietal, but rather a type of wine made in the Southwestern part of France. White Bordeaux, or Bordeaux Blanc, is often overshadowed by its red counterpart, but these wines are delicious, and range from table wines to high quality wines you can age for years to come.

Vines in Bordeaux

Bordeaux makes up a whopping 25% of France’s total wine growing area, which is almost 4 times the size of Burgundy. Of this wine growing area though, only about 11% of the wines produced are white — 8% being dry whites and 3% being sweet whites.

White Bordeaux is almost always a blend of several grapes, but before we get to the specific grape varietals, I think it’s important to explain Bordeaux’s terroir and how these varietals fit into the equation.

White Bordeaux Appellations and Terroir

The Bordeaux wine region is blessed with a terroir that’s made for grape growing. Being on the gulf stream, Bordeaux has hot, sunny summers, warm falls, winters with rare frosts, and damp springs, which are all great conditions for vines. It also benefits from having the largest forest in France to the south and west — the Landes Forest — which protects vineyards from Atlantic winds and storms.

When we talk about Bordeaux, we often think about wines in terms of the Right Bank vs the Left Bank. This is more when we discuss red Bordeaux, but it’s relevant for white Bordeaux as well.

On the Right Bank, you’ll find almost no white wine produced aside from in Côtes de Bourg and Côtes de Blaye, but Left Bank Bordeaux Blancs are some of the highest quality white wines in the world.

Some Classified Growths — i.e. Bordeaux’s best vineyards that are all located on the Left Bank and were classified in 1855 by Napoleon — make gorgeous, very expensive white wines. The most popular white wines on the Left Bank, however, come from the southern part of the region in Graves. Here you’ll find the appellations of Pessac Léognan, Sauternes, and Barsac.

Pessac Léognan is where you’ll find some of the most beautiful dry Bordeaux Blanc, while Sauternes and Barsac produce arguably the best sweet white wines in the world.

There’s another wine region between the Right and Left banks that’s very important for white Bordeaux called Entre-Deux-Mers — literally translated to: Between Two Seas. This is a bit confusing because the region is actually between two rivers — the Dordogne and the Gironde — and not two seas, but we let the French name things what they want because they’re the French.

Almost 65% of white Bordeaux is simply labeled “Bordeaux”, and most of these entry-level wines come from the Entre-Deux-Mers geographic region.

While the Entre-Deux-Mers geographic area produces reds and whites, the official Entre-Deux-Mers appellation produces exclusively white wines. It’s the only appellation in Bordeaux dedicated to only white wines, and these wines are generally on the cheaper side and considered good ‘value’ wines. Though you’ll see both dry and sweet wines from this region, most white production is dry.

Now with this background knowledge in our pocket, let’s discover the white grapes of Bordeaux!

1. Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc makes up about 45% of white grapes in Bordeaux. It’s not super expensive to grow and provides a wonderful backbone for Bordeaux blends.

Sauvignon Blanc is usually used as the main grape in dry white Bordeaux, and it’s also used as a primary blending grape in sweet Bordeaux blends.

It’s important to note that French Sauvignon Blanc tastes different from New Zealand or California Sauvignon Blanc. Each terroir lends its own unique qualities to the grapes. In Bordeaux, here are some key characteristics of Sauvignon Blanc.

Sauvignon Blanc Characteristics

  • High alcohol content
  • Pale color
  • Strong aromas of citrus and boxwood
  • High acidity

2. Sémillon

The other most popular grape in Bordeaux is Sémillon, which also makes up about 45% of white Bordeaux grapes. Sémillon plays a beautiful counterpart to Sauvginon Blanc with its more delicate, round texture. It’s the main grape you’ll see blended with Sauvignon Blanc for dry wines, and it’s the primary grape used for making sweet wines.

Sémillon lends itself to sweet wines due to its high susceptibility to noble rot (also known as Botrytis cinerea). Noble rot is actually a fungus that dehydrates grapes, leaving them extra sweet and flavorful. However, not all Sémillon is affected by noble rot, and it in and of itself is not a “sweet” grape.

Sémillon Characteristics

  • Lower alcohol content (unless affected by noble rot)
  • Golden color
  • Delicate aromas
  • Flavors of honey, apple, pear, and fig

3. Muscadelle

Muscadelle makes up about 9% of white grapes in Bordeaux and is generally used in small quantities in blends. When it’s there though, you definitely notice it. It’s extremely aromatic and brings a vibrancy to dry and sweet white Bordeaux that’s truly unique.

Muscadelle Characteristics

  • Powerful floral and musky aromas
  • Round
  • Low acidity

4. Sauvignon Gris

These last few grape varietals on the list on make up about 2% of Bordeaux’s white grapes, but they all have unique qualities that enhance Bordeaux blends.

Sauvignon Gris is a pink mutation of the Sauvignon Blanc grape. It has a low yield, high sugar content, and is usually the first grape to be picked at the beginning of harvest season. It’s almost always a blending grape, and it usually it’s used in small amounts.

Sauvignon Gris Characteristics

  • Rounder and richer than Sauvignon Blanc
  • Adds body to a blend
  • Flavors of melon and mango

5. Colombard

If you go a little bit further south, you’ll find a ton of Colombard in the Sud Quest wine region, especially if you look at the Côtes de Gascogne. While it’s much more popular in this region, it’s still used in small quantities in some Bordeaux blends. You’ll find most Colombard in the Entre Deux Mers and Côtes de Bourg wine regions. 

Colombard Characteristics

  • Very fruity
  • Distinctive taste of Guava
  • Light and refreshing

6. Ugni Blanc

Ugni Blanc, which is known as Trebbiano in Italy, is probably most well known for being the grape used in Cognac. It’s a super adaptable grape with a high yield and high resistance to disease. Like Colombard, it’s much more widely grown in the South West wine region.

Ugni Blanc Characteristics

  • High acidity
  • Low sugar
  • Subtle aromas and flavors

7. Merlot Blanc

Merlot blanc is cross between Merlot and Folle Blanche, which is another grape used to make Cognac. It’s becoming less and less planted over the years and is generally considered to be an average quality vine, and it can only comprise up to 30% of a blend at most in the Bordeaux appellations that permit its use.

Merlot Blanc Characteristics

  • Low alcohol
  • Subtle raspberry taste
  • Neutral aromas

Other Bordeaux White Grapes

Mauzac, Ondenc, and as of 2021, Alvarinho and Liliorila, are the other four grapes permitted for white Bordeaux blends. They are quite rare to see, however, and are produced in extremely low quantities.

And there you have it! This is a thorough look at all of the white Bordeaux grapes. Hopefully this inspired you to go out and try a bottle or two. They’re wonderful wines to have with food, and I highly recommend it for next time you grill fish. To recap, here are the 11 permitted white Bordeaux grapes:

  1. Sauvignon Blanc
  2. Sémillon
  3. Muscadelle
  4. Sauvignon Gris
  5. Colombard
  6. Ugni Blanc
  7. Merlot Blanc
  8. Mauzac
  9. Ondenc
  10. Alvarinho
  11. Liliorila

Happy drinking!

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