Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sticking up for white bordeaux

At a dinner last year, several friends were discussing a colleague's recent birthday celebration. No one questioned the honoree's right to choose the wine, but his choice left the group puzzled. "White bordeaux?" one wondered. "Who drinks white bordeaux? What's even in white bordeaux?" I could so little more than name the grapes: sauvignon blanc and semillon.

That skepticism and ignorance are not isolated phenomena. A generation ago, whites accounted for about a quarter of the wine produced in the region in southwestern France, a proportion that has fallen to about 10%. Sauternes, made primarily from semillion, retains its iconic status as one of the world's great sweet wines, but the dry whites of Bordeaux have fallen into disregard, and producers in the region have shifted production to grapes from which red is made: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, malbec, and carmenere. That leaves less room for sauvignon blanc and semillion, which until the 1970s was the widely planted grape in Bordeaux.  

I came by a few bottles of white bordeaux in the fall when a salesman at Frankly Wines in Tribeca recommended a 1999 L'Espirit de Chevalier from Pessac-Leognan because of my affinity for the whites of Lopez de Heredia. Just south of the city of Bordeaux, Pessac-Leognan is a sub-region of Graves, which gets its name from the gravel that underlies its soil. The L'Espirit is the second wine of Domaine de Chevalier, one of the best producers of white in the appellationaccording to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Wine along with Chateau Haut-Brion, whose reds are among the most expensive wines in the world. Domaine de Chevalier wines can go for over $100 a bottle retail depending on the vintage, but the '99 L'Espirit de Chevalier can be had at few stores in New Jersey for $20 bottle, pricing that suggests its unpopularity.

It's a steal at that price and was well worth the $30 I paid for it at Frankly Wines. The semillon give the wine a nuttiness that's rich but balanced by the acid from the sauvignon blanc that's about 70% of the blend. The flavor profile is broadly similar to Heredia's wines. L'Espirit lacks their complexity, but it held up very well on its own over the course of a few hours with some cheese. The salesman recommended pairing it with scallops, perhaps sauteed in some brown butter that would match the nuttiness of the wine. Munching on some hazelnuts while drinking the L'Espirit wouldn't be a bad idea, either.    

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