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The Bordeaux of a different color

With 2005 reds at sky-high prices, Jon Bonné considers another option from France's most famous wine region.

The wondrous quality, and outrageous prices, of 2005 Bordeaux have already been chewed over. If you follow these things, you’ve heard the vintage-of-the-century spiel, seen the jaw-dropping prices (2005 Chateau Margaux has topped $10,000 a case in some corners) and shuddered at tales of usually faithful collectors from the record-high prices.

I honestly have nothing to add. So today let’s consider instead a side of Bordeaux that never gets its due. That’s not a sly reference to the Cru Bourgeois wines and other, lesser Bordeaux lights that aren’t buoyed by a well-hyped vintage. Plenty of folks have suggested buying them as a way to battle price inflation, and it’s good advice.

No, let’s talk about white Bordeaux. It is an anomaly, a pale-skinned brother to its famous red sibling, all but forgotten in the conversation.

Red Bordeaux is first and foremost a collector’s wine — sold on the power of its most famous names, meant to impart a sense of power and prestige. Its sweet white wines, from Sauternes and Barsac, have followed suit; Chateau d’Yquem exists in its own universe of demand.

Most dry white Bordeaux offers none of this. It is not wine made for horse trading. With few exceptions, these are open and approachable wines, quietly refined, filled with clear fruit flavors. But they lack the aura of prestige on which Bordeaux floats.

“I can’t figure out why they don’t catch on better,” says Clyde Beffa, co-owner and chief wine buyer for K&L Wine Merchants in California.

Certainly, their components shouldn’t be too exotic to comprehend, even for the novice. Sauvignon blanc is a backbone — and given that grape’s popularity, you’d expect its devotees to gravitate to Bordeaux. But the Bordelais struggle to keep pace among sauvignon blanc growers, even with their fellow Frenchmen. “Sancerre seems to catch on better than white Bordeaux,” Beffa notes.

Semillon, with its full, floral aromas, is next. An also-ran with American vintners, semillon’s fleshy texture, especially when bolstered by the careful oak aging that is the hallmark of Bordeaux’s Graves district, gives white Bordeaux a unique character — sharp-eyed but lush. The final player is early-ripening muscadelle, a variety now largely out of favor, but one that adds a distinct fruitiness. These same three humble grapes are responsible for world-famous sweet Bordeaux.

Most white Bordeaux originated as simple table wine, something for local vintners to drink early in the meal before moving on to red. Even at top chateaux, it was generally an afterthought.

Among the area’s appellations, only Graves, which runs for some 30 miles along the left bank of the Garonne river southeast of the city of Bordeaux, has nurtured a reputation for dry whites as well as reds. Graves whites are marked by a firm minerality, imparted by the area’s well-drained gravelly soils. A smaller subset, Pessac-Léognan, was carved out of Graves’ northern tip in 1987, and is home to its finest estates, including its sole First Growth, Chateau Haut-Brion.

Should anyone doubt these wines’ potential, Haut-Brion’s white is strong proof positive. Bottled almost as an afterthought, it now rivals its red counterpart in demand and durability, if not availability. It can age nearly as long (at least two decades or more) and the 2005 Haut-Brion blanc will set you back around $550 a bottle.

Image concernsOther Graves whites can be just as age-worthy, and notably less expensive. Indeed, white Graves is one of the best values around. Between barrel aging and the Semillon-influenced blend, these wines provide a weighty, refined texture without falling prey (usually) to the oaky perils that plague chardonnay.

So with Bordeaux frenzy in the air, why aren’t the whites feeling the love?

“The problem is the image,” suggests Cyril Frechier, manager and sommelier of Seattle restaurant Rover’s.

Too true — for each outstanding white, there are many lesser lights. As you step down the rungs of the Bordeaux appellations, both whites and reds become less reliable. Standouts can be hand-picked among basic bottles (often simply labeled “Bordeaux”) and the vast Entre-Deux-Mers appellation, nestled between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, is at times a worthy source for quality whites under $10. But our recent tasting also revealed plenty of duds.

Bordeaux is a place particularly driven by vintage, and it’s no less true for whites, though an outstanding year for reds doesn’t necessarily mean whites will follow. For 2005, both red and whites shone through. But the cooler 2004 vintage gave the whites a distinct crispness, while many reds were off-kilter; conversely, 2003’s blazing-hot summer made for robust, long-lived reds, while whites were on the dull side. (If you bought them, drink them quick.)

In other words, when collectors are hesitant, make sure to keep an eye on the white wines. They largely remain the province of Bordeaux geeks, or at least those savvy enough to think beyond red when they think of Graves or the Médoc. Frechier recalls opening a 1998 Pavillon Blanc from Chateau Margaux not long ago — wine from a First Growth estate to be had for under $65 a bottle.

“It was just incredible. It’s one of the greatest whites in the world,” he says. “So I think the value is there. I don’t think it’s a problem of value. I think it’s a matter of educating people.”

Our sights were set a bit lower than First Growths. In a tasting of 20 white Bordeaux, we ranged from basic Bordeaux Sec to classified estates in Pessac-Léognan. A sampling of our top picks under $30:

Chateau Haut Rian 2005 Bordeaux Sec ($10, New Castle Imports): Not to be confused with its similarly named counterpart on the other side of the Garonne. Here’s an example of an estate, located just north of the Cadillac appellation and run by Alsace native Michel Dietrich, that’s succeeding without access to the area’s more rarified parcels. More Semillon than sauvignon blanc, but the fresh sauvignon notes appear on the nose — grassy scents, with lime soda and vanilla cream. A bit lean, but great everyday wine.

Chateau La Gravière 2005 Entre-Deux-Mers ($9, Riverside Imports): Further confusion — there’s a Gravière in Lalande-de-Pomerol with Michel Rolland making the wine. This one’s farther south, in the broad river plain of Entre-Deux Mers. A crisp green herbal snap from the sauvignon blanc, with sweet apricot and clean lines. The end is durable and minerally.

Chateau Doisy-Daëne 2004 Bordeaux ($19, Diageo Cheatau & Estates): Denis Dubourdieu, a consultant and enology professor at the University of Bordeaux, is a rare bird — a master of white wines in red-wine land. Sauvignon blanc is his passion, and his property in Barsac is known for its extraordinary sweet wines. But this all-sauvignon bottling shows his capabilities with dry wines. With at least 10 months aging, it’s got a profound dose of oak; that, mixed with flinty mineral notes makes for something closer to oak-aged Chablis than typical white Bordeaux. A bit bizarre, but with great, rich expression. Also keep an eye out for his Clos Floridène from Graves and white Chateau Reynon.

Chateau Graville-Lacoste 2004 Graves ($15, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants): A different Dubourdieu, Hervé, is responsible for the sweet Sauternes of Roumieu-Lacoste, as well as this dry white. Clear citrus notes are underlined by a firm, tart backbone and a mineral finish.

Chateau Coucheroy 2004 Pessac-Léognan ($13, W.J. Deutsch & Sons): André Lurton collects Bordeaux estates like marbles, and has turned his collection of 11 into a formidable empire, based from his Chateau Bonnet in humble Entre-Deux-Mers. Lurton essentially created the Pessac appellation, and here’s as affordable an entry as you’ll find, with sweet spun sugar, lemon and guava, plus orange blossom from the semillon. Falls away a bit at the end, but it’s young — perhaps too young — and could develop nicely.

Chateau la Louvière 2002 Pessac-Léognan ($30, W.J. Deutsch & Sons): Lurton strikes again, with another sauvignon-dominant bottling (85 percent) that shows the virtues of age. Sweet churned butter and buttercups, peach, lemon curd and honey. It’s just starting to mature, and a beautiful sharp acidity balances out the rich, oaky flavors. Could still use more time, but it shows how durable white Bordeaux can be.