Four top Bordeaux producers recently got together in London to discuss climate change and the Bordeaux paradigm over the past 20 years. See here for discussion about red wines.
- Jean-Christophe Mau, owner of Château Brown in Pessac-Léognan.
- Bruno Eynard, general manager of third growth Chateau Lagrange in Saint-Julien.
- Eric Perrin, owner of Chateau Carbonnieux in Pessac-Léognan, classified for red and white.
- Francois Despagne, owner of Chateau Grand-Corbin-Despagne in Saint Emilion, promoted to St. Emilion Grand Cru Classé in 2006.
Of these four, Château Brown and Carbonnieux produce white wine.
The issues for white wine are far more imminent and pressing, than for red wines, for these top Graves producers. Both Mau and Perrin are concerned for their white production in the immediate term with Mau saying “the problem for whites is more important. We want to keep acidity and freshness, and it will be complicated to keep the freshness.”
And as with the reds, 2003 was a watershed, with the issue being more important for sauvignon blanc, whose racy acidity is part of proposition of the blend, to balance the softer maturity of fleshier semillon.
Mau explained their changing behaviour of the sauvignon blanc, saying “2003 was a complex vintage for whites, it was not a classic balance, and we lost some acidity and flavour [though Mau was not the owner in 2003]. In 2009, to avoid having so much maturity, we harvested in early September.”
Perrin may have caught an earlier boat on this one, saying “in 2003 we finished the harvest of whites on 2nd August. It was never so early. I have the impression of being in South Africa yet we have white 2003s that are fresh, with fruit.”
At Carbonnieux, Perrin is also fortunate to create his wines from a much larger white vineyard than at Château Brown, saying his large and varied vineyard still offered some good climate buffering capability. He said of his white “I have a complex problem. My white vineyard is huge, 45 hectares, all on different soils, with sauvignon blanc on gravel, on limetone, on sand, on limestone-clay. Usually at the end of harvest there are 35 to 40 different styles [lots] of white wine. All these are very different, and after winter we blend together to make the best wines – we have a very large palette of flavours.” So actually Perrin has less of a problem than for small vineyards on one soil type. For the moment…
And it is the vineyard that is the last battleground for quality. Most quality improvements throughout the 1980s and 1990s were in the winery, with improved hygiene and high-tech kit. Perrin, who employs white wine guru Denis Dubourdieu as consultant, said “he first consulted on the winemaking, now most of his work is in the vineyard.” Preservation of terroir character is high up the agenda, so for whites, in the first instance, there are more leaves in the vineyard to protect against sun exposure. Bringing forward harvest date, especially on the zesty sauvignon blanc is another option, though this means burrowing into August, the sacrosanct holiday month for the French, so there are some deep cultural challenges.
Challenging culture is one thing. It was even mooted, heretically though tongue-in-cheek, to swap sauvignon blanc with chardonnay, which tolerates more warmth than sauvignon blanc.