A First Step into Sweet White Wines of Bordeaux

  • By Jacky Blisson MW
  • 18 Nov 2020
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 101
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Panorama Sweet Bordeaux - Credit : Sweet Bordeaux

The sweet white wines of Bordeaux are revered for their seductive aromas, lively acidity, luscious yellow fruit character, and honeyed sweetness. From well-known, luxury vineyard terroirs to a wide diversity of appellations crafting great value late harvest and botrytised wines, the Bordeaux region has much to offer wine lovers.

History 

According to British wine expert Hugh Johnson in “The Story of Wine”, the earliest documented evidence of sweet wine production in Bordeaux dates back to the 17th century. At the time, the region was better known for its dry red wines. Dutch traders were responsible for introducing white wine grape varieties and sweet winemaking techniques to the region. 

Late Harvest Wines

Late harvest refers to the technique of leaving grapes hanging on the vine for several weeks to months after the typical picking date. During this time, the grapes continue to ripen and may also start losing water due to evaporation, which concentrates the fruit’s natural sugar levels even further. It should, however, be noted that not all of the sweet wines of Bordeaux are late harvest, with some being harvested as early as the end of September.

Botrytis-affected Wines

Many vineyards in Bordeaux are susceptible to fungal infections due to the region’s damp, maritime climate. One such fungus, Botrytis cinerea, attacks wine grapes causing them to shrivel and rot. However, in certain conditions, this mould can actually have beneficial effects. The water loss in the grapes results in highly concentrated levels of natural sugars, acidity, and aromas, making for intensely flavourful wines. Botrytis, otherwise known as “noble rot”, can also give a rich, rounded mouthfeel to wines and impart unique flavours such as honey, beeswax, marmalade, and/or exotic spice. 

Grape Varieties

Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc are the two major white grape varieties used to produce sweet wines in Bordeaux. Sémillon gives weighty, rounded wines with a honeyed, yellow fruit fragrance. Its thin skin makes Sémillon particularly susceptible to Botrytis and therefore a prime grape variety for “noble rot” wines. Sauvignon Blanc is prized for its racy high acidity and vibrant citrus notes, adding lift and vibrancy to the generally Sémillon-dominant blends.

Depending on the appellation, several secondary blending grapes are permitted. The most frequently seen are Muscadelle and, increasingly, Sauvignon Gris. Muscadelle is a highly aromatic grape with a soft, medium-bodied palate profile. Sauvignon Gris is a mutation of the Sauvignon Blanc grape. It is not a widely planted white variety at present but is growing in popularity with quality-minded white producers. Sauvignon Gris is less fragrant than Sauvignon Blanc, with a richer, rounder mouthfeel and tropical fruit notes.

Exploring the Regional Appellations

Bordeaux Moelleux AOP

The Bordeaux AOP is a vast, generic appellation that covers the entire Bordeaux area. The semi-sweet wines blended from vineyards across this area can be labelled as Bordeaux Moelleux.  Yields are limited to 60 hectolitres/hectare (hl/ha) here. These late harvested wines can only be picked when minimum must weight (the measure of grape sugar levels) reaches 178 grams/litre (g/l). The wines are produced by halting fermentation before all residual sugar has been converted into alcohol. Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle are the most commonly used grapes here. These affordable wines are light, fresh, and easy drinking with moderate sweetness levels (between 25 – 45 g/l residual sugar) and simple citrus and tropical fruit aromas. 

Bordeaux Supérieur AOP

Bordeaux Supérieur is a designation reserved for vineyards within the Bordeaux AOP area that possess better ripening potential and meet stricter production standards, such as lower yields capped at 49hl/ha. A small amount of semi-sweet to sweet white wine is produced at this quality tier and is labelled Bordeaux Supérieur Blanc. Most of these wines are made from late harvested grapes picked once their must weights exceed 195 g/l. Their flavours and sweetness levels are similar to Bordeaux Moelleux but generally more fruit-forward. 

Premières Côtes de Bordeaux AOP

This appellation stretches from the banks of the Garonne river to a series of slopes that were once known as the “Grandes Côtes”. The vineyard area is directly across the river from Bordeaux at its northern tip and runs southwards in a narrow strip for 60km. The appellation features mainly limestone, clay, and gravel soils, and is well-drained by the tributaries of the Garonne river, with the best vineyards facing south east. Yields are kept low here, at 45 ha/hl maximum. The late harvested wines from the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux are made from grapes having achieved must weights of at least 221 g/l. They are intensely expressive, with vibrant yellow fruit, citrus and floral notes. They range from semi-sweet to sweet (approximately 45 to 100 g/l residual sugar). 

Notable Producers 

Maison Calvet Bordeaux Moelleux AOP
Château Beneyt Bordeaux Moelleux AOP
Domaine des Graves d’Ardonneau Bordeaux Supérieur Blanc AOP
Château Valentons Canteloup Bordeaux Supérieur Blanc AOP
Château Fayau Premières Côtes de Bordeaux AOP
Château Gravelines Premières Côtes de Bordeaux AOP
Domaine du Cheval Blanc Premières Côtes de Bordeaux AOP
Château de Marsan Premières Côtes de Bordeaux AOP

Panorama Sweet Bordeaux - Credit : Sweet Bordeaux