SommCon®, the annual conference and exposition for sommelier-level education and training of wine professionals and serious enthusiasts, returned to San Diego in November. The conference offers a strong educational component for those seeking to rise in the ranks of the sommelier world and the wine business. The three-day conference featured some 50 sessions, workshops and educational programs led by recognized experts in their fields, with more than 500 wines available for tasting.

Our first session was on “Dry White Bordeaux – Finding Its Place on Retail Shelves and Wine Programs.” The guides were Mary Gorman-McAdams, Master of Wine, from the Bordeaux Wine Council, and Allison Hupp, wine educator. They noted that dry white Bordeaux is “affordable, diverse and accessible” throughout the U.S. It represents 9 percent of total Bordeaux area under vine. It includes 13 appellations on 9,700 hectares (about 24,000 acres), with annual volume of 318,000 hectoliters in 2017 (some 42 million bottles, or 3.56 million cases).

For total production, Bordeaux exported 2.2 million cases to the USA from July 2017 to July 2018, the highest since 1985, with 86.5 percent being red and 13.5 percent white.

Bordeaux Whites

During our travels to Bordeaux and in many tastings in the U.S., we’ve enjoyed a wide range of Bordeaux blanc over the years, particularly the wines from Graves (meaning gravel) and its neighbor, Pessac-Leognan. The better wines from those appellations tend to be blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon and have gone through barrel aging and some bottle aging before release to add depth and character. The terroir is most pronounced in the red wines, such as from Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion, where wines benefit from the influences of gravel, sand and starfish limestone many layers below.  Behind the cassis, berries, cocoa, leather and cedar aromas of the red wines driven by blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are hints of minerals, stone and flint, which add a dash of character to the white wines as well.

For an enlightening and entertaining wine tasting experience, have a blind tasting of Sauvignon Blanc-based wines from Bordeaux, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume in the Loire region, Marlborough in New Zealand, South Africa, and Napa and Sonoma Counties in the U.S. Have one person buy the wines, another put them in brown paper bags and a third mix up the bags and add numbers. Try to guess the countries of origin and if the wines are blends. Score the wines using the 20-point score sheet and talk about each before unveiling. 

To set the stage for the SommCon tasting, our guides to the white wines of Bordeaux outlined the following:

Sauvignon Blanc Characteristics

  • Early ripening
  • Relatively high acidity; aromatic
  • Likes mild climate with sunny summers but too much heat alters aromatic potential
  • Does well in clay and limestone soils
  • Can be barrel fermented to add power and complexity

Sauvignon Blanc Aromas

  • Not ripe enough: green pepper
  • When ripe, a wide range of aromas: boxwood (cat pee), broom, eucalyptus, tomato leaves, grapefruit, passion fruit, guava, white peach, mango, lemon, gooseberry
  • After a few years of bottle age: truffle, smoke, roasted meat

Semillon Characteristics

  • Ripens at same time as Merlot in Bordeaux
  • Very productive variety; needs pruning to control quality
  • Does well in clay, gravel and limestone soils
  • Less acidity than Sauvignon Blanc
  • Adds mouthfeel and texture
  • Adds aging potential

Semillon Aromas

  • Young: hints of almond, hazelnut, white peach and lemon on limestone; fresh apricot and orange on gravel
  • After Aging: grilled, toasty, smoky, with acacia blossom, mango and candied apricot

Muscadelle Characteristics

  • No relation to Muscat grape
  • Delicate aromas (floral, grapey, with hints of Muscat)
  • Late ripening; susceptible to botrytis
  • Less planted because of viticultural challenges
  • Used as minor blend in other white wines

Sauvignon Gris Characteristics

  • Earlier ripening than Sauvignon Blanc
  • Thick-skinned
  • Elegant aromas of flowers and Muscat
  • Lower acidity than Sauvignon Blanc
  • Used as very minor blend in other white wines

The wines labeled Bordeaux Blanc, Entre-Deux-Mers and Cotes de Bordeaux tend to be fermented and aged in vats and meant for more immediate consumption. The experts noted that they are lively and fruity and best enjoyed in one to three years.

The wines labeled Graves and Pessac-Leognan are typically “structured and generous,” according to our professors. The best wines from those appellations are fermented and aged in smaller barrels, which adds to the complexity and aging abilities (five to ten years and more for the top wines). They go well with seafood and shellfish and other lighter dishes. Properly briefed on the nuances of the grapes and general styles of the appellations, we tasted nine wines priced from $13 to $45, with some fine values:

  • Chateau Sainte Marie, Vieilles Vignes, Entre-Deux-Mers 2017, $13. Sharp, mid-gold; mineral nose, young and weedy (70% Sauvignon Blanc, 25% Semillon, 5% Muscadet); tight acids; long semi-fruity finish, crisp. 15.5 to 16.0 on UC Davis 20-point scale, 88 other scale.
  • Chateau de Bellevue, Bordeaux Blanc, 2013, $17. (100% Sauvignon Gris). Sharp light to mid-gold; weedy, citric, floral, apricot; opens with air; balanced, tight acids. 16/90.
  • Clos des Lunes, Lune d’Argent, Bordeaux Blanc, 2016, $17. Sharp gray-green and gold; straw, peach, clove nose (70% Semillon, 30% Sauvignon Blanc); balanced; long fruity semi tight finish. 16 to 16.5/91.
  • Chateau Les Charmes-Godard Francs, Cotes de Bordeaux 2015, $20. Mid gold; smoky, ripe grape, floral, peachy nose (70% Semillon, 15% Muscadelle, 15% Sauvignon Gris); mid-body, long crisp fruity finish; nice more lush style. 16/90.
  • Chateau Lacaussade Saint Martin, Cuvee Empreintes Blanc, Blaye Cotes de Bordeaux Blanc 2012, $30. 85% Sauvignon Blanc, 10% Semillon, 5% Sauvignon Gris. Sharp mid-dark gold. Big floral nose, barnyard, wet hay, hazelnut; round, ripe; long soft fruity finish. 16 to 16.5/91.
  • Chateau Auney l’Hermitage, Cuvee Cana Blanc, Graves 2014, $30. Sharp mid-dark gold. Citrus, grapefruit, linden, old floral nose (40% Semillon, 40% Sauvignon Blanc, 20% Muscadelle, 5% Muscadelle); fruity citric finish. 16/90.
  • Clos Floridene Blanc, Graves 2016, $22. Sharp, light-mid-gold; Grave nose; smoky, minerals, citrus and peach (56% Sauvignon Blanc, 44% Semillon); hints of wood; good fruit extract; nice style; long complex finish. 16.5/91.
  • Chateau Picque Caillou Blanc, Pessac-Leognan 2015, $30. Sharp mid-dark gold; ripe grapes and higher alcohol; light oak, peachy, floral, boxwood nose (80% Sauvignon Blanc, 20% Semillon); round, ripe, balanced; long multi-layered finish. 16.5 to 17/92.
  • Chateau Latour Martillac Blanc 2013, $35 to $45. 70% Sauvignon Blanc, 30% Semillon. Pure mid-gold; ripe grapes, but trade us; grab news; minerals, Chris, balance, light oak. Write, Rich, longer finish. 16.5 to 17/92.

    Latour-Martillac Blanc

(Note: SommCon® is produced by Fast Forward, a San Diego-based event management agency specializing in productions for the wine, beer, spirits and hospitality industries. Contact them for more information on future events.)