Who'd have thought the most interesting white wine I'd tasted all year would come from Bordeaux?
It would have been no surprise if some new white from the Rhône or the Loire, or a Riesling from Germany or the Finger Lakes, lit my fire this past year. Even something off the radar from the Jura would have been more predictably surprising than a white Bordeaux.
Don't get me wrong—I love white Bordeaux, from the steely, mouthwatering style of wines like Malartic-Lagravière to the broader, brioche-tinged whites from the likes of Haut-Brion. The dry whites from châteaus in Barsac and Sauternes are greatly improved in recent years (Yquem's Y bottling has quietly become sensational) and there are also intriguing, rich white truffle-scented whites from the likes of Jean-Luc and Murielle Thunevin at Château Valandraud. But still, for Bordeaux to produce the white wine that grabbed me more than any other this year?
Yet there I was earlier this month, working in Bordeaux, blind tasting through 600 wines, focusing on the recently bottled 2009 reds. I started with a small flight of white, a mix of 2009s and '10s, when suddenly something electric hit my palate. It was a total curveball, with aromas of quince and tangerine that hinted at an off-dry wine, but were quickly followed by tangy quinine and verbena notes. Then the finish showed a waxy edge, but kept nice cut and tension thanks to lively green fig and pear eau de vie notes. It was yin and yang, totally unique and thoroughly delicious.
When it came time to pull the bags off the bottles and see the results, there it was. The Château du Retout Vin de France Le Retout Blanc 2010. Who? What?
The château wasn't totally new to me. I'd found the red to be a delicious value during my en primeur tastings of the 2010s last March. But this was my first experience with the white. A little research and it was easy to see why it caught me off guard. There's no Sauvignon Blanc or Sémillon, the lead grapes in white Bordeaux. No Muscadelle either (a lesser grape in white Bordeaux). No, instead the wine is a blend of 65 percent Gros Manseng, 25 percent Sauvignon Gris, 6 percent Mondeuse Blanche and 4 percent Savagnin. If that sends you scurrying for the Oxford Companion to Wine, don't feel bad. Gros Manseng makes delicious sweet wines in southwest France. Savagnin is known for making old-school, lightly oxidized styled Arbois. At most, Sauvignon Gris can be found in bits and pieces in Bordeaux (Smith-Haut-Lafitte has added some to their white recently). And Mondeuse Blanche? Well, there's only about 10 acres of that in the world. Needless to say, I needed to stop by Retout and see what the deal was.
Château du Retout is located right on the D2 as you drive up the Médoc through Cussac-Fort-Médoc, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it town equidistant between Margaux and St.-Julien. It's the home of Hélène and Frédéric Soual, who have taken over the running of Hélène's father's 84 acres of vines. It's been a hands-on operation ever since the elder Soual first planted vines in the late 1950s.
Château du Retout was founded in 1958. It produces an excellent red Haut-Médoc value as well as a new, intriguing white.
"My father 'liberated' a few telephone poles for their steel to help build this winery," said Hélène with a smile as we toured the estate. "When I came, the hand-poured concrete floor was so uneven, the stainless steel tanks were balanced with shims. I made sure we fixed that first."
Hélène, 38, started in 1996 and was joined by her husband Frédéric, also 38, in 2001. Both have learned primarily on the job, with a little formal schooling thrown in. With a single large parcel behind the château of clay and gravel soils, the couple currently produce 100,000 bottles annually of a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot blend that is rock solid in both the 2009 and 2010 vintages—one of the best bet-you-never-heard-of-this values in Bordeaux you can serve your friends.
The white is just a fraction of the production: There are just 15 cases of the debut 2010 (don't fret, production will increase). The wine came about when INAO, the governmental body that oversees France's wine appellations and regulations, told the Souals that a parcel of Merlot they had could no longer use the Haut-Médoc appellation. That decision came as quite a surprise, since the parcel had been Haut-Médoc AOC since 1971. Knowing the fruit they produced from there could not go into the main blend and still be called Haut-Médoc, and thus would result in a lower price for the wine, the Souals were faced with a decision. They could tear out the vines, or they could try something new. They chose the latter.
"We love white wine," explained Frédéric. "But there is plenty of good Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc already in this area. So we decided to try something original."
"We wanted something that was fuller in body, but also very fresh in aroma," said Hélène. "We did a little research to see what might grow here, and we settled on the mix of Mondeuse, Gros Manseng, Sauvignon Gris and Savagnin. We grafted over on the Merlot, lost 20 percent of the vines after the grafting, and harvested the first crop in pots I borrowed from my mother's kitchen."
"We thought in advance that we would harvest the whites before the reds and that it would be easy," said Hélène. "But we found out that the Gros Manseng ripens after the Merlot. So harvest has not been as smooth in terms of timing as we hoped," she added with a tiny chuckle. It's been a steep learning curve for the Souals, who plan to ramp-up production from the 4.5-acre parcel to 1,000 cases annually as they tinker with the wine, including trying to push some of the 2011 through malolactic.
It's off-beat, unique and a great story, as well as being tasty. And it's also the most interesting white wine I tried all year.
You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.
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