Bordeaux offers the wine consumer a vast range of styles of dry white wine -- from light, fruity brand names for poolside quaffing to majestic, intensely flavored rarities that deserved to be carefully matched with the finest cuisine.
Prices and aging potential are just as variable. A simplshipper's blend can cost under $5 but lose its freshness after two years. A hard-to-find bottle of Chateau Laville-Haut-Brion or Domaine de Chevalier can set you back $50 to $100 but develop in a good cellar for two or even three decades.
In my last column, I discussed in general terms the reasons for the appeal -- and the relative -- obscurity of white Bordeaux. Now it's time for a more specific look at the market.
One thing to bear in mind is that a good vintage for red Bordeauor sweet white Bordeaux is not necessarily good for the dry whites of the region. The semillon and sauvignon blanc grapes that make up the dry whites are picked a couple of weeks earlier than the red grapes -- sometimes under very different conditions.
For instance, 1986 is regarded as an exceptional year for botthe red wines of the Medoc and the sweet wines of Sauternes, but for dry whites it was no better than average. On the other hand, 1987 was a bit below average for the reds and a near-bust for Sauternes but significantly better for dry whites.
However, sometimes the quality goes hand in hand. In 1985, both the reds and dry whites were superb, and 1988 became the first vintage since 1975 in which all three types of wine excelled.
In general, the best vintages of the 1980s for dry white Bordeaux are 1981, 1983, 1985 and 1988. The best 1987s and 1989s are also exceptional, but the vintages are much more spotty.
In practical terms, however, you should not consider any shipper's blends or minor chateaux wines older than 1988. And once you get older than the 1985s, only the very finest chateaux are worth a gamble.
Over the past few weeks, I have tasted a couple of dozen white Bordeaux in various price ranges. Those listed below represent some of the good, some of the bad and one that was formerly ugly:
*1974 Les Plantiers du Haut Brion, Graves, $27.49. When the staff at Chateau Haut-Brion tasted this unloved vintage soon after fermentation was complete, they were so dubious that they never did release it under the Haut-Brion label. They simply bottled it and held it.
After it languished in the cellar for almost 15 years, thHaut-Brion people realized that their Ugly Duckling had turned into a swan. But rather than try to release it as Haut-Brion blanc, they decided to create this special label for the wine and to sell it for about one third the cost of the regular white Haut-Brion.
The result is virtually a gift to devotees of fine white BordeauxDuring its years in exile, the Plantiers has gained enormous depth and length. Hazelnuts, vanilla and herbs come together in bone-dry wine of exceptional complexity and length. There's a hint of sherry flavor, but the wine is far from decrepit. It would be foolish to try to keep it for much longer, however.
*1988 Chateau La Louviere, Pessac-Leognan, $16.99. A wine of great power, depth, richness and complexity. And it will only get better with three to five more years. A standout in three different tastings over the past year.
*1988 Chateau Carbonnieux, Pessac-Leognan, $16.99. In recent vintages, Carbonnieux has turned in some disappointing performances, but this excellent 1988 could mark a turnaround. It's a full, rich, rounded wine with toasty oak flavors and hints of fresh bread, pear and slate.
*1985 Chateau Larrivet-Haut-Brion, Graves, $14.99. Complex, subtle and mature, with light pear, mineral and herbal flavors and excellent length.
*1989 Chateau Millet, Graves, $9.49. A fine combination of youthful exuberance and classic structure at a very attractive price. Delicate but not at all wimpy.
*1988 Domaine de Grandmaison, Pessac-Leognan, $14.99. An elegant, somewhat austere wine with an excellent interplay of mineral flavors and tangy fruit.
*1988 Chateau Talbot, Caillou Blanc, Bordeaux, $13.99. Crisp, herbal sauvignon blanc flavors, but a bit thin for the price. Good wine, dubious value.
*1989 Chateau Lamouroux, Graves, $7.49. Fresh, fruity flavors with some pleasant nuances of spice. A porch-and-patio sipping wine for warm weather enjoyment. Drink up before the leaves fall.
*1988 Chateau La Garenne, Bordeaux, $4.99. A crisp, racy seafood wine with good length and intensity for the price.
The following three wines are some of the better shippers' (negociant) blends. Each represents a significant improvement over the bland example set by the ubiquitous Mouton Cadet ($5.99 on sale for the 1988 vintage).