French Wines are Fresh for the Season

THE PERFECT WHITE wine is a distillation of springtime: it’s the smell of rain, an infusion of owers and new grass, a touch of wood and wet stone and a twist of lime to hint at the coming summer. This romantic impression was formed for me long ago in Cap d’Antibes, in the south of France, with a bottle of Graves that went perfectly with a chilly plateau de fruits de mer. And I still search for that experience in a white.

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Graves lies southeast of the city of Bordeaux, hugging the Garonne River. The name Graves comes from the layer of gravelly soil left behind by the last Ice Age over the underlying limestone. Bordeaux, of course, is most famous for reds from the Médoc appellation. In the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855 the only château outside of Médoc named to the top tier was Haut-Brion in Pessac-Léognan, which was a sub-region of Graves at the time. After a century of this indignity, the producers of Pessac-Léognan created their own classification in 1959. Twenty- two wines from 16 châteaux made the cru classé list and honor was restored. Then, in 1987, the châteaux of Pessac-Léognan dropped their association with the wider Graves region. Yes, it’s confusing, but that’s France.

The white wines of Graves and Pessac-Léognan are made from sauvignon blanc, sometimes blended with sémillon. They’re understated, which is not a flavor profile common to the world’s most popular sauvignon blancs, but these classified producers dance to their own tune.

The wine I’m really enjoying that’s closest to that “springtime” ideal is the 2011 Château Carbonnieux Blanc ($40). It’s a pale yellow-green, bright and racy with acidity. It has aromas of fresh straw and white flowers, a taste of minerals and chalk, a hint of mint, star fruit and grapefruit.

It’s two-thirds sauvignon blanc with one-third sémillon adding a soft touch—delicious for sipping and pairing with lighter food.

This wine comes with a fantastic story too. In the late 1700s, the château was managed by Benedictine monks, who cleverly sold the pure, fresh wine as “mineral water of Carbonnieux.” It made its way to the Ottoman sultan in what is now Turkey, who, as a Muslim, was not allowed alcohol. He was apparently fooled by the monks’ marketing ruse and enjoyed the drink so much he asked, “If the French mineral water is so good, why do they bother to make wine?”

The 2011 Château Couhins-Lurton Blanc ($40) is similar but, elegant and more complex. It’s made of 100 percent sauvignon blanc, fermented and aged 10 months in 30 percent new oak. Also a lovely yellow-green, it has aromas and flavors of citrus, elder flowers, chamomile and a touch of honey. The château belongs to André Lurton, a leading grower in the region.

In contrast is the 2012 Les Hauts de Smith ($38). This is the second label of Château Smith Haut Lafitte, a château that dates from the 14th century, which is not to be confused with Château Lafite Rothschild. This 100 percent sauvignon blanc spent 10 months in 50 percent new oak. It also underwent bâttonage, or the stirring of the lees. All this adds up to a rich, vibrant, quietly assertive wine. It tastes of white peach, vanilla, wet stone and a hint of tropical fruit. To me, it leans toward Burgundian stylistic territory and makes an excellent pair with fresh ham and anything with cheese sauce. This particular wine is also a darling of the critics as an example of an exceptional year for the appellation.

There are many more lovely Pessac-Léognan whites out there and someday I hope to try the Château Haut Brion Blanc, which is the most expensive dry white wine in the world. If any wine can transport you to springtime in the south of France, that would surely be the one.