Le Retout Blanc 2019
If you are a committed drinker of the white wines of Bordeaux, then I think you have been having a tough time of it of late. The truth is, while recent times have given us three fine vintages for the region’s reds, those turning out white wines have not been so favoured. The whites from 2018, 2019 and 2020 are undeniably rich and textured, but they often lack the acidity they need to really excite and energise my palate. To be fair this is not a purely Bordelais phenomenon; even in the Loire Valley, my other region of interest (just in case you didn’t know), recent vintages have been generous, the richly styled white wines in many cases enjoyable, but often lacking the decisive drive that made vintages such as 2014 so exciting.
The picking of early-ripening varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc (in both regions) and Melon de Bourgogne (that’s just in the Loire – any rumours you have heard that Château Lafite-Rothschild recently planted a hectare of Melon are untrue) now frequently begins in August. The timing is a trade-off between acidity and alcohol on one side, and aromatic complexity on the other. The longer you wait the more interesting aroma and flavour compounds you get coming through in the grapes, but you lose acidity and gain sugar and thus alcohol. After an early start and warm weather in 2020, the harvest of Sauvignon Blanc in Bordeaux began on August 14th (although the final week of the month was the busiest), while the first bunches of Melon de Bourgogne in the Loire Valley were snipped from the vine on August 26th, and both regions had picked a significant percentage of the crop before September even arrived.
The longer this situation continues the more difficult it will be to produce white wines with balance and interest in Bordeaux, and thus when local appellation regulations were changed recently to facilitate experimental plantings of alternative varieties, it was not surprising to find two white varieties included alongside the four new reds. The reds now permitted are Touriga Nacional, Marselan, Castets and Arinarnoa, albeit only in wines of the generic Bordeaux appellation. The first of the two whites is Alvarinho, a familiar name, a variety long cultivated in Portugal and Spain where it has a reputation for quality as well as acidity and balance, vital if it is to be useful in an ever-warming Bordeaux. The second choice was Liliorila, perhaps less immediately familiar. This is a laboratory crossing between Baroque, a little-known variety from South-West France, and Chardonnay. Given that Liliorila has a reputation for early ripening and low acidity, quite why it was chosen over other more suitable varieties, such as Petit Manseng or Gros Manseng, remains a mystery to me.
For some inspiration on which varieties to allow and which to exclude, the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité could have done much worse than head up to Cussac-Fort-Médoc to see Frédéric and Hélène Soual at Château du Retout. A few years ago, having decided to top-graft and then ultimately replant an old parcel of Merlot to white varieties, Fréd and Hélène faced a choice; go with traditional varieties, and make yet another dull Sauvignon-based Bordeaux blend, or do something more distinctive. Which path they chose is rather obvious, as today they have 1.5 hectares of white varieties, a quartet comprising 40% each Gros Manseng and Sauvignon Gris, and 10% each Savagnin and Mondeuse Blanche. Their first vintage of white was 2010 (even if the volume produced at that time amounted to just 180 bottles) so they now have a decade of experience with these other varieties, and they turn out one of the most fascinating white wines in all Bordeaux.
The 2019 Le Retout Blanc is a blend of 48% Gros Manseng, 40% Sauvignon Gris, 6% Savagnin and 6% Mondeuse Blanche, all picked between September 11th and the 30th, at a yield of 43.3 hl/ha. The fruit was pressed without destemming, fermented in barrels and small cuves, and then aged in a mix of 80% barrels, of which 15% were new, and 20% amphorae. It has a polished lemon-gold hue in the glass, and a very expressive nose filled with luscious scents of orchard fruit, especially mirabelle and yellow peach, with floral vanilla flower, sage and honeysuckle complexities. There is also a white pepper and minerally crushed oyster shell note here. The palate is beautifully textured, broad and set within a firm frame, with great grip to it, and following the lead of the nose it positively shimmers with mineral intensity, intertwined with fine acidity. I find great savoury substance here, with both intensity and energy, and a remarkably long finish. A quite brilliant wine, and unique within the region, and its undeniable balance – even if the declared alcohol is on the high side at 14.5% – suggests this should develop well in the cellar. 94/100 (28/6/21)
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