Channelling Burgundy in Bordeaux: the great whites of Château Lafleur

While Pomerol is famous for its reds, the team at Château Lafleur is gaining praise for Sauvignon Blanc-driven white Bordeaux – despite the Right-Bank setting. The estate’s winemakers tell of how the secret lies in a Burgundian take on terroir – with a little help from the Loire Valley

Words by Panos Kakaviatos

Château Lafleur vineyard in Bordeaux
Jacques Guinaudeau of Château Lafleur, which makes one of the great dry white wines of Bordeaux: Les Champs Libres

While it might be an anomaly for the region, those who know Château Lafleur well might not be surprised to learn that the estate has also been crafting quality dry white Bordeaux in Pomerol on the Right Bank. After all, the owners compare their estate to those of Burgundy more than most others in Bordeaux. But unlike in Chardonnay’s Burgundian home, the climatic conditions in Pomerol present their challenges to white-grape growing.

Lafleur’s vineyard manager Omri Ram confesses that when it comes to Sauvignon Blanc, the region is geared towards making late-harvest sweet wines, with grapes selected for their quick ripening and for their sensitivity to botrytis – which hardly makes them ideal candidates for dry white wine making. And yet, wine critics like Jane Anson are already calling Les Champs Libres a “great white” of Bordeaux.

Bordeaux white
In the 1990s, Lafleur released Château Grand Village, which has a higher percentage of Sémillon in the blend – and was later joined by the estate’s Sauvignon Blanc-led Les Champs Libres

Introduced in 2013, Les Champs Libres is a white Bordeaux AOC dominated by Sauvignon Blanc, but with rootstocks originally sourced from the Loire Valley. The team at Château Lafleur says it prefers using these grapes to avoid those aforementioned stumbling blocks presented by Bordeaux’s late-harvest-friendly clones, as well as to better express the clay-limestone soils in their vineyard, which is located in Fronsac.

The 2019 vintage reveals pure wet stone, lemon and floral aromas. A blend of 95% Sauvignon Blanc and 5% Sémillon, you can also detect white pepper and quince on the palate, and a density impressive for Sauvignon Blanc. An average of 4,500 bottles of Les Champs Libres are produced each year, made from three Sauvignon Blanc parcels at A Louima, Les Pêchers and Les Acacias. “As at Lafleur, we set a high standard in these parcels, harvesting by hand and double-sorting grape bunches, which allows us to press grapes at perfect ripeness,” says Lafleur’s co-owner Baptiste Guinaudeau.

Bordeaux - Château Lafleur - Baptiste Guinaudeau 2
Bordeaux - Château Lafleur - Julie
Lafleur co-owners, husband-and-wife team Baptiste and Julie Guinaudeau

Our white Bordeauxs are kind of red”, adds Ram, a former sommelier from Israel who has been with the estate since he started an internship in 2013 that “has not ended yet”. He explains that they chose to plant these new parcels of white grapes in soils with more clay, where Merlot used to grow. “The clay soil adds density, depth and structure, lending full body to the wine but without need for skin contact or extraction.”

But the key factor in developing Lafleur’s white Bordeaux is those rootstocks. Rather than finding clones for their Sauvignon Blanc vines, Lafleur’s co-owners, husband-and-wife Baptiste and Julie Guinaudeau sourced pre-clonal vines from an anonymous union of Sancerre vintners, using what is known as “massal selection”: vineyards are replanted from cuttings, often from exceptional old vines – although, usually from the same (or nearby) property. According to Baptiste Guinaudeau and Omri Ram, this selection preserves the natural “clonal variation” of older vineyards, meaning that the resulting flavour is far from generic.

In fact, for Château Lafleur, massal selection is a key factor to its fame altogether. The estate’s blends of Merlots and what they call Bouchets – the local name of century-old Cabernet Franc grapes – are unique in the context of the great frost of 1956, which killed many vines on the Right Bank. While most estates uprooted their Bouchet and planted Merlot in their place, only three estates in the area – Lafleur, Ausone and Cheval Blanc – kept their original vines.

The owners at that time – the great aunts of Baptiste’s father Jacques Guinaudeau, Thérèse and Marie Robin – were “anti-change” and did not want to uproot historic vines. “They just cut the upper part of the trunks, hoping to get more from the bottom parts from the same vines – and it worked.” It was a slower process to regenerate the vineyard, but they succeeded – and now have “real Bouchet in quantity”, according to Ram.

Château Lafleur - Omri Ram
Vineyard manager Omri Ram has carried out extensive work to get more character and authenticity into the estate's wines

Growing Sauvignon Blanc has been another waiting game for the estate, but over the past few years, Lafleur’s dry whites have begun to prove their mettle, and the team feels more comfortable showcasing them alongside their better-known reds. “In the past 10 years, we have seen a big shift; we have redefined the terroir for the whites,” says Ram.

Since the 1990s, the estate has also been making Château Grand Village Blanc – also a Bordeaux AOC, but now made from a blend of local clones and grapes grown from that Sancerre rootstock. More recently, it exudes full-bodied appeal, thanks to its 25% Sémillon along with 75% Sauvignon Blanc. The 2019 vintage has a juicy mid-palate with chalky wet-stone aspects resembling fine Chablis from a solar vintage. It may not have the same vigour as Les Champs Libres, but its flavour exceeds its price point.

With the estate’s continued emphasis on vineyard plots and massal selection, the Burgundy comparisons make sense. Regardless of the grape, Bordeaux’s Lafleur is letting its terroir lead each story.

The wines of Château Lafleur are distributed in the UK by Justerini & Brooks