Bordeaux Wine Notes — 19/06/2008
Bordeaux has good reason for being considered the wine capital of the world. The area under vines is more than 100,000 hectares, and its 13,000 wine estates produce almost 700 million bottles each year. This is a quality wine region, responsable for more than a quarter of French Appellation Contrôlée wines. Today wine dominates the lives of the Bordelaise, but it was not always thus.
The city was occupied by the Romans, but references to Bordeaux in the 7th century BC, mention it only as a centre of commerce, not as a wine producer. The first mention of wine making in the region is found in the poetry of Ausonius, a Roman poet who owned vines in the area in the 4th century AD. Bordeaux’s emergence as an important wine producing region really coincides with the marriage of Eleanor of Acquitaine to Henry Plantagenet (who later became Henry II – 1154) in 1152. With this marriage Bordeaux became the property of the English crown, and it remained under English control for the next three hundred years. In 1453, with the fall of Castillon and the end of the Hundred Year’s War, the region reverted to French control, but the fortunes of the Bordeaux wine trade have been inextricably linked with England ever since. During the middle-ages the prime vineyards were situated in the Dordogne and Graves district, and it wasn’t until the mid 17th century that the marshlands of the Medoc were drained, thus creating some of the finest vineyard land in the world.
During the 18th and 19th century the wine industry in Bordeaux blossomed, and the great chateaux, famous today, were established. The city itself grew increasingly wealthy, and many of the landmark buildings that characterise the city today, were built by the newly emerging wealthy business class, whose wealth stemmed almost exclusively from the wine trade. Bordeaux is very different to its prime French rival, Burgundy. While Burgundy remains an essentially rural, farming community, Bordeaux is far grander. A bourgeois city of wide boulevards, open squares and ornate classic architecture.
The vineyards of Bordeaux are extensive and diverse, covering numerous sub appellations. Generally, the more specific the appellation, the higher the quality, and the price! The basic AC of Bordeaux is responsible for a sea of generally undistinguished wine – red, white and rosé. The site specific AC’s, based on individual communes are the real interest of the region, and it is on these wines that the area’s reputation rests. The soils, climate and grape varieties that make up these individual terroirs are incredibly complex and varied.
Bordeaux is, perhaps, most famous as the home of Cabernet Sauvignon. This variety, which has been planted all over the globe, finds its finest expression in Bordeaux, notably in the Medoc and Graves regions. Cabernet Sauvignon is a grape high in phenolics, built to produce robust, long-lived wines. Its flavour is said to be reminiscent of blackcurrants, and this character may appear on the nose as well, as may aromas of green pepper. However, its reputation is really built on the fact that it develops complex secondary aromas. It is a grape variety that responds well to oak maturation and long bottle ageing, and it is this complexity that has given Cabernet Sauvignon its unparalleled status in the wine world.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a slow ripening variety and it cannot always be relied upon to ripen fully. This fact encouraged growers in the Medoc to hedge their bets by planting a percentage of other, earlier ripening, varieties. As a result, the wines of Bordeaux are invariably a blend of three or more varietals. This piece of vineyard management pragmatism has contributed greatly to the complexity of the wines, and is a factor in the status that they enjoy.
The other major variety throughout Bordeaux is Merlot, which has enjoyed similar international popularity to Cabernet Sauvignon. In the right bank appellations (St Emilion, Pomerol) Merlot is the dominant varietal. On the left bank it normaly plays second fiddle to Cabernet Sauvignon. Its role here is generally to soften the hard tannins of the Cabernet and add an extra degree of fruitiness.
Merlot has the ability to ripen fully in cooler regions, and performs well on cool, clayey soils. It finds its finest expression in St Emilion and Pomerol, but has been succesful in colonising wine regions around the world. Gernerally, it produces wines that are lighter in colour and less tannic than those produced using Cabernet. These are wines that an be appreciated in youth, without lengthy bottle maturation.
The third member of the triumvirate that make up the majority of Bordeaux wines is Cabernet Franc. This is a cool-climate variety that is best known in the Loire Valley, where it produces single varietal wines such as Saumur, Chinon and Bourgueil. In Bordeaux its ability to ripen in cool locations or vintages made it extremely popular, and it is only in the last 40 years that it has been overtaken in volume by Cabernet Sauvignon. As might be expected, it produces lightish wines, low in tannin and early maturing. It displays attractive red fruit or herbaceous aromas, and proves a perfect foil for the more austere Cabernet Sauvignon.
Other red varietals often found in the Bordelais blend include; Petit Verdot, a late ripening varietal that yields concentrated, deeply coloured tannic wines. Malbec, which is used in small percentages in some right bank wines and Carmenère, a deeply coloured varietal that produces excellent wines, but whose susceptability to coulure has resulted in a decline in its importance in the vineyards of Bordeaux.
Until recently Semillon was the most important white grape variety in Bordeaux, but in the last 30 years it has been suplanted by Sauvignon Blanc. This variety dominates the blend in dry white wines, which tend to be more herbaceous than the overtly green styles currently fashionable in the New World. Probably the finest dry whites come the Graves and Pessac-Leognan appellations, where they may also gain complexity from the judicious use of oak barrels for fermentation and maturation.
The most famous white wines of the area are the lusciously sweet Sauternes and Barsac. Here the blend is reversed with Semillon dominant, and the possible addition of a third varietal, Muscadelle.
Bordeaux’s appellations may be divided, very broadly between those of the left bank, those vineyards lying on the south side of the River Garonne and the Gironde, and the right bank, covering the sweep of vines on the north bank, stretching from Bourg and Blaye through St Emilion and it’s communes. The third significan region is represented by the 1er Côtes de Bordeaux and Entre Deux Mers, which lie in the triangle of land between the converging rivers Garonne and Dordogne. Bordeaux is an extremely complex region, consisting of over 50 separate appellations. However, the majority of interest that the area excites revolves around the prestigious classed growths of the Medoc, Graves and St Émilion.
The tier of appellations that creates the most interest, and defines the status of Bordeaux wines in the world market, is the 1855 Classification of the wines of the Gironde. The wines of the region had undergone unofficial classification prior to this, but in 1855 they were given a ranking that has remained, largely, unchanged ever since. This was done for the Paris Exhibition of that year, which required that the finest French wines should be put on display to the world. Sixty two wines were chosen, and these were graded according to the prices that the wines had commanded over the preceding years. These wines were classified in 5 tiers, the best being 1er Cru, often referred to as 1st Growths, down to 5ieme Cru, or 5th Growths*. This hierarchy has remained ever since, with the exception of the promotion of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild from 2ieme to 1er Cru in 1973. The longevity and stability of this league table is its main strength, or overriding weakness, depending on your point of view. That these wines have remained consistently at the top of the table for over 150 years may be seen as an indication of their continued excellence. Equally, it may be viewed as a failing that there is no relegation or promotion. If the same system was applied to the football league Preston North End and Aston Villa would now be sitting proudly at the top of the Premiership!
Undoubtedly, at any given time some of the top classified Chateaux will be underperforming, while some estates of more humble provenance may be producing better wines. However, as a general rule, the 1855 Classification does provide a good benchmark by which to grade the wines of Bordeaux. This initial classification drew on wines from 3 communes, 2 in the Medoc and 1 in the Graves district.
At the same time the most prestigious white wines of the region, those from Sauternes and Barsac were also classified. This classification referred only to sweet wines. Chateau d’Yquem was give the highest ranking of 1er Grand Cru, this was followed by 11 chateaux that were given the title of 1er Cru, and 12 more were rated as 2ieme Cru.*
Despite the controversy that the 1855 Classification caused, and continues to cause, other regions followed suit, albeit belatedly. The wines of St Émilion were classified 100 years later in 1955. The best wines of the district were divided into three categories, Premiers Grands Crus Classés A, B (1st Great Growths A and B) and Grands Crus Classés. Unlike their neighbours in the Gironde, the wines of St Émilion are reclassified on a regular basis, most recently in 2006.**
Buyer beware! When shopping for St Émilion wines it is worth noting that the labelling can be somewhat misleading. Even simple village wines may be labelled as Grand Cru. The top flight wines will also have the term Classé on the label.
The next region to implement this kind of league table for its wines was the Graves district (Although one Graves Chateau, Haut-Brion, was also included in the 1855 Classification). The wines of this region were classified in 1959, with 13 chateaux that produced red wine, and 8 that produced white, being permitted to use the term Crus Classé. ***
In the Bordeaux wine hierarchy one other classification is worthy of attention, the Crus Bourgeois. These are also sometimes referred to as Petits Chateaux, and are often the best value wines to be found in Bordeaux. Over the last few years this has been an area of great controversy. The Crus Bourgeois were first classified in 1932 when the listing included 444 domaines. The number of approved chateaux was reduced by subsequent reclassifications, culminating in a major re-evaluation in 2003 that reduced the number to 247. A number of producers were unhappy with the results and, after considerable legal wrangling, the 2003 classification was eventually annulled in 2007. The term no longer has any legal status, but some growers are using the term “Label Cru Bourgeois” as an indication of quality.
Beyond the classification system, the distinctive terroirs found in the numerous villages and communes of the region produce wines in a wide range of styles.
*See Appendix 2 for full listing of the 1855 Sauternes-Barsac Classification. **See Appendix 3 for the latest (2006) St Émilion Classification. ***See Appendix 4 for full listing of the Graves Classification
The left bank is dominated by the Medoc. It has to be said that this is not the most beautiful wine region in the world. These flat gravel beds were basically marshland until the region was drained by Dutch engineers in the seventeenth century. It may not be scenic, but this is the Holy Land for wine connoisseurs. Driving through the vineyards of the Medoc brings to life many of the legendary names of the wine world. Starting in the north, the first commune worthy of note is St Estéphe. The soils here are largely gravel, lying on a bed of clay. Consequently, the soils are relatively poor draining and cool. This results in wines with high levels of acidity and tannin. These wines, austere in their youth, are built to last. Traditionally, they show deep colour and high extract. The commercial necessities of the 1980’s encouraged producers to increase the proportion of Merlot in their vineyards. This resulted in a softer style of wine ready for earlier consumption.
Seperated from St Estéphe by a small stream, Pauilllac is probably the most prestigious of the communes of the Haut Medoc. Three of the five First Growths (Lafite, Latour and Mouton) are situated around this small riverside town, and these are supported by a further 15 classified growths. The soils here consist largely of gravel, which means they are not only well drained, but also warm. These produce powerful, rich wines of tremendous longevity, with flavours of blackcurrant, complemented by spicy cedar-wood aromas.
To the south of Pauillac lies the commune of St Julien, one of the most consistent and under-rated communes of the Medoc. St Julien is home to 11 classified growths. The gravelly soils are more homogenous here than in the neighbouring areas, and this may go some way to explaining the consistency of the communes wines, which are elegant and subtle. They may lack the power and intensity of the wines from Pauillac, but they invariably display an elegant charm.
The southernmost of the “Big Four” communes is also the best known, Margaux. Its fame may stem from the fact that is the only commune to share its name with its most famous First Growth chateau. This is the biggest of the Medoc’s communal appellations, and it is also the most diverse geologically. The region’s soils consist of limestone, clay, chalk and sand, but the best sites are on gravel outcrops. The appellation was the strongest at the time of the 1855 Classification, 20 properties were include in the original rating, but during the latter half of the 20th century many of the area’s producers failed to keep abreast of the changes that overtook wine-making technology. During that time many big-name chateaux were frankly over-rated. At the same time many, less prestigious, petit chateaux were producing excellent wines. More recently the region has got back on track, and is now producing wines of real finesse and charm.
The land surrounding these prestigious communes, stretching from Bordeaux to the marshes of the Bas Medoc, in the north, makes up the appellation of Medoc. The best sites are on the higher ground and these are entitled to the designation Haut Medoc. This area is home to many of the Crus Bourgeois that created such ontroversy recently, and is a source of some excellent, good-value wines. The area of lowland far exceeds the
acreage of the Haut Medoc. This is referred to simply as Medoc, and the wines are generally undistinguished.
South of Bordeaux is the region of Graves, famous for both red and white wines. As the name suggests, the soils here consist of gravel deposited by Ice Age glaciers. The Graves district was extremely important in the past, but much of the area has been built on as the suberbs of Bordeaux seep out into the surounding countryside. The region’s reputation has also shrunk in recent years due to less than meticulous winemaking. However, more recently the region’s winemakers have awoken from thir slumbers, and are now producing some very good wines. Stylistically the red wines are far lighter and more forward than those from the Medoc.
The Graves region was, historically, an important white wine producing region. The dry white wines of the Graves enjoyed universal acclaim in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but they were gradually left behind by changes in fashion and winemaking, and the region struggled in the 1970/80’s. However, in the last fifteen years the area’s winemakers have reinvented white Graves, with considerable success. The wines are still made from the blending of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, but yields have been lowered and greater care is now taken to pick grapes with a good balance of fruit and acidity. Fermentation may be in either stainless steel or wood (or, more normally, a combination of the two) and the results have been excellent. These wines are now more modern in style, with greater freshness and elegance than in days of yore. The style can vary between mineral freshness and toasted oakiness, but generally understatement and subtlety are the key features with white Graves.
The reputation of the Graves was undermined in 1987 when many of the finest producers in the district, including all 16 classified growths, seceeded from the appellation to form the new designation of Pessac-Léognan. As in Graves this is an appellation for both red and white wines, and both are of a uniformly high standard. The best whites here generally have a greater reliance on oak for fermentation. They have tremendous finesse and elegance, combined with great intensity and power, and the best can stand comparison with France’s finest white wines.
Thirty or so miles south from the centre of Bordeaux lie the appellations of Sauternes & Barsac. Here the region’s three white grape varieties are transformed into luscious, sweet wines. These are produced using grapes which have been allowed to rot on the vine. The grapes are attacked by a fungus called Botrytis Cinerea, which causes them to shrivel. This results in a lessening of the water content and a concommitant concentration of the sugars and acid within the grape. These can than be used to produce wines that are lusciously sweet, but with perfect balancing acidity. While these are undoubtedly amongst the world’s greatest wines, the region suffered in the late 20th century as sweet wines were deeply unfashionable. The signs are that tastes are changing and the region is now undergoing something of a renaissance.
The wines of the right bank are dominated by St Émilion. This picturesque walled-town is situated on a plateau above a prominent limestone outcrop. It was first settled by the Romans, who quarried limestone from the outcrop to build the town. During the Middle Ages the town grew in importance and, together with the neighbouring port of Libourne, it remains the centre for the wines of the right bank to this day. It remains unspoilt, and is one of the most beautiful wine towns in France.
The soils, topology and grape mix here are totally different to those on the left bank, and the resulting wines are also very different. Although the soils are quite diverse, the major contributor is limestone, and this can be broadly divided into two main regions; the plateau and the slopes leading up to the town. The soils on the slopes, known as the Côtes, are a mix of sand, clay and limestone. While those on the plateau are limestone with varying thicknesses of gravel. Wines from the Côtes tend to be quite restrained and austere in their youth, while those on the plateau are, on the whole, more opulent.
As a general rule, the wines of St Émilion are far more fruit-driven than wines from the Medoc. They are far more approachable, and generally not as long lived. This difference is explained, to a great extent, by the grape mix. In St Émilion Cabernet Sauvignon is far less important. The star varietal here is Merlot, generally with Cabernet Franc as its counterbalance.
The finest wines come from the two sub-districts, but there is a huge amount of wine made from grapes grown on the flatter, alluvial plain at the foot of the escarpment. Most of this wine is lighter in style, and lacks the concentration and character of wines made in the better sites.
There are also 4 satellite appellations around St Émilion. These are made up of villages, on the fringes of the town, which are permitted to affix their village name to that of their more prestigious neighbours. These are; Lussac St Émilion, Montagne St Émilion, Puisseguin St Émilion and St Georges St Émilion, and they produce some of the best value wines of the region.
Value for money is not a term used much when discussing the wines of Pomerol. This tiny appellation, situated between St Émilion and Libourne, is enjoying a golden age, with its wines attaining prices that put even First Growth Medocs in the shade. This is remarkable in a wine region that only really came into existence about 100 years ago. Prior to that Pomerols were generally sold as St Émilions.
Pomerol is a region where Merlot is very much to the fore, with some wines being made as pure, single varietals. It produces extremely rich, opulent wines that are very attractive, even in their youth. There are a number of reasons for their, some might say, excessive prices. The appellation is very small, as are the individual estates (Petrus is about 1/10th the size of Lafite), and production is correspondingly limited and this scarcity pushes prices up. The other factor that has served to push prices up is the interest of the American market. American wine guru Robert Parker has championed estates, such as Le Pin, and made them highly sought after in the US.
At the other extreme of the Bordeaux hierarchy there are a number of appellations that offer wine in all its forms, red, white, rose and sparkling, at affordable prices. These are the unfashionable appellations, producing wines that may lack some of the elegance and refinement of the Grands Crus, but still make wines with character. Appellations such as Bourg, Blaye and the 1er Côtes de Bordeaux offer value for money wines that are still above the “everyday drinking” level.
Bordeaux is a fascinating wine region, much of its interest coming from the seemingly endless variations on its theme. New wine regions may appear, but Bordeaux’s position at the centre of the wine world is assured.
Best Out Performers in the Leading Communes
|St Estephe||Ch Calon Segur
Ch Phelan Segur
Ch Pichon-Longueville – Comtesse de Lalande
Ch Grand Puy Lacoste
Ch Haut Batailley
|St Julien||Ch Gruaud-Larose
Ch La Lagune
Ch Malescot St-Exupery
|Graves/Pessac-Leognan||Domaine de Chevaliere (especially like their white)
Ch de Fieuzal
Ch La Tour-Martillac (for whites)
|St Emilion||Ch Pavie Decesse
Clos de l’Oratoire
Please note, this is a purely subjective selection of wines that have appealed to me over the years, and which represent good value for money.
by Andrew Williams.
© Arblaster and Clarke Wine Tours. All rights reserved. These notes may not be copied in whole or in part without express permission.
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