Bordeaux: or it’s all Greek to me in French

I know how intimidating it is when you go into a wine store and not only do you not recognize any of the wines but they’re all in a different language. You ask yourself, “What the hell does Bordeaux and appellation d’origine controlee mean?” Now, maybe you know the basics and hopefully you’ve all moved on past the pseudo French product boycott of 2001/2002 due to their decision to not assist us in the Middle East.

Because within the last six years, Bordeaux has cranked out three blockbuster vintages. The demand for these “classic wines” is strong and the dollar is still getting pummeled by the euro so you might as well consider the top wines out of reach fiscally; unless you want to take out a loan. First growth red Bordeaux retails for at least $500 a bottle now! The good news is that all of the basic entry level Bordeaux AC, Bordeaux Superior & cru bourgeois wines will be amazing across the board in these spectacular vintages. Should you be able to splurge once or twice on a killer bottle you will be rewarded whether you opt to drink it now or “lay it down” (await its peak patiently).

Bordeaux is the pompous, aristocratic, grand region & city on the western edge of France that is divided by the Gironde river (see map here). As the Gironde travels further southwest it splits into two rivers: the Dordogne & the Garonne. Here it is not a matter of hillside & mountain fruit versus valley fruit like in Napa & Sonoma. It is a fairly flat land with centuries of sedimentary deposits and a gravelly soil with good drainage that allows the king, Cabernet Sauvignon, to thrive. Here, there are wines of all styles: dry & robust reds, succulent & delicious sweet whites as well as the dry, food-friendly whites.

But to make matters the most simple, I am only going to focus on the reds today.

All of the red wines can be made from a blend of only five grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec. The amounts of Petit Verdot and Malbec used in the wines now are minuscule and as far as the other three grapes are concerned there is a good rule of thumb to remember. The river seperates the region into two unofficial areas: left bank (officially known as the Medoc) and right bank. The wines made on the left bank of the river are dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, while Merlot is the alpha-grape for the wines from the right bank.

So what is the deal with blending anyways? Why can’t the Bordelais use just one grape for their wine instead of a potential five? I know that’s what you’re thinking right now. Blending can be described by many cliches. Two heads are better than one. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and so on…. So here’s what each grape brings to the table.

Cabernet Sauvignon is the grape of structure and builds the framework for a wine, contributing flavors of black currant, cassis, anise, chocolate & cedar. While Merlot is the flesh on Cabernet’s bones with a fatter, more voluptous texture and flavors of black cherry and plum. Last but not least; Cabernet Franc adds color and aromatics, most notably herbaceous notes.

Sometimes the winery will the list the cepage (varietal breakdown) of the wine on the back of the label. Unfortunately, it’s not always the case. Most wineries won’t beacuase the final blend changes from year to year based upon the quality of the harvest. For instance, Merlot ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon and sometimes rain or other inclimate weather can ruin the Cabernet harvest resulting in a Merlot heavy blend.

Almost all red Bordeaux are labeled the same way. At the top is the name of the Chateau or house. This is who the property belongs to in most cases. Below that on the label is the region or commune that the wine comes from. If it lists Bordeaux as the region it can come from any area within the Bordeaux region, left bank or right bank. Keep in mind that these wines tend to be produced from more Merlot than Cabernet as Merlot is actually the most widely planted varietal in the entire region.

If the wine states one of these specific left bank regions: St. Estephe, Pauillac, Haut-Medoc, St. Julien, Margaux, Listrac, Moulis, Graves or Pessac-Leognan then the wine came from just that one region and the higher price of the wine will demonstrate just that. On the right bank there are two main regions: Pomerol and St. Emilion. Both appellations have satellite regions surrounding them but the best wines come from the heart of each commune. Other communes of note on the right bank are Fronsac, Canon-Fronsac and Cotes de Castillon. Wines from these three areas tend to be great values in good vintages.

A lot of you may have the misconception that all Bordeaux is expensive (more than $35). The truth of the matter is that it’s a very small percentage which are, around 5%. You can attribute this to a wine classification instituted in 1855 by Napoleon III to showcase French wines for the World Fair held in Paris that same year. Wines from the left bank were the only wines considered and they were ranked based upon actual retail price. They were categorized into five classes, called “crus”. They are more frequently referred to as growths, i.e. 1st growth, 2nd growth. Whenever you see on a Bordeaux label, “grand cru classe en 1855” or just “grand cru classe” it indicates that that chateau was one of the 60 chateaux in the original classification. These wines still command the highest prices of all Bordeaux with the exception of a few wines from the unclassified right bank commune of Pomerol.

There have been other classifications that occurred after the infamous and highly disputable 1855 classification. St. Emilion, the right bank commune, has three different quality categories. Premier grand cru classe A includes the top two properties: Cheval Blanc & Ausone. Premier grand cru classe B holds the next best 13, while just ‘grand cru’ is the title for another 60 or so. Back on the left bank there are Cru Bourgeois chateaux that are held to the next highest level just below the fifth growths from the original 1855 classification. These are the best wines of value from the left bank and it is always stated on the label ‘cru bourgeois’. Most of them are situated in the most northern left-bank commune of St. Estephe. Look for Chateaux De Pez, Haut Beausejour, Loudenne and Sociando Mallet.

Unfortunately some people use Bordeaux as a status symbol, throwing around names like Latour, Margaux, Mouton, Lafite, Haut Brion and Petrus. I have never. Probably because I’ve never been lucky or wealthy enough to drink them. Some of these name dropping snobs could probably be fooled with a great Bordeaux that costs fractions of what those “blue-chip” investments cost. Believe it or not, a lot of these monumental wines just sit in collectors’ cellars accumulating dust like pieces of art. Nothing could disgust me more. If you’re saving wine for a special occasion do us both a favor and drink it before it passes its prime. On a final Bordeaux note, there are so many great reasons to explore Bordeaux wines but I’m gonna give you just three: the 2000, 2003 and the 2005 vintages. These three vintages are the epitome of “classic Bordeaux”. Perfect growing seasons and no rain at harvest. These wines were grown not made.

Some great Bordeaux I have had recently.

2003 Chateau Lascombes – Margaux – $50
2000 Chateau Belgrave – Haut Medoc – $20
2000 Seigneurs d’Arguille – Cotes de Castillon – $20
2003 Chateau Lagrange – St. Julien – $35

Go here and scroll to the bottom to see a list of other Bordeaux’s I’d recommend.

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