What can I say about Bordeaux? I mean, we don't exactly think of it as "Wine For Normal People" material. I remember seeing it written for the first time and thinking, "THAT'S how you spell it? With an X? Weird." And then there's the issue that it just kind of sounds expensive. Wine snobs talk about it all the time and go on and on about vintages and Banks and other confusing stuff. Kind of makes you want to throw your hands up and walk away.
But here's the thing: when I first learned about Bordeaux, I was kind of surprised that it wasn't as complicated as I thought. There's a lot to know if you want to become an expert on it, but once you get a few basics under your belt it's really not that bad. Right now you're thinking that I'm full of s*&t, but I'm really not. I promise.
I think 4 basic points should make you feel like you've got a handle on it: the grapes and wine styles of the region, geography, the importance of weather (vintage), and the prominence of producers in the region. Then I'll tell you about an awesome wine I had last night from the region and how it rocked my world.
First a quick preface that I pulled off the Web from Bordeaux Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux. I'm citing facts because I don't think they're so boring and they help answer the question: "Why is Bordeaux such a BFD?":
- The area is about 290,000 acres (117,500 ha)
- It represents 38% of all still wine (not bubbly or dessert) sold in the world
- It has 8,650 winegrowers
- It is responsible for 55,000 jobs (that's 4 out of 10 people employed in the French wine industry)
- In 2009 (a recession year, no less), it produced $3.37 billion Euros in revenue
- It is the largest exporter of AOC (controlled appellation wine) in France.
If you were wondering what part of the hype was...that should give you a good start. Wine in Bordeaux is big, big business and it behooves the Bordelais to keep quality high...and most of the time they do.
Now for 4 basic things about Bordeaux that can serve as a cheat sheet:
1. Grapes and Wine Types
Ok, so it's not as easy as Burgundy, where there are really only three main grapes to know (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Gamay), but Bordeaux deals mainly in 8 grapes...3 whites and 5 reds:
- White (11% of all grapes planted): Sémillon (53%), Sauvignon Blanc (38%), Muscadelle (6%)
- Red (89% of all grapes planted): Merlot (63%), Cabernet Sauvignon (25%), Cabernet Franc (11%), and less than 1% of Malbec, Petit Verdot, and some others.
So now you'll know that when you see a bottle of Bordeaux, it's a blend of the grapes above. It will be similar each time you get taste it, with variations, but now you know the recipe, so hopefully you'll feel more confident picking it up.
I'm not going to be too detailed on this, because there are 60 appellations or different areas with kind of distinct wine styles in Bordeaux.
Bordeaux’s name actually originates from the French phrase “au bord de l’eau,” which means "along the water." It's not just some romantic name -- the area does actually lie along the banks of three rivers, the Dordogne in the north, the Garonne in the south, and the Gironde, into which both flow and which flows into the Atlantic Ocean.
From a climatic standpoint, the area is pretty ideal. The warming maritime influence of the rivers, along with a pine forest in the south helps protect this otherwise very exposed area from the tumultuous weather and severe frosts that often come in winter. From a geological standpoint, the rivers are a dividing line for the types of grapes that grow best on each side of the river. And here's where the whole "Bank" thing comes into play -- banks just are sides of the river.
There are three main areas of Bordeaux:
- The Right Bank is on the Dordogne and the Gironde River (including the famous areas of St-Émilion and Pomerol) and is famous for its mainly Merlot with Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon as supporting players (you may have heard of Petrus, which is usually one of the most expensive bottles in the world).
- The Left Bank on the Gironde and Garonne, includes the Médoc, where some very expensive Châteaux are located. It is known for wines made of a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon, always blended with Merlot and/or Cabernet Franc for softness and texture. One area, up river, called Graves makes great reds and excellent dry whites too.
- An area in between the two rivers before they converge, called Entre-Deux-Mers (translated to "between two seas," but really it’s between two rivers) is known for dry whites that are totally affordable and lighter in style.
- Sauternes and Barsac, technically on the Left Bank, need to be called out separately, since they make sweet dessert wines from grapes that have been infected by a fungus called Botrytis, which makes the grape look disgusting, but the wine taste rad.
I am an animal lover, so I hate to beat a dead horse, but I will say it again: grape growing is agriculture. Some years Mother Nature is kind, some years, not so much. In years where it all works, prices rise and wine geeks get excited. If you pay attention to weather conditions, then you’ll understand vintage – very simple but something people love to complicate.
With that horse flogged, a note on aging. Bordeaux are known for their age-ability. A good Bordeaux from a good year can age for decades because the tannins in the wine act as a natural preservative. Over time, the tannins loose a lot of the “fight” in them as the remain in an anaerobic environment, and mellow. That means that older wine tends to be softer, and have more complex flavors, as the chemical compounds change over time and combine with the other elements in the bottle.
Can all Bordeaux age? No way. Young white Bordeaux should be consumed within a few years and less expensive red Bordeaux is meant to be consumed within 5 years. Don’t hold onto it unless it’s of high quality, or you’ll lose the enjoyment it can offer you now. Not all great wine has to age!
4. Classification Systems
Ok, the final and most complicated point: Bordeaux, more than any other area, is obsessed with classifying its Châteaux by perceived quality. There are three main classifications that have been done in this large area, and none are without controversy. They are: Graves, St-Émilion, and most important..the 1855 classification.
What's the 1855 Classification? In 1855, Napoleon III requested a ranking of wines of the region from best to worst for his Exposition Universelle in Paris. The result: A ranking of the Châteaux by the price they fetched. A simple demand-driven strategy, and not entirely foolhardy, there were 61 wines classified into 5 growths/levels or “Cru.” Four Châteaux were at the top and the rest fell in the other 4 buckets until a price point was reached that they didn’t feel was worthy of classifying.
Huge controversy erupted that still exists today because all the Châteaux were on the Left Bank, and most were in the Medoc area – the entire Right Bank was shunned, as were other parts of Bordeaux that churn out amazing wines. To complicate issues further, since 1855 only 1 change has been made (Château Mouton-Rothschild was elevated from a second to a first growth) even though Châteaux have changed hands and quality has ebbed and flowed. Nevertheless, the top 5 Cru still garner the highest prices and are considered some of the best wines in the world. History reigns supreme on this one.
So those are Bordeaux basics. Here, the Châteaux are top dog. The best happen to be on the best land and can therefore produce the best wines, but ultimately Bordeaux is a marketing driven business and, frankly, it's a caste system, not a meritocracy. That said, there is a spectrum of great affordable wines. The region pumps out 700 million bottles a year, and most of it is just affordable table wine that can be quite phenomenal and give us peons a glimpse of what it must be like to have the $700/bottle stuff that those who live high on the hog enjoy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner!
Case in point:
The Wine: Château Haut-La- Pereyre
Where It's From: Bordeaux Superieur (Sourced from slightly better grapes than regular 'ole Bordeaux, the wine is aged 12 months before being released)
The Grapes: Some combination of the Bordeaux grapes, probably mostly Merlot. They don't have a web site so it's anyone's guess
Color: This gorgeous wine was the color of dark red rose petals -- a deep red with a brownish tinge. The wine had a watery rim and evenly spaced tears, meaning the wine had a medium alcohol level (water and alcohol separate, water runs out first and the "tears" are the alcohol left over), typical of a Bordeaux, which is generally moderate in alcohol.
Smell: Here's a typical Bordeaux characteristic: fruit takes a backseat to more organic smells. Wet dusty road, soil, and gravel mixed in with chocolate and coffee and a dark floral smell. There was a smoky mocha aroma and a very strong hit of mint on the nose too. The oak (which imbues the grape juice with the coffee, smoke, and chocolate as it ages) played so well against the blackcurrant, and dark cherry flavors that were the backbone of the aroma.
Taste: The wine delivered on the smell -- lots of mint, blackcurrant, and smoke appeared, but there was even more to it with every sip. Chocolate covered cherries, blood orange (sweet-tart and citrusy), raisins, and licorice dominated the flavor. It was really elegant -- medium in body with light tannins, low acid, and a super long finish that stuck around. It was so subtle and complex that it kept me wanting to go back for more to pick out new things and savor the stuff I knew was there.
Food Pairings: This wine is not a blockbuster and it's best served with dishes that won't out do it. Simple preparation is the key here. Meats that aren't overcooked are key. Herb rubs, simple reductions, or even soy-based sauces on medium to rare meat, mushrooms, or hearty veggies would work awesomely well.
A note on vintage: So, here's the tricky thing. This wine will probably be available in a few vintages and you'll need to check it out before you buy. In Bordeaux 2005 was an awesome year for weather and so most of the wines from that year I've had from the region have been amazing, regardless of price. 2006 and 2008 were pretty good too. 2009 was freaking amazing. 2007, maybe skip it if that's all that's available -- the weather was changeable, and the wines just didn't have the umph that Mother Nature is capable of.
Drink or Down the Sink?: DRINK!!! I'm trying to figure out how to get more '05 of this wine before it disappears. Amazing wine, amazing value. In fact, it was so good, MC Ice and I refuse to finish the bottle -- we just want to keep savoring it for as long as possible and seeing how it changes each night -- dorky, yeah, but it's that good!