Bordeaux. If there is one word in wine that captures the culture and costliness, savior faire and snobbery, history and histrionics of wine this is it. There are other parts of the world where wine has been made more anciently but none where wine has come to so be exquisitely defined. Bordeaux truly has been the ‘pebble in the pond’ from which wine popularity and appreciation have spread outward (largely thanks to the British – but that’s another story). Yet to many who like to drink and enjoy wine it remains somewhat confusing and inaccessible. Let’s change that by starting with a little journey through the region.
Reds are the dominant wines in Bordeaux with Cabernet Sauvignon getting most of the attention, but Merlot is actually more widely planted. The red wines are blends of the ‘noble grapes’ of Bordeaux – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Usually two or more of these grapes are in the bottle but you won’t see them listed on the label. The white wines are Sauvignon Blanc blended with Semillon. The French don’t label by the grape type so this is why it’s good to know a bit about the region in general and each of the particular areas within it. You can then know what to look for in the store and how to buy smarter.
Knowing Bordeaux begins with some basic geography. The geography of Bordeaux directly influences the wine in the bottle. Bordeaux is located near the Atlantic Ocean in the southwestern corner of France. The ocean plays a very strong role in the wine of the region because of the cool and chilly dampness and rain that is typical during the growing season. However, the vines get some moderating protection from a coastal forest so the extremes are not as significant as in other maritime growing environments.
The region is bisected by two major rivers which then join into a large estuary. The Garonne River meets the Dordogne River near the city of Bordeaux and together they make up the Gironde – the estuary that runs into the Atlantic. These four bodies of water – ocean and three rivers – are the natural demarcation of the Bordeaux wine country, controlling climate and creating the terroir of the region. The gravelly soils are ideal for Cabernet and the more fertile areas help Merlot thrive.
The eastern side of the Dordogne and Gironde is known as the “Right Bank.” It’s here that Merlot based wines are predominant. At the center is the village of St. Emilion and scattered though the broader area are Pomerol, Fronsac and others. This is the Libournais, so named after the city of Libourne.
To the west of the Garonne and Gironde is the “Left Bank.” This is home to the most famous wines of Bordeaux from the chateaux of the Medoc north of the town of Bordeaux – St. Estephe, Pauillac, St. Julien, Margaux – and Graves to the south. The Left Bank wines are driven by Cabernet Sauvignon, which needs to be hardy in that maritime climate and makes wine that is tannic, structured and very age-worthy. In Graves it is also where the white wines of Bordeaux are prominent. Then tucked away near the banks of the Garonne is Sauternes and the world famous dessert wine of Chateau D’Yquem.
Between the rivers is a fertile triangle of land known as Entre-Deux-Mers, literally ‘between the waters.’ This is the breadbasket of Bordeaux wine where there is big production and a high volume of every day drinking Merlot based wines. There aren’t a lot of Entre-Deux-Mers wines on our shelves, but they are a staple throughout France.
In future posts I’ll get into more detail on both the Right and Left Bank and the styles and characters of the wines we’ll find there, but here’s a little sampling to wet your tastebuds!
Every Day Sip
2012 Chateau Cap de Faugeres Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux $18
2012 Francois Thienpont Rouge Lalande de Pomerol $18
2012 Chateau Bellevue Peycharneau Bordeaux Superieur $14
2012 Chateau d’Armailhac Pauillac $50
2012 Chateau Sansonnet Saint Emilion $36
2012 Chateau Cantenac Brown Margaux $48
2012 Chateau Pape Clement Pessac Leognan $100
1999 d’Yquem $100 (auction price) for half bottle 375ml