The name Bordeaux derives from au bord de l’eau, meaning along the waters. No other wine region is more capable of firing the imagination with the possibility of greatness. It is the source of profoundly complex and age worthy wines, as well as wines that are neither famous nor expensive.
Bordeaux is the largest fine-wine producing vineyard on the planet. It has three important rivers flowing through it, the mighty Gironde, the Dordogne, and the Garonne. Located in Southwestern France, to the west lies the Atlantic Ocean. The proximity of the ocean and rivers, in combination with vast pine forests to the south and west, help to moderate the climate.
More than 80% of the wine is red, made of a blend of five grapes. The most important are Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon with smaller quantities of Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. The whites are mostly a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.
In the last decades of the twentieth century, wine making changed considerably in Bordeaux. Using modern methods of harvesting, temperature controlled fermentation, and the use (or not, depending on the wine) of small oak barrels has resulted in fresher, creamier, and a more deeply flavored white wine. Red wine making has been vastly improved by paying attention to sugar and tannin ripeness in determining the ideal time to harvest.
Bordeaux is divided into even smaller subregions. The most important are: Medoc and Haut-Medoc (inside the Medoc are six communes Margaux, St, Julian, Pauillac, and St. Estephe), Graves, Sauternes, Barsac, St. Emilion, and Pomerol. Each sub region shares certain characteristics of soil and climate that are expressed in the wine.
The classifications of wines are different from one region to the next. The classification of the Medoc was the first and remains the most famous. It occurred in 1855 and ranked the top sixty chateaux in the Medoc plus one in Graves (Chateau Haut-Brion). The chateaux were categorized as Premier Cru or First Growth, Deuxieme Cru or Second Growth, and so on down to Cinquieme Cru or Fifth Growth. Graves designated thirteen reds and eight whites as Cru Classe. In St-Emilion the best wines are termed Premier Grand Cru Classe, then Grand Cru Classe, then Grand Cru. If all this seems bewildering, I couldn’t agree more. There are 200 Chateaux that were not classified. They are called Cru Bourgeois and are meant for more casual drinking. Should you care about all this? Probably not, unless you are a wealthy wine collector, however the classifications can be helpful as a general guide to quality.
There are some great values to be found in a simple crisp Graves white, as well as some inexpensive, balanced, and delicious reds from the Medoc. On the other hand, if you ever get the chance to taste a Chateau Petrus, it could be a transcendent experience. If any of you have a bottle you’d like to share, please get in touch.
Our December Wines of the Month are from Argentina. They both are from Bodega Santa Julia in Mendoza.The 2013 Pinot Grigio has ripe tropical fruit flavors with a slightly floral aroma and a long finish. The Malbec is full of cherry and plum flavors with spice notes and a velvety finish. They will both retail for $9. Wine club members, please pick up your bottles before they are gone.