Bordeaux: potentially the most famous and widely recognised wine region in the world but not exactly at the height of fashion at present. Bordeaux itself is a port-town sitting on the river Garonne leading to the Gironde estuary on the west coast of France; a key to its enormous commercial success. It is France’s largest produce of AOC quality wine, with over 112,000 hectares planted with vines and almost a quarter of all quality wine in France is produced here. Not only that, but many of France’s most prolific wines and producers hail from this cool, wet part of the country with prices for the 1st growth wines stretching into the stratosphere, particularly since the 2009 and 2010 vintages when Asia first ventured into the fine wine market in force. However, all the glamour and wealth from the top estates paints a false picture; the top Chateau make up a paltry 5% of total production. The rest is shared between an increasingly impoverished and struggling group of producers, numbering over 7000 at the last count. As a result, the market of Bordeaux is particularly complicated with a younger generation of wine drinkers unable to purchase the top wines and the majority of producers struggling to make ends meet against the new waves of more accessible, New World wines.
Historically Bordeaux was first catalogued as a wine producing region by the Latin poet Ausonius (after whom Chateau Ausone is named) but in truth began to define itself during the 17th century and is largely in part due to the unquenchable thirst of the British. With preferential treatment in London for Gascon merchants and a reprieve on all taxations for products shipped from Bordeaux, England slowly flooded with Bordelais wine, surviving even the 100 Year War between the two countries. Another nation with an enormous impact was the Dutch, whose industrious merchants drained the marshy Medoc, paving the way for some of the most important Chateau we know today, as well as creating an enormous market for inexpensive white wine. However, like much of Europe, phylloxera coupled with two World Wars led to severe difficulties and many vineyards weren’t replanted until the 1950’s, when the trade started to recover in a big way. Wine purchases, ‘En Primeur’, as futures became the norm as Chateau could no longer afford to hold large stocks of wine in reserve, the American market became increasingly interested, and a succession of fine vintages in the 1980s triggered global interest. In 2017, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for the trials and tribulations of the Bordelais as the prices seem to increase every year, regardless of the vintage.
Geographically speaking, it’s easiest to think of Bordeaux in terms of the ‘left bank’ and the ‘right bank’; quite literally the regions of each side of the Gironde estuary as it splits into the Garonne and the Dordogne rivers with Entre-Deux-Mers, ‘between two seas’, the large area in the middle of the two. There are over 50 appellations within Bordeaux itself but the most famous vineyards and wines are to be found in the well drained soils of the Medoc and Graves on the left bank and St. Emilion and Pomerol on the right. The climate is moderate maritime, influenced greatly by the proximity to the Atlantic ocean and as a result, the wines are very mild in style, or to quote Jancis Robinson MW: “Marked by subtlety rather than power.” Grape varieties vary but tend to be focused around Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with the former being more prevalent on the gravelly soils of the left bank and the latter finding itself on the cooler clay-based soils of the right bank and all throughout Entre-Deux-Mers. Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot make up the other important red grapes of the region, with Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris and Muscadelle only making up 10% of plantings for white and sweet wines in the south.
The part where Bordeaux gets complicated is its many classifications and trade structures; it is indeed the most heavily classified wine region in the world with only Pomerol exempt from a ranking system of sorts. The most famous of these was the 1855 classification of the Medoc which has largely defined the most famous Chateau in the entire region of Bordeaux. Sauternes and Barsac were classified at the same time separately for sweet wine production. Not to be left out, Graves decided to create their own classification for their Chateau in 1959 and St. Emilion has updated their own classifications as recently as 2012, albeit with some very high profile legal battles in the process. Small wonder most consumers find Bordeaux to be a tricky region to navigate and this is before getting onto the topic of negociants, en primeur tastings, expanding territories, foreign investment and critical opinion, with Bordeaux to be a big market for some of the worlds most highly acclaimed wine writers and wine merchants. Still, there’s simply no better way to discover a region than by drinking a few glasses of its wine as we delve into it, and on that note, here are the wines we chose to help us navigate our way around the region:
Le Petit Haut-Lafitte Blanc 2013 – The second white wine of Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, Grand Cru Classe wine from Pessac-Leognan; a blend of 80% Sauvignon Blanc and 20% Semillon. The white wines of Bordeaux, whilst only making up 10% of total production, are considered by many to be the finest white wines in the world. Typically the wines express a cooler climate expression of Sauvignon Blanc with lots of citrus, white stone fruit and gooseberry aromas with a softer, more floral aroma depending on the level of Semillon and/or Muscadelle. These wines are often oaked and in the case of Le Petit Haut-Lafitte Blanc, for 10 months in 50% new oak with consistent lees stirring. There’s a wonderful balance of toasty oak, crisp acidity and fresh fruit flavours with a wonderfully complete texture. Delicious stuff!
Chateau Fourcas Dupre 2010 – Now we head to the Listrac-Medoc, one of the lesser appellations of the region and the highest in altitude. Typically on the left-bank of Bordeaux you’ll find a higher concentration of Cabernet Sauvignon, at the most northerly limit of where it will ripen. The key here is the well-drained gravel soils that help retain and reflect heat back onto the grapes, giving them the extra boost they need in the final weeks of the ripening period. Chateau Fourcas Dupre is a good quality producer focusing mainly on red wines, with the Fourcas Dupre being their ‘Grand Vin’, with two other atypical wines with a majority of Merlot in the blend. Still tightly knit together after almost 7 years of age, this is an outstanding value-for-money purchase and showcases how good wine from the ‘lesser’ appellations can often be. Fresh, structured and full of young fruit, slowly evolving into the typical graphite and cedar of left bank Bordeaux.
Chateau Haut-Bergey 2010 – Back to Pessac Leognan now for a look at a wine with some pedigree; Chateau Haut-Bergey. Purchased in 1991 and renovated heavily by Sylvain Garcin-Cathiard, Haut-Bergey now produces around 50,000 bottles of their top wine every year. A blend of 54% Cabernet Sauvignon and 46% Merlot and aged in 30% new oak for 16-18 months, this is very much a modern expression of Pessac-Leognan. The 2010 we drank was only just starting to show itself, tightly wound and full of graphite, dark fruit, toast and licorice. Given time, this will be a real beauty and is really very representative of a high quality vintage, where wines will typically take a little longer to open up and express themselves. The wait is usually worth it!
Chateau Grand-Pontet 2007 – Ah, the ever popular right bank of Bordeaux. St.Emilion, with its cooler, clay-based soils is the spiritual home of Merlot with many of Bordeauxs most highly acclaimed wines hailing from both here and neighbouring Pomerol. Cabernet Franc also thrives here, adding perfume and freshness to the, sometimes, very ripe Merlot wines. Chateau Grand-Pontet has been in the hands of the Becot family since 1980, themselves no stranger to Bordeaux with several other properties in the region, and is a wonderful expression of St.Emilion Grand Cru wines. 70% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc is blended and aged in 80% new oak for between 12 and 18 months before the final blending and bottling. Powerful and full of ripe, dark fruits, violets, chocolate and a lovely note of cedar lingers through into a very long finish. The ‘Wine of the Night’ by popular consensus and little surprise there! A wonderful wine with a reasonable life still ahead of it.
Chateau Doisy-Vedrines 2009 – A tasting of Bordeaux wouldn’t be complete without a beautiful Sauternes to finish the evening. Some of the most famous sweet wines in the world hail from this corner of wet, misty France where the perfect conditions for botrytis (Noble Rot) are to be found in the regions of Sauternes and Barsac; close enough to the Garonne river to create humid, misty mornings which are then swept away to be replaced by warm, dry afternoons. This results in slightly dehydrated grapes, full of flavour and concentrated with both sugar and acid. Chateau Doisy-Vedrines is actually located in neighbouring Barsac but is allowed to use the Sauternes appellation, as with all producers located within Barsac. This is a much lighter, fragrant style of Sauternes with a clear expression of botrytis; bitter orange, marmalade and candied peach. There is a wonderful integration of oak here and I can’t think of a better way to finish an evening than with a bottle of this and a plate of good, blue cheese. Still incredibly young with a long, delicious evolution ahead of it.
Another wonderful evening with a great group of people, with wines to match the uncharacteristically cold, wet weather in Barcelona. There won’t be any further international tastings in February but from March 9th onwards, expect to see weekly wine tastings, right in the heart of Barcelona city centre. For more information contact me through our page here, whether it’s to join an existing wine tasting or to organise something privately with your friends and family.