Though not the first winemakers in the world, the French are incomparably the best, particularly for their velvety, slightly tannic, intensely aromatic and flavor filled wine of the exquisite French terroir in Bordeaux. There is a reason why winemakers across the world desire to make a classic Bordeaux style blend, dominated by Left Bank or Right Bank varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, respectively) and, if referring to a Bordeaux, the wine is a blend of a percentage of both often with the addition of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and sometimes Carmenere.
Names like Chateau Lafite, Haut-Brion and Chateau Margaux reign as kings of the industry, thanks to the impeccable soil these Bordeaux grapes thrive in and the highly regulated standards the French government has set for their wine.
In the years that Merlot tended to get a bad wrap from those in the know in the wine world, they seemed to forget that some of these best wines in the world were made with a base or high percentage of Merlot.
As Andrew Chalk noted, the opening session of this year’s 8th annual TEXSOM conference dove into reasons why Bordeaux is so special, specifically the soil and how you can find true values in the Bordeaux world if you just dig a little bit and know the lay out of the region.
The United States used to be one of the top areas of Bordeaux consumption in the world, sitting right in the mix of Germany and England, the two top European consumers of French Bordeaux. Today the Asian market dominates, with the U.S. growth in New World imports rather than some of the traditional Old World, European wines. But we are still importing great Bordeaux, though maybe not as much First Growth, the top category of wines given by the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855 noting the top quality, Premier Crus Chateaus in the region, including Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Latour and Chateau Haut-Brion (all from the Medoc area of Bordeaux except Haut-Brion from Graves.)
This area of Medoc, on the left bank of the Gironde, downstream from the city of Bordeaux near the Atlantic Ocean, started out as a marshland, completely unsuitable for growing grapes. In the early 1600’s a group of Dutch engineers where charged with the task of draining the Medoc marshland and vineyards began to be planted in the soil known for its excellent drainage, where vines can travel deep through gravel, sand and clay, where heat can be retained, nutrients are plentiful and vigorous vine growth is encouraged. Today over 1500 vineyards are in this area, which is defined by its production of red wine.
Bordeaux can range in price from $10-$20 a bottle to several thousand. You can find a good quality wine though without paying the price if you know where to look. An old adage in Bordeaux is that if you can see water from the vineyard the wine will be good, so knowing the location of key areas of Bordeaux will help in the search for a good wine at a good value….and value is somewhat relative, the key is to compare similar wines to others from the area, like the First Growths.
Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande was originally established in 1686 and received a Second Cru classification in the 1855 rankings. Located directly next to Chateau Lafite Rothschild in Pauillac which has fetched over $1000 a bottle. The first tier of Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande sells for around $120-$150 a bottle. The 2008 Reserve De La Comtesse is the second wine of the Chateau, though still a vibrant, full-bodied wine with character and sophisticated style, with cassis and cherry ,and delicate aromas of cedar and oak. A balanced wine with texture carrying through the palate from start to finish, and a price of only around $50 a bottle.
If you are a fan of Chateau Margaux, or wines from the region filled with floral, stoney and bright red fruit aromas with regal style, full bodied flavor, bold texture and long finish 2008 Chateau Cantenac Brown may be a go to for you, without setting you back the $500+ price. Filled with ripe red fruit and lush tannin this is an approachable wine with a clean, easy drinking approachability. Many Bordeaux wines are making fresher wines with clean, red fruit flavors to please the palates of consumers today. This is a good example of one doing this well, for roughly $50 a bottle.
If you like a wine with a little more earthiness and texture with deep colors and longevity, the wines of Saint Estephe may be the ideal wines for you. Though separated by only a stream from its Pauillac neighbor, St. Estephe soils create completely different wines. Mostly made up of clay instead of gravel and sand, the drainage is not as high and the vines are not as deep, but clay soil can retain water which can be a benefit in summers filled with little rain. One of the last areas in Bordeaux to ripen, wines tend to have higher acidity than in other areas of Bordeaux, with intense flavors and bold characteristics. 2008 Chateau Lafon-Rochet highlights dark dried fruit and plum notes with firm tannins, yet a delicate structure balancing big Cabernet notes with subtle Merlot. 2008 Chateau de Pez balances intensity with lushness, with red fruit, woody, spicy aromas with a balanced palate, lively tannins and a lengthy finish that will age nicely over the next 5-10 years. Both sell for about $50 a bottle.
A few other tips, look for the vintages that aren’t getting all the publicity, but not because they were necessarily off years. 2009 and 2010 were big years for Bordeaux, will futures (pre-sales) selling quickly in all parts of the world for big dollars; yet, 2008 was a lovely year, as evident in the list of wines noted above, they just didn’t get as much buzz when they were released because everyone was talking about the 2009 and 2010 futures. The 2011 futures are selling at prices much below those of 2010, yet some are saying the vintages are not that different so it may be a good opportunity to grab a few at a good pre-sale price. And, above all, don’t be afraid to try something new, if it is a Bordeaux from Medoc you will likely not be disappointed.