Sunday, August 2, 2020

The Generous Side of Bordeaux

"A fine wine lasts a long time in your mouth...and in your mind." Christian Moueix, Director of Chateau Petrus

It has been said that every great wine region across the globe benefits by its proximity to a major body of water, be it an ocean, a river or a lake.

Bordeaux, the esteemed wine region in southwestern France, has the Atlantic Ocean along its western side. Then there are three rivers and one estuary meandering through the region. The presence of all this water has a strong influence on the region's climate and in turn its wines.  

Guide to Bordeaux - Luxe Adventure Traveler
Garonne river and Bordeaux city
The Dordogne flows out of the east, winding its way to the northwest until it empties into the Gironde estuary. South of the Dordogne, the Garonne river meanders to the northwest through a cluster of wine regions south of Bordeaux city.  After passing between Sauternes and Barsac, the Ciron river empties into the Garonne, which in turn passes into the broad Gironde estuary and then the Atlantic Ocean. 

The moderating influence of the Dordogne, on the climate of the regions of St. Emilion and Pomerol, in concert with a set of unique soils, provide the essential conditions for the cultivation of Merlot, the "more generous" companion of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.  

A grape by any other name: North of Bordeaux, in the Cognac region, Saint-Emilion is the local name for the highly productive Ugni Blanc grape, the major variety in the distillation of Cognac.

Merlot is the main grape in Saint-Emilion and Pomerol, supported by Cabernet Franc.  Cabernet Sauvignon, the major red grape of the Medoc, is of lesser importance in Saint-Emilion.  Cooler soils give the edge to Merlot in St. Emilion and Pomerol, over Cabernet Sauvignon, which ripens more evenly in the warmer soils of the Medoc. 

In this first of four essays on the wines of Bordeaux, we look at the vineyards and wines of St. Emilion and Pomerol, two regions that epitomize the French approach to Merlot.

St. Emilion
Of the two regions, St. Emilion is, by far, the largest and best known, with such noted chateaux as Ausone, Pavie, Cheval-Blanc, La Gaffeliere and Figeac. The region takes its name from a medieval town, dominated by a beautiful church, built on an escarpment  that towers over the surrounding vineyards and is today the center of the local wine trade and a popular tourist stop.

 Visit Saint Emilion, France - Top things to do & places to see

As a wine region, St. Emilion predates the Medoc and was once an important shipping port on the right bank on the Dordogne, eventually losing out to nearby Libourne.  Prior to the mid-20th century, the popularity of St. Emilion red wines lagged behind those of the Medoc, aross the Gironde estuary, but with the rise of interest in Merlot and a new wave of young winemakers, all of that changed.

The Garagistes -- In the late 20th century, an important component in the sale and rising popularity of St. Emilion red wines was "garage wines," a collection of mini-wineries with production small enough that the wines could be made in a garage. Appealing to the trend of the time, the wines, made by garagistes, were mostly showy, richly textured, oaky, pricy and early-maturing. Although Le Pin, in Pomerol, is attributed as being the original garage wine, the bulk of these idiosyncratic wines, are in St. Emilion.

Merlot accounts for more than 60% of total plantings in St. Emilion, with the remaining acreage planted mainly to Cabernet Franc, known locally as (Cabernet) Bouchet and a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon.  A few St. Emilion chateaux, like Ch. Fogeac, do add a bit of the more tannic Cabernet Sauvignon, but most do not.

Modern techniques are employed in the winery, with a new vintage racked into new French (what else?) oak. Barrels wear out, or loose their effectiveness, so with each new vintage, winemakers rotate their inventory by introducing a fractional amount of new barrels, and then using the older barrels for second label wines, if they make one, or selling them.

Opinions differ on the making of Merlot, with some opting for heavy tannic wines and others going for a lighter more approachable style. Whatever the style, Merlot fruit flavors lean toward black fruits like black cherry, with smooth texture, good balancing acidity and a long fruit-forward finish.  Cooler climate Merlot is more herbaceous and minty.  Add Cabernet Franc and now you have raspberry and a touch of herbs. 

In 1855, the top red wines of the Medoc were ranked into the now famous 1855 Classification. Although there were a number of fine Saint-Emilion wines then, the ranking was only for the Medoc. It was 100 years before the first classification of St. Emilion wines was drawn up. Over time, the classification has been modified five times, the most recent in 2012.  Saint-Emilion officials believe that such factors as wine quality and price warrant occasional modifications. 

Besides the cru classe wines, there are four "satellites" that are permitted to append Saint-Emilion to their name: Lussac-Saint-Emilion, Montagne-Saint-Emilion, Puisseguin-Saint-Emilion and Saint Georges-Saint-Emilion.  Made from the same grapes, the satellite wines are values worth seeking out.  

                                              Right Bank Bordeaux, Best Wines, Vineyards, Appellations, Buying ...

In his 1933 book, simply titled, "Wine," American writer and wine enthusiast, Julian Street offered this sparse comment about Pomerol: "The Pomerol wines are as a rule lighter than the Saint-Emilion, smooth and often delicious, but they mature more quickly."  Street concluded his mention of Pomerol with just one more sentence about the wine.

In the early years of the 20th century, Pomerol was not fashionable, so Street was not being dismissive.  He had no way to know then that eighty-seven years on, Pomerol red wines would become one of the most highly prized (and expensive) Bordeaux wines. 

For many years, Pomerol languished in the shadow of St. Emilion, with many people, including members of the trade, considering Pomerol as an adjunct of St. Emilion.  In the early years of the 20th century, Pomerol became its own wine, mainly in France and Belgium. According to wine historians, the watershed mark for Pomerol was the 1950s, when the wines were "discovered" by two British wine importers. 

Merlot accounts for about 80% of plantings in Pomerol, with Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon making up the remainder. Such a high percentage of a single variety can be risky during bad years that result in a disastrous crop. 

The richest and longer-lived wines (Chateaux Petrus, Trotanoy) come from gravel and sandy soils, amended with iron-rich clay, on the featureless plateau.  Lighter wines are made in lower sandier vineyards.  

Pomerol is the only Bordeaux wine district with no official classification or satellites. Although there are no satellite appellations associated with Pomerol, as in Saint-Emilion, Merlot-based wines are made in Lalande-de-Pomerol, immediately north of the Pomerol district. 


Next Blog: The other right bank wines

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