Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Marvelous Medoc and Graves

"Bordeaux calls to mind a distinguished figure in a frock coat...He enters his moderate enthusiasms in a leather pocketbook, observing the progress of beauty across his palate like moves in a game of chess." 
                          Frank Prial, former New York Times wine columnist

There was a time when all red wine based on Cabernet Sauvignon aspired to be like the great reds of the Medoc.  About 1970, rivals started to emerge, but the storied Cabernet blends of the Medoc and Graves never lost their attraction.

Understanding the Medoc and its wines is the foundation for understanding all cabernet-based wines that followed. 

The Medoc is a part of Bordeaux, a wine region in the Gironde departement along the west coast of France. The Medoc peninsula is northwest of the city of Bordeaux, a major port on the Garonne river and the center of one of the world's most important wine regions.
419 Medoc Vineyards Photos - Free & Royalty-Free Stock Photos from  Dreamstime
Medoc old vines
Throughout history, noted wines have been associated with memorable natural scenery -- Cape Winelands of South Africa, France's Loire Valley, Mendocino's Anderson Valley in northern California -- yet the flat and featureless landscape of the Medoc, denies the greatness of its wines.  The overworked adage that "great wine is made in the vineyard," is nowhere truer than it is in the Medoc.

Medoc Classification -- In 1855, Napoleon III staged an exposition in Paris. To attract and impress dignitaries, event officials requested a classification of the leading Medoc chateaux. Bordeaux wine brokers issued a five-class ranking of 60 Medoc chateaux plus one Graves estate, Ch. Haut-Brion, and a separate two-class ranking of chateaux in Sauternes and Barsac. "Classified Growths," later to be named "The Official Classification of Medoc and Graves 1855" was based on the quality of an estate's wine relative to the price of the wine at that time.  Although a number of chateaux have changed management and one or two have ceased making wine, the only official change to the classification occurred in 1973, when after extensive lobbying by Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Ch. Mouton-Rothschild was elevated from second growth to first growth. 

Maintaining a chateau and vineyards in this rarefied club, takes a lot of euros, but it can be argued that such high overhead justifies charging hundreds of dollars for a bottle of chateau-bottled wine. According to Wine-Searcher, the current price for Ch. Mouton-Rothschild is $673, Ch. Calon-Segur (3rd Growth) is $134 and Ch. Batailley (5th Growth is a relative bargain at $64.

Cabernet Sauvignon is king in the strip of vineyards sandwiched between the Gironde estuary and a mix of marshland and forests that extend west of the vines to the Atlantic ocean. Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot support Cabernet Sauvignon as blending components.  Only red wine is made in the Medoc and, in fact, white wine from the Graves district, south of the city of Bordeaux, accounts for only about 10% of total Bordeaux wine. (Grave blanc and Sauternes will be the focus of the next blog.)

The northern most part of the Medoc is called the Bas-Medoc, an area of about 14,000 acres of vineyards, far more than the more higher rated Haut-Medoc vineyards. Wines produced in the Bas-Medoc use the Medoc appellation.

Moving southeast from the Bas-Medoc, the elevation rises slightly nearing the Haut-Medoc  communes of Saint-Estephe, Pauillac and Saint-Julien. There is a break between Saint-Julien and the wine commune of Margaux, then the southern part of the Medoc appellation, more open space and finally the northern suburbs of Bordeaux.

Haut-Medoc wines qualify for the communal appellation, with some using the Haut-Medoc label.  Factors such as gravel deposits, soil drainage and the placement of a vineyard to the Gironne affect the wine's quality and longevity.

While differences vary from chateau to chateau and vineyard location to vineyard location, these are the general characteristics of the four main commune wines: 
St. Estephe -- deeper color, higher acidity and a larger amount of Merlot in some wines. Noted chateaux: Montrose, Cos d'Estournel, Colon-Segur, Cos-Labory.
Pauillac -- vines close to the water, higher percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon, more concentrated.  Noted chateaux: Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Lynch-Bages, Pontet-Canet.

Ch. Latour vineyards along the Gironde estuary

St. Julien -- deep colored, subtle, long-lived.  Noted chateaux: Ducru-Beaucaillou, Lagrange, Beychevelle.
Margaux -- structured, concentrated, silky texture, perfumed. Notes chateaux: Margaux, Lascombes, Dauzac, Rauzan-Segla.

Aside -- When I first visited Medoc chateaux in the early 1970s, formality was the order of the day and expected of visitors. Estate owners and managers were not used to visitors and a formal appointment was expected and required. Business attire was expected and punctuality a must, with more than one visitor turned away, even with an appointment, for not being on time. 

My U.S. contacts had briefed me on the routine in advance. I had my appointments in writing and while no one I met with was ever rude, there was a formality that I as an American wine writer was not used to. When told I was from California, more than one person I spoke with reacted politely but seemed to be saying: "Ah yes, I understand they are doing something with grapes there." 

Of course, in time California red wine, especially from the Napa Valley, changed attitudes, opened chateau doors and forced the Medocains to recognize that there had been a shift and the Medoc was no longer the only game in town. 

Graves Rouge 
The Graves is a large 30-mile long wine region southeast of the city of Bordeaux. Situated on the left bank of the Garonne, Graves is known both for its red and white wines. The name Graves is French for "gravelly terrain."

Red and dry white wines have been made in the Graves, probably since the 17th century when the Dutch drained the marshy swamp known today as the Medoc. In 1987, the northern part of Graves was re-named Pessac-Leognan. We'll look at Graves rouge here, with the dry white wines of Pessac-Leognan and the sweet whites of the Sauternes and Barsac, the main focus of the September 12 blog. 

The varietal mix is the same in the Graves as in the Medoc, with Cabernet Sauvignon the main grape, supported by Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  As the name implies, the terraced soils are alluvial deposits of gravel and sand, giving the red wines a stronger "minerality" than those wines further north in the Medoc. 

Creeping urbanization has changed the face of the Graves over the years, with the northern border of the wine region touching the southeastern edge of the city of Bordeaux. The revered Ch. Haut-Brion and its neighbor La Mission Haut-Brion, among the best Graves estates, are surrounded today by vineyards. Although both chateaux are still identified as being in the Graves, they are, in fact since 1987, legally in Pessac-Leognan.

2009 looks set to be a vintage year for winemakers in France - Telegraph
Vintage at Ch. Haut-Brion
As noted above, Ch. Haut-Brion was accorded First Growth status in the 1855 Classification, the only wine outside of the Medoc to be included. It was another 102 years before the red and white wines of Graves got their own classification in 1953, amended in 1959. Just 13 red and nine whites are classified in the one-class ratings. 

The chateaux in The Official Classification of Graves of 1959 are listed alphabetically, allowing the likes of Ch. Carbonnieux, $20, to be listed ahead of Ch. Haut-Brion, $626. If you are looking for a relative bargain at the high end, Ch. La Mission-Haut-Brion, Haut-Brion's main competition, sells for $443. 

Why, you may ask, am I going to such lengths explaining these classifications?  Because, even after all these years, they are still a relevant and useful guide to buying Medoc and Graves red wines. 


Next blog: The dry whites of Pessac-Leognon and sweet whites of Sauternes and Barsac.

If you have an idea for a future blog, or a comment on any of the past blogs, email at boydvino707@gmail.com

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