Thursday, January 26, 2023

France Series: Bordeaux



The region of Bordeaux kicks off this new series, with a focus on the diverse wines of France.  Spread over the next two months will be overviews of seven of the main wine regions in France. 

Along France's western edge, slightly inland from the Atlantic Ocean, the large region of Bordeaux is fed by two rivers that flow into an estuary and finally the ocean. 

Nowhere in all of the expanding world of wine is the maxim more evident that wine grapes grow best near a body of water then it is in Bordeaux. The rivers Dordogne and Garonne empty into the Gironde estuary after passing through a number of Bordeaux appellations.

Although there are 50 Appellations d'Origine Controlle (AOC) in Bordeaux, most wine drinkers think of Bordeaux as just the Medoc, Graves and Sauternes/Barsac on the left bank, Pomerol and St. Emilion on the right bank, with Entre-Deux-Mers as, well, in the middle between the two. 

Fortunately, for the curious wine consumer there are not 50 grapes to be known about in Bordeaux.  The left bank and right bank communes have five red grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot.  Carmenere is also grown but not used in the Medoc.

White varieties include Semillon and Sauvignon, used in the Graves and Sauternes/Barsac. Muscadelle is also allowed by appellation law, as is Sauvignon Gris.

Here's a brief look at the most important left bank and right bank regions and their communes.

Medoc is a sprawling, mostly flatfeatureless wine region between the ocean and the estuary. The most northern wine area is the Bas-Medoc, known simply as the Medoc. This area is known for well-made simple red wines that do not quite reach the heights of the reds from the Haut-Medoc. 

With pine forest on one side and the Gironde estuary on the other side, the Haut-Medoc, a narrow strip of land, approximately 8 miles wide and 50 miles long, is the site of six famous communes -- Listrac, Margaux, Moulis, Pauillac, St. Estephe, St. Julien.  Although the Haut-Medoc lacks scenic interest, the red wines are world class. 

Graves/Pessac-Leognon is a large region extending south of the city of Bordeaux along the left banks of the river Garonne.  It is the only Bordeaux region famous for both red and white wines, made from the standard Bordeaux varieties. Pessac-Leognon is a section carved out of the northern part of Graves including the suburbs of Bordeaux city.  All of the famous chateaux, such as Pape-Clement, Haut-Brion, Smith Haut-Lafitte, that were once a part of the Graves, are now under the Pessac-Leognon appellation.

Sauternes/Barsac is all white and mainly sweet.  The blend is dominated by Semillon, with Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle that are affected by botrytis. Rich and complex with excellent balancing acidity, Sauternes is thought by many to be the creme of sweet wines. Most of the producers make a dry white wine, such as Chateau Y from Ch. d' Yquem, from the three varieties.

Barsac is sandwiched between Cerons/Graves and Sauternes, on the climatically important cool Ciron river, a contributing factor to the development of the all-important botrytis.  Barsac wines are thought to be lighter than Sauternes, although that depends on the producer.   

St. Emilion is, in terms of output, the largest right bank region.  It is also the place where you will find many high-priced "garage wines."  The region takes it name from a picturesque town set in a hilly surrounding landscape. Merlot and Cabernet Franc are the main grapes of St. Emilion, with a few estates, like Chateau Figeac, favoring Cabernet Sauvignon.  St. Emilion, like the Medoc, has a classification system and there are four sub-regions, or "satellites," producing wines from the same grapes, that are a relative bargain.

Pomerol is a small region next to St. Emilion and the merchant city of Libourne.  The Moueix family, owners of various properties in Pomerol, including the famous Ch. Petrus, is Libourne's most successful wine merchant.  About 80% of the plantings in Pomerol are Merlot and in the best years, Pomerol is plump and rich. 


Entre-Deux-Mers is a large region that lies between the Rivers Garonne and Dordogne, even though the name of the region means "between two seas."  Merlot and Cabernet Franc are the main red grapes, with Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon accounting for the whites.  The wines of Entre-Deux-Mers share many of the same features as their better known neighbors, but are less expensive and worth a search.

An aside.  How times have changed in Bordeaux.  Early in my career as a wine writer, I thought it important to visit Bordeaux.  I believed then that Bordeaux was the center of the wine universe.  Not any more, but that's a story for another time.

When I was planning my trip, email had yet to take over personal and business communications, so I wrote letters requesting interviews and tastings to a handful of chateaux, mainly in the Medoc.  Wokeness hadn't been invented yet either, but if it had, the term would have negatively applied to my plan.

Before leaving, checking on proper protocol at Bordeaux chateaux would have helped immeasurably.  I would have known that in those days, not being punctual was a social no-no for which you would be turned away, appointment or not.  

And I would have known in advance not to ask to talk to the winemaker.  "You understand, Monsieur Boyd, we have an oenologue and a maitre de chai, but no winemaker." 

Another important thing not ask then was about alcohol.  It was a given in Bordeaux in those days that there is alcohol in wine and a chateau-bottled wine would always measure out at about 12.5% abv, so asking about the percentage of alcohol in a wine was a nonsense question to a Frenchman.

Anyway, I arrived at my first appointment (the chateau will remain unnamed), carrying my bottle of California Zinfandel as a thank you for seeing me.  I was greeted by a young man who, while eyeing the unfamiliar wine I was holding, promptly informed me that he wasn't the person I was supposed to see and excused himself, leaving me shifting from one foot to the other in the entrance hall. 

I didn't have time to get nervous, though, as the young man returned accompanied by an elderly man in a suit and tie. 

We exchanged greetings and my host paused, then quietly said, "Ah, yes, Mister Boyd."  We both smiled and I thanked him for seeing me, and then not knowing what else to say, I  handed him the bottle of Zinfandel. 

It was an awkward exchange and I wasn't sure if my host knew what to say either, but he grasped the bottle, smiled politely and said, "Ah, yes, Mister Boyd, we heard they were doing something with grapes in California," and then delicately handed off the bottle to his man as though it were a dead rat.

I got my interview, was granted a taste of the current vintage wine and we said our goodbyes.


Next blog: Understanding Wine Sweetness

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