Wines of Bordeaux
Bordeaux is the most revered wine region in the world. This is partly because it produces more good-quality wine than any other, partly because its wines live considerably longer than most (though a decreasing proportion of them are now allowed to). It is also because its principal grape varieties are planted all over the world, especially in the newer wine regions. Bordeaux wines are therefore seen as the all-important models by most winemakers and wine consumers.
This large region’s most important wine is red Bordeaux, which has been called claret in Britain ever since the light wines of western France were first imported centuries ago (then called clairet, meaning ‘pale wine’). More connoisseurs enthuse about claret than any other wine. It is dry and not too alcoholic (about 11%) which makes it very digestible and easy to drink with food. It is also quite tart and relatively high in tannin, which makes it essential to drink it with food. Most claret would make about as good an aperitif as a glass of lemon juice mixed with stewed tea.
The most famous clarets come from the two best-known red wine areas on the left bank of the Gironde, the Medoc and Graves. Most of the wine produced here comes from a specific ‘chateau’, which is the name of the property and the name of the administrative building around which the vines are planted (even if it is only a farm shack) and the name of the wine it produces from these, and only these, vines.
The system is very neat, in contrast to the perplexing disorder of Burgundy, and was made even easier to understand in 1855 when an official classification of the 60-odd most reputable Chateaux was drawn up. This ranking is rather like the football league tables but has remained much more constant and is in use today. The ‘first growths’ or premiers cru are Chateaux Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion, the only Graves property grafted on to all the Medocs in 1855, presumably because it had already established a fine reputation. (There is mention of it as early as Pepys’s diaries.)
The premiers crus are the star wines and such is their international fame that they cost about twice as much as even a second growth, such as Chateaux Ducru-Beaucaillou or Leoville Lascases, even though these particular wines may well be almost as good. A label of a Medoc wine that says simply Grand Cru Classe may be a third, fourth or fifth growth. The other top properties of the Graves region now have their own classification, and there is a useful group of Chateaux just ‘below’ fifth growths called bourgeois growths or crus bourgeois.
Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant grape variety in the Medoc and Graves, although a bit of Cabernet Franc and the softening Merlot is usually planted in most vineyards too. The wines are left for up to two weeks in contact with the grapeskins during and after fermentation which means that lots of colouring matter and tannins are extracted from them. This, combined with the fact that all top quality claret is matured in small oak barrels, means that the wines are very dense and tough when young. The best can live for a century and most classed-growth claret from a good vintage needs 10 years before the tannins have softened to allow the fruit to appear and make the wine drinkable. However, an increasing proportion of less expensive claret is now being made to be drunk young and everyday claret can be some of the most reliable and appetizing drinking available to the wine lover.
On the right bank of the Gironde are two more famous red wine areas, St Emilion and Pomerol. Merlot is the most important grape variety in both of them and the wines produced here are therefore much softer, fruitier and earlier maturing than those of Medoc and Graves. Evcn the areas themselves look quite different. While the left bank is, in general, flat and unremarkable gravel enlivened only by some rather smart nineteenth-century chateaux, the right bank is rolling wooded country dotted with little farms, almost all of them producing wine. St Emilion has its own classification system, drawn up in 195 5, which designates 11 premiers grands crus classes and scores of less exciting properties which are still allowed to call themselves grands crus classes.
St Emilion wines taste a little richer than most clarets, while Pomerols are even richer and plummier. Pomerol can taste a little like a very luxurious fruit cake, and of no property is this more true than of PomeroPs most famous Chateau, Petrus. This is usually billed as the most expensive red wine in the world and can easily cost more than £100 a bottle for a vintage that is ready to drink. This is not unrelated to the fact that the vineyard, typically for the right bank, is tiny and supply is strictly limited.
Bourg, Blaye and Fronsac produce large quantities of perfectly respectable red wine on the right bank, while Entre-Deux-Mers (meaning ‘between two seas’, in fact not seas at all, but the rivers Dordogne and Garonne) is a source of much of the red wine labelled simply Bordeaux.
Many wine drinkers fail to realize how important white wine is to the Bordeaux region. Huge quantities of basic dry white are made, usually of the Sauvignon Blanc grape variety with a bit of Semillon blended in to make it less sharp and searing. The best dry white wines of Bordeaux, some of which can develop great complexity with age, come from Graves, though a wine labelled Graves Superieures is usually sweet. Entre-Deux-Mers is a great source of dry white wine. White Bordeaux is usually dry if bottled in green glass and sweet if bottled in a clear glass version of the high-shouldered Bordeaux shape.
Bordeaux’s most famous white wines come from the Sauternes region. The best of these, almost oil-rich wines, are made by encouraging a curious fungus, Botrytis cinerea or ‘noble rot’, to attack the grapes and concentrate their richness. The pickers may have to go through the vineyard several times to pick the grapes only when they are at optimum ripeness. Semillon is the most suitable grape, though some Sauvignon Blanc is often blended to give it tang and perfume.
Barsac is a parish, or commune, inside the Sauternes area producing slightly lighter wines. All Barsac can be called Sauternes, therefore, but by no means all of Sauternes is Barsac. The most famous, and most expensive, Sauternes is Chateau d’Yquem which has earned the accolade of being considered the most highly esteemed gift in Japan. The Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux, Ste Croix du Mont and Loupiac areas produce much more moderately priced sweet white Bordeaux.