Sunday, January 10, 2010

CQ's Wine Guide to France Part 4: Bordeaux

  1. According to the Classification of 1855, the districts of St. Estephe, Paulliac, St. Julien, Margaux, and Graves are organized into 5 crus. The merchants of London based this classification on sales of the time. The wines have since not been reclassified. St. Emilion is reclassified every ten years into grand cru and premier grand cru wines. Pomerol and other satellite appellations are not classified.
  2. A complex system of buyers and sellers exists that drives prices of the best wines and guarantees economic status for the best wines. The unclassified wineries however tend to suffer and have trouble selling their wines.
  3. The wines of the left bank tend to favor Cabernet Sauvignon and those of the right bank favor Merlot.


The climate is maritime with cool winters and moderate summers often with rain and sometimes hail during the harvest. The land was built up on pilings by the Dutch merchant class in the 18th century and soils are gravelly in many places. In Sauternes, morning fog encourages botrytis cinera, a rot that desiccates grapes.

Important Regions

  1. St. Estephe: “you can taste the dust at the end of the road”. Typically the most tannic and dusty tasting of the Cabernet Sauvignon based left bank wines
  2. Paulliac: “the lion”. Full bodied, full throttle Cabernet Sauvignon based reds
  3. St. Julien: “the middle of the road”
  4. Margaux: “the lady.” The most feminine of the Cabernet Sauvignon based reds.
  5. Graves: Usually a blend of half Merlot and half Cabernet Sauvignon. Gravel soils from which the appellation takes its name “bake” the grapes giving them a brick oven smell unlike other districts in Bordeaux.
  6. St. Emilion: Usually very full-bodied and juicy Merlot based wines. The addition of Cabernet Franc gives the wines body and color. Garagistes have moved in to produce wines that sell for high prices and are “Parkerized”.
  7. Pomerol: The most pure of the Merlot based Bordeaux. Not subject to classification, the winemakers have stayed with traditional means for the most part using cement fermentation vats and neutral oak for ageing.
  1. Cabernet Sauvignon: thick skinned grape producing high acid, medium to full bodied wines, with strong tannins. In cooler years, it can smell of green bell pepper, but when fully ripe, it exhibits aromas of cassis, tobacco, and cedar. Favored in St. Estephe, Paulliac, St. Julien, and Margaux.
  2. Merlot: slightly thinner skinned than Cabernet Sauvignon. Early ripening varietal with medium body, medium acid, and medium tannins. Favored in St. Emilion and Pomerol.
  3. Cabernet Franc: the parent (with Sauvignon Blanc) of Cabernet Sauvignon. When properly ripe, it exhibits plum flavor and gives wines body and color. Seldom used on its own with one notable exception: Cheval Blanc. In the best years, this cult St. Emilion can be comprised almost solely of Cabernet Franc. St. Emilion in general will use more Cabernet Franc in its wines than other Bordeaux appellations.
  4. Malbec: used to give wines body and color like Cabernet Franc, but does not have the “green” streak that under-ripe Cabernet Franc can have. It has become the favored grape of Argentina but is also grown in Southwest France in the Bergerac Province where it is blended with Tannat.
  5. Petit Verdot: used for spice and structure. Relatively thick skinned and small berried. Almost never seen alone.
  6. Sauvignon Blanc: One of the great white grapes of the Loire Valley. Takes on Botrytis easily and gives acidity to sweet wines. Also used in inexpensive Entre-deux-mers whites for crisp, clean whites. Highly aromatic and acidic.
  7. Semillon: Full-bodied earthy whites. Extremely prone to botrytis cinera. Used for the production of the best quality sweet white wines of Sauternes.
The Five First Growths
  1. Chateau Lafite-Rothschild (Paulliac)
  2. Chateau LaTour (Paulliac)
  3. Chateau Mouton-Rothschild (Paulliac) – 1973
  4. Chateau Margaux (Margaux)
  5. Chateau Haut-Brion (Graves)
Other Top Chateaux of Note:
  1. Chateau Petrus (Pomerol)
  2. Cheval Blanc (St. Emilion)
  3. Chateau d’Yquem (Sauternes)
Super Seconds – well-known second growth chateaux that perform as well as first growths according to many critics:
  1. Chateau Leoville Las Cases (St. Julien)
  2. Chateau Gruaud Larose (St. Julien)
  3. Chateau Pichon Lalande (Paulliac)
  4. Chateau Cos D’Estournel (St. Estephe)
Sweet Wines

Chateau d’Yquem is the only wine to hold an honor higher than first growth in Bordeaux. It is a Premier Grand Cru. The wine is produced only in the best years from mostly Semillon grapes that have been affected by botrytis cinera, or “noble rot.” This mold attacks the surface of the grapes drawing the moisture out and concentrating the sugars in the grapes. The grapes must be handpicked because of their fragile state and gently pressed and heavily inoculated with sulfur dioxide to kill off the mold. The sweet must ferments only to about 13% abv and the resulting wine is latent with residual sugar, a natural preservative. Because of high amounts of sugar and acid, the wines of Sauternes and especially Chateau d’Yquem are some of the longest-lived wines in the entire world.

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