Aspen Times Weekly: Bordeaux — some basics
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
Here are three wines to look for from Bordeaux when on a budget.
Chateau Mayne Guyon- Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux 2012
Cheap, cheap, cheap at less than $10 in a Trader Joes’ (yeah, I got it in California). A merlot based wine from the right bank.
Chateau Tour St. Bonnet, Cru Bourgeois, Medoc, 2011
A tad pricier, the Cru Bourgeois wine is a classic blend of all the permissible grapes, with the exception of Cabernet Franc. It is a perfect wine for the “middle class.”
2012 Clarendelle Blanc
Thought we would throw a white in the mix made by the Dillon Family who also owns Chateau Haut-Brion and Carte Blanche wines in the Napa Valley. Sauvignon Blanc and Semillion in a heavenly blend.
When Jay Fletcher, one of the world’s most knowledgeable experts on the wines of Bordeaux, passed his Master Sommelier Exam in London in 1996, he had never been to the Bordeaux wine region. I was amazed that someone could know so much about a place that they had never experienced. When I asked Jay about what I considered to be such an incongruity, he shrugged and said, “I had to learn about it to pass, so I opened up some books and got to it.”
For starters, that is typical Jay Fletcher. It is the same ethic that the local mentor to wine professionals passes on when those who come to Aspen to seek out his advice and consultation on how they too can become Master Sommeliers. But the lesson is, you need not travel to a specific wine region to study it. All you really need is a sense of exploration, a few bottles of wine and the desire to seek out information about the place and its wines.
I have never been to Bordeaux, but over the years I have had the opportunity to taste many wines from the region. So when I woke up this morning, slightly cloudy from having consumed perhaps a drop to much Merlot from Christian Moueix, I thought I would refresh myself on a few of the basics of Bordeaux and pass the same on to you.
Begin with the understanding that Bordeaux is a big, big place. There are close to 300,000 acres of vines in the region, making it the largest winemaking area in all of France, and perhaps the largest fine winemaking region in all the world. This massive expanse is broken down into more than over 30 different sub regions with fifty-plus appellations. There are bold-faced names that stand out and bring the big bucks, but there are many more makers of fine Bordeaux who sell wines that are reasonably priced and will give you the flavor of the region.
Located just inland from the Atlantic Ocean on the west coast of South-Central France, the Bordeaux rims a massive estuary called the Gironde, which marks the confluence of the mighty Garonne and Dordogne rivers. On the west shore of the Gironde, closest to the mouth of the estuary and the sea, are the villages and appellations of the Haut-Medoc region, including St-Estèphe, Pauillac, and St-Julien, and Margaux, home to many of the world’s most fabled Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines. Here, the soils, formed by mounds of gravel left from centuries of give and take between the rivers and the sea, support and stress the Cabernet grapes. This region is known as the “Left Bank.”
To the East, on the far shore of the Dordogne River, the land is known as the “Right Bank.” Here the bold-faced regional names are Pomerol and St-Emilion and the wines tend to be based on Merlot as the dominant grape.
Bordeaux, as a region, is heavily defined by wine laws that have origins dating back to the 1800s. To label a wine as being from the region, it must be made from the list of permissible grapes that are sourced from that specific region. For red wines in Bordeaux the permitted grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. When you hear people speak of “Bordeaux Blends,” these are wines made from a combination of those varietals exclusively.
80%, perhaps more, of the overall production of Bordeaux wine is red with the remaining portion being white wines made using Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillion and Muscadelle. Bordeaux is also home to the sweet dessert wines, called Sauternes, made from botrytized grapes in the southern reaches of the region.
Any wine geek will know the names of the five classified “First Growth” wines (see box), that is to say wines that have been designated since the Cru “Classification of 1855” as being the crème de la crème of Bordeaux. But savvy drinkers know that one need not drink wines that sell for thousands to enjoy Bordeaux. While Asia, particularly the Chinese market, has driven up the price of the aforementioned bold-faced names, there are bargains to be had for those who look in their local wine shops.
Look for wines that come from regions in proximity to those that are highly sought after. If you can’t afford a Margaux or a St-Julien, look for a Appellation Bordeaux-Superieur that lists on the bottle as being from “Haut- Médoc” or simply Médoc. Want a great Merlot but Petrus is a little out of range? Look for Right Bank wines from the Côtes de Castillon or Fronsac.
Also, try to find wines from what are considered to be from solid vintages from the region. In Bordeaux, there are many variations and what may be considered a great vintage in one area may be less so in another. But in recent years, a number of fine vintages produced outstanding wines across the board. Think 2008, 2009 and 2010 when perusing the shelves.
So, now you know your left from your right, the grapes of Bordeaux, and have a vintage or two to consider. You may not be a Master yet, but a little knowledge can be a delicious thing.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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