Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
December 30, 2010
Ask a wine connoisseur what wine they would drink if they were forced to choose just one and you will likely get the answer “Why, a Bordeaux, of course.”
Some may suggest the wines of Burgundy as their favorites, and there will be a smattering of Italian fanatics out there. You may find a sprinkling of those who love the wines of Spain best. But for most collectors, that is to say those who have enough “bank” to drink anything they want at anytime they want (you know who you are), it is the wines of Bordeaux that inspire passion.
Bordeaux is located in southwestern France, a little north of the Spanish border. The region is bounded to the west by the Atlantic Ocean, which provides a maritime influence that keeps temperatures cool in summer and generally prevents killing frosts in winter. Bordeaux is one of the most prolific wine-growing regions in the world, second only in France to the Languedoc-Rousillon region in total production. There are upwards of 7,000 producers in Bordeaux and over 13,000 growers.
But when collectors speak of Bordeaux they are talking about a very select few wines with well-defined pedigrees. While there are some fine white wines from Bordeaux, the golden, sweet, Sauternes being the most significant, more than 80 percent of production is in red wines. The dominant red grapes in the region are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, though Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot Carmenere are also permissible for use in Bordeaux wines. It is the way these wines are constructed that makes the iconic “Bordeaux Blends.”
About that pedigree. In 1855, France’s Emperor Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, better known as Napoleon III, nephew of the Napoleon who invaded Russia (a decision some say was made under the influence), requested a classification be made ranking Bordeaux’s best wines. The goal was to provide visitors to the 1855 World Exposition in Paris with a guide to rank the wines they would be tasting.
The brokers, the businessmen of Bordeaux, got together and, no doubt with visions of profits dancing in their heads, devised a system that would change the world of wine forever. They selected 61 separate wine estates as the region’s best and divided them into five groups called “Growths.” At the apex of the ratings, the pinnacle, they named the wines that remain to this day the most collectable wines on earth.
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These were designated as the “First Growths.” No doubt you have heard of them. Perhaps even tasted them. They are Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux, and Chateau Haut-Brion, though at the time of the classification they did not include the word “Chateau” in their name. In 1973 a fifth First Growth was added to the mix when Chateau Mouton Rothschild was deemed worthy. These wines, especially from the best vintages, can be priced in the stratosphere and are considered to be the most expensive bottles on earth.
Four of these five estates are located in the Medoc region, on what is known as the “Left Bank” on the west side of the Gironde, an enormous estuary north of the city of Bordeaux. The Gironde splits into two great rivers, Garonne and Dordogne. Chateau Haut-Brion is a little further south on the Garonne River in a region called Graves.
There are 57 separate appellations in Bordeaux and while the structure of the region is clearly defined, to become an expert in the nuances of each can be a lifetime pursuit. But know that there are distinct differences in the land on either side of the rivers and the Gironde, and that this contributes to the creation of distinctly different wines.
The Left Bank is Cabernet country. That is to say, the great wines from the west side, nearest the Atlantic, are all dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. The Right Bank, the east side, is Merlot country. The great wines from Pomerol, for example, are built on a base of Merlot. Depending upon your palate you may be a Left Bank or a Right Bank drinker.
Provided, of course, that you have enough “bank.”