Today's Bordeaux' wines retain a certain stoical classicism, whilst meeting more modern expectations of accessibility. Bordeaux blends are copied all around the world. In the last fifteen years or so, for all manner of reasons, Bordeaux has been having a rather helter-skelter ride in the popularity stakes, torn apart one day and enjoying warm adulation the next. There are many reasons for this, not least the emergence of new wine producing countries which offer charm and seduction without the hard work. There is also general frustration with a cumbersome supply chain and a ridiculously hierarchical market place yet we continue to sup at this particular table – why? The answer lies in the amorphous and irritatingly intangible concept of terroir .read more
- GRAVES DE
- LALANDE DE
- COTES DE CASTILLON
- ENTRE DEUX MERS
- PREMIERES COTES
- STE CROIX DU MONT
Regardless of all the technology available, the geological, meteorological and geographical elements afforded to parts of Bordeaux simply cannot be emulated anywhere else in the world. Happily an increasing number of the Bordelais are coming to realise that they are better off perfecting that which makes Bordeaux special rather than trying to copy the power of warmer climes – an initial temptation.
Bordeaux terroirs & climates
Bordeaux is divided by the rivers Garonne and Dordogne and, after their confluence, the Gironde. The western side, the Left Bank, is home to the great names of the Médoc, Graves and Sauternes whilst to the east, the Right Bank, houses Blaye, Bourg, Fronsac and more famously Pomerol and Saint-Emilion. The two sides offer contrasting geological landscapes. The Left Bank is gravel-based over limestone, forcing the vines to struggle for survival. Centuries of alluvial deposits, sand, silt, mud and gravel have been offloaded in linear terraces, the foundations of the Left Bank. Here Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant varietal.
On the Right Bank, limestone generally rises to the surface. One exception is Pomerol which is gravelly and, famously, has a buttonhole of clay at its highest point – home to Pétrus. This side of the river favours Merlot in the driving seat with, generally, Cabernet Franc in the blend.
The topography is also very different between the banks. Appreciative exaltations are more likely to be inspired by the châteaux of the Médoc than its geographical beauty. On the other hand the Right Bank lacks the masonry but does have a very pretty, much more interesting landscape.
The area of land between the two rivers is the Entre-Deux-Mers, an appellation for white wines. The red wines produced are labelled as Bordeaux, Bordeaux Supérieur and, from a tiny appellation towards the north-west, Graves de Vayres.
A number of vineyards, on the southern edge of the land mass looking towards the Graves and Bordeaux, over the Garonne, make up the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux– a source of some really good value red wines. In the extreme south east of the Entre-Deux-Mers, facing Barsac, there are a number of communes producing dessert wines; Cadillac, Loupiac and Sainte-Croix-du-Mont.
The Bordeaux climate generally is maritime, and therefore extremely changeable. Weather fronts follow either bank and can affect one or other or both so there can be very genuine variation within any one vintage.
Bordeaux & its wines - grape varieties
The classic grape mix for Bordeaux reds is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The Cabernets provide structure, colour and tannin, Cabernet Franc being the lighter of the two varietals. Both do well in the well-drained gravels of the Médoc and Graves, providing the majority of most Left Bank blends. Merlot, is related to Cabernet and provides intensely-coloured wines which can offer power and finesse in equal measure. Merlot-dominated blends tend to be more accessible in youth. Early-ripening, it can sometimes benefit in years when the rain starts towards the end of September, as their harvest will already be in. The flipside is when there is a very late Indian summer and it rains in September. Petit Verdot appears to be making a bit of a comeback. Referred to sometimes as “seasoning” it is questionable whether the odd 1% in the blend can make much difference but 100% Petit Verdot, allowed to ripen completely and tasted from barrel, is a revelation. Very deeply coloured, aromatic and with very fine, firm tannins, it is an interesting ingredient and properties such as Kirwan are increasing the proportion in the blend. It is a very late ripener, which is its drawback and has impeded its progress in the past. Malbec (also known as Côt) used to be grown widely in the Médoc, but has fallen away in recent times. It is still relatively popular in Bourg and Blaye where it provides colour, rich fruit and aromatic character.
Dry white wines are mainly produced from Sémillon and Sauvignon, rather mirroring their red counterparts with Sauvignon providing the steel and backbone and Sémillon the flesh. Muscadelle, an aromatic variety, is sometimes included, adding floral, stone fruit notes.
The classification systems
The Bordeaux market continues to be influenced by a classification of Left Bank wines, drawn up in 1855. There are constant debates as to the relevance of a league table established so long ago which no longer even reflects the original vineyard holdings. Rightly or wrongly however, it has significance in the market and the higher prices achieved have at least allowed greater investment in the top estates’ vineyards and cellars.
St-Emilion set up its own classification system in 1954 which, at least, gets reviewed every ten years whilst Pomerol, home to some of Bordeaux’ finest, was unrecognised historically and has no system whatsoever.
The Graves/Pessac-Léognan classified their wines in 1959 but this has so many omissions as to render it redundant.
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