"The Inside Story"
By Don Clemens
One of the great treasures in any wine lover's life is that moment when one really tastes that perfectly balanced, perfectly aged blend of grapes that make up one of those iconic bottles of wine from Bordeaux, whether red or white. I have been blessed to have experienced that moment for both styles in my career. Let me be clear: this “moment” is highly subjective! It is probable that none of us tastes a wine with exactly the same perceptions. What is honeyed and sweet and slightly tart all at once to me when tasting a 1976 Chateau D’Yquem might seem very different to you. And that’s OK! I still remember my first taste of 1947 Chateau Cheval Blanc rouge. My life in wine has never been the same after that experience. Of course, I keep trying to seek it out again, but the odds are long that I won’t have that happen to me again. But the chase is so much fun! So, about Bordeaux...
Geography: Bordeaux is located upriver from the mouth of the Gironde river, a major seaport in southwestern France, opening to the Atlantic Ocean. The Gironde, and its major tributary, the Dordogne river, divide the Bordeaux region into two parts, creating two very distinctive wine production areas. Most people today speak of the wines of the Left Bank or the Right Bank. The Left Bank includes wines of the Médoc and Graves/Pessac-Léognan; the Right Bank includes wines of St-Émilion and Pomerol.
The most significant difference between the Left and Right Banks lies in the soil composition. The Left Bank has a greater proportion of gravel, while the Right Bank has more clay. The result of this can be seen in the styles of the wines for which each area is best known. Cabernet Sauvignon likes gravelly soils, a condition provided by the Left Bank. It comes as no surprise then that most of the great wines of the Left Bank are predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon-based. And, since Merlot prefers heavier soil, definitely an attribute of the Right Bank, it can be expected that the great wines coming from that side are often predominantly made from that grape.
The Grapes: One of the great definers of Bordeaux is that blends are always important, and maybe essential. For the red wines, there are six historic grapes allowed in the region: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carménère. For the white wines, the grapes are Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle.
Historical Background: For American wine collectors, the region that has held the greatest reputation for quality, for the longest time, is most probably Bordeaux. With essentially only three wine types – a red “Claret”, a dry white “Graves” and a rich, sweet dessert wine (Sauternes is the best known) - the region’s international reputation precedes the American Revolution. The British trade with the merchants of Bordeaux, coupled with a long history of British control, helped to establish a high regard for the red wines of the region. In fact, the much-used British term for red Bordeaux, “Claret” is a corrupt translation of “Clairet,” a term which the French borrowed from the Romans of the 1st Century AD (“vinum clarum” - due to the wines’ light and clear appearance.) Thomas Jefferson was familiar with the wines of Chateaux Margaux, Lafite, Latour and D’Yquem before he helped draft the American Declaration of Independence. On the grounds of his Virginia home, Monticello, he had planted vine cuttings from many of Bordeaux’s famous properties. (Unfortunately, the combination of the climate of Monticello, coupled with the unknown existence of the plant root louse phyloxxera, did not prove to be a particularly suitable environment for these noble grape varieties.
The 1855 Bordeaux Classification: As the reputation for the quality of Bordeaux wines grew, the wine merchants of the region felt the need for some standard of quality and reliability. In large part, this was to protect their financial interests in maintaining the vigor of their burgeoning wine trade. This desire resulted in the first official, government-sanctioned classification of vineyards anywhere: the famous 1855 Bordeaux Classification. In 1855, a large Exposition (much like a World’s Fair) was going to be held in Paris. The organizers asked the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce to create a classification of Bordeaux wines for the Exposition. The task was delegated (naturally) to the top Bordeaux wine brokers, who had an intimate knowledge about “what the market would bear” when it came to the relative value and reputation of the wines of the Left Bank. There are no Pomerol or St.- Émilion Chateaux in the 1855 Classification – it is solely for the wines of the Médoc and the unavoidably well-known Graves “interloper,” Chateau Haut-Brion. This remarkable document is still valid, more than a century and three-quarters later! In fact, it has remained unchanged – with the exception of one winery – since its inception. That change didn’t happen until 1973, with the elevation of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild to “1st Growth” status, from its previous ranking of “2nd Growth.”
Today, there are only five “1st Growth” properties – Chateaux Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion and Mouton Rothschild. Of the others, 14 are classified as “2nd Growths,” 14 are classified as “3rd Growths,” 10 are classified as “4th Growths” and 18 are classified as “5th Growths.” Thus, only 61 chateaux achieved glory, out of more than 6,000 Bordeaux chateaux.
The Haut-Médoc: Bordeaux is subdivided into a number of different districts’ sub-districts. These sub-districts are often referred to as “communes,” or vineyard areas surrounding a specific village or city. The Haut-Médoc has six communes, four of which are the most important. They are Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac, St-Julien and Margaux. The other two lesser known communes are Moulis and Listrac. Many people think that there are some specific characteristics which can be assigned to these communes, especially “The Big Four.” Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant grape here, followed by Merlot and Cabernet Franc, with a significant amount of Petit Verdot, followed by Malbec. They are as follows:
Saint-Estèphe - Hard, tannic, full-bodied, earthy and meaty. They are sometimes tart and slow to evolve.
Pauillac – Rich and powerful, firm and tannic, very slow to evolve. There is often discussion of “cedar and cassis” aromas, as well as “lead pencil” aromas.
St-Julien – Rich, “juicy” and sumptuous, and medium/full-bodied. Elegant and well balanced, cedary, like a tobacco humidor.
Margaux – Perfumed and fragrant. Medium-bodied, supple and complex – sometimes the term “feminine” is used to describe these wines (don’t ask me – I'm just reporting the facts...)
Graves/Pessac- Léognan: This commune holds the only other “1st Growth” of the 1855 Classification – Chateau Haut-Brion, whose reputation was so stellar that the Bordeaux merchants of the time, mostly Médocain, were compelled to include it – the ONLY wine in the Classification that was not from the Médoc. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most important grape grown in this commune.
Sauternes and Barsac: This is the “dessert wine capital” of Bordeaux. Incredibly rich, honey-like, and long-lived, the wines of this district are noted by their predilection for becoming infected (what a terrible word) by Botrytis Cinerea, a beneficial mold that concentrates the flavors of the grapes it infects by allowing the expiration of water while changing the flavor of the grapes. Adjectives usually include “honey,” “anise,” “roasted nut” and “tropical fruit.” Botrytis Cinerea is a common vineyard mold that is really only beneficial when it attacks the right grapes at the right time – preferably white grapes in late summer. In France, the mold is called “Pourriture Noble;” in Germany it is called “Edelfäule;” in English, it is “Noble Rot.” In the case of Sauternes and Barsac, the finest vintages are those who have been inflicted with extensive Botrytis Cinerea. The important grapes here are Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc.
St- Émilion: This region was first classified in 1954 (almost a century after the Médoc merchants’ version,) and again in 1984. There are two categories of classification: 11 Grands Crus (subdivided into two “A” and nine “B” level chateaux); the rest are St-Émilion AOP. The two “A” level Grands Crus are Chateau Cheval Blanc and Chateau Ausone. The most important grapes here are Cabernet Franc and Merlot, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon.
Pomerol: Pomerol is about one-eighth the size of St. Émilion, 1800 acres to about 13,000. It hasn’t been officially classified, but that has not held back the demand for its best wines. Probably the most expensive Bordeaux, year in and year out, had been Chateau Petrus. Lately, Chateau Le Pin has been giving Petrus a run for its money. A much larger percentage of Merlot is grown here, with Cabernet Franc being the next most planted grape.
While it’s been a lot of fun wandering the memories of Bordeaux and its fantastic Classified Growth Chateaux, I have to say that for the neophyte wine drinker, you might be stunned at the retail prices of today’s Bordeaux offerings. A word of advice: find a really good wine merchant who understands the concept of fair pricing. There are TONS of Bordeaux appellation wines available at under $25.00 per bottle that really taste great! If you’re lucky enough to have the opportunity to taste some Classified Growth Bordeaux, be happy. But don’t be discouraged if you don’t have an extra $500-$600 hanging around your pockets. There really are some excellent wines out there to enjoy. Get to know your friendly wine store clerks-they love to share their knowledge!