Bordeaux is the center of the Universe
as far as many wine drinkers are concerned.
With something like 10,000 wineries located in this one small pocket of France,
there's a veritable ocean to be swimming in there.
Climate and soil are influencing factors regarding the character of the
wine. The quality factor is also influenced by human intervention and the
winemaker's dedication to quality. Though the French are in love with the
notion of "terroir," we are seeing a dramatic rise in quality from
places which had previously not produced good wine. Given that the soil
and microclimate have not changed, we must then admit that the dedication to
quality on the part of the producer has.
Further changes are certainly afoot for Bordeaux. An over-supply of wine
has caused one regulating agency to urge a ceiling on sales. They are
suggesting a maximum number of liters-per-hectare be enforced to help ease the
situation of over-supply.
1855 there was a major "classification" of the red wines of the Mdoc
region, the peninsula north of the city of Bordeaux. The merchants
involved in this "organizational chart" of the top wines of the day
agreed to measure the quality of the wines based upon the prices wines from the
various estates were achieving.
The very top wines were designated as Premiers Crus (Lafite-Rothschild, Latour,
Margaux and Haut-Brion). These are known as "First
Growths". The next level of estates (or "growths" or
"crus") are the Second Growths or Deuximes Crus.
Mouton-Rothschild is the only estate to be elevated to "first growth"
status and, otherwise, the classification has remained set in stone. Then you
have third, fourth and fifth "growth" status estates.
problem with this lovely chart is that some estates are resting on their
laurels, while others are over-achievers. As a result, you'll find some
wines, such as the fifth growth Château Lynch-Bages routinely selling for more
money than some second growth wines. Things change, but the classification
hasn't except for the elevation of Mouton.
We have great reverence for history, but we are also open-minded enough to taste
what's in the glass. It is always exciting to discover some new property
which is producing exceptional wine.
We've found a number of estates which have no significant history, that are
making delicious and high quality wines. On the other hand, in our various
blind-tasting comparisons, we are often horrified to see how expensive some
wines are and how little they deliver in the glass. This demonstrates how
important the "history" can be in allowing some properties to sell on
their fame, not on their quality.
Bordeaux are often sold in a fashion very different from other wines. Most
of the famed, "classified" estates sell their wines to merchant
companies in Bordeaux. They will even start to sell their production well
before the wines are in bottle and ready to hit the market.
tasting is organized and hundreds of wine industry people gather about six
months following the harvest while the wines are just settling down in
barrel. Samples are drawn from the casks to show to this crowd.
Whether or not each estate is showing a sample that's really representative of
their production is not really known. It's "scout's honor."
The wineries will then offer a "slice" of the annual production as a
"futures" item. It is, essentially, a commodity to be traded and
subject to market conditions. By offering a mere, small slice, the winery
can "test the waters" to see how much demand there is for a particular
vintage. This is how they hedge their bets and allows them to
substantially raise their price should market demand be strong.
You might think buying "on futures" is a good way to go. But
this is a risky business and you should only invest what you can afford to
First, wine tends to be a rather poor "investment." There are
numerous studies showing this to be the case.
Secondly, it's best to buy what you actually LIKE to drink. If you are
buying on futures, you have to rely on the word of various critics or journals
to assess the wines. Further, you have to hope those people have been
shown an accurate sample.
Although it can cost a bit more, as a buyer who likes drinking Bordeaux wines, I
am more happy to be able to taste wines out of bottle to be able to better
select wines I like. And it doesn't always cost more. We have often
been able to provide wines at very competitive prices because market conditions
prevent huge price increases. I recall one vintage where our sales price
of various (famous) wines was actually LESS than the futures prices! And
our customers didn't have to part with their cash 18-24 months before the wines
were available to cart home! This is generally not the case, but it has
I am sure this sounds funny from someone in the wine "business," but
the notion of selling futures is not appealing to me. Wine sold like that
becomes a mere commodity and not a product with "soul" and
There's always the risk of the store or importer you're dealing with may not be
in business when it comes time to deliver the goods. We heard about one
fellow who had a devil of a time being able to take possession of a
"futures" purchase he had made with one firm. Is this gamble
worth the risk, I wonder?
of Bordeaux has changed significantly over the past 30 years. I recall
tasting some vintages of wines which were really washed out and
poor. Estates today work much more diligently to harvest higher
quality fruit (smaller crops tend to ripen earlier, for one thing). And
many properties "de-classify" a significant portion of their wine if
the quality is not up to standards. Numerous estates now have second or
third label wines to which they can divert a percentage of their production.
Cultivation methods in the vineyards have changed. So have vinification
and cellar treatments. And the weather has been shining brightly in
Bordeaux over the past few decades. Vintages akin to 1972 and 1974 are
A few major winemaking consultants have changed the face of Bordeaux. So
has a critic or two.
Some consulting winemakers really put their thumbprint on the wines they're
involved with. This may be good on one hand (so-to-speak), but I'm not
sure if it's a positive thing if all wines start tasting the same.
For another, winery owners seeking to be awarded high numerical scores from
certain critics, seem to have put their wines on "steroids" in an
attempt to curry favor with certain palates. While we enjoy profound,
flavorful wines, isn't it a pity when wines from Bordeaux start tasting like
wines from Australia, California or Chile?
of Bordeaux's financial fortunes rest upon the shoulders (or under the nose) of
American wine guru, Robert Parker. This fellow is a skilled taster and
seems to be an honest critic of the wines. That said, he seems to have a
preference for bigger, rounder, fatter wines. And, when you're tasting a
hundred (or more) wines daily, of course those wines which whack you over the
head or which come out and shake your hand are those which garner the greatest
attention and accolades.
Vintners reading Mr. Parker's writings, seek to enhance their fortunes by making
wines which will appeal to this particular palate. Not every consumer
shares Robert Parker's taste for wines, for one thing. For another, some
wines which fare well in "tasting" settings, may not be the most
enjoyable wines for "drinking."
I learned a long time ago that vintage charts, while helpful, are not the
answer in buying wine, Bordeaux or otherwise. We developed a taste for
older Bordeaux, but found the 1959s and 1961s too costly, while the
less-heralded 1958s were most attractively priced. And oh so drinkable,
Sure, some years are wash outs. (We haven't had any vintages such as 1972
or 1968 in recent memory...the producers cultivate differently for one thing and
secondly, the climate has changed and we have not seen frigid growing seasons
with stormy harvests.) But joining the stampede to buy the most
highly-touted wines from highly-touted vintages can be costly, while you may
derive much pleasure from looking at less-hyped years. I had tasted some
1993s, for example, at 10+ years old. Some were really delightful
wines and available for very modest prices. Not Hall-of-Fame
candidates, but some good, if unheralded wines.
We have found, for example, that many journalists or wine critics highly value
astringent, tannic wines. But where is it written that every wine, in
order to be of "good" or "exceptional" quality, must be a
wine demanding 20 or more years of cellaring? If dinner is this evening,
what are we drinking???
Indeed, many fine vintages in Bordeaux require a number of years for the wines
to soften, develop, smooth out and blossom. But there are some delightful
wines produced in other years which don't require so much patience for the wines
to be drinkable.
It seems to us that many wine writers would have you buy Bordeaux but once or
twice a decade. "Skip the rest of the years. They're no good!"
Well then, how are those producers whose wines were often find to be of
interest going to stay in business when consumers don't support them?
(Remember, too, market conditions can cause big swings in pricing...2001
Bordeaux cost about one-third of 2000s, yet the quality can be very high.)
There are magnificent and attractively-priced wines from the 2004 vintage, a
year over-shadowed by the hot 2003 vintage and the showy, flashy 2005s.
Yet the 2004s are remarkably good and if they're nicely priced, why not?
Good winemakers make good wines every year. And the fact that
there's vintage variation is a good thing! The advent of second labels has
really helped. Many estates are today unwilling to attract bad scores, so
they declassify wines of lesser quality to their secondary labels, bottling only
wine deemed "fit" for the prestigious label. We have tasted many hugely tannic Bordeaux from the 2000 vintage. The
critics were really beating the drums for 2000 Bordeaux, but I have to question
if many of the wines are worth buying. For one thing, they're hugely
expensive because so many people decided to buy (or invest). For another,
it's not clear to me the wines have a balance of fruit to go along with the
hugely tannic structures. And now, a decade + later, you hardly hear
a peep about 2000s, despite all the hype when they were the hot
Since then, we heard that 2005 was the best vintage...ever. That is, until
2009. And now that 2009s are being sold at stratospheric prices, Bordeaux
vintners have been a bit shy in admitting that perhaps the 2010s are, oops!,
better than the 2009s! Time will tell, of course, but unless you're
spending hundreds or thousands of dollars per bottle for the most famous wines,
keep in mind there are always well-made, interesting bottles of Bordeaux to be
had if you know where to look.
We often look for lesser-heralded vintages...these days the wineries are far
more quality conscious than they were in the 1950s and 1960s...and with lower
yields in the vineyards and a string of relatively warmer vintages than they had
ages ago, we can say that it's interesting to see what winemakers do to bring
out the best each year. And sometimes a bit of patience can confer a
measure of quality to a wine...I am thinking of a 1998 Bordeaux we ignored when
it was released, as it simply wasn't terribly interesting. A decade later,
with those ten years of time-in-the-bottle, that same wine is a delight! I can tell you, there was a lot of interest back in the day when 1982
Bordeaux were first offered. Prices rose overnight on some wines to
dizzying levels (and they remain high). But having just tasted a set of
1982s, we found many of the wines to still be astringent and somewhat coarse,
though the fruit of many of the wines is waning. You decide. Today we see a lot of editorial space telling you to buy 2009
Bordeaux. I am sure many wines will, in fact, be good. But I've
purchased some bottles of various wines and can tell you the vintage date on the
bottle is NOT a guarantee of good quality. It comes down, as it does every
year, to the ability of the winemaker. Some are struck by dumb luck and
make good wine, while others strive for perfection in every vintage.
Still, for some vintners, there is almost no hope.
On top of this, a European publication called The Drinks Business posted an
article quoting one prominent Bordeaux vintner as saying:
And even the vintner making these allegations of shady practices with respect
to showing samples of wines-in-progress admitted his own wine that is shown to
critics and prospective buyers at an early stage is not precisely the same as
the wine they bottle. Another producer as well as a prominent consulting
winemaker are quoted as saying they show different wines to various
critics. For American critics such as Robert Parker, they'll show samples
from brand new barrels, while a prominent French publication is shown the wine
from older cooperage.
This is another reason we prefer to have a look at some wines a year or
two after they've arrived in our market. We've always been able to offer
classy wines from good estates at reasonable prices. We look for wines
which have a measure of drinkability, too.
The good news is the world is awash in wine. If you come into our
shop, I can assure you we have something for your enological thirst!
THE GRAPES OF BORDEAUX
CABERNET SAUVIGNON A late-ripening, relatively shy-bearing variety. In warm and sunny
vintages it produces fabulous wines. Rain during the harvest tends to
swell the berries (one enterprising vintner rolled out plastic sheetings between
the rows of vines to prevent the water from a rainstorm from affecting his
vines...The neighbors objected and he had to declassify his wine to a mere
"vin de table" status!), not to mention the risk of rot. This
can make for lighter wines. It can cause the wines to display an
herbaceous or vegetal quality.
Because the grape is relatively small, Cabernet Sauvignon tends to be a tannic
red wine since it has a high skins-to-juice ratio.
Cabernet Sauvignon is the foundation of most Medoc and Graves red wines.
MERLOT Merlot is a grape which tends to bud, flower and ripen earlier than Cabernet
Sauvignon. The good news is that it may be ready to harvest before
untimely harvest-season rains. The bad news is it can be damaged by frosts
in April or May and its tight bunches are more susceptible to rot as a result of
harvest-time rain. It is the basis for the wines of Pomerol and St.
Emilion and a blending variety to soften Cabernet. Over-cropped or
under-ripe fruit makes for a rather vegetal character in Merlot.
CABERNET FRANC Also known as "Bouchet," this is said to be a cousin of Cabernet
Sauvignon. It is more the blending grape with Merlot in Pomerol and St.
Emilion wines than is Cabernet Sauvignon. Its wine tends to have less
depth than Cabernet Sauvignon and a distinctively spicy quality. PETIT VERDOT A late-ripening variety which flowers irregularly. It is said to be a
useful blending variety, capable of adding some backbone to a Bordeaux wine.
MALBEC Another unreliable producing vine, Malbec is susceptible to "coulure,"
a flowering malady. It is the main grape variety in the nearby region of
Cahors and it's a major variety in Argentina. California has some Malbec
vineyards, but it's rarely made on its own since it is best as a back-up singer,
rather than taking the lead.
The Regions and Geographical Names on
BORDEAUX This is, as you might suspect, the most broad and general appellation for
the wines from this region. One can find basic red, white and rosé wines
with the name Bordeaux associated on the label. There is even a sparkling
wine, Crémant de Bordeaux! Don't think this is necessarily a lowly
appellation, for some mighty good wines carry this designation. One
example comes from Château Margaux. The appellation of Margaux does not
cover white wines, yet Château Margaux produces a top quality, premium-priced
white called "Pavillon Blanc." It is "merely" a
"Bordeaux" white wine!
BORDEAUX SUPÉRIEUR These reds tend to have a higher level of alcohol and are, hopefully, a bit
more intense that simple "Bordeaux" reds. There are a number of
exceptional properties with this appellation that are producing wines rivaling
the far more famous names in Bordeaux. BLAYAIS & BOURGEAIS These two small regions are located between the Charente (where they make
Cognac) and the Gironde (Bordeaux). Both towns, Blaye and Bourg, are
fortified towns and very old names for wine. You may see numerous
appellations: Blaye, Premières Côtes de Blaye, Bourg, Côtes de Bourg,
FRONSAC & CANON-FRONSAC These wines tend to resemble those of their neighbors in nearby St. Emilion
and Pomerol, tending to be Merlot-based reds. We've seen tremendous
improvements in some wines from these areas.
POMEROL Less than 2000 acres of vineyard comprise this prestigious region, with
Merlot accounting for much of the vineyard area. Experts contend there are
four different soil types in the appellation. Soils tend to be sandier in
the southern part of Pomerol. Near neighboring St. Emilion there's gravel
set upon clay or sand. In the center of the region you'll find more
gravel, frequently above clay, but sometimes below. In the north-east and
north-west of Pomerol, the soils tend to be more fine with a tendency towards
sand and a bit less towards gravel.
SAINT EMILION & SAINT EMILION GRAND CRU Many soil variations are to be found in this appellation! There are
actually nine communes within the appellation, the center being the town of St.
Emilion. Soils there are lime or clay atop a lime sub-soil. Near
Pomerol the soils are more gravelly. Most of the appellation is sandy
A classification of St. Emilion wines first took place in 1955 and there have
been periodic revisions. The classification here, then, is not based upon
terroir, but upon the abilities of the vintner to make good quality wines.
There are 68 châteaux which are "grand cru" status wines, with about
13 of those designated as Premiers Grands Crus. And of the Premiers Grands
Crus, two are designated as "A" level (Ausone and Cheval Blanc, both
considered "First Growth" status wines), with the others being
"B" status wines. This is, of course, subject to change!
SAINT EMILION "SATELLITES" You will find the St. Emilion name used for many neighboring regions...Lussac
Saint-Emilion is one. Montagne Saint-Emilion is another. Puisseguin
Saint-Emilion and Saint-Georges Saint-Emilion are two more.
CÔTES DE CASTILLON A relatively new appellation, this was created in 1989. These wines
used to be included in that vast "Bordeaux" appellation.
BORDEAUX CÔTES DE FRANCS You'll find this area some 7 miles east of Saint-Emilion...potentially
interesting wines...mostly reds.
ENTRE-DEUX-MERS A large triangular region, this appellation is to be found "between two
seas." Those would be the Garonne and Dordogne rivers. This is
an appellation used exclusively on white wines. Sauvignon Blanc & Smillon
are the predominant white grapes. Some producers prefer to label their
wine with the varietal name, hence a "Sauvignon" from this region will
carry but the Bordeaux appellation and not that of Entre-Deux-Mers.
There are some lovely red wines coming from here, but these will have the
Bordeaux or Bordeaux Supérieur name on the labels. A few estates
are really pushing the envelope and making astonishingly good wines. This
is a tremendous development, for it demonstrates it's not only the
"terroir." The hand of the winemaker plays a big role,
too. Growing good grapes in previously "unexploited" regions is
disturbing to the old guard who think their prestigious and famous appellations
have an "exclusivity" on quality. This is good news for
GRAVES DE VAYRES Don't confuse this with the Graves region south and west of the city of
Bordeaux! It's an area on the left bank of the Dordogne, pretty close to
the town of Libourne. At one time, white wine was king here, but today
there is a substantial increase in the production of reds.
SAINTE-FOY-BORDEAUX A very small appellation of less than a thousand acres...
PREMIÈRES CÔTES DE BORDEAUX This is a sizeable area comprising vineyards near the city of Bordeaux to
the town of Cadillac. Reds and whites are made here, with a modest
production of sweet white wine.
GRAVES AND GRAVES SUPÉRIEURES While you find many 'small' wines with these designations, the really
serious quality wines are sold as "Pessac-Léognan" wines. Those
are the top estates in the Graves region. Both red and whites are
offered under these appellations.
MÉDOC There are some 38,000+ acres of vineyards within the famed Médoc appellation.
Here's an area about 50 miles long, north of the city of Bordeaux, that's home
to many of the world's most famous wineries.
Chateaux such as Lafite-Rothschild, Margaux, Latour, Mouton-Rothschild, Léoville
Las Cases, Léoville Barton, Pichon Lalande, Pichon Baron, etc. are
Haut-Médoc has a handful of notable estates and you'll sometimes find nice
wines of the Listrac-Médoc appellation.
Margaux is more prestigious, of course. The wines, for me, tend to
have a high-toned, almost floral note to their aromas. Experts often
describe Margaux wines as elegant. Of course, it helps if the wine comes
from a good estate and a good vintage. Château Margaux and Palmer
head the list. A few other estates are good, if slightly more variable in
terms of quality.
Moulis-en-Medoc covers 1400+ acres. A few estates are noteworthy,
especially Poujeaux and Chasse-Spleen.
Pauillac is probably the "center" of the "center of the Cabernet
universe." It's home to Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Mouton-Rothschild,
Pichon Lalande and Pichon Baron, amongst others. Some of the world's best
Cabernet-dominated wines are born here.
Saint-Estèphe wines have been known for their sturdy structure, though some
vintages of Cos d'Estournel and Haut Marbuzet are rather nicely balanced and
supple in their youth. Montrose tends to be more tannic and deep.
The Château de Pez has been making good wines for nearly a decade since its
takeover by the Champagne firm of Roederer.
Saint Julien is a small, wonderful appellation in the heart of the Haut-Médoc...as it sits between Margaux and Pauillac, it's interesting to see
that its wines, too, are almost a combination of elements of its famous
neighbors. And Saint Julien is home to some exceptional estates,
particularly Léoville Las Cases (which borders Latour) and Loville
Barton. Ducru Beaucaillou routinely makes good wines and sometimes you'll
find exceptional bottles of Saint-Pierre, Gloria (which Americans can pronounce
with ease and which had usually been a bit of an over-achiever), Talbot and Gruaud-Larose.
Léoville Poyferre and Langoa Barton sometimes are of