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RED BORDEAUX

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. 







Back in 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.  




The only 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.

An annual 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 lose.  

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 happened!

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 "style."  

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?

The world 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 fairly rare.

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?  




Many 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, too!!!

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 commodity.  

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:

"There are winemakers who are real liars in the region that haven’t been outed or caught because a culture of omertà still exists in Bordeaux. Producers live and work by a code of silence. When you scratch below the surface, Bordeaux is a very unprofessional region in the way it does business...A few producers were guilty of keeping their best barrels for samples while the majority tasted completely different, but the négociants caught onto it and stopped buying their wine."

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 Wines

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, etc.

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 alluvial soil.
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 consumers.

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 here.

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 interest, too.

SOME BORDEAUX WE LIKE

 

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