ENJOYING RED BORDEAUX
By Charles M. Bear Dalton
You’ve been drinking wine for a while and you have visited Napa and Sonoma. You’ve got a VinoTemp or a EuroCave or some other such device to keep you wines right at home. You are enjoying wine but you keep hearing about Bordeaux. Some of your friends drop a Chateau This or a Chateau that into their wine conversation. Maybe they express a preference for the right bank or the Left Bank. You don’t really know what they’re talking about but it sounds interesting. You don’t want to ask because you don’t want to sound foolish. I can help. Here are the basics of Bordeaux.
A Bordeaux Primer
Bordeaux is a region and a city and a wine. The region surrounds both sides of the Gironde estuary and its two tributary rivers, the Garonne and the Dordogne (please see the map). The city of Bordeaux is located on the west (Left Bank of the Garonne river a bit below (up river) from where it joins the Dordogne to form the Gironde. Although an American’s mental picture of the city of Bordeaux might be of a sleepy wine town, in fact, Bordeaux is a vibrant thriving city with a great restaurant scene and a thriving nightlife. It is the dynamic center of the Bordeaux region and its wine trade.
The Bordeaux wine region consists of over 8,000 wine producing chateau spread out over more than 50 sub-appellations. Wine called “Bordeaux” can be produced almost anywhere in the area and can even be blended from grapes grown in many different parts of Bordeaux. But the best wines of the region aren’t sold as Bordeaux. Rather they are named after one of the many sub-regions or “appellations” that make up Bordeaux. The region can easily be divided into two sections, the Left Bank and the right bank, each of which can easily be further subdivided. If you are looking north (down river) on the Garonne or the Gironde, the land on you left (the west side of the river) is called the Left Bank (or Rive Gauche) and the land on your right (the east side of the river is called the Right Bank (or Rive Droite). Of the over 8,000 chateau, no more than 600 produce winess with any sort of international reputation. These top properties are of much more concern to us than the anonymous, French super market wine selling for four euros a bottle at Le Clerc or Auchan.
The Right Bank appellations include most famously St. Emilion and Pomerol but also many less well known areas such as Lalande de Pomerol the St. Emilion satellites (Puissiguin St. Emilion, Montagne St. Emilion, Lussac St. Emilion, and St. Georges St. Emilion), Cotes de Francs, Cotes de Castillon, Fronsac and Canon Fronsac, Graves des Vrayes, Cadillac, Bourg, and Blayes, as well as most of the Chateau-bottled wines labeled either Bordeaux or Bordeaux Supeieur. Although these wine can range in price from a few dollars to a few thousand dollars per bottle, the have in common their terroir and the grapes that express it. At its most basic, the classic right bank terroir is clay over limestone and the most commonly planted grape variety is Merlot. The clay can be red or blue and it can be shallow or deep. The most desirable spots offer a shallow clay layer (6 to 12 inches) with a dusting of gravel on top. While there are spots with deeper soils and even some gravelly areas. Merlot can be the only grape in the blend, especially form the least expensive properties. If the Merlot is blended, Cabernet Franc is the most common partner followed by Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. In Pomerol, Merlot can regularly make up 100% of the cepage (or blend) and is fairly rarely less than 80% of the blend. In St. Emilion, Merlot is usually over 70% of the blend and can be (but very rarely is) 100% of the cep age.
The Left Bank appellations famously include The Medoc and the Graves. The Medoc, located due north of the city of Bordeaux, includes the Haut Medoc which in turn includes Margaux, St. Julien, Pauillac, and St. Estephe as well as the lesser known Moulis and Listrac. The Graves, located to the south and west of the city of Bordeaux includes the tonier appellation of Pessac Leognan. The typical Left Bank terroir is gravelly plains and gravelly mounds, especially closer to the river or the estuary. As you look further west (more than a couple of miles or so from the river’s edge), the gravel peters out and the terroir reverts to clay-over-limestone. Where there is deep gravel, Cabernet Sauvignon is generally planted. The clay over limestone is mostly planted to Merlot and certain pockets are planted to Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, Malbec, and even the odd Carmenere. In all the better spots on the Left Bank, Cabernet Sauvignon backs up 50-plus percent of the cepage but in often above 70%. The balance is mostly Merlot with a bit of Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot. Malbec is rare and Carmenere is rarer still.
Winemaking is basicly the same on both sides of the river. Most chateaux use a closed tank (either steel, wood , or concrete, generally with temperature controls), to do a pump-over fermentation and an extended post fermentation maceration. Malo-lactic is as likely to more happen in tank than in barrels but the top properties are more likely to complete malo-lactic in barrel. The lesser wines are generally aged only in tank before bottling. All the “top properties” age their wine in barrels which can range from 20% to 100% new in any given vintage.
Because of the terroir and varietal factors Bordeaux Right Bank and Left Bank reds taste different. The right bank wines tend more to cherry and even plum fruit and have a mineral/earth component that some people note by saying you can “taste the clay.” In riper vintages, the top right bank reds tend to have more ripe ness which leads to “black fruit” and higher alcohol. With their higher Cabernet content, Left Bank reds offer more berry and cherry (as well as currants and even black berries with a mix of red and black fruit, a distinctive tobacco note, and a sense of the gravelly terroir in which the grapes are grown. Top Right Bank wines may be described as “richer.” Top Left Bank wines may be described as “more elegant.” These are general rules that seem to apply right up until, in a blind tasting, you misidentify a St. Emilion (say Ch. Figeac) as a Pauillac or a Margaux (say Ch. Palmer) as a Pomerol. There are reasons why you might but maybe more why you shouldn’t.
The palate in Texas seems to be rather more Cabernet-centric so Left Bank Bordeaux at the top levels seems to enjoy more success here … but that is not to say that the Right Bank is without its fans. While I personally prefer the Left Bank, there are a number of Right Bank jewels at a number of price points that I love to drink and in fact buy regularly.
Due mostly to the terroir and the varieties used as well as to the regional winemaking norms, fine Bordeaux reds are suitable for an actually reward aging. The combination of fruit (without fruit, what’s the point?) acidity (measured both as total acidity and .pH) with phenolic content (tannins, flavonoids, etc.) and alcohol give Bordeaux reds a structure that can make for sometimes rough and even rustic young wine but that is often ideal for aging to achieve development. The cheapest example do not really improve with additional aging after release but wines as low as $12-$15 on US retail shelves can improve for some years after release IF they are stored properly (laying down in the dark at –ideally – 55°). As they age, they will soften as they shed some polyphenols (polymerized phenols) in the form of sediment and develop a “bottle bouquet” that gives the wine the developed taste of maturity to replace the simple fruit of youth.
During the aging process, there are identifiable stages. On release, the young reds show primary fruit flavors, distinct terroir notes, and may be marked but not yet integrated oak. They may be “in balance” but not really “fit together.” Nevertheless, the young reds can be quite enjoyable if a bit bracing. Usually a couple of years after release, the wines drop into a “dumb stage” (think of it in terms of boy’s awkward adolescence) where they transform from young red into mature red. Most collectors like to avoid the dumb stage because the wines can lack the charm of youth and have not yet achieved to polish or beauty of maturity. Maybe that’s why some parents send their teenager’s of to boarding schools. It is certainly why Bordeaux aficionados send their Bordeaux to the back of their cellars. When the wines reach maturity, they are lighter and more elegant than in youth with a bottle bouquet that once smelled becomes the most desirable thing. It is often the revelation, the “wow” moment of a chance encounter with a perfectly mature Bordeaux that moves a new world wine lover into the classic Bordeaux camp.
Bordeaux with Food
Now to the real enjoyment of Bordeaux. As much as any wine of the world, Red Bordeaux’s place is at the table. Red Bordeaux goes with a wide range of foods. Red Bordeaux works at the table better than many new world alternatives because it has less alcohol and more acidity and because the intensity and flavors don’t end to overwhelm the flavors of the dish – whatever it happens to be. The list of appropriate foods changes depending on the quality, weight, and age of the wine. Within those roughly six hundred “top properties” of Bordeaux, retail pricing in the USA will range from as little as $10.00 to the sky’s the limit. If you can find a bottle of a top vintage of Ch. Petrus or Ch. Le Pin on a retail shelf, it will set you back well over $2000. The range of wines in the $10 to $70 (to pluck a number from thin air) range will complement a wide range of foods. As the wines get more expensive (which presumably means better as Bordeaux pricing is the most truly “market-driven” of any wine in the world) they begin to demand food that compliment the wine. (I recently wrote about the difference between pairing wine with food and paring food with wine; see “Two Ways of Looking at Pairing.”)
At the more basic level, Bordeaux shines at the table with a lot of the simpler foods and preparations. Simple roast chicken may be on the best possible accompaniments for Bordeaux at any level. For a $15 bottle of Ch. Tour Salvet or a $20 bottle of Vieux Ch. St. Andre, the roast chicken may be from the Spec’s deli or a neighborhood grocery store. For a mature bottle of Ch. Margaux, I hope it is a high quality chicken (even a blue-footed Bresse chicken) roasted by someone who really knows how. For me, most younger red Bordeaux makes fine steak wine but the “steak” doesn’t have to be beef. Grilled pork, grilled veal, and especially grilled lamb can work. Bordeaux has an affinity for black pepper and rosemary and gets along well with most other grilling and roasting type herbs and spices. Bordeaux does not get along well with red or cayenne peppers and does not like the hotter spices. As Bordeaux ages, it begins to pair better with roast meats and game birds. I can’t think of anything I’d rather drink with quail. Roast beef or a roast leg of lamb both seem designed for fine Bordeaux with eight or more years of age. Braised meats such as beef short ribs or lamb shanks or shoulder (or even a good pot roast) can be served with Bordeaux at any stage. (You can think of braised meat as soft lighting and expensive lingerie for wine; if it doesn’t show well with braised meats, its probably no going to show well with anything.) To put the finest possible point on it, maybe the right bank is better with beef and the Left Bank is better with lamb. Maybe. Bordeaux in robust maturity can even be served with some fish dishes including Tuna and Salmon, especially if seasoned with complimentary herbs and spices (avoid dill) and grilled, broiled, or pan seared. As mature Bordeaux gets older, it gets to move to the cheese course where it has the right foil to show all its accumulated charm and won’t have to reveal its rougher spots.
Due to a host of factors, there is not a lot of great or even really good Bordeaux to be found on most wine US wine lists any more (I know there are exceptions but “as a rule . . . “), so most fine red Bordeaux is drunk in private homes, at private clubs, or in restaurants that allow BYOB.
BORDEAUX VINTAGES WITH FOOD (Top Properties)
Young: 2010, 2009, 2008, 2011. Drink with robust foods such as grilled meats
Drinking: 2007, 2004, 2002, 2001, 2000. All of these are super versatile at the table and drinking great. Some 2004s and many of the 2002s and 2001s are showing their bottle bouquets.
Mature: 1999, 1998, 1997, 1996, 1995, 1994, 1993, 1990, 1989. 1988, 1986, 1985, 1983, 1982, 1981. Drink these wines with simple roast meats and fowl or with braised meats or even a cheese course. Anything older than about 1989 or 1990 that is not from a very top property or that has not been stored in pristine condition is suspect.
In the dumb stage: 2006, 2005. The sixes seem to need another year or two to open up but a few are beginning to show. The fives are quite drinkable but the better wines will impove so much over the next three to four years it seems a shame to drink them now.
Avoid: 1991, 1992, 1987, 1984, 1980
An outlier: 2003
TERROIR (pronounced tear whar) takes in the whole combination of soil, exposure, climate and microclimate, viticultural practice, and situation or “happenstance of location” that gives a wine from a single site its uniqueness. Great terroir comes through in great wine. It is possible to make bad wine from great terroir but not the reverse. Terroir also denotes that unique character of place found in the aromas and flavor of a wine. A wine from a single site is more likely to reflect the terroir that gave it life than a wine blended from multiple disparate sites.
FINE RED BORDEAUX IS AGEWORTHY
Much is made over wine’s ability to age; most of this is just so much bunk. Only a small percentage of all wine produced is age-able in the sense that it will keep in the bottle for at least two to five years after it is released for sale. Of this age-able wine, only a small portion is age-worthy in the sense it will actually develop and improve with bottle age. It’s not that wine doesn’t improve with age; almost all wines do. It’s just that most wines have sufficient aging by the time they are released that they don’t need any more. Most winemakers can make wines that require further aging after release but, because they know that most wines are drunk almost immediately after purchase, most don’t. So most of the wine on the market today – and very nearly everything that retails below about $20.00 per bottle – is meant to be consumed in the months immediately after its purchase. (While there are a few age-worthy wines selling well below $20.00 per bottle, they are a tiny minority that represent great value.)
AGE-WORTHY wines have the abundance of balanced fruit and acidity necessary to last through the softening of their structure (through the sedimentation of tannins and anthocyans), and to support the aromas and flavors that come with long bottle age in good cellar conditions. These age-worthy wines reward cellaring with evolved, softer flavors, more complexity, and an integrated bottle bouquet unlike anything found in the initial primary fruit and fermentation aromas. Age-worthy wines are called age-worthy because they have the capacity to improve and become more than they were when they went into the bottle. Drinking one of these wines that has been properly kept in a temperature-controlled cellar can be a revelation.
Most Bordeaux currently priced over about $17.00 retail is age-worthy.