Bordeaux, (Bor-DOH), is one of the world’s best wines. But Bordeaux’s geography, nomenclature, grape varieties, and outdated classification system is confusing enough to drive you to drink. Hmmmm. Maybe that’s the plan? Let’s see if we can make this wonderful wine more mentally palatable.
Bordeaux is a wine, a city and a territory. Bordeaux is a large region in southwest France named after its principal city. Bordeaux is also the name loosely applied to any wine emanating from within its borders. In France, wines are named for the geographical area from which they hail, not the grapes they are made from. However, when wine buffs use the term “Bordeaux”, they are usually referring to specific sections of Bordeaux known for their stellar reds.
Bordeaux is divided into large districts, some of which are further subdivided into appellations. Although best known for red, Bordeaux produces white wine, dessert wine and rosé as well. The type and quality of wine varies amongst the districts and appellations. The five major districts, all of which contain individual appellations are Medoc, Pomerol, Saint-Emilion, Graves, and Sauternes. The Medoc deserves special mention and encompasses the venerable appellations of Pauillac, Saint-Estephe, Margaux, and Saint-Julien.
The wine of the Medoc would probably be considered the archetypal Bordeaux. This is the classic Bordeaux: wine made from mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, secondarily Merlot, and then small amounts of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, or Malbec. The various chateaus, (wine producing estates), each have their own mix but in the Medoc Cabernet Sauvignon will always dominate the blend. Cabernet Sauvignon produces hearty, full bodied, resoundingly structured and tannic wines that can age for decades, and sometimes must for the full potential to be realized. These are some of the richest wines the world has to offer and are best paired with hearty fare: red meat, roasts, game, and decadent cheeses.
In Pomerol and Saint-Emilion, the same grape varieties are used but Merlot is the major constituent in the blend. Thus, these wines will be suppler than their Cabernet based brethren. However, these districts can bring the Merlot grape to heights unequalled anywhere on the globe. Although less tannic they are rich and lush wines of impeccable balance and character.
Graves is best known for white wine but produces red as well. White wine is made from the Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle grapes and can be found in both sweet and dry styles. Tired of the hackneyed Chardonnay? Try a dry white from Graves. They’re crisp and go well with many kinds of food. Finally there are the sweet wines of Sauternes. Sauternes is made from the same white grapes as in Graves, although predominantly Semillon. Sauternes is a highly concentrated, sweet, and viscous wine that must be tasted to be believed. It’s expensive but worth it.
In 1855 the French government created a classification system to rate the chateaus of the Medoc. The lowest quality ranking, which includes most of the thousands of chateaus, is Petits Chateau. The next level up is Cru Bourgeois, a group of several hundred better than average chateaus. The next five tiers are collectively known as the “cru classe.” In ascending order they are referred to as 5th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd, and 1st growths. Only 61 chateaus were awarded this status. Thus, even a 5th growth Bordeaux is still a monumental wine. There are only five chateaus to be deemed a 1st growth: Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Haut-Brion, and my personal favorite, Chateau Latour. Second through 5th growth Bordeaux bottles will say “cru classe” or grand cru classe” on the label while the 1st growths will tout “premier grand cru classe.”
The problem with the classification system is it’s 150 years old. There are many cru bourgeois chateaus that have improved over the years and deserve a cru classe status. There are even a few cru classe chateaus that have declined and probably should be downgraded to a cru bourgeois. Either way, it remains the tarnished gold standard for quality, and more importantly price.
Many factors influence the quality of any particular Bordeaux. These include the wine maker’s skills and facilities, cultivation methods, the yearly weather and the “terroir.” Terroir is the French term to describe the microclimate within which a natural entity develops. Soil composition, water drainage, slope of the land, angle of the sun, etc., can vary from one vineyard to another. Very subtle differences in Mother Nature from one plot of ground to another can be the decisive factor between a good wine and a sublime nectar. The vintage, (the year the wine was made), is also very important. The weather can vary greatly perennially which affects the quality of the grapes in innumerable ways. Consult a vintage chart before purchasing any Bordeaux.
Expect to pay $10–$15 a bottle for the cheapest Bordeaux and double that for Cru Bourgeois. The least expensive cru classe wines start at around $40 a bottle. First growths go for $150 a bottle and up. The 1990 Chateau Latour is currently selling for around $500 a bottle.
Red and certain white Bordeauxs need to age. If you have no interest in starting a collection but drink it when you buy it, purchase the oldest Bordeaux from a good year that you can afford. Decant your Bordeaux for 30-60 minutes before serving. The aeration helps open up the wine and release it’s aroma and flavor. It will also help soften a younger wine and assist the sediment in settling in an older one. The low to mid 60’s is the ideal serving temperature.