On days 7 and 8 we studied Bordeaux in the Intensive Sommelier Training at the International Culinary Center. But four hours of lectures (combined) and sampling 18 wines two days really isn’t enough to understand what is unquestionably the most commercially successful wine region in the world. Much less can I adequately cover this mecca of wine in two reviews. So, I will keep my summary of this region to a bare minimum and just the most basic information that might appear on the Unit 2 exam and perhaps the Sommelier Certification Exam that I will take in March 2014.
An Introduction to Bordeaux
Bordeaux has been a wine region for almost 2000 years as the Romans were the first to plant vineyards (around 43 A.D.). While the quality of the wines was recognized as early as 71 A.D. by such people as Pliny the Elder, they were only consumed locally. Since then there are been significant historical stages in the development of wine region.
In the 12th century Bordeaux became an important international region when Henry II of England married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152 A.D. At that time Bordeaux came under the control of the British Empire and it would continue for the next 300 years. The name Bordeaux derives from the French au bord de l'eau which means “along the waters” which refers to Gironde estuary and its tributaries, the Garonne and the Dordogne rivers which play a pivotal role in the history and success of this region. Britain was a sea-fairing empire which sold France’s wines throughout Europe so Bordeaux’s immediate access to the ocean via the rivers, which also have an impact on the climate of the region, played an important part of the international success.
During the 13th century, the Graves was the principal wine region of Bordeaux. While there were some vines growing in the Entre-deux-mers, Saint-Émilion and Blaye, during this time the Médoc was essentially a swamp.
In the 17th century Dutch traders began to drain the marshland around the Médoc and encouraged the planting of vineyards. The Dutch would also open new distribution channels to the Bourgeosis.
The next major development in the wine production in Bordeaux was the establishment of classification systems. This is where understanding Bordeaux wine becomes extremely complex.
There are FOUR different classifications of Bordeaux, covering different parts of the region:
(1) The Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855, covering (with on exception) red wines of Médoc, and sweet wines of Sauternes-Barsac. This classification system was made at the request of Emperor Napoleon III for the Exposition Universelle de Paris which ranked the wines into five categories according to price. The first growth red wines (four from Médoc and one, Château Haut-Brion, from Graves), are among the most expensive wines in the world.
(2) The 1955 Official Classification of St.-Émilion, which is updated approximately once every ten years, and last in 2006.
(3) The 1959 Official Classification of Graves, initially classified in 1953 and revised in 1959.
(4) The Cru Bourgeois Classification, which began as an unofficial classification, but came to enjoy official status and was last updated in 2003. However, after various legal turns, the classification was annulled in 2007. As of 2007, plans exist to revive it as an unofficial classification.
The First Growths (Premier Cru) of Bordeaux are:
(1) Château Lafite-Rothschild, in the appellation Pauillac.
(2) Château Margaux, in the appellation Margaux.
(3) Château Latour, in the appellation Pauillac.
(4) Château Haut-Brion, in the appellation Péssac-Leognan.
(5) Château Mouton Rothschild, in the appellation Pauillac, promoted from second to first growth in 1973.
During this time, the sweet white wines of Sauternes and Barsac were classified into three categories, with only Château d'Yquem being classified as a superior first growth.
In 1955, St. Émilion AOC were classified into three categories, the highest being Premier Grand Cru Classé A with two members:
(1) Château Ausone
(2) Château Cheval Blanc
There is no official classification applied to Pomerol. However some Pomerol wines, notably Château Pétrus and Château Le Pin, are often considered as being equivalent to the first growths of the 1855 classification, and often sell for even higher prices.
Producers and Buyers
Today there are nearly 20,000 producers in Bordeaux and they annually make more than 150,000,000 gallons of wine, which accounts for a little more than 25% of France’s premium wine production.
A winery or estate in Bordeaux is known as a Château which is the French word for “house” or “castle.” So, Château Latour could be translated as “House of Latour.” While many producers grow their own grapes and make their own wine, there are also négociants who buy grapes from growers.
Climate and Geography
Additional contributors to the success of Bordeaux is its terroir, particularly its environment for growing vines. The geological foundation of the region is limestone, leading to a soil structure that is heavy in calcium.
The Gironde estuary dominates the regions along with its tributaries, the Garonne and the Dordogne rivers, and together irrigate the land and provide an Atlantic Climate, also known as an oceanic climate, for the region. These rivers define the main geographical subdivisions of the region:
A. “The right bank”, situated on the right bank of Dordogne, in the northern parts of the region, around the city of Libourne. Entre-deux-mers - French for “between two waters”, the area between the rivers Dordogne and Garonne, in the center of the region.
B. “The left bank”, situated on the left bank of Garonne, in the west and south of the region, around the city of Bordeaux itself. The left bank is further subdivided into:
(1) Graves, the area upstream of the city Bordeaux.
(2) Médoc, the area downstream of the city Bordeaux, situated on a peninsula between Gironde and the Atlantic.
In Bordeaux the concept of terroir plays a pivotal role in wine production with the top estates aiming to make terroir driven wines that reflect the place they are from, often from grapes collected from a single vineyard. The soil of Bordeaux is composed of gravel, sandy stone, and clay. The region’s best vineyards are located on the well-drained gravel soils that are frequently found near the Gironde River.
The Grapes of Bordeaux
Red Bordeaux, which is traditionally known as claret in the United Kingdom, is generally made from a blend of grapes. There are six grapes that are allowed to be grown in this region:
(1) Cabernet Sauvignon – Bordeaux’s second-most planted grape variety it dominates the blend in red wines produced in the Médoc and the rest of the LEFT BANK of the Gironde estuary. Typical top-quality LEFT BANK Chateaux blends are 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc and 15% Merlot.
(2) Merlot – Bordeaux’s most-planted grape variety and to a lesser extent Cabernet Franc These RIGHT BANK blends from top-quality Chateaux are typically 70% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon.
(3) Cabernet Franc – The Third most planted variety tends to predominate in Saint-Émilion, Pomerol and the other right bank appellations.
(4) Petit Verdot
(5) Malbec – Rarely used today in Bordeaux.
(6) Carménère - Rarely used, with Château Clerc Milon, a fifth growth Bordeaux, being one of the few to still retain Carménère vines.
White Bordeaux is predominantly, and exclusively in the case of the sweet Sauternes, made from Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. Typical blends are usually 80% Sémillon, 20% Sauvignon Blanc. As with the reds, white Bordeaux wines are usually blends, most commonly of Sémillon and a smaller proportion of Sauvignon Blanc. Other permitted grape varieties are Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Merlot Blanc, Ondec, and Mauzac.
In the late 1960s Sémillon was the most planted grape in Bordeaux. Since then it has been in constant decline although it still is the most common of Bordeaux’s white grapes. Sauvignon Blanc's popularity on the other hand has been rising, overtaking Ugni Blanc as the second most planted white Bordeaux grape in the late 1980s and now being grown in an area more than half the size of that of the lower yielding Sémillon.
Learning Objectives of Unit 2 - Day 7: Bordeaux Reds Wines
At the beginning of class lectures a list of learning objectives is provided to the students. By the end of the class, the students should have a certain degree of understanding from their own reading and the lectures and be able to provide the answers to list of questions. Learning Objectives for Unit 2 - Day 7 along with the answers are as follows.
By the end of class, students should be able to:
(1) Name the dominant grape(s) for Left Bank reds
Answer: Cabernet Sauvignon
(2) Name the dominant grape(s) for Right Bank reds
(3) Name the two most important AOCs of the Right Bank
Answer: Pomerol and Saint-Emilion
(4) Identify the top category within the Cru Bourgeois
Answer: The highest ranking is cru bourgeois exceptionnel (2003-2006)
(5) Name the 1st and 2nd Growths of the Médoc and their AOC
Answer: (Memorize all the 1st Growths and the top 2nd Growths in Green)
1st Growths: Château Lafite-Rothschild, in the appellation Pauillac. Château Margaux, in the appellation Margaux. Château Latour, in the appellation Pauillac. Château Haut-Brion, in the appellation Péssac-Leognan. Château Mouton Rothschild, in the appellation Pauillac.
2nd Growths: Château Pichon Lalande and Château Pichon Baron in the appellation Pauillac; Château Ducru Beaucaillou, Château Léoville Las Cases, Château Léoville Barton, Château Gruaud Larose, and Château Léoville Poyferré in the appellation St. Julien; Château Cos d’Estournel and Château Montrose in the appellation St. Estèphe; Château Rausan Ségla, Château Lascombes, Château Brane Cantenac, Château Rausan Gassies, Château Durfort Vivens in the appellation Margaux.
(6) Name four communes of the Médoc
Answer: St. Estephe, St. Julien, Margaux, Pauillac and the less important Listrac
(7) Discuss classification of Pomerol and suggest two top châteaux
Answer: There is no classification of Pomerol. Two of the top châteaux are: Châteaux Petrus and Châteaux Le Pin.
(8) Name the (1er) Premiers Crus ‘Class A’ of St. Emilion
Answer: Château Ausone and Château Cheval-Blanc(9) Describe the attributes of any wine we tasted today.
Answer: See below
On the seventh day of Unit 2 we tasted the following red wines:
1. 2010 Château Tour Haut-Caussan, Médoc
This is a clear, moderately opaque red wine that is ruby at the core with minor variation at the rim. It is day-bright with moderate viscosity and it stains the glass when swirled. On the nose it is clean with moderate intense aromas of black currants, black cherries, roses, cloves, a hint of green peppers, sandalwood, and a touch of black pepper. This wine is dry with medium+ tannins, medium acidity and a medium length finish. On the palate the fruit seems fresher than on the nose, but the other elements otherwise remain the same. Overall, a nice entry-level wine that retails for about $25 per bottle.
2. 2007 Château Vignot, St. Emilion, Grand Cru
This is a clear, moderately opaque red wine that is ruby at the core to garnet at the rim. It is opaque with moderate viscosity and it stains the glass when swirled. On the nose it is clean with moderate intense aromas of black currants, dark cherries, sweet tobacco, teriyaki, dried meat, black coffee, decaying leaves, with a hint of dark chocolate and black pepper. This wine is dry with medium+ tannins, medium acidity, moderate complexity and a medium length finish. On the palate the fruit seems fresher than on the nose, but the other elements otherwise remain the same. A wine of excellent quality and value that retails for only $35 per bottle.
3. 2005 Château Nenin, Pomerol
This is a clear ruby-red day-bright wine that has minor garnet rim variation with tint of orange and medium viscosity. On the nose it is clean but with some minor vinosity. It has aromas of cherry-menthol, raspberries, eucalyptus, vanilla, graphite, coffee, black pepper, and spicy paprika. On the palate it is dry with medium+ acidity, medium+ tannins, medium+ alcohol, medium body and lingering flavors of cooked red fruits and spice. A fairly complex wine, it retails for about $60-$90 per bottle.
4. 2004 Château Malartic-Lagravière, Pessac-Leognan
This wine is clear, day bright, ruby-red at the core to garnet at the rim with medium viscosity. On the nose it is clean but with a touch of volatile acidity (VA). It has aromas of cooked cherries, raspberries, vanilla, a hint of pepper, paprika, minor undertone of green olives and graphite. On the palate it has medium+ acidity, medium tannins, and medium body. This wine is very savory on the palate and the fruit is somewhat faded. As I returned to the glass the VA kept hitting me so I believe this wine may have be on the border of being flawed. A minute amount of VA can give aromatics on a wine some “lift” but if in excess it can smell like finger nail polish remover and be very offensive. The wine retails for about $60 per bottle.
5. 2006 Château Lafon-Rochet, Saint-Estèphe
This wine is clear but opaque at the core, ruby-red at the center to garnet at the rim with medium viscosity. On the nose it is clean with aromas of dark cherries, black currants, tobacco leaves, dried herbs, bay leaves, green olives with a chalky minerality. On the palate it is dry with firm medium+ tannins but silky on the mid-palate, it has medium acidity with medium body and a medium length finish with lingering tobacco and chalky notes. Overall, a well-balanced wine and everything works together harmoniously. The wine retails for about $45 per bottle.
6. 2010 Château Caperon Gasqueton, Saint-Estèphe
This wine is clear ruby-red at the core with minor pink rim variation, it is day-bright with medium viscosity. On the nose it is clean with dusty aromas of dark cherries, coffee, cedar, rusty nails and a hint of tea leaves. On the palate it is dry with chalky medium+ tannins, medium acidity, medium body and medium+ alcohol. I actually liked this wine and it reminded me a bit like a Rutherford Merlot I tasted at St. Supery in the Napa Valley. The primary difference is that wine cost $50 a bottle whereas this one retails for only $26 per bottle!
7. 2007 Château Léoville Poyferré, St. Julien
The wine is clear ruby-red at the core with minor rim variation of pink with medium+ viscosity as it stains the glass when swirled. On the nose it is clean with a minute amount of volatile acidity and Brettanomyces. It has aromas of medium pronounced aromas of Bing cherries, cranberries, dried roses, green bell pepper, coffee, vanilla, chalk, forest floor and dried herbs. On the palate it is dry it is soft on the mid palate but has chalky medium+ tannins, medium+ acidity, medium+ alcohol and a medium length finish. This wine retails for about $50 per bottle.
8. 2009 Château Kirwan, Marguax
The wine is clear ruby-red at the core with minor rim variation of pink with medium+ viscosity as it stains the glass when swirled. On the nose it is clean with medium pronounced aromas of black currants, black cherries, dried mat, coffee, potting soil, sweet tobacco and cloves. On the palate it is dry it is soft on the mid palate but has chalky medium+ tannins, medium+ acidity, medium+ alcohol and a medium length finish. The wine retails for about $75 per bottle.
9. 2007 Château Grand-Puy-Locoste, Pauillac
The wine is clear ruby-red at the core with minor rim variation of pink with medium+ viscosity as it stains the glass when swirled. On the nose it is clean with a small amount of Brettanomyces. It has medium pronounced aromas of black currants, black cherries, dried meat, dried earth, dried roses coffee, cedar, baker’s chocolate, black truffles and granite. On the palate it is dry medium tannins, medium+ acidity, medium+ alcohol and a medium length finish. The wine retails for about $55-$80 per bottle.
The information provided here is a huge amount to remember, especially if it is a student’s first time learning about Bordeaux. Some of the key-features of these wines that makes them distinctly Old World and from Bordeaux, rather than new World and from Napa, is their tendency towards black currants rather than cassis. If these were Napa wines some might have black currants but more would have cassis, as the Napa Valley is a warmer region. Another distinctive is the minerality, particularly the chalk, so the wines feel drier and more tannic whereas New World Cabernets can be softer and more fruit forward. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the 2010 Château Tour Haut-Caussan which is very affordable at $25 but even more so by the 2007 Château Vignot which sells for (if you can find it) only $35. The only wine I did not like was the 2004 Château Malartic-Lagravière which I thought was on the border of being a flawed wine with excessive VA.