Bordeaux: A City, a Fine Wine Region, and a Family of Grapes
Located in southwest France, the city of Bordeaux is home to more than 250,000 residents. It sits along the Garonne River, not far from where it reaches the Atlantic, and it has been an important shipping center for centuries. Spreading out in all directions from the city is France’s largest fine-wine region. Wines are crafted in various styles ranging from dry to sweet, from still to sparkling. They are usually made from a blend of grapes: Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon for whites and Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc for the reds. Some of the most expensive wines in the world come from this special place, but you can also enjoy a simple bottle of Bordeaux in a local cafe for just a few euro. In August of this year I was lucky enough to spend a week in this historic region discovering just how diverse it really is. Although Merlot is by far the most-grown grape in the region, Cabernet Sauvignon plays an important role, especially in some of the most collectible wines. In gearing up for our release this month, I wanted to share a few stories from the trip. Hint: A great West Coast Cabernet Sauvignon may be coming your way soon!
Too Hot To Handle
I arrived in Bordeaux around 7:00 PM, the last in a group of ten sommeliers from the United States and Canada on the organized trip. Well-accustomed to being late for dinner, I stopped briefly at my hotel before going to meet the group at a local restaurant. Even on a Sunday evening, the restaurants were packed with locals enjoying the unseasonably hot weather. Sweaty from the walk over, I welcomed the simple plate of chilled shrimp with aioli and a crisp white.
While Bordeaux is more famous for its reds, world-class whites are also produced, most notably from the Graves region just to the south of the city. Named for its gravelly soil, the area is well-suited to Sauvignon Blanc. Here, the classic blending partner is the Semillon grape, and although there is great variation amongst producers, a typical blend will include about twenty percent Semillon.
On this first full day of the trip we visited Château Brown, where we tasted their white along with the wines of some of their neighbors. The temperature outside was 41 degrees Celsius. I didn’t need to be told that this was well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Sauvignon Blanc provides the wines with notes of juicy citrus, freshly cut grass, and racy acidity. Semillon provides more weight and a creamy texture to the wine, along with a distinct orange cream soda character. These delicious wines tasted even better given the climatic conditions at the time.
Hopping back in the somewhat air-conditioned van, we headed just a little bit further south to Sauternes, the most important sweet-wine district in all of France. Winemakers here rely on Mother Nature to provide just the right amount of humidity and sunshine to facilitate what is known as Noble Rot, or Botrytis. In “good” years, this “good” fungus concentrates the grapes and gives off exotic notes of ginger and saffron. The rot is so fickle that producers are currently concerned that a proposed addition to the existing TGV rail line will affect the humidity. Here, a typical blend is comprised of 80 percent Semillon and 20 percent Sauvignon Blanc. The wines are decadent and unctuous, yet still maintain a backbone of acidity. Classic pairings include foie gras with fruit compote and salty blue cheese. When we visited Château Sigalas-Rabaud, their chef sent out several alternative pairings such as Asian food and even oysters. The combinations were interesting, but I still prefer my Sauternes with a nice apple pie a la mode.
At the end of the day we stopped by Château Doisy-Daene. Another sweet-wine estate, it was still incredibly hot and muggy as we toured the vineyard cared for by young Jean Jacques Dubourdieu, who recently took over from his father, one of the most famous professors of winemaking at the University of Bordeaux. We sat down for a casual dinner as darkness fell and soon enough lightning flashes and the sound of thunder permeated the night sky. Rain began to fall and the heat wave finally came to a gradual end. I had read that the Bordeaux could be hot and humid in the summer, but this was almost too hot to handle. I spent a chunk of the next morning trying to explain heat rash to the staff at the local pharmacy, relying only on my what remains of my high school French.
Where Cabernet Is King
Heading north from the city of Bordeaux we arrived at the Medoc subregion. This is the area most recognized by collectors and connoisseurs. Located along the Gironde estuary, viticulture became possible here in the 1600’s when Dutch engineers drained the area using channels. The work revealed stony soil that was well-suited to Cabernet Sauvignon. Grand château buildings dot the landscape, surrounded by pristine vineyards and manicured gardens. Traditionally owned by noble families, today they are being purchased by Parisian banking companies and overseas investors. Prior to the World’s Fair of 1855, Napoleon had all of the region’s estates ranked based on the prices their wines were fetching in the marketplace. Since then, ownership of many properties has changed hands and vineyard holdings have expanded and contracted. Still, the old ranking remains remarkably relevant and plays a key role in determining pricing in the historically complex Bordeaux marketplace.
We visited Château Phélan Ségur in the commune of Saint-Estèphe. Here, we were greeted by a well-dressed gentleman speaking perfect English, who guided us through the cellar, outfitted with all of the latest technology. Vineyard mapping systems, an optical sorter, and thirty-nine separate tanks ensure precision in the final blend. The dominant grape, Cabernet Sauvignon, provides dark fruit character and tannic structure that makes the wine suitable for ageing. Merlot adds more red fruit notes and a full, round texture. Many of their neighbors also blend in Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot. We ended our visit with a multi-course luncheon served in one of the main house’s gorgeous rooms. This experience is very typical of the Medoc area, but not necessarily Bordeaux as a whole.
Out In The Boonies
Almost two hours outside of the city lies the Entre-Deux-Mers subregion. A vast area situated between rivers, it has long been known for gulpable, yet unremarkable, white wines. Perhaps my favorite visit of the trip was to Château Jean Faux. The current owner purchased the property in 2002 after working in the barrel business both in France and California. Since then, he, his wife, and his daughter have been working the land organically. Our van driver became lost on the way, but Pascal Collotte saw us aimlessly circling the hillside and hopped in his Jeep to escort us the rest of the way.
The wines, comprised of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, are soft, dense, and remarkably complex for the price. ($23.95 at Amazon.com). For lunch we enjoyed local duck, one of many meals throughout the week based on this bird. Halfway through the meal, the neighbors stopped by to drop off some foie gras. Observing a family farming their land simply, letting the fruit speak for itself, and offering the wines for a song was super refreshing, despite the fact that we were drinking heavy reds!
We ARE drinking Merlot!
If Cabernet is king in Bordeaux, Merlot is the general who really runs the show. From a logistical standpoint, it is much cheaper and easier to grow, and thus covers vast acreage. But it is also capable of producing wines of captivating character. The area rising up from the eastern edge of the Dordogne River is known as the “Right Bank” in Bordeaux. Within the sub-district of Pomerol lie Château Petrus and Le Pin. Each of these properties produces miniscule quantities of wine that fetch more than $1,000 per bottle in the marketplace. To do this, both of these estates utilize only one grape: Merlot. There are also more modest properties in this neck of the woods that also rely heavily on Merlot.
In the value-driven Lalande-de-Pomerol district, we visited Château Siuarac..The property was gorgeous, a recent acquisition of the Pinault family, which also happens to own the famed Château Latour, and the Gucci and Yves Saint-Laurent fashion houses. Château Siuarac’s wines are usually a blend of mostly Merlot with small amounts of Cabernet Franc and Malbec (known locally as Pressac). What we tasted was elegant, with soft berry notes and a slight savory edge At around $25.00 per bottle, the Merlot-based wines from this property can be fashionable year-round.
Learning From The Best
While I have had the great oppurtunity to work with many amazing Bordeaux wines in the course of my career, this week was truly eye-opening. The diversity of the region allowed us to taste wines that offered great value, and we here at Foot Of The Bed are big fans of great value. We had a chance to visit a respected cooperage, where we saw dozens of freshly toasted barrels being loaded into containers bound for Napa Valley. It should also be remembered that the prized Cabernet-based red blends of Napa Valley are all modeled after the great wines of Bordeaux. Vintners in California are lucky to have great freedom in how and where they produce their wines, leading to cutting-edge experimentation with unique grapes and techniques. But wine drinkers and winemakers should all feel fortunate for being able to reap the benefits of the expertise that the Bordelaise have developed over the centuries. We remain committed to bringing you the best in West Coast wine each month, but hope you are able to enjoy something from the southwest of France with close family and friends very soon as well.