Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Wines of Bordeaux

The World of Wine has its’ capitol in the Southwest coastal region of France called Bordeaux. This area produces the most sought after and collected wines on Earth. It is a maritime region that is divided by three rivers, Gironde, Garonne and Dordogne. With over 10,000 Chateaux and 13,000 growers is produces almost a billion bottles of wine in large vintages. They range in styles from classic reds, dry whites, sweet whites, rosés to sparkling wines. They also cover the entire spectrum in terms of price from cheap box wine to the collectables which cost thousands of dollars a bottle. Historically production was almost equal between red and white but today red dominates with over 70% of total production.
In order to understand Bordeaux, the first thing you need to know is how they label their wines. Unless the wine is being made specifically for export it will never have the name of the grape(s) used to make it on the label. Instead, the name of the most specific location possible will be the identification you are provided. On a great wine it will be something like “Chateau Mouton-Rothschild (the estate=winery) Appellation Pauillac Controlée (the commune where the winery and vineyards are located) Mis En Bouteille Au Chateau ( the grapes were grown on the estate in the commune of Pauillac and were bottled at the Chateau there). Regardless, there are only eight grapes used to make wine in Bordeaux.(There are some remnants of historic grapes which are not replanted)



The next step in understanding the region is learning the geography and how it influences the choice of grape (Keep in mind that close to 99% of all Bordeaux wines are made from blends of several grapes). Bordeaux is an area roughly the size of Rhode Island with the Atlantic Ocean as its’ western boundary. It is dissected by three rivers (see the map). The Garonne runs at an angle of about 45 degrees from Southeast to Northwest from the inland to the Gironde. After running past Pomerol and Saint-Emilion , not far from the commune of Margaux, the Dordogne also enters the Gironde. It is very important to know that with very few exceptions, wines from the west of the Gironde are made from a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon and are referred to as “LEFT BANK” wines. They are called this because that is the side upon which they appear on a map. Conversely, the “RIGHT BANK” wines, those coming from the areas east of the Gironde are almost always predominantly Merlot. Interestingly, the location of the vineyards is pretty irrelevant in determining the grape when one deals with White Bordeaux wines. This is because almost 100% of the whites are produced in Graves/Pessac-Leognan and Sauternes. There are no white wine grapes grown in the Medoc.
In 1855 the top 61 Chateau Of Bordeaux were classified into five quality levels called “CRUs”, which loosely translates as “GROWTHs”. It dealt with the red wines only. The classification system was based upon the prices paid by Negociants. It was an incomplete system because it dealt only with the wines of the MEDOC and GRAVES/PESSAC-LEOGNAN was only considered with the one FIRST GROWTH Chateau Haut-Brion. It omitted other important areas within Bordeaux including POMEROL and SAINT-EMILION. The Classification of 1855 still has much relevance in determining prices and quality in Bordeaux especially with collectors. It has only been changed one time. That was in 1973 when Chateau Mouton-Rothschild was elevated from a Second to a First Growth.
The dessert or sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac were also classified at the same time in 1855. For reasons which are really unclear this classification is almost forgotten. However, it still has a great deal of validity if you examine the quality of these wines today.
I have included the classification of Graves simply for your information. It was so incomplete and devoid of detail that no one has ever used it in any serious way. Every time that the growers get together to try to fix the situation they just end fighting so there does not appear to be any clarification in sight.
In 1955 Saint-Emilion classified its’ top estates into eleven “PREMIER GRAND CRU CLASSE” and seventy “GRAND CRU CLASSE”. This system was reevaluated and adjusted in 1985 to take into account changes in some estates quality levels. In 1996 a new ranking took place. We are currently operating under this classification because the 2006 evaluation was suspend by court order. The Saint Emilion classification has never been taken as seriously in the marketplace as the 1855 Classification in the Medoc and Graves. To this day Pomerol has never been officially classified.
There are several other classification systems/levels in Bordeaux that deal with the Medoc. As a group they totaled about 444 Chateaux. “CRU EXCEPTIONNEL” were wines ranked immediately below the top 61 classified in 1855. At this time there are nine of them and they should be include in the Grand Crus if they are ever expanded. “CRU BOURGEOIS SUPERIEUR” are the next level down and they are followed by “CRU BOURGEOIS”. These three levels were established in 1978 and the wines that they represent are many times outstanding values. For a brief period from 2006 to 2009 this classification was suspended. After much fighting and litigation it was set to be
reinstated in late 2009 with about 275 Chateaux included.
When you are contemplating the purchase of a bottle of Bordeaux wine keep in mind that over 10,000 Chateaux produce wines there. Most of these have never been ranked and they can be extraordinary wines. In this unclassified group always look to see if the label reveals that the wine was Estate Bottled( MIS EN BOUTEILLE AU CHATEAU). These wines are usually more consistent than the wines bottled by Negociants.
I have mentioned previously that Bordeaux wines, primarily the reds, are the most collectable in the world. You must be asking yourself why this is true. First, the most obvious answer is that the quality of the wines over time is unsurpassed. Simply stated, people have liked and preferred the flavors of these wines for 100s of years. Second, the wines have a track record of aging extremely well. Because they definitely improve over time while the number of bottles is ever decreasing for a vintage, the third reason is obvious. Third, they increase in value and can be a very good investment for the wise buyer. Fourth, the wines are produced in relatively large amounts. It is not uncommon for a great chateau to produce 15,000 to 25,000 cases in a given vintage. In comparison, in California and Burgundy, most of the very best are produced in case lots of less than a 1000. More people have been exposed to the Bordeaux, the wines age very well, they go up in value and therefore they dominate Auctions.
Other than the name of the Chateau, the second most important question a Bordeaux buyer must answer is “what vintage is the wine”. There were good wines made in each but there were many bad wines made by sometimes well known Chateau. Because of the large number of Bordeaux Chateaux, it is impossible to know the details of each. Therefore, you need to know what vintages to buy and which ones to avoid if you know nothing else other than the vintage. Following are my rankings of the recent vintages of Bordeaux.

Vintage Medoc St. Emilion-Pom Graves Sauternes
2008 A A A B-
2007 B B B A
2006 B B B B-
2005 A+ A+ A+ A+
2004 B B B C
2003 B+ B B A
2002 B B B- B
2001 B B+ B A+
2000 A+ A A+ B
1999 B B B B
1998 B- A+ A B-

I personally prefer the wines of Bordeaux but I love all the others too. I hope you enjoyed tonight’s wines and you start appreciating them as much as I do. Because of their price, and mystery, I will close with a quote from page 104 of Kevin Zraly’s book Windows On The World:
“The French drink their Bordeaux wines to young because they are afraid of the socialist government taking them away from them. The English drink their Bordeaux to old because they like to take their friends down to their wine cellars with the cobwebs and dust to show off their old bottles. And the Americans drink their Bordeaux exactly when they are ready to be drunk because they don’t know any better.”
Author Unknown

© Copyright Skip Williams