As we move through the year, I’m going to try to demystify a couple of commonly referenced regions and/or wines you may see in your local store but that don’t intuitively present themselves to knowing what they are at first glance. I’m going to start with the grandpappy of French wines, Bordeaux.
Bordeaux is arguably France's most famous wine region -- although the folks over in Burgundy would almost certainly beg to differ. The region, about the size of the state of Montana, produces some 700 million bottles of wine annually. By way of comparison, the entire United States produces about 725 million bottles.
If you've followed along, you know that Bordeaux is not, in and of itself, a wine varietal. The wines are generally named for the village or town near which the wine was made, and the grower’s chateau. Although some growers in Bordeaux are breaking with tradition and printing the actual grape varietals on the labels, most choose to stay with the traditional nomenclature.
Since the label doesn’t necessarily make intuitive sense, Bordeaux can be somewhat complicated to decipher. How do you know what you're getting when you buy a bottle of the stuff? If you get a wine guide, you'll see a lot of commentary about "the 1855 classifications," "first growths," "Cru bourgeois," and so on. If you really decide to get into French wine, learning this stuff is a must. For our purposes, there are really only two main things to remember:
First -- where the wine is made in Bordeaux almost always dictates the makeup of the wine. There are three divisions, based roughly on the chateau’s positioning on the Gironde Estuary: left bank, right bank, and Graves. Graves is technically “left bank,” but the wine style is different enough to warrant its own classification. Red Bordeaux are almost all blends. Left bank wines are made from mostly cabernet sauvignon. Right bank wines are largely merlot. Graves are usually around a 50/50 split. While there are 57 wine regions in Bordeaux, knowing these will get you by, as the bulk you’ll find will be from one of these:
Left Bank: Médoc, Margaux, St. Julien, Pauillac, Ste. Estephe.
Right Bank: St. Émilion, Pomerol.
Graves: Graves, Pessac-Léognan.
Second, the quality of the wine. The lowest "rank" is labeled simply "Bordeaux" or "Bordeaux Supérieur" without a regional name. These wines tend to be a little more generic -- and will likely be about the quality of an American wine of a similar price. Most generics will be merlot-based. They'll tend to have either a brand name (like "Michel Lynch"). Some may be called "Chateau" wines, but that's simply nomenclature. It's a basic wine. The next level up will have the name of the region on the label. So, if you see a "Margaux," you know you're getting a very decent French cabernet. A "Pomerol" will be a merlot. This is probably as pricey as we can reasonably get.
Now, if you see a wine with the name of the region and the name of a Chateau -- you're looking at a high-end wine. These wines are further subdivided into five classes, which are called "growths." There are five "premier crus" -- first growths. These will be some of the most expensive wines in the world. (Like, for instance, Chateau Latour) You may look, but don't touch. If you do, one of your wine store's helpful staff will probably lead riffraff like you or I away quickly, then clean the bottle to remove our cheap-wine loving fingerprints.
What to expect from Bordeaux? There's a reason that the First Growth Bordeaux are some of the most expensive wines in the world. These wines, even the generic ones, tend to be somewhat complex instead of fruity. Take your time when you drink them. Also, almost all Bordeaux need to breathe. The "Old World funk" that I've mentioned previously is probably most noticeable in Bordeaux. Personally, I've come to like the earthy taste of these wines, but it's easy to be put off by it initially. Once you get a taste for it, though, you'll enjoy "drinking the dirt."
"Hey!" you say, "What about the whites, smart guy?" Easy. White Bordeaux are almost entirely sauvignon blanc, although you may see some semillion in there. These wines will be very different from SB's that you're used to from California or New Zealand. They tend to be less grapefruity and more creamy. They usually have more body than your average SB, as well. I think the flavor of these wines is fascinating, personally. Bordeaux is also the home of Sauternes -- where some of the best (and most expensive) sweet wines in the world are made. My experience hasn't ranged there yet.
Here's a sample of a few Bordeaux, just to give you an idea. These wines vary so much in flavor that it's impossible to hold up one wine and say, "This is Bordeaux." But you'll have fun discovering that, I promise.
Chateau Jalousie-Beaulieu 2005 Bordeaux Supérieur -- 2005 is apparently going to be one of the "great vintages" of Bordeaux. You won't be seeing them in the Chateau bottles for probably six or seven more years, but the basic ones have been released now, and you can get them inexpensively, for the most part. This particular wine is 75% merlot, 25% cabernet. You'll find a nose that would ferment "jalousie" in many other wines. There's a strong, deep aroma of vanilla, earth, and dark fruit. The body is smooth and medium in style (from the merlot), and has a solid, dry finish. We had this with a mushroom and barley soup, and it was wonderful. $11.
Le Rosé de Phélan Ségur 2005 Bordeaux --. It follows that a region that makes good red wines would be able to put out a pretty decent rosé. Chateau Phélan Ségur is on the Right Bank This merlot-based rosé is light in nose and in body -- it has some very nice flavors of strawberries coupled with a solid acidity. The finish is flavorful and crisp, making it a good food wine. We made a spicy fisherman's stew to pair it. The acidity of the wine mellowed the spice nicely and the flavors were a really good complement. It would go with any kind of spicy food or roast or grilled chicken or fish. $12.
Chateau des Tourtes 2006 Bordeaux Sauvignon -- Yes, this one actually has the grape name right there on the label, rather than making you guess. As I mentioned, rather than being grapefruity or herbaceous, white Bordeaux tend to be fruity, luscious wines. You'll find that this wine is very rich for a sauvignon blanc, bordering on the body of a chardonnay. The nose is full of lemon and peaches and the body is full and fruity. It's not as acidic as some sauvignon blancs, so the finish tends to be less crisp -- but it's light, fruity, and long lasting. Fish, again, is a great complement -- crab cakes, poached salmon, even sushi would work with this. $10-11.