Sunday, July 18, 2010

Planet Bordeaux (Syndicate, Fool!)

Mike Wangbickler of Balzac Communications recently gave me the opportunity to get a first look at “Planet Bordeaux” – the new marketing project by winemakers in the Bordeaux region. The project’s mission is to help people realize they can afford Bordeaux wines of quality without either leasing their first-born or slugging the scrapings from the bottom of fermenting tanks. “Folks can afford Bordeaux as an everyday wine. It doesn’t just have to be for collectors,” said Mike.

First off, a quick review of Bordeaux wine. Bordeaux is arguably the most famous French wine region (the argument would come from their Burgundian neighbors). Some of the most expensive and sought after wines in the world call this slice of France home. Red Bordeaux is always a blend of cabernets sauvignon and franc, merlot, petit verdot, and malbec. White Bordeaux is a blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon.

Red Bordeaux, even though they’re a mix of some varietals that we may think of as heavy, tend to be lighter-styled, tannic reds. Even inexpensive Bordeaux can have complexity to the flavor. There’s usually an earthy or “cigar box” aroma and flavor along with the dark fruit, and finishes that are long and tannic. White Bordeaux usually are quite acidic, minerally, and have floral or herbal scents and flavors. They’re also usually very light in color. The deeper colored whites have more Semillon and tend to be heavier.

The mystery, allure, and frustrations of Bordeaux can often be traced back to the caste system for wines. In 1855, a “ranking system” for French wines was developed based on terroir, winemaking quality, overt and covert bribery, etc. The “best” single vineyard chateaux were classified into five “growths” – the Premier Crus are Chateau LaTour, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Haut-Brion, and Chateaux Lafite and Mouton Rothschild.

Below these are the AOC wines – wines from a certain region. These are your regional wines – Chateaux that can call themselves “Bordeaux” but aren’t in the “growth” rankings. The grapes must be grown in Bordeaux, but they come from one chateau or commune’s holdings, although they’re not necessarily single vineyard products. These tend to be a step below the “classed growths,” but are still considered from reasonably to really good wine. You know you’re looking at one of these wines if you see the following words on the bottle:
  • Bordeaux Rouge (Red) AOC
  • Bordeaux Supérieur Rouge AOC
  • Bordeaux Rosé AOC
  • Bordeaux Clairet (Dark Rosé) AOC
  • Bordeaux Blanc (White) AOC
  • Bordeaux Supérieur Blanc AOC
  • Cremant de Bordeaux (Sparkling) AOC
Below AOC is “Vin de Pays” – a region’s “table wine.” Vin de Pays simply means that the grapes are grown anywhere in that region, but they can be from anywhere therein.

So, the top grade goes for hundreds of dollars a bottle. Collectors hoard these. Thus, there’s always a demand. The vin de pays can be found anywhere. It’s inexpensive. Thus, there’s always a demand. The AOC wines, trapped in the middle, were faced with quite a quandary. These wines are quite a cut in quality above the vin de pays, but many aren’t much more expensive. Imagine you’re a winemaker and you’re putting together quality product, could make a profit with a relatively low price point, and are still a really good deal in any case. If you could only get the word out – people would snap it up, right?

Enter the Byzantine (or would that be Gallic?) world of French wine law. There are restrictions on marketing. Chateaux and communes cannot partner to market their wines. They have to work individually, for the most part. So, not surprisingly, the Chateaux with the most cash get the most run in the press, since they can afford the publicity. The best selling AOC red Bordeaux is Mouton-Cadet – a little side project of Chateau Mouton Rothschild. You can find that Bordeaux almost anywhere. It’s almost as ubiquitous as Duboeuf’s Beaujolais.

So, along comes Syndicat Viticole des appellations controlees Bordeaux et Bordeaux Supérieur, also known as the Bordeaux Syndicate (not to be confused with Rhyme Syndicate). The entire region figured that since they can’t market against each other – they’d market alongside each other! “Planet Bordeaux” (online at followed.

Thanks to Mike and Balzac, I was able to procure a few of the Syndicate’s samples. We had three bottles – one white and two red. Thoughts? First up, the white:

Château Thieuley 2009 Bordeaux Blanc ($14) – We opened this one weekend afternoon when we just needed something good to sip on. I was surprised at the nose on this wine. I expected more citrus, but I got a lot of melon scents and some yeast. The taste – it’s a nicely balanced flavor of thick citrus and mineral. The finish is soft and lingers for a bit with a touch of acidity. This wine probably deserved a dinner pairing, but hey – we were thirsty! “You can tell it’s not top line white Bordeaux, but it’s very drinkable,” commented the Sweet Partner in Crime. We moved on to the reds:

Château du Lort 2006 Bordeaux Rouge ($13)
Château Mirambeau Papin 2006 Bordeaux Supérieur Rouge ($20)
The difference between Rouge and Supérieur Rouge? The latter come from older vines as a rule, and they also must be in bottle for at least a year before release.
One tip: Bordeaux Reds MUST be decanted. The young ones need decanting to smooth their edges. The old ones need it to open up all of their potential yummy goodness. The contrast in both these wines was pretty remarkable once we let them sit for a bit. We tried them on their own first.

The “standard” had only a slight “Old World funk” on the nose -- more of a fresh-cut wood and some blackberry. The body starts almost tartly and hangs in there before transitioning into a tannic, graphite like finish that’s moderate. Not very earthy, if you like that kind of thing. The Supérieur had much better balance. The extra time in barrel smoothed off some of the tartness and gave it a “broader” nose – some earth, some fruit, some wood. The taste was quite pleasant, not too powerful or earthy, and with a nice transition of blackberry and cherry into tannins that hang in gently for awhile.

With some lamb loin chops, the standard red actually did quite well. The lamb calmed down the tannins and cut down on the edges of the tartness. The flavor became brighter and fruitier and turned into a nice contrast. After a few sips and bites, the Supérieur emerged as a dark, fruity sidecar.The Supérieur’s subtler flavor merged much more as an “alongside” flavor than the “standing out” flavor of the standard red.

After a couple of hours, they continued to evolve. The regular became “brighter” – with almost a floral bit on the nose. The Supérieur became deeper and darker, adding plums and tar to the nose, The regular red’s sharp edges smoothed and the wine balanced much more. Even so, I personally thought the Supérieur was a better wine all around.

Marketing or not, I think anyone who’s really interested in learning about wines owes it to themselves to form a decent idea of a region’s style and flavor. These AOC wines from Bordeaux give a nice window into those profiles, so these would all be good “starter” wines to help you develop a true sense of a) whether you even like these wines and b) whether you want to explore some more.

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