Bordeaux: The world’s quintessential wine garden. When wine connoisseurs think of the greatest bottles in their collections, they are more often than not thinking of wines produced by the houses of the Bordelais. It has become the archetype of a grape-growing region; verdant, gently-sloped vineyards surround towered chateaux, where expert vignerons craft what are considered by many to be the most exalted examples of fine wine in the world. The wines of Bordeaux can allure and enchant like no others; they grace cellars both magnificent and modest, and can satisfy discerning tastes at all price points.
Bordeaux lies in southwest France, near the Atlantic Ocean. The defining feature of the appellation is the Gironde estuary, upon whose banks rest the best vineyard lands. The cool winds that come off of the water help to both mitigate the heat of summer and to deter the development of pernicious molds that can destroy an entire harvest if left unchecked.
As France’s largest producer of appellation protégée wines (a way of describing specifically where within a region a wine comes from), Bordeaux is separated into many smaller appellations. These appellations help the consumer to understand where their wine came from, what grapes are in it, and what it likely tastes like. Broadly, the Bordelais divide their fine wine regions into two categories: The ‘left bank’ regions, which are on the southern side of the Gironde estuary, and the ‘right bank’ regions on the northern side.
In general, the red wines of the left bank are Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant. These come from some of the most prestigious appellations of Bordeaux, including Pauillac, Margaux, St. Estephe, and St. Julien. The most recognizable names from the left bank are undoubtedly the famous five First Growths of Bordeaux: Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Haut-Brion, and Chatieau Mouton-Rothschild. 62 chateaux were classified by the Médoc Chamber of Commerce in 1855, and these classifications have stuck in the minds of consumers as a way to quickly tell the quality of a wine. However, these classifications also have a great impact upon a bottle’s price! There are five crus, or levels, of classification from first growth (the highest possible designation) to fifth growth. While the first growths are the most prestigious left bank producers, they are also far and away the most expensive. Some lesser-classified chateaux can be phenomenal values.
The red wines of the right bank, by contrast, are generally dominated by Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The most prominent appellations of this region include St. Emilion and the vaunted Pomerol. From St. Emilion originates Chateau Cheval-Blanc, always popular with collectors but made particularly famous by the Hollywood blockbuster Sideways. The tiny region of Pomerol is the home of Chateau Petrus, one of the most sought after and highly-praised wines in the world.
The red wines of Bordeaux tend to be rich, dry and full bodied. Depending on their appellation, they often exhibit notes of black currant, black plum, ripe raspberry, and sweet red berries. Their oak treatment (for almost all red Bordeaux of quality is aged in French oak barrels) gives the wines wonderful notes of pencil lead, pain grille, cedar box, and sometimes toasty coffee elements. The finest examples of Bordeaux can age for decades in your cellar, whereas the less expensive values can provide immediate enjoyment. Bordeaux tend to be extremely food friendly; red meats are a traditional pairing partner, from a classic filet mignon to a roast leg of lamb with rosemary.
While over 85% of the vineyards of Bordeaux are planted to red grape varieties, fine white wines are produced in the region as well. These are made primarily from the grapes Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, with a small amount of the lesser-known Muscadelle grape blended in. Modern-day Bordeaux blancs rely heavily on Sauvignon Blanc, and are often aged in new French oak barrels. This makes a style of wine that is racy, crisp in acidity, and full of refreshing citrus notes while also having lovely baking-spice elements and a creamy mouth-feel. The finest examples of white Bordeaux come from the left bank appellation Graves, though there are many charming wines from the region of Entre-Deux-Mers, and many labelled simply ‘Bordeaux Blanc.’ When it comes to the dinner table, white Bordeaux can be a wonderful accompaniment to simple seafood dishes such as seared scallops or to zestier, citrus-driven meals such as a lemon-pepper chicken.
Any description of Bordeaux would be remiss if it didn’t mention the great dessert wines grown there. In the regions of Sauternes and Barsac, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon come together to produce a dessert wine style that is unctuous, rich, oily and vibrant, with apricot, peach, and honey notes accompanying a wonderful citrus acidity and creamy texture. Such decadent wine calls for a decadent food pairing; fois gras is classic for its extreme richness, and caramel cheesecake would be another fantastic choice.
For centuries, Bordeaux has been considered the eminent winegrowing region of the world. Since the Victorian era, the English have consumed it by the shipload, becoming so fond of it that they gave it a nickname, referring to the red wines of Bordeaux as ‘claret.’ Today the finest chateaux of Bordeaux are seen as symbols of prestige in the world’s most exclusive circles, with the most highly regarded bottles from the greatest vintages selling for thousands of dollars. At the same time, wonderful examples of affordable Bordeaux abound even today, and the everyday wine drinker can find immense satisfaction in these classic, terroir-driven wines.
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