Why you should be drinking Bordeaux and 3 wines to try.

St. Emilion

Bordeaux is one of, if not the most, well-known wine region in the world. But it’s suffering from an identity crisis as of late. The region has fallen out of favor with a large swath of the wine drinking public for many reasons. First and foremost is its’ image as a stuffy wine region with its’ grand Chateaus and hefty price tags. Not only that, we’re told that we have to wait a decade or so to truly understand and appreciate the wines. There’s also so much wine out there that is both easier to understand and just as good. Some say it’s also too confusing with all of its appellations and talk of Right Bank vs Left Bank. Oh, and they don’t put the name of the grape on the label. It used to be that if you wanted to drink good wine you only had a few choices: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Napa, etc. Not so anymore. We have access to great wines from all over the world.  These days, sommelier’s are always on the look out for the new and different; something that will ‘wow’ the customer. So, Bordeaux has become pedestrian in a lot of somm’s eyes. That’s a shame because these are still some of the most exciting wines on the planet. Let’s take a look at Bordeaux and see if we can dispel some of these generalizations.

First off, most Bordeaux is actually very reasonably priced. By this, I mean that there is a lot of really good wine in the $12-$20 range (The Grande Mottes and Malleret fall into this range). There’s even some really good wine under $12 (Philao) but you have to look hard. How can this be when all we read about is the greedy Chateau owners raising prices year after year? Yes this is a fact. There are greedy Chateau owners who raise prices, even in not so good vintages. But these are just a small fraction of the 10,000 or so in the region. You read that correctly, 10,000 producers, give or take a few hundred. Only the top Chateau in the Classifications can get away with raising prices every year. They do so because they are fairly certain that their wines will sell as the demand is usually greater than the supply for the top wines. There’s also the way in which the top Chateau sell their wines that buoys prices. It’s called ‘en primeur’ and it’s taken a big hit lately with some Chateau dropping out altogether. Only the top couple of hundred Chateau participate in en primeur. The rest sell their wines through the classic distribution channels and the supply far out strips the demand for these properties. In fact, every year more and more of the lesser Chateau are on the verge of bankruptcy because there is just too much wine flowing out of Bordeaux and they can’t charge enough to cover their costs.

Why are Bordeaux wines shunned these days? Classic things, like cars, planes, boats and wine are called classic because, well, they’re classic. They’ve stood the test of time. The classics have put their time in and others are compared to them, not the other way around. Bordeaux is a classic wine region as is Burgundy, Barolo, Chianti, Champagne and others. Wine fads will come and go but the classics will remain. There is no shame in professing your love for Bordeaux regardless of what others think. And there is just something great about opening a bottle of these Cabernet and Merlot blends with their dark black fruits, cedar, tobacco and a touch of oak along with firm tannins on its medium bodied frame. Bordeaux is rarely as extracted as Napa Cabs and their weight makes you want to take another sip. They are also great food wines. And, no, you do not have to wait years to enjoy them. Look to the larger appellations on the label such as Bordeaux, Medoc, Haut-Medoc and Graves for wines that are ready upon release. Sure, the top wines reward cellaring but most Chateau also make a second and sometimes a third wine from the younger vines or the not so good blocks. These are often wines meant for immediate consumption or can be cellared for a few years. They are also great bargains.

Finally, Bordeaux does not have to be confusing. As long as you know your banks. The wines of Bordeaux are almost always blends of different grapes with either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot dominating. The Right Bank of the Gironde Estuary is home to Merlot dominated wines such as Pomerol, St. Emilion and Fronsac. The Left Bank is home to Cabernet based wines such as Medoc, Graves, St. Julien and Margaux. These are the names you’ll see on the labels. Of course there are always exceptions to the rules when it comes to grape variety and blend. If you have a wine that is labeled Bordeaux or Bordeaux Superieur, chances are it is Merlot based and comes from the Entre-Deux-Mers region of Bordeaux. Another labelling term to look for is Cru Bourgeois. These are some of the best value wines in the region and most are consistently good year after year. The whites of the region are now usually Sauvignon Blanc mostly with some Semillon added for complexity.

Vintage is very important in Bordeaux. A big reason is the region’s proximity to the Atlantic. It gets wet here. The season can be bookended by frost, summer storms are a problem and there is lots of cloud cover which tends to interrupt photosynthesis. Once upon a time in Bordeaux each decade would have 3 great vintages, 3 bad vintages and 4 average vintages. Now, if you believe the Chateau owners, almost every year is the next vintage of the century. Some of the recent vintages to look for are 2000, 2001, 2005, 2007 (considered not so great but they are drinking really well), 2009 and the fantastic 2010. All of the wines below come from the 2010 vintage, a truly stellar vintage in Bordeaux. These wines don’t need cellaring to be enjoyed and probably would not benefit from it (with the exception of the Malleret). If you like these you may want to look into purchasing some of the commune wines from 2010 for your cellar. There are still some out there at fairly reasonable prices. All of the wines below will benefit from being enjoyed with food. Anything from some soft or hard cheese to a burger or pizza and more elaborate dishes with earthy flavors. Enjoy the wines!

 2010 Chateau Philao ‘La Gravelle’, Bordeaux

A straight up Bordeaux Appellation wine. This 95% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon blend is round and supple with ripe black fruits and soft tannins. No need to wait here. Pop the cork and enjoy.

 

2010 Chateau Les Grandes Mottes, Cotes de Bordeaux-Blaye, Bordeaux Superieur

This comes from the Right Bank but is 80% Cabernet Sauvignon with 20% Merlot. See, I said there were exceptions to the rules. It also come from what they call the ‘Cotes’. There are a series of appellations with the word ‘Cotes’ in them because they are all on the banks of the rivers. They are great values and often overlooked here in the US. This is drinking really well right now with fully-ripened raspberries, cassis and cherry. Just a touch of oak to go along with mineral notes and dried eucalyptus. This is smooth and still fairly youthful. Don’t wait too long for this one.

2010 Chateau de Malleret Le Baron de Malleret, Haut-Medoc, Cru Bourgeois

This quintessential Bordeaux Chateau, with its large, magnificent buildings, was founded in 1597 by Pierre de Malleret and has been home to one of Europe’s most famous horse stables, hence the label. The property covers just over 130 acres of sandy, gravelly soil in the commune of Pian-Medoc which is situated just northwest of the city of Bordeaux. Sustainable pest management control is practiced as well as the least amount of intervention as the region allows due to weather. This wine is actually the 2nd wine of the Chateau. The blend is 52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Cabernet Franc and 21% Merlot. All of the grapes are harvested by parcel and fermented separately before the final blend is determined. The wine sees 6 months in oak. There is great structure to this with firm tannins and bright acidity to go with the bold black fruit aromas and flavors with just a hint of vanilla and cedar. This can be drunk now with a good decanting or laid down for another 3 years or so.

 

 

What’s your favorite wine?

Being in the wine business I get asked this question a lot. And it’s really hard to answer. You may as well ask me what my favorite song is. Or how about my favorite movie? How can one possibly pick their favorite? One day it may be The Godfather Part II and the next it’s Raising Arizona. Two great movies that I can watch over and over again but completely different from one another.

And so it’s the same for wine. It really depends on a number of factors. What is the weather like? What season is it? What am I really excited about right now? These change all the time and so do my favorite wines. I think a better question to ask someone is this: If you could only drink wines from one region for the rest of your life, what would it be? Now that’s a great question that requires a bit of thought.

There are some expected answers such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, Napa and others. But not me. There is a bit too much sameness in Burgundy. (I know that Burghounds are getting ready to stone me right now!). Sure, there is a difference between the spicy, structured wines from Nuits-Saint-Georges and the more fleshy, softer wines of Beaune or Pommard but at the end of the day it’s still Pinot Noir. The same goes for the whites. Yes a Macon is not nearly as concentrated, complex and powerful as a Meursault but they are both Chardonnay (don’t throw the stones just yet). And Burgundy does not offer the range of styles (white, red, rose, sparkling, sweet, fortified) that other regions can. Oh, and did I mention price?

Bordeaux would seem a good bet but there is some sameness there as well. The reds, for the most part, are Cabernet and Merlot based and the whites are Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon based. Yes, I know the different soil types – gravelly on the Left Bank and clay on the Right Bank – yield different wines in terms of structure, power and elegance. But there is not enough of a difference for me. And the price thing again. Yes, there are inexpensive wines but the best are really expensive. And, once again, we run into the lack of style diversity issue again.

I could go on and on detailing why this or that region would not suffice but I won’t. Let’s start to look at some regions that might do the trick. For me, it would have to be a region that offers up a wide range of styles using a wide range of grapes at reasonable prices for even the icon wines.

The Loire Valley you ask? There is a wide range of styles. You can drink sparkling, white, red, rose and sweet wines. Not so fast. The Loire does offer an array of styles to choose from but the grapes are limited to Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc and Melon Blanc (Muscadet). Not enough variety for me.

What about Spain? We haven’t visited there yet. There must be a region or two that offers all I want. Well….close but no cigar. Although I love the wines of Spain and love the cuisine and everything about the country it just would not cut it for me. Basically the whole country, not just regions, are tied to a handful of grapes. Tempranillo, Garnacha (Grenache), Monastrell (Mouvedre) are the main red grapes. Viura, Verdejo and Albarino are the main white grapes. Not enough diversity. And, I can’t think of one region that covers all the styles I want.

Shifting our focus back to the USA brings us to California, Oregon and Washington, the major players. Let’s get rid of Oregon right away for obvious reasons. Washington does not last long on observation for lack of styles. That lands us in Cali. Can you think of a region that gives you red, white, rose, sparkling, sweet and fortified at a reasonable price point? I can’t either.

So, what region would I pick? It’s obvious. The Languedoc-Roussillon.

Vineyard, Minervois La Liviniere. Wine Scholar Guild

Languedoc-Roussillon is the only single region, not country, that I can think of that offers all the styles of wine. The region is the birthplace of sparkling wine in Limoux in 1531. Mutage, adding alcohol to wine to fortify it, was first practiced here 400 years before it was adopted in Portugal. White, red, rose, sparkling, sweet and fortified are all made here. And made well I might add. And the price to quality ratio is off the charts. Even the icon wines are reasonably priced and offer some of the best bargains in the world.

Not only are all the styles represented but within those categories the styles are endless. The number of grapes allowed is, almost, endless. Think of a grape and there is an extremely good chance that someone is making wine with it here.

The region is vast at over 600,000 acres which makes for numerous macro and micro-climates. There are different soils and elevations strewn throughout the area as well.  This all gives rise to the plethora of appellations in the region. And within each appellation there are different styles of wine. It makes the drinking fun, exciting and never boring.

There are too many wines and producers to list. Here are some of my favorite appellation to try:

Pays d’Oc. This is a Vin de Pays or IGP category of wines that opened up the region to countless wine drinkers. There are less stringent rules here and the wines often have the grape(s) on the label. These are inexpensive wines made from local and international grapes that offer great value. The whites are clean and crisp and the reds juicy and easy.

Cremant de Limoux. Excellent, traditionally made sparkling wines based on the Mauzac grape with some Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. These are not as complex as Champagne but they are not meant to be. These, original, sparklers are fruity with ripe, crushed red apple and bright acidity.

Corbieres. This is the regions largest AOC both in terms of production and acreage. The area is old and vast with many micro-climates so there is no one style of Corbieres. That being said the wines tend to be on the rustic side with plenty of the hallmark garrigue (aromas and flavors of thyme, rosemary, lavender, pine) the region offers.

Minervois. Another large AOC size wise. This is probably my favorite of all but it’s hard to say as it depends on what I am looking for (see first paragraph). The wines are powerful blends based on Syrah, Grenache and Carignan. The AOC lies at the foothills of the Black Mountains on limestone soils, perfect for quality wine production. There is an elegance to the wines to go along with great texture. Try to find wines labeled – Minervois La Liviniere. This is a better sub-region considered a Cru of the Languedoc.

Rivesaltes. Fortified wines made in Roussillon from either Muscat (fresh, fruit forward) or Grenache (red, slightly oxidised or fresh and fruity).

So there you have it, the one region I would drink for the rest of my life. Let me know what region you would pick.