When you think about a red wine, the archetype is Bordeaux. Supple with dark fruit and a touch of elegant oak, they taste very much like a grown up’s treat. They walk, talk, smell and taste like you think a red wine should. That’s partly because this style of wine, and the grapes that make it, have been incredibly successful and been adopted far and wide.
A classic Bordeaux wine, coming from the Girdonde estuary in the west of France, is based on a blend of two, alas much reviled, grapes: Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot can produce round easy fruit forward wines. Cab Sav can produce more structured and bigger bodied wines. That said these varieties blend harmoniously and can produce some of the most complex and long lived wines.
The vineyards found in the west of France near the coast are warmed by the Gulf Stream and can be divided into three main sub regions. The Left Bank, the Right Bank and the Entre-Deux-Mer, the last is a large flat area which on the whole produces quite pleasant but not earth-shattering wines. That said when I ran a Bordeaux tasting, Ch. Haut-Rian stood out even against wines of theoretically higher standing.
The Right Bank contains the famous regions of Pomerol and St. Emillion and their satellite villages. The wines here are made chiefly of Merlot and then blended with Cab Sav or more traditionally Cabernet Franc. The Merlot produces wines with a full and rich body which can be elevated with the structured tannins of Cab Sav and given lift by the lighter bodied and perfumed Cab Franc.
The so called Saint-ellites offer particularly charming wines and have more recently seen the work of a new generation of wine makers. They are interested in returning to the old methods and produce some quite beautiful wines.
On the Left Bank you have the Medoc north of the city, and the Graves to the south. These are then subdivided within themselves. These wines enjoy a family resemblance. A wine from Ch. Rahoul in the Graves in a good and even vintage enjoys much the same character of Ch. Patache d’Aux in the north of the Medoc. Differences will arise due to vintage, blending and geography, for between those two estates come a whole world of fine, vain, points of difference.
On this side of the river Cab Sav dominates and, to generalise, tend the wines have more structure and a richer quality because of that. Historically Claret, which is what these wines are, was a lighter wine. However, tastes have grown for fuller bodied wines which have been achieved through the help of rising temperatures and longer hang time for the grapes.
As in St. Emillion and Pomerol elegance and complexity can be introduced through blending. Cab Sav and Merlot are the basics but some Cab Franc can add elegance. Other grapes play a minor but important role with Petit Verdot and Malbec able to add greater body and structure. These are seldom seen outside of serious properties and Petit Verdot in particular always leaves a tell tale trace of smokiness.
In the Graves you have a sub region towards the city of Bordeaux, Pessac-Leoghan, where the wines have a deeper, richer character than those from the simple Graves. All the wines south of the city share a beautiful mineral underpinning, that both structures the wine and excites the palate. These are wines which have distinct characters, quite bold, still elegant, sometimes smoky.
North of the city itself comes the Haut Medoc, which with it’s northern twin the Medoc tops and tales the peninsula producing solid table claret. Some producers are superior to others and can earn the title of Cru Bourgeois. These are solid, respectable and yes Bourgeois wines. I like them a great deal, and if you are planning long term drinking a case of these would be the start of a cellar. Wines like Tour Prignac provide consistent full bodied, structured wines that go very well with most foods. They are the bread and butter of most wine merchant’s offerings and of traditional wine drinking.
With the wider region there are famous villages which produce wines of a higher standard, a pattern seen elsewhere. Running south to north they are Margaux, St Julien, Paulliac, and St Estephe. The vanity of small differences speak loudly here with Paulliac producing the most full-bodied wines, St-Estephe the most structured, St-Julien the most consistent and Margaux the most elegant.
My real passion for these wines comes from the Margaux, where there is always this incredible heady perfume. It’s present in youth but becomes a deep, quite sensual aroma with some bottle age. And actually that smell of concentrated blackcurrant, leather and the forest is typical of most mature Bordeaux in some degree or other, and always makes me a little weak at the knees.
Within these villages there is a hierarchy of quality reaching from a Margaux, through Cru Bourgeois, and then the listed growths. This is a classification of quality which stretches back to 1855 and which has five crus. As elsewhere the top rungs are increasingly collectors’ items rather than routes to vinous pleasure.
The region is one of the largest producers, and even at the top it’s easy to access astounding quality. Prices for the 1st Growths are bordering on the immoral but their neighbours are affordable. But further down producers like Ch. Batailley in Paulliac or Ch. Lafon Rochet in St Estephe are of increasingly high regard. In recent years Lafon-Rochet have increased the amount of Merlot in their blend which has softened their sometimes austere style. The estate is separated by a stream from the fabled elysian fields of Ch. Lafite Rothschild in Paulliac. There is a gap in quality, and a gulf in style, but for a bottle of 2016 the former is around £50 a bottle, while the latter is more than £700.
Beyond the harmony of brooding fruit balanced by cedar wood and a rich, full palate, the reasons that these wines remain ever popular is I think in some way because they are the most comforting and vindicating wines. When I fled London before the lockdown the wine that I craved was a mature Bordeaux, they are wines which soothe and seldom disappoint.
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