A Bordeaux 101 Outline Study Guide
By Kerry Winslow
(Bordeaux Seminar Summary Notes for a special Bordeaux tasting)
Bordeaux at a Glance:
Bordeaux is not beautiful or heavenly scenic in by any stretch of the imagination and it is not a glamorous travel destination, but it does have vines and noble Chateaux to at least give you something to envy. (With the exception of St. Emilion, which is both historic and graceful) Not too convincing for a region that is known as the world’s greatest with some of the most prized wine on the planet. Also, Bordeaux is not a small area either, with some 900 million bottles produced in any given vintage and maybe some 20,000 growers. But, in the world of fine wine, Bordeaux is more known for about 200 estates that make about 100,000 bottles each, which is much more of what you’d expect from a super premium wine region. The “Chateau” name on the label has always added value, though it is largely a meaningless term, much like “Reserve” or such on labels from California and other areas, but there has been a loose guide and rule that if there is a picture of a Chateau on the label it should exist on the property in real life as well.
Another archaic example of Bordeaux hierarchy is the fabled Classification of 1855 by which most all Bordeaux wines and estates have been judged by ever since. (Though it must said, it still works!)
The Classification of 1855 was originally conceived by Exposition Universelle in Paris as a simple guide to Bordeaux wines, both red and white, though it really ended up as an enduring order for the red wines of the Medoc, except for the one Pessac-Leognan or Graves estate Chateau Haut-Brion which was included. Funny enough this class structure was only compiled in a matter of days and was based on prices that estates were getting for their wines on the current market at the time and was never ever meant to be set in stone and was in fact done just for the one single event. Even though the Classification was never intended as a permanent guide it has in fact become one that still holds on today, and only one real change has ever taken place to the original placements, that was when Chateau Mouton-Rothschild was given First Growth status in 1973! The original guide placed the main estates into echelons that were and are known by the old term Growths in five classified levels of prestige. This has given us First Growths (top) through Fifth Growths (lowest) of the best quality winegrowers. It is remarkable how notable and accurate this system has been and still is today.
White wines and sweet wines had separate classifications and these while useful at the time do not have the same meaning at present. The other top wines not from the Haut-Medoc did get some recognition, with Saint-Emilion being the most progressive, as it is updated and re-rated every ten years, but Pomerol still does not have a real classification in place!
When you think of Pessac-Leognan or Graves red, you almost always and only think of Chateau Haut-Brion the First Growth of the appellation and one of the very first premier estates in the Bordeaux region and a Chateau favored by Thomas Jefferson, as well as collectors near and far. Besides Haut-Brion there is La Mission Haut-Brion and Chateau Haut-Bailly that impress from this area and a many others that have fans the world over. Pessac-Leognan is almost perfect for Cabernet Sauvignon with lots of well-drained soils and a touch of limestone as well to add character, and the appellation is well known to produce good wines even in terrible vintages. In fact some of the best vintages in the region have come in slightly cooler vintages like 1988 rather than 1982 or more recently 2003. This may be the first area planted to serious vine in all of Bordeaux in the early 1300’s and continues to produce great wines.
While for years, the only Margaux was Chateau Margaux; there are now a select few top Margaux wines to choose from including Chateau Palmer and Brane-Cantenac. Margaux is a unique Appellation and always seems the most perfumed and elegant while still having power and structure. That said, Margaux has some questionable properties and may have a bit too much sand and clay in some areas to deliver quality. It seems best to stay with the sloping vineyards more to the north for the best results, even from unclassified estates, though you can’t go wrong with the aforementioned Chateaux. Again Cabernet Sauvignon is the main grape here, though there seems to be more combinations of grapes used here.
Pauillac is the king of Bordeaux Appellations with the most First Growths and is considered the most powerful of the region with top estates Latour, Lafite-Rothschild and Mouton-Rothschild you see the wisdom there. This is one of the top Cabernet Sauvignon sites in the Haut-Medoc and Bordeaux, and with its deep gravelly soils that makes sense. The darker and more powerful wines of Pauillac have always been in favor and still demand the most attention from critics and collectors the world over; in fact China and the Asian market are going nuts for Lafite right now. Apart from the three First Growths Pauillac still has some amazing wines, and Parker is raving about the rise of Chateau Pontet-Canet, who are right across the street from Mouton and rates them close to the First Growths here. I will not forget my first taste of Chateau Latour and I am a real Pauillac fan.
This area just north of Pauillac has only five classified growths within the commune, but still garners good respect with the top estates being Chateau Montrose, Cos D’ Estournel and Calon-Segur. Saint-Estephe has lots of charm and style and depends on a higher percentage of Merlot, as the soil is much more clay influenced and the earlier ripening Merlot and Cabernet Franc do a bit better, though Cabernet Sauvignon still plays a powerful role. There is about 2,822 acres planted to vine in the appellation with Merlot being the most widely planted.
Saint-Emilion is perhaps the most historic and pretty place in the whole of Bordeaux with its walled medieval city and fortress still an amazing site to see. The two main Chateaux are Cheval-Blanc and L’Angelus these days, though lots of people will remember Chateau Figeac as well. This is a unique and the most progressive of all the Bordeaux appellations with an ever changing rating system and a new judging for classification every ten years with very strict rules and attention to quality. Saint-Emilion also is known as the Cabernet Franc place and in some vintages it will be the grape of choice, and Cheval-Blanc relies on Franc as the main grape more often than not, making for rich and freshly wines that offer more perfume and tannin than a Merlot based wine in general here.
With no classification or unity Pomerol still has real interest in Bordeaux with powerful and maybe the most expensive wine in the region on release Chateau Petrus, and almost exclusively planted to Merlot! The clay soils here almost beg for Merlot, but there is some Cabernet Sauvignon also planted here as well. Most estates here report that their vineyards are planted to 90-95 percent Merlot and most often use 100% Merlot in their wines. Pomerol succeeds regardless of its grape and classification, in fact Pomerol was allowed an AC only in 1928 and has been snubbed from many historic publications over the years, yet it producing wines that more often than not release at prices that would make Pauillac turn green with envy! This area is known for Merlot with attitude and a track record of success, best not to bad mouth Merlot in this region.
Some Points of Interest, History and Tidbits:
Bordeaux’s history is long and has many eras, but it seems to be that the region started not as a wine-producing region, but as a trading post for selling and transporting wines. The Roman outpost there in the first century BC even had a wine negotiant the specialized in supplying the British isles, which has Roman garrisons controlling the local population, both of which enjoyed wine. At that time Bordeaux was named Burdigala and perfectly located as it is today on the estuary of the Gironde River, we know this from the Greek geographer Strabo, who also related in his texts that is was during the reign of Augustus that Burdigala was first known as a store or “emporium” for wine and that it had no vines of its own at that time. Then as vines started to show up and things looked bright for the region everything was thrown into chaos for the next 400 years as the Romans lost control and many tribes and invaders all crashed through the area, destroying and rebuilding the whole time. When the dust settled there was the Gascon era, which at the time used Bordeaux as a the main depot for its then famous Cahors High Country wine, but this didn’t last long as then the Vikings showed up and devastated the town, leaving nothing more than rumble after the Gascon leader Sanche Sanchez decided to fight to the last man.
By the middle ages Bordeaux and England basically were married and the region has been connected at the hip to England ever since, this would be the era known for the rise of Claret, the very English term for red Bordeaux wines. Though it should be noted that even up until the 1200’s Bordeaux still was not producing that much wine if any and that Gascony was still the big supplier to England, as well as to Germany, Flanders and the Baltics. It seems the Graves area was really the first premium vineyard site in the Bordeaux region, which makes sense, as it was firm ground and close to the city. England finally gave up total rule of Bordeaux in 1453 to France after a 300-year rule. During this time England imported about 50,000 barrels of wine from the merchants in Bordeaux, at the time that worked out to be 6 bottles of Claret for every single man, woman and child in England, a year. Though it must be remembered that the British bought equal amounts from the Rhine producers and may even have favored those sweet Rieslings and also they gobbled up Loire wines as well, but we must also remember this was in the early 1300’s and what was maybe Bordeaux’s first great Chateau and vineyard was planted in 1300 or there about. It is recorded that Bertrant de Goth, later known as Pope Clement V who moved the papacy to Avignon, had an estate in Pessac that was planted to vine in 1300, this same property is now called Chateau Pape Clement. Some 350 years later the real Bordeaux boom and golden age began, and it started maybe less that a mile away from old’ Bertrand’s small estate in a place called Haut-Brion.
In the “Dutch” era, the Bordeaux region grew and flourished, with most of the wines going to Holland instead of England, while the Britons bought Spanish, Portuguese and Italian wines to make up for not getting their Claret from France. It was during this time that the locals saw the full potential of the region and were thrilled when the Dutch engineers drained most of the swamp in the Medoc, which made way for neatly trained rows of vines of certain blocks of single types of grapes, a concept that was not really known in France until then. Also, even better still, this newly claimed ground ended up great growing sites; in fact many of the “First Growths” are in this area. Later, with England taking turns fighting, Holland, France and Spain in war after war, there was lots of smuggling by all sides including the growers and merchants themselves to England where there was a great thirst for Claret. In this time, the mid to late 1600’s, Chateau Haut-Brion it seems became the world great wine, though there was a lot of funny math regarding the wine that really came from the estate itself, as some records show that while maybe 50 barrels a year was being made on the vineyard, there was sales receipts showing lots of up to 230 barrels of Haut-Brion listed as sold or as cargo to England… The intrigue continues to this day with many scandals and fraud over the years.
Bordeaux has suffered war, plague, many rulers, and two devastating natural disasters that destroyed almost every vine in the region. The first of these was the winter of 1709, one of the coldest on record that froze and killed almost every last vine, all of which had to replanted from scratch, and the second was the phylloxera out break in the 1860’s which again caused almost a total loss of vines for the region, this was solved by the use of American rootstock, though many argue that the wines have never been as good as they were before the replanting and that the vineyards were not re-planted with the same combination or make up of grapes. This also led winemakers to leave in droves to other areas around the world, this may have changed the winemaking both at home and abroad, and certainly those that returned brought new ideas back to Bordeaux.
The modern era in Bordeaux started with the Classification of 1855 and more recently by rating of the 1982 vintage by an American lawyer from Maryland! While the Classification helped elevate Bordeaux is still took close to a hundred years before the main Chateau even started blending and bottling their own wine! That had been done by the merchants, shippers and in some cases by the buyers themselves in far away countries. This of course led to much fraud and corruption, in fact Thomas Jefferson, while in France before returning home to Virginia and later becoming the third President of the United States, was very concerned about the process and tried very hard to deal directly with the Chateaux when he was buying wine for himself. Jefferson even went to the source, spending time in each main region of France at the time, but especially in Bordeaux to make sure he got the wine he was paying for. He was fond of Haut-Brion and tried his best to secure great vintages from them, but he also searched out and tasted with many growers, which at the time was way ahead of its time, as most bought the best wines through and blended by the Negociants, who were the so called real wine experts at the time.
Some of the grand Chateau started bottling wines at the estate in the 1920’s, but it really didn’t take off until after World War Two. Since then Bordeaux has maintain it’s place as the most renown growing region in the world and maintaining its noble and exclusive image. That said, Bordeaux had a tough decade in the 1970’s and it was losing market and prestige, as the raise of Napa Valley started to challenge common wisdom and terrible weather and vintages didn’t help. The notable Judgment at Paris where American wines by far outshone the French added insult to injury! By the eighties things still looked bleak, bad economies, battered reputation and lack of modernization had taken its toll on Bordeaux, but there was a bright side, good vintages and Robert Parker!
I think it is safe to say that Robert Parker helped secure Bordeaux’s future and helped the region recover as well as brought a bonanza of new customers and wealth. Parker’s rating guide the Wine Advocate became the collectors bible and his notes and scores on the 1982 vintage sparked a buying frenzy that was to influence the whole wine industry and make Bordeaux sales viability forever linked with Robert Parker. There is no question that the world waits with baited breath for Parker’s thoughts on a Bordeaux vintage before buying any, and while many argue on the merits of his power over the market, none can say it doesn’t have huge reach or that Bordeaux has not thrived because of Robert Parker. Bordeaux adores him and fears him and France has basically given him a knighthood for his efforts! The Parker effect is real and continues today, and it why when we talk about Bordeaux we must give credit where credit is due.
Cabernet Sauvignon: There is no question that Cabernet is the most celebrated red grape in the world with its full body and powerful tannins it is the king. Cabernet Sauvignon is thick skinned and develops a dark color also it makes for a great aging wine with deep flavors of black fruits.
Merlot: This grape can make great wines on its own, just like Petrus, but is also a famous blending grape that goes well and adds fruity and freshy elements to the wine. Merlot has the benefit of getting ripe earlier, which winemakers in Bordeaux count on, while giving red berry and cedar flavors that are full, but smoother in tannins.
Cabernet Franc: This is a grape that is gaining in use and popularity adding many exciting flavors and spice to the wines. Cabernet Franc is used on its own in the Loire Valley, but is most often blended in Bordeaux and in California to get the best out of it, though it can be a blockbuster in great years and been the secret in Cheval Blanc and other Saint-Emilion estates.
Petit Verdot: This is a tough grape, it can add color even in tiny amounts and has a beautiful perfume, the problem is that it is high in raw tannins and is very late to ripen making it a tricky devil in most vintages and has lost vineyard space in recent years.
Mabec: Like Petit Verdot, Malbec has become a less planted or replanted grape in Bordeaux in the last decade as it is also tricky to get right there, but it is gaining support and fans worldwide with Argentina and Cahors selling well and making lush cherry flavored wines that are great values.
*Carmenere: While many experts only list the five Bordeaux varietals, there is really a sixth and that grape, which was thought to be extinct at one point in the region, but it was found alive and well in Chile! In Chile it has done very well making for a full and spicy red that does great on its own. It has made a tiny comeback in Bordeaux, but none of the top Chateaux use it at present.
Left Bank soils of the Medoc are gravelly marl with some sand that allows for good drainage, this especially helps Cabernet Sauvignon, while the Right Bank like in Pomerol, has mostly clay and lacks drainage making it better suited to Merlot and in some areas like Saint-Emilion a good home to Cabernet Franc there is also limestone slopes, plus in the far south and in tiny places in Pessac-Leognan there is some limestone, though it is not thought to have much influence overall on the regions red wines. The weather typically is a maritime mild climate with a good amount of rain and storms, though it has hot summers and while there can be disasters, it has had a slight benefit from global warming in recent years.
Chateau Haut-Bailly, Pessac-Leognan
This small Cru Classe estate, Haut-Bailly, is making wines that according to Parker put it at least at Third Growth level and more recently seen great improvement. The production is pretty small at around 12,000 cases from vines that are close to 40 years old on average with 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc. Haut-Bailly has a long history even if they are considered a newcomer, and the second owner in 1872 thought that adding cognac added dimension to his wines, but quality has really been much on the rise since 1979, though Parker notes that both the ’61 and ’64 vintages were fabulous.
*First Growth, Chateau Haut-Brion, owned by Dillon family, makes 12,000 to 18,000 per vintage from vines of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc that are on average 30 years old. Haut-Brion is the only First Growth not in the Medoc and the only American owned one, when the Dillon bought the estate in 1935, and Haut-Brion was the first Bordeaux wine to be internationally known and sought after starting back in the seventeenth century.
Chateau Brane-Cantenac, Margaux
This Second Growth has had an up and down long history, but has been improving since 1982, owned by Lucien Lurton, producing between 30,000 to 35,000 cases from vines that average around 25 years with a combination of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot. This estate was once connected to Mouton, before the Rothschild family and was very highly rated in the nineteenth century.
*First Growth, Chateau Margaux, makes about 30,000 cases from vineyards that are on average 30 years old and made up of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc, while still run by the famed Mentzelopoulos family.
Chateau Pontet-Canet, Pauillac
A Fifth Growth estate, across the street from Mouton and owned by the Tesseron family, Pontet-Canet is a still rising star and is a Parker favorite for quality and value with a case production of 25,000 to 40,000 depending on vintage. The vineyards are made up of 68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 12% Cabernet Franc with an average age of 27 years old.
*First Growth neighbor Chateau Mouton-Rothschild has almost the same size vineyard, planted to 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc and 8% Merlot with vines that average 45 years producing about the same amount of wine in total, close to 30,000 cases.
Chateau Cos D’ Estournel, Saint-Estephe
A Second Growth, and the top estate in the appellation Cos D’ Estournel is owned by the Prats family making between 28,000 to 32,000 cases, with a vineyard make up of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot that average 35 years of age. Parker has called this estate “Outstanding” and says the quality, since 1982, is equivalent to the First Growths.
Chateau Petit Village, Pomerol
Rated by Parker as Excellent and on par with Third Growths, Petit Village is now considered an estate on the rise in Pomerol with ownership, since 1971, in the hands of Bruno Prats, the owner of Cos D’ Estournel, then later AXA Insurance Group. This estate has about 27 acres of vines, 70% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Sauvignon and 12% Cabernet Franc with a small case production of only 5,000 from vines that average close to 30 years old. (Pomerol does not have a classification system.)
* Chateau Petrus, the top estate in Pomerol, which now fetches over $1,000 a bottle on release, if you can get it, makes somewhere over 4,000 cases and is owned by the famed Moueix family, who also control Dominus Estate in Napa Valley. Petrus is regularly close to 100% Merlot, with vines planted to 95% Merlot and some 5% of Cabernet Franc that are about 35 years on average.
Chateau L’ Angelus, Saint-Emilion
A top Premier Grand Cru Classe L’ Angelus has been long known as a great wine, even though it didn’t make it to Premier Grand Cru Classe until 1995, which it certainly deserves, even Parker noted that he thought they should have got there in 1985, and without a doubt is an estate that ranks with the superstars. Owned by the de Bouard de Laforest family, L’ Angelus sits on perfectly facing south slopes with vineyards made up of 50% Cabernet Franc, 45% Merlot and just 5% of Cabernet Sauvignon, which turn out close to 15,000 cases.
*The historic and heroic Premier Grand Cru Classe estate of Chateau Cheval Blanc which is the standard bearer of prestige and quality in Saint-Emilion makes some 12,000 cases from their 89 acres, with vines that are comprised of 66% Cabernet Franc, 33% Merlot and 1% Malbec and that have an average age of 34 years.
This information is supposed to give the reader an idea of Bordeaux, an introduction to the wines and the place, and will doubt have a few errors and for that, I’ll apologize here and now, but I hope it will also inspire the reader to investigate this region much, much deeper and find their own paths of enjoyment in this subject matter. We in the wine business are learning all the time and everything is ever changing and challenging, which keeps it always interesting and fresh, even as we agonize over the details. In the end it is all about the wine, the people and the place that matter, and that is what we hope to celebrate. Cheers.
(For a special Bordeaux 2000 Vintage Tasting at Rancho Cellars in Carmel, CA For Details Call 831-625-5646 or www.ranchocellars.com)
*My Tasting Notes to follow after the event (Jan. 22, 2010) at grapelive.com
**I would recommend reading Benjamin Wallace’s “Billionaire’s Vinegar”, Robert Parker’s “Bordeaux: A Consumer’s Guide to the World’s Finest Wines” Fourth Edition and Hugh Johnson’s “Vintage: The Story of Wine”
***This article was helped greatly by the work of Oz Clark, Hugh Johnson, Robert Parker, Benjamin Wallace, Jacques Melac and many others that dropped me details over the years, plus my own notes from many tastings over the last tens years in the wine business. I do not claim to be a Bordeaux expert by any means, so please follow your own guidance and passion to go further and enjoy the wines from this special region.
Kerry Winslow, grapelive.com