Friday, September 12, 2003
cab er nay saw vee nyon
saw vee nyon blahnk
sem eh lon
Not so many years ago if you could not pronounce these words you were out of it in the world of wine. Now cabernet and sauvignon have almost become English words, merlot has become the object of scorn by connoisseurs, and Bordeaux only gets attention for its most expensive wines: those about to go under Robert Parker's knife.
Bordeaux is so much more than just those wines classified in 1855 and the stars of Pomerol, St. Emilion, and Sauternes. The entire department of the Gironde is one huge vineyard, making it the largest single fine-wine region in the known universe (according to NASA). To give you an idea of the scale: Bordeaux exports more wine than the entire United States produces.
Food wines are in this year, and people like to talk about balance and elegance -- even if they don't mean it. Balance, elegance, and complexity are what made Bordeaux famous in the first place. It seems reasonable to assume that, out of the ocean of wine produced in Bordeaux, there might be some wines lower in price than the superstars and higher in quality than the grocery store plonk most of the cooperatives produce. Why not drink them?
In a time when merlot is the red wine of the moment, the more moderately priced wines of Bordeaux should be having their heyday in the United States because most of them are predominantly merlot. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your viewpoint) for them, the name merlot does not appear on the label so most consumers don't have a clue that Chateau This or Chateau That represents their red grape of choice.
Technology and new winemaking techniques have overrun Bordeaux in the last decades. For the top wines this is a matter of heated debate with many claiming these methods have robbed the best wines in Bordeaux of their unique character (sound a bit like Barolo Wars?). However, for lesser vineyards this influx of new vineyard-management and winemaking techniques has often greatly improved their wines, meaning there are more bargains than ever coming out of Bordeaux.
Even though these new-style wines from Bordeaux have more body and color than in the past, they don't have the dense ripe sweet flavors of their American and Australian cousins made from cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Well-made Bordeaux possesses a certain restraint and grace not possessed by many new world wines. Often, palates accustomed to the Eminem-style palate attack of a Rosemount or a Kendall Jackson will dismiss the wines of Bordeaux as too Jackson Browne in style. Ahh . . . but once you experience good Bordeaux with food you will change your mind and start thinking more of Ornette Coleman than Jackson. The wines of Bordeaux possess a certain potential energy that is realized when dining, and that energy requires a bit of attention on the part of the user to release its full power. These wines dance on your palate rather than attempt to conquer it.
Label-phobia may be Bordeaux's biggest problem. What does all that stuff mean? Let's try to boil it down. First, the classifications.
Cru Classe are the top wines of the Haut Medoc region, which is the home of the famous communes; Marqaux, St. Julien, Pauillac and St. Estephe. It's in these communes that you find the hallowed Chateau names like Lafite Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, Latour, and Chateau Margaux. The wines classified in 1855 according to the historic prices they were commanding on the market are from this area and are broken down from top to bottom into first, second, third, fourth, and fifth "growths" (properties). These wines range from expensive to outrageously expensive. Just to confuse, Chateau Haut Brion from the neighboring Graves region was included in this classification in 1855 simply because it was too famous to ignore. The great sweet wines of the Sauternes region were also included in this classification with the incomparable Chateau d'Yquem being designated a "First Great Growth" -- a designation only bestowed on what many believe to be the greatest sweet wine produced.
Below this are, in descending order: Cru Exceptionnel, Cru Bourgeois Superieur, and Cru Bourgeois. Next down the ladder are the basic Bordeaux appellation controlee (controlled place names -- the name of French wine law) and Superieur for wines with one degree more than the minimum of alcohol required for straight Bordeaux and Graves. It is in these categories where the bargains are lurking.
Premier Grand Cru Classe are the top wines of the St. Emilion region and Grand Cru Classe are the second level. Their first classification was done in 1955, and it helped propel St. Emilion out of the shadow of the Haut Medoc. This classification has been more updateable than the Medoc classification, which is generally considered long out-of-date. Graves introduced a very simple classification in 1959 that includes just fifteen properties designated Grand Cru Classe.
You'll often see the terms "left bank" and "right bank" used to refer to the wines of Bordeaux. This refers to which side of the Gironde river the region falls on. So Pomerol and St. Emilion and their various satellite regions are "right bank" wines while the wines of the Medoc are "left bank" wines. Graves and Sauternes are south of the city of Bordeaux. Visit www.bordeaux.com for an excellent map and a good general overview of the Bordeaux wine region. In general, right bank wines use more merlot and cabernet franc and the wines of the Medoc have higher percentages of cabernet sauvignon.
Bordeaux is the ultimate blended wine. For reds there are five main varieties with three of those defining wines of quality. Those three varieties are cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc, which can be joined by small quantaties of malbec and petit verdot. All the best red wines of Bordeaux are produced from various blends of these varieties. The style of the wine depends on the dominant varietal combined with the characteristics of the vineyard where it is grown. Merlot is far and away the most heavily planted red variety because, in addition to its round easy flavors, it is an early ripening vine and is therefore less threatened by poor harvest weather conditions. White Bordeaux (yes they make white wine in Bordeaux, tons of it, and it's good) is produced from three varieties: sauvignon blanc, semillon, and muscadelle. Semillon is by far the most widely planted and is responsible for the great sweet wines of Bordeaux. In Graves, sauvignon blanc often leads the way in many blends for the great white wines of that region, especially for the whites of the important sub-region Pessac-Leognan. Semillon brings a lush texture to dry whites while sauvignon blanc brings an herbal raciness -- a terrific combination. Muscadelle does not play much of a role in the production of great wines, but can produce lovely floral wines for early drinking.
That's the global view of a broad and diverse wine region, but where do you find the values? Just as in every other area, the really famous names have become wines for rock stars. That means finding wines from lesser regions that are produced by overachievers. Look for wines from some of these place-names:
Red Wines: Premieres Cotes de Blaye, Cotes de Bourg, Cotes de Castillon, Medoc, Haut Medoc (and Listrac and Moulis), Lussac-Saint Emilion, Montagne-Saint Emilion, Puisseguin-Saint, Lalande-de-Pomerol, and Canon-Fronsac.
Dry White Wines: Entre-deux-Mers and Graves.
Sweet White Wines: Cerons, Cadillac, Loupiac, and Sainte-Croix-du-Mont.
If you are ever wondering about the name "claret," which today refers to the red wines of Bordeaux, the word comes from the French word clairet, which is the name used for rose wines.
Repeat after me: bore doe.