Search This Blog

March 16, 2010

Bordeaux in 5 minutes

Hahaha. To understand Bordeaux, one needs time, patience, knowledge, experience and... last but not least, the interest and curiousity.

With this post, let me just scratch the surface a little...

Bordeaux is located in the south-west of France. The area is divided by the rivers Gironde, Dordogne and Garonne. This is why it is often referred to the left bank and the right bank... So, to get an orientation, the map is a must, download it here. It also gives a good, quick overview about where the reds, whites, sweets come from.

Bordeaux is $160.000, the auctioned price for a bottle of wine from 1787 from the famous Château Lafite, to Le Cardinal, with 69 sek (ca 7 €) currently the cheapest Bordeaux red available at the Swedish monopoly.

Bordeaux has, for the average consumer, something stiff, distanced, dusty and old fashioned around it. It is something 'for the rich' and for those with grand wine cellars, temperature controlled. It often appears to be intimidating, because we have no clue about a Bordeaux wine. What is it in the bottle? Château blablabla - aha? So What! Give me my Merlot! (Thanks god for the New world, giving us the grape varieties! Suddenly, we
know what a Chardonnay is and we know that we like Pinot Noir - well... truth is, that is what we think to know, but more to that another time...)

Bordeaux wines are mostly blends, though varietal wines can be found as well. The reason for blending different grapes has to do with - among other - unstable climate resulting in vintage variations. By blending, this can be compensated for to a certain degree. The wines are designed to reflect the indivual brand's (chateau) style. They are typically matured over a period of time and the barrique barrels are standard procedure. Some wines can appear very hard and tannic, the traditional ones are made to be stored in many years before they reach their peak. However, to me a nice Bordeaux wine is of elegant nature and I like them good enough to want to understand more.

Bordeaux is a style of wine the rest of the wine-world is peeking at big times. We hear about 'Bordeaux blends' from Chile, Stellenbosch, Australia, California - you name it. The main grapes from Bordeaux, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot have gone out to the world, being parts of blends in regions today, where they not at all were found before. Italy, Spain, Germany... (And now we are talking reds only.)

Bordeaux has understood that the wine-world gets smaller by new regions popping up and becoming popular. Currently, a lot is happening to present the region younger and now they are opening up - the doors of the Chateaux as well as on information. Just go to the homepage and you will see.

Bordeaux produces 2% of the world's wines, about 25% of France's wine, ca 5.7 mill hectolitres in 2007 (Click for more figures!) The big, famous names make only a small part of this masses, then there is a lot of not-worth-mentioning (and worse) wines and some that are real value-for-money products. How to find?! That is where experience and patience comes handy. But: you got to start somewhere. Be open-minded. Be brave. Like me. I will go out to try lots of different Bordeaux wines over the years to come and I will read and hear what others have to say.

What can be of use though, is to understand the classifications a little bit, to help demystify the label of a Bordeaux bottle...

Cru: Better to top wines have the 'cru'-word included. Cru = growth. Bordeaux' classification of growths started shortly before and due to the Exposition Universelle 1855 (World Exhibition) in Paris. To present the best wines of the country, Napoleon (the guy with the funny hat) ordered each wine region to classify their wines in order to come up with the best ones to impress the world.

Place of the World Exhibion in Paris

The châteaux of Bordeaux were meassured by their reputation and market value of sold wines of the past, and sorted by different ranks, the levels of Crus. So they came up with 60 Crus of the Medoc area (plus 1 in Graves) at that time, which have been the same ever since, except for one change, in 1973, when Chateau Mouton-Rothschild was upgraded.

The 1855 classification:
5 Premiers (1st) Crus (Château Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Mouton-Rothschild, Haut-Brion in Graves)
14 Deuxièmes (2nd) Crus
14 Troisièmes (3rd) Crus
10 Quatrièmes (4rd) Crus
18 Cinquièmes (5th) Crus. The complete list can be seen here...

At the same time, 27 sweet wines of Barsac and Sauternes were classified into
1 Premier Cru Supérieur (Château d'Yquem),
11 Prémier Crus and
15 Deuxièmes Crus.

- As one can see, this counts only for a small (nonetheless exclusive) number of Chateaux.

In 1932, the Cru Bourgeois was established as another classification. It includes today over 200 houses in 3 categories:

9 Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel
87 Cru Bourgeois Supérieur
151 Cru Bourgeois

As explained with my post about Chateau de Malleret, the word goes back to the 12th Century, when the Bourgeois, the middle-class, first appeared in Bordeaux. They were the merchants under British time, earning lots of money and thus able to purchase good lots of land, which they were allowed to keep even when the French took the area back over again. They counted 444 in 1932 and were down to 94 after the war (from the official homepage). The classification is being updated every 10 years, so the goal is. However, since 2007, they are working on a new project, which is supposed to start in 2010, with the vintage of 2009. But, somewhere, I read that was not happening. We are in France! It is complicated, but we stay tuned and try to figure out... Still: this group of Crus stands for some 40% of the vines of the Médoc.

1959: Classification of Graves
No ranking. Wines listed are called
Cru Classé.

1955: Saint-Emilion-Classification
The Châteaux of the right banks were classified with this one. This one is different, because it is integrated into the AC system - the official wine law that includes all wines of France. The official AC is called Saint-Emilion Grand Cru and the chateaux within are classified in 3 levels:

13 Premier Grand Cru Classé - devided into 2 classes 'A' and 'B',
with Château Cheval Blanc and Château Ausone the two top names
55 Grand Cru Classé
Grand Cru
- This classification is revised and updated every 10 years.

Crus Artisans
44 family businesses that grow, make, market and sell their own wines. A fairly new classification which is not widely known yet.

- Sounds charming to me, worth looking out for!

AC or AOC = Appellation d'Origine Controlée
The highest level a French wine can attain within the wine laws that regulate any produced wine of the country. (This system has been copied to many other wineregions in the world, even if with adjustments.) It regulates the areas of production, the grapes permitted, the growing and production methods allowed, the max. yields per hectare, the min. alcoholic degree.
Bordeaux has some 57 ACs in 3 levels. The (lowest ranking) generic (Bordeaux AC), the district (i.e. Haut-Médoc) and the (highest) commune level (i.e. Pauillac). Chateau names are not considered here, that is why every big name chateau will also name the AC it belongs to.

If the word 'supérieur' is named with the AC (! not with the Chateaux or Cru name), it indicates that the wine has 0,5-1% more alcohol.

- So a wine labeled with 'Bordeaux AC' indicates that it comes from the lowest level of the AC system, but to find out, if it also is of worst quality and taste is for us to explore.

5 minutes are over.

More confused than before? Starting looking for the labels will help to let this sink in, it can actually become a sport. Now, let's go out to the supermarkets and monopoly-stores to look for some wines to try.

Write me about your favorite Bordeaux wine!

- Go to Schiller-Wein, for some information about the vintages, i.e.
- A German blog, working with the topic just now:
- For the lucky ones living in Sweden, go to my former wine school Gustibus and do a 'Bordeaux initiation course'

1 comment:

  1. My favorites are the Cru Burgeois Wines - excellent quality at reasonable prices. Great Post!