French Wine: Bordeaux

26 04 2008

Ah, Bordeaux, land of massive chateau, hectares of grapes, and some of the most expensive, elite, and sometimes elusive wine in the world. While navigating the land itself may occasionally require the use of a map, understanding the wines can be as simple or complex as you want it to be.

Some collectors, aficionados, or experts will just about bore you to death with information on wine growths, specific regions, left-bank versus right bank wine styles and various other tidbits of information probably best left stored in their knowledgeable noggins. When you are the average Joe or Josephine looking to purchase a quality bottle of vino, what could possibly compel you to spend $80 on a single bottle of old grape juice that you’ve never even tasted before? Actually, 80 bucks can be just a nice starting point, with bottles that can soar up into the hundreds, or even thousands of dollars, especially at the collector level. Why, then, would anyone empty out their wallet for a bottle of this stuff?

Most of the regular folks out there that I know won’t even bother. Forty dollars is about my personal threshold for buying wine unless it’s for some extremely special occasion or person, which is what usually brings us to Bordeaux. Most people who purchase these wines do so because of what I call the wow factor. It is very impressive to open a bottle of wine that costs more than the meal you are eating, but what’s the point, really, unless you know what you’re doing. All too often, someone with good intentions of making their boss or loved one happy makes a horrible error by buying a $50 bottle of vinegar or, much worse, a $100 bottle of mouth puckering bitter tannins. This has the effect of turning the purchaser off to wine forever, and probably causes some embarrassment when served.

Most Bordeaux is red, and often more expensive than white Bordeaux. However, if you like sauvignon blanc, or semillion, both of which are commonly grown in the area, you may enjoy quite a few of the white wines Bordeaux has to offer. Red Bordeaux is typically made up of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot and Malbec (although the latter two are a very small percentage of what is grown). Different grapes add specific qualities to the blend. Merlot is smooth and easy-going, Cabernet Sauvignon is big and bold, and Cabernet Franc tends to be very soft, aromatic, and delicate. It’s important to learn which flavors you personally enjoy and which are not to your liking. The staff at your wine shop should be able to help you select appropriate wines for your interests. In fact, after asking a few specific questions about what you like and enjoy and what purpose the wine is for, many wine shops are all too happy to put together a case collection so you can reap the benefit of their mixed case discount, and head home with twelve new wines to try. Trusting wine merchants can be a wonderful thing, leading to new wines that will fall into your exact wants and desires. However, it’s important to know your wine merchant before trusting them with spending quite a bit of your hard earned cash.

Not looking to start a cellar in your basement? Just need a single bottle for an important dinner date later the same night? If so, there are a few key elements to observe. If you know a little about the varietals mentioned above, then you can try to find out what percentage of each grape is in the wine. This will give you a very rough guide to choosing a Bordeaux wine, but it’s better than nothing. More important than the grapes in the bottle, Bordeaux is heavily dependant upon vintage (year). California, if nothing else, can produce very consistent wine, since the weather doesn’t change much there. Wine is, however, an agricultural product, and like all such products, a bad season of growing means bad crops. For wine, bad crops means either very little wine to go around from a specific vintage, or lots of mediocre or even not very good wine. So, when you need to go for that one shot purchase of impressive Bordeaux, get something from a good recent year, such as 1996, 2000, 2003, or 2005, which were all considered to be great years for red Bordeaux. Even winemakers that produce average to good wines with average grapes were capable of producing phenomenal wines in these years.

This brings us to another topic: phenomenal producers. Honestly, even if they are worth the money charged for them, an $80 or $150 bottle of wine is very expensive. Another rule I have for myself is that I won’t buy anything so expensive that I would be too afraid to drink it. Doing so only results in wasting the wine you paid so much money for in the first place. If you feel comfortable paying for expensive labels like Chateau Latour, Chateaux Margaux, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, or Lafite-Rothschild, then why not go for it and live a little. If the price tag on such a bottle makes you feel ill, then look for wines from the appropriate regions, with grapes that you like, and from a decent year that will probably not disappoint, even if the winemaker isn’t the absolute best. There are many quality Bordeaux available on the market between $20 and $40, sometimes even less. A few good recommendations (many also well-scoring) include the following wines:

Chateau La Grave a Pomerol (from Pomerol)
Chateau Bonnet* (Entre-Deux-Mers)
Chateau Dauzac (Margaux)
Chateau Lamothe-Vincent* (Entre-Deux-Mers)
Chateau Gauthier (Medoc)
Chateau Le Vieux Ormes (Lalande de Pomerol)
Chateau Moulin St. George (St. Emilion)

*Denotes Chateau noted for good white Bordeaux as well as red.

Even though specific knowledge of regions might not be required by a beginner, it’s good to know a few of the names, as not all Bordeaux is actually labeled as Bordeaux. Moreover, many great wines at good values are labeled by region only. Some of the more common regions within Bordeaux include the following: Pomerol, Medoc, Haut-Medoc, Margaux, Pauillac, St. Emilion, St. Estephe, Graves, and Sauternes. Sauternes is of particular import as almost all the wine made there is turned into a very delicious, and quite expensive dessert wine.

So let’s say you are purchasing some Bordeaux for one of a couple of reasons: either you are aiming to leave an impression on someone or you are looking to learn a lot about wine. Regardless of who you are, you will need to know a few wine basics.

First, go to your wine shop. A well-reputed place with lots of regular business is key. When you get there is it warm and comfortable inside? That’s a bad sign, or at least if their wines are on the shelves it is. The first rule of wine is temperature control. If your wine shop doesn’t control the temperature in the shop or at least in their storage area, their wine is likely to have been compromised.

Second, are the shops employees eager to help you and show you around? Good, they should be. They should also seem fairly knowledgeable, or prepared to ask someone else who may know better than themselves. This isn’t just good service. You really want to have someone on hand who can advise you properly, and if they don’t know what they’re talking about, it can seriously affect what should be a pleasurable experience.

The third basic rule is to check the foil. (the little metal part at the top of the wine bottle, which covered the cork in days of yore to keep rats and other delightful denizens of dark cool places from chewing through). Now the foil is just a final decoration, to everyone’s relief. Does the foil twist easily on top of the bottle or is it permanently glued to the glass? If the latter, look elsewhere, as the wine is likely to have been damaged at some point, a little actually leaked out of the cork, and gummed up the foil on top. Some wines come with extremely tight foils (or plastic). Try to take a look at the amount of wine left in the bottle. If it still comes up the neck of the bottle, and ideally under the foil cover, then you may be in good shape.

Having sorted out the basics, let’s revisit the original motives for this visit. If you can’t afford to shell out $600 for a case of wine, or you need it to be drinkable before the next five years have passed, let’s say next Tuesday night, you’re likely best off going for something middle of the road. Those of you interested in learning more about wine will also fall into this category. Probably something in the $25 to $60 range will suit you, and now the next part is all about your own taste. French wine is all intended to go well with food, so if you are looking for an overpowering aroma and flavor of fruit, be it blackberries, strawberries, or currants, well, you can find them here, but they’ll be far more subtle and backed by overtones of earth and herbs, with plenty of acid and tannin as well.

Ultimately, don’t worry about buying the most expensive bottle, as it’s likely to be very tannic, or “young” and not ready for anyone to enjoy anyway. Besides, the difference between the well-respected wines available and those of lesser cost is sometimes just image. Remember that good vintages and modest chateau producing quality wines are the key. There are more than 7,000 wineries in Bordeaux, but don’t be intimidated. Think of it as an opportunity to find the one wine perfect for you.




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