Struggling to Understand Bordeaux

We woke up before dawn to make the long drive to the grandest wine region in the world, Bordeaux.  It turns out we chose the worst day of the year to travel in France, the first weekend in August, and we found ourselves snared in some awful traffic.  Our 7 hour drive turned into 11, and we missed the first morning of tasting in Bordeaux (much to the chagrin of our charismatic Bordeaux wine guide, Bruno).

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Why is Jon smiling?  You’ll have to read to the end to find out!

I think Susan captures our tasting in Bordeaux  with Bruno well:

Bruno was an interesting character. He had a degree in viniculture, but found that the degree qualified him to work in a lab, which was boring, but not in the real world. He then got a degree in business and did many things – ran a wine-tasting school, assisted with futures tastings and now is doing wine tours. Bruno knew everything about wine in Bordeaux. From Bruno I learned some interesting history.

France had been the predominant wine producer for centuries. There were many chateaus that had been in the same family for generations. Later generations didn’t want to be bothered with making wine, so they lived in Paris, hired people to run their vineyards, and siphoned off the profits. Then, out of nowhere, other countries began to produce great wine – the US, Australia, Argentina, Chile, etc. The families who ran the vineyards in France couldn’t afford to modernize to compete, so a lot of them ended up selling their vineyards to insurance companies and other corporations.  And by the way, in all these discussions about wines in France, no one ever mentions Germany. I don’t know why, and I always forget to ask.

In Bordeaux we stayed in a beautiful apartment Evan found for us and Bruno came every morning to pick us up for our day of wine. Again we went to two vineyards in the morning and two or three after lunch. Again we went to a wide range of producers – the first visit [Château Soutard] was to a huge vineyard owned by an insurance company. That silly place had a giant glass elevator to take us from the upper level to the tasting room, which had a circular tasting table with an illuminated white glass top, like what you would see in a photographer’s studio, so we could look at the color of the wine. Although they spared no expense on the location of our wine tour, it didn’t show in the wine, which was nothing to write home about.

While guiding us through the wine regions, Bruno kept his hands occupied snapping pictures of us and smoking endless cigarettes.  Tobacco doesn’t seem to affect his tasting abilities, as he has consistently qualified to evaluate Bordeaux futures.  The qualification test involves correct identification of smells with only small drops of essential oil added to a glass of wine and has a low qualification rate.

But lucky for Bruno, just like in Burgundy, growing up drinking Bordeaux makes most locals an expert.  Sometimes this also makes them a relative novice with regard to wines grown elsewhere.  For Kate and I, reliance on new oak made the young wines served at these wineries difficult to interpret, sort of like trying to choose a new perfume in a lumber yard…you can tell they’re good but you are constantly distracted by the overwhelming tannins.

The better versions of these wines are designed for consumption 10 to 30 years after they are bottled.  At this point the tannins have mellowed and fully integrated into the wine but before this, tasting the wines just isn’t that pleasurable.  This makes the huge local tourist industry really confusing to me.  For good second growth Bordeaux, you’ll pay over $100 a bottle and then have to wait at least 15 years before the tannins begin to soften.  Even then, unless you’re used to high tannins, to fully appreciate the depth and complexity of these fabulous wines you’ll need to let it breathe for 45 minutes or pair it with a juicy steak.

We got to taste many wines from the outstanding 2009 and 2010 vintages.  Our conclusion was that the people buying these wines either:

  • Had grown up there and were truly able to envision how these wines would age over twenty years
  • Were feeding their egos by tasting and buying the most expensive wines in the world
  • Had their taste buds blown out and lost the ability to taste the subtle flavors in wine that we loved from Jura wines

That being said, to truly appreciate the incredible depth of the wines from Bordeaux, you have to immerse yourself.  You could almost compare it to learning a new language.  A year later, I think I’m starting to get it but it took an epiphany the last night to really understand.  More on that later.

With regard to how Bordeaux is split up, here are the cliff notes:

  • Bordeaux is split by the Gironde Estuary and has over 10,000 wine producing chateaux. As a point of references, that’s more than all of the Unites States.
  • The left side (“Left Bank”) contains the Medoc and Graves regions and a number of sub-regions, notably Pauillac, St. Julien, Sauternes and Margaux. The blends there are mostly dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon.
  • The right side (“Right Bank”) is contains the Libournais and Bourg and Blaye regions and several sub-regions, notably Pomerol and Saint-Emillion. The blends there are mostly dominated by Merlot.
  • The classification system is meant to indicate the quality of a Chateau producing the wine but it really couldn’t be more confusing if Napoleon tried (he was the one who commissioned it). For simplicity purposes, 1st growth Bordeaux are considered the best.  They are Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Margaux, Château Latour Médoc, Château Haut-Brion Pessac-Leognan, Château Mouton-Rothschild.

Day 1: Saint Emilion (right bank = merlot)

2.00 pm: visit and tasting at Château Soutard, Classed Growth of Saint-Emilion

Susan has a very accurate description of this place above.

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4.00 pm: visit and tasting at Château Beausejour Becot, 1st Classed Growth of Saint-Emilion

This winery has a controversial background as they were “demoted” in class after informally incorporating two vineyards into their estate in 1985.  They were able to prove that there had been no loss in quality and their previous classification was re-instated in 1996.

Day 2: Graves (the only region that produces sweet wines in the Sautern subregion)

9.30 am: visit and tasting at Château Bardins in Pessac-Léognan

This small and charming family run Château sold aged Bordeaux at a reasonable price, so we agreed to buy a couple cases for the wine club.  Unfortunately, they decided against registering with the FDA so we were not able to import their wines.  Frustrating…

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1.00 am: visit and tasting at Château La Louviere in Pessac-Léognan

Château La Louvière has 48 hectares planted to red grape varieties (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon) and 13.5 hectares planted to white grape varieties (mostly Sauvignon blanc).  Both red wine and a white wines are vinified 12 months in oak barrels, of which about half is new.

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2.30 pm: visit and tasting at Château Chantegrive in Graves

This is one of the largest wineries in the region and produces a significant array of different wines.  It was nice because some of the wines that we tasted were actually ready to drink.

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Ever wonder why the barrels are red in the middle?  It’s to hide spills when the winemakers go to taste the wine from the barrel.

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4.00 pm: visit and tasting at Château Coutet, 1st Classed Growth of Barsac

This Château is a stone’s throw from Château d’Yquem and shares the exact soil and grapes.  They produce very high quality Sauterne’s at a decent price, so we picked up a bottle to age for 30 years.

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Susan’s take:

For me the most memorable part of what we did with Bruno was our visit to Sauterne. I had no idea how sweet dessert wines are made in France. They let the grapes rot on the vine – they actually encourage the growth of a particular type of bacteria, which dehydrates the grape and eventually adds sugar to it. The grapes have to be picked individually – just the right amount of rot has to be present in order for them to be ready. Of course, although they are the most disgusting of the grapes used in wine making, to me the wine also tastes the best. Go figure. It always amazes me when I hear stories like this – who discovered that rotting grapes make the best wine? Although there are many legends, no one really knows.

Day 3: Médoc

9.30 am: visit and tasting at Château de Malleret in Haut-Médoc

11.00 am: visit and tasting at Château Lascombes, 2nd Classed Growth of Margaux

The vineyard area comprises 84 hectares with a near even split of Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.  For most vintages, the composition of the Grand vin is 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot. Château Lascombes is usually rich and full bodied with a concentration of ripe fruit and underlying aromas of cedar.

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2.30 pm: visit and tasting at Château Branaire Ducru, 4th Classed Growth of Saint-Julien

The Cabernet Sauvignon based wines made at this chateau are made with a gravity-flow style winery to minimize damage to the grapes as they are processed.

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4.00 pm: visit and tasting at Château Pichon Longueville Baron, 2nd Classed Growth of Pauillac

This was the most famous Chateau that we visited in Bordeaux as it consistently receives very high critical reviews.  This was one of Jon’s favourite wineries, so needless to say he was excited.

It turned out that a wine writer had toured the domain that afternoon and they had a couple extra bottles open for our tasting.  So, we were able to taste two wines from their second label and three wines from their trademark wine – 2004, 2009 and 2010.  When tasting wine is an extravagant setting such as this one, it is hard not to be influence by the environment.  I tried as to savor each taste and was impressed by the length and complexity of their wines even though the tannins were still challenging to overcome.

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Jon was a happy camper at the end.  In fact, he was so happy that he opened up a special bottle that he brought along with him from Alaska that evening, a Pichon Longueville Baron from 1986.  Susan was wined out at that point and Kate was tired from a long day, so I stayed up and enjoyed this wine over the course of a couple of hours and just marveled as it evolved in the glass.  The number of things that I tasted in the two glasses that I had are difficult to describe fully but “just perfect” is what kept coming to mind.  The tannins were silky and completely integrated into a full bouquet of fruit with about five separate phases over the course of a couple minutes.  With each magical sip I discovered something new…as if my brain was trying to decipher the complex organic molecules in my mouth.  The best way I can describe this was that my struggle to understand this wine took me on a beautiful journey with every sip.

The frustration that I felt tasting young Bordeaux melted away as I realized that this is how it is meant to be enjoyed: when it is ready and not a moment before.  The search is worth it…and I think I’ll be chasing that “right” moment for a long time.

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