Bordeaux Wine and the Region Defined
If your tastebuds lean towards Cabernet Sauvignon and red blends from California, then Bordeaux should be your first stop on your journey. It so happens that many world-renowned grape varietals originated from this region: Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec (Cots from its original name), Petit-Verdot, Cabernet Franc (indigenous of the Pyrenees Mountains, in Basque country), Merlot, Carmenere, Semillon, Muscadelle, and the most important of all, born from the crossed genes of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, the Cabernet Sauvignon.
The fantastic botanic patrimony aside, the history of wine making found traces back in Roman time, being the Region “avant-garde” that would strive to create process and technique to enhance wines: one excellent example, the Bordeaux mixture (copper sulfate and lime), created in late 1880’s at the University of Bordeaux to prevent Mildiou fungus to appear, is the unique treatment allowed for organic certified winery nowadays. Their style, whether red or white, tends towards blends and attracted the attention of many royalties throughout history. The duchy of Aquitaine, with Bordeaux at its heart, even belonged to the United Kingdom during the 100 Year War. Wine were highly praised, shipped from Saint Emilion by boat and its market reached new heights. Bordeaux was the first region to export their products. While exports were booming, for the French, it remained a former territory of the United Kingdom, which, let’s be honest, were never French Royalties’ besties. Even after France reclaimed the Duchy of Aquitaine (Bordeaux region), it took few centuries for the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon the 3rd, to reposition Bordeaux wines center stage in 1855 at the World Convention of Paris. At this historical fare, the famous ranking of the left bank, Medoc and Graves sub-region, was inaugurated with 4 first Growth Chateau at its peak (later five). If you come across a designated first to fifth growth, Cru bourgeois or Cru Artisan, you picked a left bank and there is a good chance to experience a red blend with Cabernet Sauvignon as its guest star. On the other side of the Gironde estuary, the right bank defined their own ranking system in 1955, reviewed and updated every 10 years. Designations declines into Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classified A, B and Grand Cru classified. In the presence of such remarkable beverage, you will experience the best of what Merlot blend will have to offer. And if you shiver at the sight of the word “Merlot” as a collateral effect of the movie “Sideways”, there is actually a massive inner joke that nobody could pick up on besides wine enthusiast: Miles, Paul Giamatti’s character, curses after Merlot from California while, later on the movie, declares that his favorite wine is Chateau Cheval Blanc, a Saint Emilion Grand Cru classified A (one of the four). This Chateau utilizes 80% Merlot average. Even better, the script originally featured Chateau Petrus instead, from Pomerol (still Right bank but not part of the classification), that produces wine with only 100% Merlot. This fantastic jest, that little to no audience deciphered, lies in the fact that California Merlot were unbalanced while Merlot from Bordeaux are magnificent.
Buying Guide Bordeaux Left Bank: Best Cabernet Sauvignon?
When you step in the city of Bordeaux, you can choose two path to discover the regional left bank wines: the northern “route des vins” that leads you through the Médoc and Haut Médoc villages, and the southern route des Graves that starts with Pessac-Leognan, suburban city of Bordeaux.
When you are looking for the most concentrated Cabernet Sauvignon blend, Pauillac, village in the middle of Haut Medoc, incarnates the rightful core of this style (along with Saint-Julien). It boasts 3 of the 5 first growth wineries from the 1855 classification: Chateau La Tour, Chateau Lafitte-Rotschild, and Chateau Mouton-Rotschild. Their robust style show case Cabernet Sauvignon tannins and body structure. Acquiring wines from these prestigious wineries may not be easy though. You will be facing 3 problems. The first one lies in how the market is set. You won’t be able to buy wines in most of the famous classified wineries as they sell exclusively to negociants (wine broker/merchant). You are left with the only option to find a retail store that carries it. The next problem: almost all first label from said wineries need at least a decade or two to start being enjoyable. The last big issue is related to the price: hard to find even a fifth growth under $50 nowadays, and forget about the hundreds or even thousands of dollars that would cost a first growth. You are left then with the option to go look for value driven wineries further north or south, but it will be challenging to find a full on Cab. Why is that? Why is there less Cabernet Sauvignon on the outskirt of the Region? The northern part of Medoc and the southern part of Graves tends to have more and more Merlot planted. This happens for two reason. First, the terroir is less keen to breed Cabernet Sauvignon. Then, its cost of maintenance is high and its survivability is low (less than 20 years average if you don’t have the human resource nor the money). Why? Because, it’s all about size! The trunk of the Cabernet Sauvignon vine is thinner and the accumulation of scars from multiple pruning over the years prevents the sap to reach the branch. Because of that, many wineries have stopped replanting Cabernet Sauvignon and focus more on Merlot and other red Bordeaux varietals. It is challenging to find a Medoc Cabernet Sauvignon dominant that is made by small vintner. But lucky you, we got you covered with [Chateau Haut Valeyrac, Médoc] and its 80% Cabernet Sauvignon.
If you don’t want heavy tannic structure from Pauillac/Saint Julien and still curious about finding an elegant representation of the left bank, it is time for you to look for a village such as Saint-Estephe and Pessac-Leognan. We were able to find a winery in Pessac-Leognan, close neighbor of Chateau Haut-Bailly, Chateau Carbonnieux and Chateau la Louvière (all classified grand cru Graves since 1959), that transcend the goal of this region by producing sustainable, HVE certified (Haute Valeur Environnementale = High Value Environmental) and family operated: Chateau Haut-Lagrange. These wines tend to be more accessible to drink even younger thanks to a more significant portion of Merlot (45%). Going further South, Graves produces fantastic whites with Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, but also, the most famous dessert wine of all: Sauternes. The Graves produces primarily Semillon and only a small quantity of Sauvignon Blanc. If you desire to find heavy Sauvignon Blanc while keeping it affordable, you just need to cross the river to the East and land into the Village of Saint Macaire. Chateau de Cappes represents one of the few wineries there that produces white in small quantity (300 cases a year) and preserve a traditional method of light elegant Sauvignon Blanc.
Buying Guide Bordeaux Right Bank: The Favorite Wine from “Sideways”, a French Merlot!
As depicted in the [Bordeaux presentation page], “Sideways” jests about Merlot from California being bad while the character’s favorite wine is actually a Merlot from Saint Emilion (Bordeaux, France). Therefore, we have now an even better reason to look into the fantastic Red Blend produced on the Right bank.
In this case, Saint-Emilion village represents the heart of the fantastic Merlot blend right bank. Its classification ranking was created in 1955 (Chateau Cheval Blanc, Grand Cru Classified A, “Sideways” favorite wine) and is updated every 10 years. Although the village is directly connected within the Saint-Emilion Grand Cru terroirs, Pomerol wineries are not included in this ranking system while it host two of the most famous wineries, Chateau Le Pin and Chateau Pétrus (the latter is actually the most expensive wine of Bordeaux). Unfortunately, like its sister left bank, these classified wineries tends to be very expensive and it is an incredible challenge to find value wine. But, don’t fret, challenge accepted! We discovered Chateau Vieux Faurie, Saint Emilion Grand Cru, produced by Sandrine Giraud, who works all by herself on a small parcel, producing 350 cases a year, a 1,000 feet away from Chateau Cheval Blanc itself!
In your hunt for value driven wine, the right bank host many villages that can go toe to toe with many mid-range priced Saint Emilion Grand cru. Looking back in history, you can even discover that many of the vines planted after the Phyloxerra pandemic in late 1860’s originated from: these small villages (Bourg, Castillon, Fronsac, Blaye) and California. The two villages that caught our attention are Castillon and Fronsac.
In Castillon, if you look on the border of Saint Emilion, you may find parcels that are absolutely identical to those from the legendary neighbor, yet a fifth of the price. This is one of our favorite places to find our everyday wine as they can be crafted with a high level of quality and elegance, such as Domaine de la Caresse. On the other hand, Fronsac is THE strong contender of Saint-Emilion, still value driven for the moment but becoming more expensive. As the vines are planted onto the famous peak of Fronsac, its high concentration of limestone gives a fantastic structure that can rival expensive wines of Saint-Emilion in term of body and aging. Chateau Croix de Roche was labelled as one of the top 3 wineries of this village: with their organic farming approach, they don’t release their Fronsac every year as their standards are very high. Another noticeable unique item from this winery, their Cremant Rose, made primarily of Malbec and Merlot, aged in the catacombs of Saint Emilion, deliver an exquisite experience of Champagne style wine from Bordeaux. Other interesting villages known for their excellent value (Côtes de Bourg, Côtes de Franc and Blaye) deserve your investigation as their terroirs resemble the left bank. The only flaw some may argue would be related to the small offer in terms of white Sauvignon Blanc. We can resolve this issue thanks to Chateau des Matards, in Blaye. They benefit from ideal conditions to grow complex, intense and elegant Sauvignon Blanc since they are located on the border of Cognac.