Editor’s Note: While Carl is out recovering from a surgery to repair an aortic dissection we’ve asked some of his good friends to fill in with their wise words on wine in his absence. Today’s blog is from guest blogger Tom Welsh, general manager and partner at Tapastrie restaurant in downtown South Bend, Indiana. Thank you Tom!
Bordeaux is a revered and legendary wine producing region but its wines are sometimes misunderstood and therefore are intimidating to many. But it need not be with some basic information. The confusion starts because like most other French (and for that matter, most other European wine regions), the wines are named for their producer and/or regions and sub-regions rather than grapes. However, for the most part Bordeaux wines are made from grape varieties with which we are all familiar.
Red Bordeaux wines are made from five grape varieties in the following order of predominance: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carménère. But Carménère is now grown in very small quantities in Bordeaux and barely plays a role any more. While common grape varieties are in play, the average Bordeaux wine has a very different flavor profile than we commonly associate with Cabernet- and Merlot-based wines in the U.S. This is mostly due to a cooler and shorter growing season, which produces wines with lower alcohol content and more rustic, earthy flavors and aromas.
The heart of Bordeaux is the land along either side of the Gironde estuary and its tributaries, the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, in the west-central part of France. The best known, highest regarded and usually the most expensive wines come from the west banks of the estuary, commonly referred to as “Left Bank” wines and to the southeast, on the eastern side of the Dordogne, known as “Right Bank” wines. Left Bank wines are predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon blended with Merlot and often also smaller percentages of the other three varieties. Right Bank wines are predominantly Merlot, blended with Cabernet Franc and often small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, with the other wines sometimes playing a minor role.
The Left Bank is divided into two major areas: Graves in the south and Medoc in the north. You will see regional bottlings with these names and they will contain grapes sourced from all over the area and will usually be of average to above average quality. Of course that is not complicated enough, so these are broken down into many small sub-regions based on unique characteristics of terroir (climate, soil composition, etc.), the best known of which include, Pauillac, Margaux, Saint-Estèphe, Saint-Julien and Haut-Médoc. The best of these wines are known for their ability to age and evolve for decades and continually appreciate in value, especially when produced in great vintage years.
The Right Bank, known as the Libournais, has these sub-regions of note: Saint-Émilion, Pomerol and Fronsac. Bordering the Libournais are many satellite regions which produce Merlot-based wines of good quality at a much better value for price than the better known sub-regions. These include, Côtes de Castillon (now called Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux), Côtes-de-Blaye and Côtes de Bourg, as well as three Saint-Émilion satellites: Puisseguin, Montagne and Saint-Georges.
You will find less expensive yet, but still very enjoyable wines, labeled Cru Bourgeois, Bordeaux Supérieur and the more generic, Vins de Bordeaux.
While Bordeaux is mainly associated with red wine, the region produces delicious white wines as well. Most of these come from a region between the two rivers known as Entre-Deux-Mers (literally, between two seas). Generally, the highest quality whites are produced further north in Graves. White Bordeaux wines are made almost exclusively from Sémillon and Savignon Blanc, with small amounts of Muscadelle, Savignon Gris, Merlot Blanc and Mauzac grown as well.
The southernmost part of Bordeaux is home to the regions of Sauternes and Barsac, known for sweet white wines. These are unique as they depend on the fungus botrytis cinerea, known as “noble rot,” which leeches the water from the grapes, concentrating the natural sugars for a rich, honey and mineral-flavored dessert wine.
In the U.S., especially California, winemakers have made Bordeaux blends since the beginning. According to law however, a wine can only be named for a grape variety if it contains a minimum of 75% of that grape. Thus if a fantastic wine contained 60% Cabernet, 25% Merlot and smaller percentages of the other Bordeaux varieties, the only thing they were allowed to call it was Red Table Wine. Naturally this inhibited sales of otherwise high quality wines. In 1988 a group of American vintners formed the Meritage Alliance to distinguish and promote the Bordeaux blend wines they had been making. A Meritage (rhymes with heritage) wine must contain three or more of the five principle Bordeaux grapes. However, as blended wines have become more popular in recent years, fewer producers are using the term.
Many of these wines are still made in the California style, with bolder fruit and higher alcohol, but some strive to emulate the Bordeaux style, notably (though they were not called Meritage) the Tiedemann Signature Series Reds of 2008 and 2009. These are superb wines of different profiles, with the 2008 being soft and elegant, more in the Right Bank tradition and the 2009, more earthy and tannic, resembling the Left Bank style. I feel lucky to have been exposed to these. And for the record, the 2010, while not a blend of entirely Bordeaux varieties (it includes Tempranillo), still has the character of a Bordeaux and is equally delicious. Thanks Carl!
Thank you for taking time to read this post. I know everyone joins me in wishing Carl another speedy recovery and that this will be the last recovery!
Calendar of Events
- March 3rd – National Mulled Wine Day
- April 17th – International Malbec Day
- May 4th – International Sauvignon Blanc Day
- May 9th – National Moscato Day
- May 21st – National Chardonnay Day
- May 25th – National Wine Day
- June 11th – National Rosé Wine Day