Bordeaux-the word alone fires the mind with the anticipation of
greatness. No other wine region is more powerful, more commercially
clever, or more important as a source of profoundly complex, ageworthy
wines. The challenge is to comprehend it all, for Bordeaux is the
largest fine-wine vineyard on the globe. This single region covers
more territory than all of the vineyard areas of Germany put together
and is ten times larger than the vineyard acreage of New Zealand.
In Bordeaux some 15,000 growers and dozens of top-class estates-plus
thousands more of lesser standing-produce a daunting 700 million
bottles of wine every year, including many of the priciest wines
in the world.
Just about halfway between the North Pole and the equator, Bordeaux
lies along the path of three important rivers-the mighty Gironde,
plus the two rivers that feed it, the Dordogne and the Garonne.
To the immediate west is the Atlantic Ocean, and everywhere the
region is crisscrossed by small streams. As we shall see, all of
this water plays a critical role in shaping this region and ultimately
the wines it produces.
Both literally and psychologically, Bordeaux is a red-wine region.
More than 80 percent of the wine made is red. Five red grapes are
used and they are almost always blended together. The two most important
grapes are merlot and cabernet sauvignon. The range of red Bordeaux
is astounding. At the most basic level there are scores of utterly
simple Bordeaux, such as Mouton Cadet, one of the most well-known
wine brands in the world, even if it is pretty innocuous.
At the most rarefied level, however, the famous Bordeaux we all
hear about can be the apotheosis of refinement.
Monumental wines, of course, do not happen everywhere. Given the
vast and variable climatic and geologic forces that must come together
to make a wine what it is, why is it that so many Bordeaux are considered
great? When you ask Bordelais winemakers that question, chances
are they will answer with a single word: terroir. The most renowned
Bordeaux wines-wines such as Château Latour, Château
Margaux, Château Pétrus, Château Cheval Blanc,
Château Haut-Brion, and so on-are said to be wines of terroir,
that is, they derive their characters from singular plots of land.
In addition, such wines are usually made with state-of-the-art equipment,
the latest technology, and new oak barrels each year.
Bordeaux's famous wines represent just a small fraction of all of
the Bordeaux produced. Most Bordeaux wines are not wines of terroir
nor are they made by ultraexpensive means. Rather, the vast majority
are modest dinner wines. Wines labeled simply Bordeaux or Bordeaux
Supérieur fall into this category. Still, when most of us
think about Bordeaux, we are in fact imagining those wines at the
top, the cream of the crop. The complexity of these Bordeaux is
often what most amazes wine drinkers. To an almost mesmerizing degree,
a first-rate Bordeaux lures you back over and over again, each time
revealing something new. This phenomenon has, over centuries, established
the very best Bordeaux as among the most prized wines in the world.
The Land, the Grapes, and the Vineyards
As I've said, Bordeaux's vineyards are all in close proximity to
large bodies of water. In addition to the three major rivers that
dominate the region, the huge Gironde plus the two smaller but still
substantial rivers, the Dordogne and Garonne, the Atlantic Ocean
itself is only a one hour drive away. These nearby waterways are
partially responsible for Bordeaux's early success. As of the thirteenth
and fourteenth centuries, barges would dock along the wharves of
the Gironde, ever ready to ferry wine to and fro between merchants
and ultimately to ships headed for England. This, at a time when
most other wine regions in France were relatively unknown beyond
their own borders.
Most important, the rivers and adjacent sea (warmed by the Gulf
Stream) act to temper the region's climate, thereby providing the
vineyards with a milder and more stable environment than would otherwise
be the case. In addition, Bordeaux is edged on the south and west
by vast pine forests that also help to shield the region from extreme
weather. Were it not for the maritime climate and the presence of
these forests, Bordeaux's vineyards would be at even greater risk
of damage by severe cold snaps, potentially devastating frosts,
and/or summer storms.
The name Bordeaux derives from au bord de l'eau, meaning along the
Sometimes, of course, the proximity to water and the protection
afforded by forests isn't enough. In April of 1991 Bordeaux was
whipped by a terrible frost that left the vineyards bedraggled and
dotted with frostbitten bald spots a quarter mile wide. In some
areas 80 percent of the grapes were destroyed. In a year like this
the quantity of Bordeaux can plummet, though the quality-surprisingly
enough-may still be good. It all depends on the character of the
growing season as a whole plus, of course, the skill of the winemaker.
Many of the vineyards of Bordeaux-and especially of the Médoc,
including Margaux, Pauillac, St.-Emilion, and St.-Estèphe-appear
quite flat. And they are, if one compares them to, say, the steeply
sloped vineyards of the northern Rhône, those of northern
Portugal, or most precipitous of all, the vineyards of Germany's
Mosel region. The vineyards of the Médoc are spread over
gentle hillocks. In Pomerol and St.-Emilion these hills sometimes
rise and fall a bit more. The variations in topography, combined
with the specific composition of the soil, create multiple drainage
patterns. And drainage is key. The best vineyards tend to be on
well-drained soil of gravel and stone. In the Médoc these
deep gravel beds are frequently near the Gironde River. An old Bordeaux
saying has it that the best vineyards "can see the river,"
and not surprisingly, if you stand in the middle of the vines at
Château Latour, at Château Pichon
Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, or at many of the other top estates,
you can indeed watch the boats moving up and down the Gironde.
It was precisely such gravelly soil that gave Graves its name. Graves
(pronounced grahv), one of the important subregions within Bordeaux,
produces wines that at their pinnacle evoke the subtle aroma and
flavor of the gravel and stones from which they come. If the gods
had been generous, every square inch of Bordeaux would have been
gravel and stone. Unfortunately they were not, and it is not. The
soil of many vineyards includes clay. Since water drains poorly
from clay, this is usually not ideal. But, as we know, in the world
of wine, no one factor can be considered out of relationship to
all others. A good slope can even generally im-prove the drainage
of a clay-based vineyard.
By law, red Bordeaux wines must be made from one or more of five
red grapes: merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot,
and malbec. Merlot, the most widely planted of these, is often described
in Bordeaux as fleshy and round. Cabernet sauvignon, by comparison,
is frequently credited with giving red Bordeaux its structure. Structure,
which can be thought of as the architecture or framework of the
wine, comes principally from tannin, and tannin is something cabernet
sauvignon has in spades. Tannin also acts as a preservative in wine,
which is why so many top Bordeaux can be aged for such long periods
of time. Together, merlot and cabernet sauvignon make up the lion's
share of most red Bordeaux.
Cabernet franc, petit verdot, and malbec all play a much smaller
role. In a Bordeaux blend they are the seasonings. Of the three,
cabernet franc is the most well regarded for the enticing violet
aroma it can contribute.
For white Bordeaux wines, four grapes are permitted: sémillon,
sauvignon blanc, muscadelle, and ugni blanc. Sémillon, considered
the soul of white Bordeaux, is the most widely planted. With age,
sémillon takes on a wonderful honey flavor and a creamy,
almost lanolinlike texture.
Sémillon is typically blended with sauvignon blanc, a wine
that is its complete opposite. While sémillon is usually
creamy, sauvignon blanc virtually vibrates with zesty acidity. The
root of the word sauvignon is sauvage (wild, as in wild vigorous
growth). Even the flavor of sauvignon blanc can seem untamed, with
a wild herb tilt to it. Only a few top white Bordeaux are exclusively
sauvignon blanc, notably Pavillon Blanc from Château Margaux.
As for muscadelle and
ugni blanc, the first provides floral hints; the latter is pretty
neutral and used almost exclusively in very inexpensive white Bordeaux.
Over generations, these nine grapes have not only proved themselves
well suited to Bordeaux's climate but they also have been found
to enhance one another when blended (not all grapes do). The fact
that nine grape varieties are planted in Bordeaux makes the practice
and philosophy of winemaking extremely different from that in Burgundy,
Bordeaux's northern neighbor and rival, where there is just one
leading red grape, pinot noir, and one white, chardonnay. For the
Bordelais winemaker blending is critical; it is one of the methods
by which complexity in wine is achieved.
The grapes of Bordeaux were not arrived at solely because they create
good flavor synergy, however. Equally important was the fact that
they ripen at different times. In Bordeaux's rain- and frost-prone
climate, planting several grape varieties was one of the ways growers
could minimize the risk of losing entire crops to bad weather. According
to the English wine writer David Peppercorn in his comprehensive
book Bordeaux, the process of matching grape to ground occurred
most rapidly during the last two centuries. As of 1784 thirty-four
red varieties and twenty-nine white varieties could still be found
in parts of St.-Emilion and Pomerol.
In the last decades of the twentieth century, winemaking changed
considerably in Bordeaux. For white wine, the changes were monumental.
Great white wine, more fragile and less structured than red, is
extremely sensitive to every element of its creation: the precise
moment of the harvest, the conditions under which the grapes are
picked, the length of time the juice is in contact with the skins,
the temperature at which the wine is fermented, and crucially, whether
or not the wine is fermented and/or aged in small oak barrels. In
despread changes in these methods have resulted in fresher, creamier,
richer, more deeply flavored white wines.
As far as red winemaking is concerned, Bordeaux is a mecca of sophistication.
From the mid-1970s onward, repeated advances led to wines that are
less harshly tannic, easier to drink at a younger age, and yet still
capable of aging.
One of the most important advances was a new understanding of what
it meant for a grape to be ripe. In the past in Bordeaux (and everywhere
else in the world) grapes were picked when the sugars in them reached
a certain density. By the 1980s, however, all of the top Bordeaux
estates had begun to pick based not just on sugar ripeness but on
a new concept called tannin ripeness. Although the ripeness of tannin
is difficult to quantify scientifically, winemakers can, by repeatedly
tasting the grapes, sense when the tannin in them is mature and
when it is immature, or "green." Since a wine with green
tannin usually tastes bitter and hard edged (even after aging),
the new focus on ripeness of tannin was pivotal. It has, in short,
led to more supple-tasting wines that additionally seem to age more
smoothly. Bordeaux was also the first wine region to implement advanced-and
often controversial-techniques for concentrating a wine's flavor,
body, and, in the case of sweet wines, sweetness. Among these techniques
is one called reverse osmosis, an expensive process used by the
very top châteaux for red wine. Essentially the wine is passed
under pressure through a membrane that separates water molecules
from alcohol. By then removing some of the water, a more densely
concentrated wine can be made. Depending on who you talk to, altering
the concentration and body of a wine by removing water from it is
either cheating or a smart business practice. If nothing else, using
reverse osmosis would seem inconsistent with the philosophy that
terroir makes the wine. The châteaux owners who use the technique,
however, defend it, maintaining that the end (denser wine) justifies
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