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Sep 24, 2017

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A Little Bordeaux
by Verne Underwood
In the summer of 2016, I traveled to France with my wife, with the intention of learning more about French wines. We'd been to France twice before and drank our share of wine there, but we wanted to visit what to me are the most iconic wine regions in the world: Bordeaux and Burgundy. Being a cab drinker, I assumed Bordeaux would be the better of the two for me, and that Burgundy would be the preferred region for my pinot noir drinking wife. This proved not to be the case.

We started with Bordeaux, taking a "high speed" train down from Paris. I remember being told about the Trains à Grande Vitesse way back in my high school French class, so I was expecting something approaching warp speed. It turns out (I guess) that nowadays all trains are "high speed," because we didn't actually make the jump to hyperspace. It was about as fast as every other train I've ridden in Europe. We did, however, bring a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread and some cheese. You'd think only the American tourists would have come up with this idea, but we sat across from a French couple who'd done the same.

Bordeaux is a large region with some 60 different appelations, or subregions, and 300,000 acres of vineyards, so as you might imagine, we didn't see the whole place. It's divided in half by the Gironde Estuary, with a left bank and right bank. This is a big divide, since the soils on the left bank (the Medoc to the north and the Graves region to the south of the city) are gravelly and favor cabernet, while the right bank soils are more clay and favor merlot. There is, as it happens, twice as much merlot under cultivation in Bordeaux as there is cabernet, so that famous line from Sideways would be lost on the French.
We visited Margaux on the left and St. Emilion on the right, and we drank a lot of wine . . . let me pause for a minute on "a lot." In town, there's a cool wine bar, Bar a Vin, subsidized by the Bordeaux Wine Council, with a long list of wines by the glass, starting at just €2 and ranging to a top end of €8. Most of the wines were €3 and €4 a glass, so about the price of a Starbucks coffee. Vive la France! We were in Bordeaux for six days, during the Euro Cup (which is a whole other story involving some colossally drunk Irishmen), and we managed to get through the entire list. If you ever go there and look at that list, you'll know how impressive a feat this was. To be fair, my wife and I shared every glass, but still. I'd like to say I left my heart in France, but it's probably my liver that never made it back.

The big thing to know about red Bordeaux wines is that they are all a blend of mainly merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Cab franc comes in at a distant third, and malbec and petit verdot a very distant fourth and fifth. Whenever I have a "claret" in the United States, it seems they always try to get all five varietals into the mix. In Bordeaux, this is not the case. What struck me, though, is that it felt all the wines were aiming at more or less the same target: a balanced, elegant blend. At times, this ended up as wine-flavored wine. I like variety, and the differences between the many Bordeaux wines I tasted were too subtle for my palate.

The other big thing to know about Bordeaux is that there is a wide range of quality, and at the top of the heap are the 61 Cru Classe wines, divided into five levels of quality. These 61 Chateaux were singled out way back in 1855 in preparation for the Paris Exposition, and they were, at the time, the 61 most expensive Bordeaux wines. All were red wines, and all but one were in the Medoc region, on the left bank of the Gironde Estuary, so apparently, the wine negociants (merchants) making this important classification couldn't be bothered to cross the river to try some of the right bank wines. Big miss, there.
Here's the other thing: in the 150 years since that original classification, there have been only two changes. One Chateau was added the following year because they forgot to put it on the list, and another (Mouton Rothschild) wheedled its way up a step from a second growth to a first growth, or Premier Cru Chateau, and this was in 1973 (after maybe a hundred years of complaining about that second place finish).  

Over the century and a half since this classification, the vineyards have been replanted, the wineries have changed hands, and, I would venture, the original winemakers have died. And yet, these are still some of the most expensive Bordeaux wines. Imagine if Wilkinson's Sarsparilla and Nerve Tonic was still at the top of your beverage list simply because it was a hit back in 1855.

If you want to try a Mouton Rothschild, a single bottle of their 2016 vintage will cost you nearly $600, and it's on a futures sale, so you'll have to wait a few years for them to ship it, and then you need it to age at least another eight to ten years. So a decade from now, you can open up that $600 bottle and, well, cross your fingers. I'm sorry, but I call bullshit on this whole deal. Then again, I've never tried a Premier Cru Bordeaux, though I do have a fifth growth and third growth Cru Classe sitting in my wine refrigerator right now, and they were both reasonably priced.

So, not to end on a dark note, I would say that Bordeaux is worth a visit, and that most of their wines are very affordable. We bought a bottle of eight-year-old wine at the Chateaux, and it cost us only $16. I think the average wine drinker in France has no tolerance for overpriced wine. However, if you have deeper pockets than I have, maybe saunter into Chateau Mouton Rothschild, lay down your large stack of simoleons, and walk away with a bottle of Amazingness. And, um, give me a call?? 

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