Fine Wine GUIDE

Guide to Bordeaux

Written by Aksel Ritenis

Bordeaux for Connoisseurs

*Copyright Aksel Ritenis

Connoisseur Magazine Editor Axel Ritenis has a passion for Bordeaux that started in Australia as a Sydney retailer with the discovery of Ch. Lascombe and Latour, a revelation! He has made numerous trips to Bordeaux and regions over 30 years, attended VINEXPO on 4 separate occasions, been a guest at many Chateaux dinners and Tastings, attended many Bordeaux tastings in London whilst Connoisseur editor, and has visited all the major wine regions of France as well as many of the main chateaux in Bordeaux. As a wine educator and Bordeaux wine Importer and merchant in the Baltics (as the local Baron Philippe de Rothschild agent) he educated the Hoteliers and restauranteurs about Bordeaux wines and also had the “dubious honour” of consulting some of the Top Oligarchs on establishing their Bordeaux Collections. He authored the first Latvian language Wine Book, launched a wine and Food magazine Vins+Gastro as well as the first Restaurant Guide and spent many years educating sommeliers and restauranteurs on wine service and wine culture. He continues to visit many of the wineries of the Bordaux region keeping abreast of the latest developments. Axel is a seasoned wine educator and is offering Bordeaux Wine tours in 2014 as part of the Connoisseur Magazine Events and Tours Programme!

 The Bordeaux region is located in south east of France and it is the largest region of winemaking in the world. It is as large (100 000 ha) as all the vineyards of Germany together. Four of five Bordeaux wine bottles are filled with red wine. There are about thirteen thousand wineries located here and mainly red wines (a little also white, sparkling and rose wines) are made in them.

Red Bordeaux has been known as Claret wine in the English world since the times when the Bordeaux region was under British rule.

In those times this region was known as Aquitaine and Claret wine was brought to England for British aristocrats to have it with roast beef or mutton roast.

Bordeaux is not only the largest, but also one of the most beautiful winemaking regions in the world. The unique microclimate is stabilised by the Dordogne River.

It has always been one of the most popular wines not only in England, but also elsewhere in the world. One of the reasons is the fact that it can be cellars for a very long time. It is the first classical wine that has been started to imitate in other countries. Wines of this style are also amongst the most produced in the world.

High-quality Bordeaux wines are considered to have a “noble” or refined taste and flavour, although this moment has to be awaited for perhaps a decade or more allowing the wine to fully mature and develop complexity and secondary flavour characteristics. The red Bordeaux is always made of a blend of different grapes or “cepages”– namely Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, however most wines are comprised mainly of Cabernet and Merlot, depending on whether they are grown in Medoc on the left bank or Pommerol and St Emillion on the right bank.

Of course, the taste and flavour characteristics of Bordeaux wines are quite different in such a large region. Wines that are produced in Pomerol differ from Médoc wines. The blend or mixture of Pomerol wines, Merlot is dominant (it gives a plumier bouquet), but Médoc wine is more tannic and has a different structure as the dominant variety is Cabernet Sauvignon although it is softened with merlot. The higher the quality is, the more complex and refined are the flavour and bouquet (or aroma.)

The quality of grapes, the choice of the grape species (cepage), the winemaker’s skills and the oak barrels it is matured in and the period of maturation are the main factors in defining the quality and style of Bordeaux wines.

The most characteristic aromas are of blackcurrants and cedar; Many wines may be redolent of non-specific blackberry fruits , their colour is very deep red, changing from ruby to a reddish brown nuance when the wine matures. The bouquet of a qualitative Bordeaux red wine is characterised by the aroma of blackberries (cassis) and vanilla, because the wine is matured in oak barrels either French or American.

An explicit acidity prevails in the taste of such wine, and it is balanced with the presence of fruit flavours and tannins.

The typical aromas of the bouquet are blackberries, green pepper, dark chocolate, tobacco, peppermint, minerals, olives, cloves, and vanilla. The aroma of a matured wine appears more harmonious and more elegant and sometimes secondary nuances of chocolate, tobacco, coffee aromas begin to dominate. It is a pleasurable challenge for the connoisseur to identify these kind of mystic nuances.

High-quality Bordeaux red wines have a very complex structure and an endlessly rich palette of the aroma.

The stony soil of Bordeaux and Graves is considered to be particularly appropriate for growing grapes. The French particularly emphasize Les Terroire or the importance of the soil and microclimate in producing good wines.

The Main Bordeaux Red Wines

The basis of Bordeaux success is the red wine of the table. The smallest part of Bordeaux wines come from the most prestigious wineries, located in the region of Médoc – Margaux, St.-Julien, Pouillac and St.-Estèphe, Graves, Pomerol and St.-Emilion. This kind of wine is expensive, but its quality should not be doubted. The greatest part of Bordeaux wines is commercial wines that are medium cheap and that is used by the world consumers in great numbers.

Wines of Médoc region usually contain 40 % – 85 % of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Graves appellation (grapes are grown in a very stony soil) is famous for dry and white wines; however, here also a good red wine with a typical taste of soil is produced.

St.-Estèphe wines stand out with their velvety structure. They are easy drinkable. They mature faster than other Bordeaux wines, because they contain more Merlot. This style of wine has a greater acidity than Pauillac. The most famous châteaux are Ch. Cos d’Estournel, Ch. Calon-Ségur, Ch. Beau-Site.

A classical Pauillac wine most likely embodies exactly what most of people expect from a Bordeaux wine – a rich bouquet of blackberries and cedar, middle or complete consistence and a full-bodied aroma. Cabernet Sauvignon grapes prevail in this mixture. This wine is considered to be one of the most elegant Bordeaux wines. The most famous châteaux are Ch. Latour, Ch. Mouton-Rothschield, Ch. Lafite-Rothschield, Ch. Pichon-Longueville.

St.-Juliens wines very often are not distinguishable from the ones produced in Pauillac. St.-Juliens wines are full-bodied with a rich aroma of blackberries, cedar and piquancy. The most famous châteaux are Ch. Léoville-Barton, Ch. Lagrange, Ch. Talbot.

Margaux are the softest wines of Médoc, however in the most outstanding vintage years (with the aroma of flowers and berries in the bouquet, supplemented by the aroma of oak) they are probably the most enticing. On average, this type of wine is of a higher quality than any other Médoc wine. The most famous châteaux are Ch. Margaux, Ch. Rausan-Ségla, Ch. Palmer.

St. Emilion wines are very different, but it can be said that most of them are softer and more perfect than Médoc wines. They mature faster, because they contain much Merlot. However, they are not so juicy and strong as Pomerol wines. St. Emilion wines have a peculiar plumy taste, because they contain much Merlot. More Merlot in wine mixtures is used only in Pomerol. The most famous châteaux are Ch. Cheval Blanc, Ch. Figeac, Ch. Trottevieille.

The stunning wine region of Saint-Emilion is a classified UNESCO World Heritage Site. Rolling hills, bucolic countryside, historic Châteaux and ancient monuments all neighbour vines that make wines of finesse and character. It is truly a region where culture and wine go hand-in-hand.

Saint-Emilion lies on the Right Bank of the Gironde River and produces more wines than its Right Bank appellation counterparts. The main cultivated grape varietals here are Merlot and Cabernet Franc (known locally as Bouchet). Merlot accounts for over sixty percent of planted vines because it lends itself so well to the terroir of the region. The excellent soil here ranges from limestone, clay and gravel, many vines grow on slopes and hillsides (referred to by the French as Côtes). All things combined, the wine styles of Saint-Emilion are diverse and range from supple, rounded and generous with enticing aromatics of red fruits and plums or can be fuller bodied with the structure and complexity to age well.

Saint-Emilion’s Unique Classification System
Saint-Emilion also has its own specific classification system. The highest standard is the Premier Grand Cru Classé, the second level is known as Grand Cru Classé. There is also a separate AC known as Grand Cru — a higher percentage of Châteaux fall under this category.

Satellite Appellations: Value and Good Taste
Small satellite appellations along the Right Bank are the up-and-coming areas of production. Satellites: Saint-Georges-Saint-Emilion, Montagne-Saint-Emilion, Lussac-Saint-Emilion and Puisseguin-Saint-Emilion, all offer exceptional value in the $10-$25 dollar retail price range, with wines that are rounded, easy-to-drink and do not require aging.

Saint-Emilion: The Basics

  • Red wines that are Merlot and Cabernet Franc driven
  • Ready-to-drink wines
  • Good introductory wine to Right Bank Bordeaux
  • Softy, plummy flavours work well with all sorts of foods, including ethnic, Asian cuisines.
  • Supple tannins also work without food, as by the glass wine pours for instance.
  • Produce wines that are more fruit forward and less tannic, good for those that do not like “big” wines
  • Crowd pleasing wines
  • Perfect for classic American dishes over the holiday season

For reds, Left and Right Bank producers agree that the 2005 vintage will produce magnificent, rounded wines with the classic hallmarks of Bordeaux. Merlot and Malbec gave smaller than average berry-size, while reaching optimum brix levels. The later-developing varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc profited from dry conditions and achieved full physiological ripeness. They exhibit the rare balance between sugar, tannin, and flavour, ultimately expressing the typicity of Bordeaux.

As for the whites, it has been a noteworthy year for Sauvignon Blanc, after the final two weeks of sunny August days played a key role in developing beautiful aromatics, balanced maturity, acidity, and freshness.

Semillon grapes destined for dessert wines developed noble rot under ideal conditions and produced berries with honeyed and candied citrus notes.

We hope you are as excited as we are about this year’s vintage!

Pomerol wines are very often called Bordeaux burgundies because they are rich, juicy, homogeneous and with the aroma of exotic herbs and spices. The highest quality wines are very easy to mature, but more daily wines are ready for usage already in two or three years. Pomerol wines certainly attract hedonists with their immensely rich aroma of blackberries, plums, cherries, sometimes also of dewberries. The most famous châteaux are Ch. Petrus, Ch. Lafleur, Ch. Le Pin.

Peculiarly beautiful, historic St.-Emilion village is one of the most famous winemaking centres in the world.

Classification of the Most Prominent Wineries (château) of Bordeaux Region, Accepted in 1855

Wineries of Category I and II

All in all the wineries are grouped into 5 categories (I – the highest).

In many wineries (marked with *) the quality of wine is constantly of equal worth as the first category.

Commune Appelation / Commune Apellation

Premiers Crus

Château Lafite-Rothschild Pauillac Pauillac Château Haut-Brion Pessac Graves

Château Margaux Margaux Margaux Château Mouton-Rothschild Pauillac Pauillac

Château Latour Pauillac Pauillac

Deuxièmes Crus

Château Rausan-Ségla Margaux Margaux Château Pichon-Longueville Pauillac Margaux

Château Léoville-Las-Cases* St-Julien St-Julien (Baron)*

Château Léoville-Poyferré St-Julien St-Julien Château Pichon-Longueville Pauillac Pauillac

Château Léoville Barton* St-Julien St-Julien Comtesse de Lalande*

Château Durfort-Vivens Margaux Margaux Château Ducru-Beaucaillon St-Julien St-Julien

Château Gruaud-Larose* St-Julien St-Julien Château Cos d’Estournel* St-Estèphe St-Estèphe

Château Lascombes* Margaux Margaux Château Montrose St-Estèphe St-Estèphe

Less Known Bordeaux Wines

Great majority of these wines gain success in France, however they have not been able to gain customers’ affinity. It is explained by the obsession with luxus names and names of prestigious wineries in the West. However, an expert will be able to notice excellent wines among the productions of less known wineries. Especially the high quality wines of 1982, 1985, 1989, and 1990 that have been obtained in good climate conditions using a modern technology. They are excellent wines with acceptable prices and it is not inessential. Fronsac, Canon-Fronsac located to the west from Pomerol should be mentioned. Here a sufficiently qualitative wine with prevalence of Merlot grapes is made. Similar wines are produced in Lalande de Pomerol, but in the north of Bordeaux quite significant districts Côte de Bourg and Blaye are located. The red wine is made mainly of Cabernet and Merlot there. It is believed that these wines mature faster than other wines of Bordeaux appellation. These less known wines, not bearing the name of Bordeaux, are much cheaper, but their quality is very close to the one of Bordeaux.

In this region the best and the most expensive dessert wine of Sémillon and Sauvignon grapes (influenced by botrytis cinerea) are produced e.g. Château d’Yquem of Sauternes

White Wines

White wine is produced in great numbers in the region between Graves and Libourne, but very often it is insipid and tasteless, except for Graves district where an excellent dry white wine can be found. Entrée-Deux-Mers wines are sometimes qualitative as well. Richly sweet and honeyed dessert wines are produced in the famous villages of Sauternes and Barsac. A sweet wine is produced around St.-Croix-du-Mont, located on the right bank of the Garonne River.


The Main Bordeaux White Wines

The wine of Château d’Yquem can be preserved for up to 50 years and it is called “liquid gold”, because its colour is golden amber and it is almost as expensive as gold.

The highest quality Graves and Entrée-Deux-Mers wines are matured in oak barrels and made of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, few Muscadel grapes giving a perfumed aroma to the wine. Too much oak can be felt in the young Graves wines, but when maturing they obtain a rich, nutty aroma and a thick consistence going with oak well together.

Barsac/Sauternes Wines

Barsac/Sauternes wines, depending on the vintage year and influence of botrytis cinerea, can be dense, mature and insipid in a year when the mildew has hardly touched the grapes. Or they can be excellent, exotic with a bouquet of honeyed tropical fruit and nuts in years when the mildew has been widely distributed.

Species of Grapes for White Wines

Both the dry and the sweet white wines are produced in Bordeaux, usually using only three species of grapes, namely Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon for dry and sweet wines, and Muscadel grapes for sweet wines.

Sauvignon Blanc is used in the dry white wines of Graves region and sweet wines of Barsac-Sauternes regions. The species give a peculiar, very different wine with a bitter, herb-like aroma and refreshing taste. Not so many winemakers of Graves region make 100% Sauvignon Blanc wines. Most of them mix these grapes with Sémillon. In Sauternes, Sauvignon Blanc grapes are used less in mixtures, but Sémillon – more, because they are very predisposed to botrytis, the presence of which is an essential condition in production of sweet wines. Sauternes is a prominent, naturally sweet wine with a golden colour and an explicit taste of honey and cream caramels. Only in rare autumns the weather conditions are favourable to get a true Sauternes wine of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. It is essential for autumn to be particularly warm and rainy, because grapes will be sweet and aromatic enough, only if matured and dried in this kind of conditions. In other years an ordinary sweet wine is got, sometimes even a good sweet wine, however without the attractiveness typical to Sauternes wines. A good Sauternes wine is characterised by a great potential to mature and an extended life.

Sémillon species is the one of which rich, thick and sapid dry wines of Graves region and sweet wines of Sauternes are got. Young Sémillon wines are quite aromatic, but in the course of years wines that contain much Sémillon obtain plumpness and thickness. Because of this Sémillon grapes are used in the region of Barsac-Sauternes when making sweet wines.

Muscadelle can be met most rarely in Bordeaux, because they are frail and quite predisposed to diseases. However, when healthy and mature, they give a wine with a typical aroma of flowers. This species is used very little in wineries of Barsac-Sauternes region.

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Aksel Ritenis

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