Bordeaux, France Wine Region
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Is Bordeaux the greatest wine region in the world? Quite possibly. Where else can you get cracking white, red and dessert wines all in the one place? The answer is nowhere. Intense but not heavy red wines that can last for 50 years or more; brisk whites with layers of complexity; dessert wines to die for with fantastic elegance and freshness of finish. No wonder Bordeaux houses many of the most expensive wines on the face of the earth.
In Bordeaux, forget any idea of single grape wines because here blends are king. The reds come from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot, while the whites are primarily Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc with a little Muscadelle. Sounds a bit like Margaret River? Well it’s not really, because the cooler Bordeaux climate makes wines that are fresher and more restrained although the best labels also have plenty of structure, meaning they can last in a cellar for years.
Finding good wines in Bordeaux can be like picking a winner in the Melbourne Cup with just so many runners to choose from. But the labels, and price, do give some clues as to the quality. Cheaper and lesser wines are generally simply labelled Bordeaux, or after one of the sub-regions such as Haut Médoc, Médoc, or Entré-Deux-Mers. The best of these will have good flavour and complexity, but most are made for drinking in the short to medium term.
The picks of the crop come from a range of smaller villages, which you will find on the label. So a wine might have a name, Château Pibran for example, but will also be labelled Pauillac after the village from which the fruit is sourced. The village actually gives clues as to the style of the wine. So wines from Pessac-Léognan are often quite muscular and powerful while Margaux makes reds that are more feminine. There is also a very big stylistic difference between what are known as the Left and Right Bank wines. The Right Bank wines are grown around the towns of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol where Merlot and Cabernet Franc are the dominant grapes, giving fleshier wines. On the other hand Left Bank wines, from the towns of St-Estèphe, Pauillac, St-Julien, Margaux and Graves, are sturdier and made predominantly from Cabernet Sauvignon.
But Bordeaux is not just about red wines. Easy drinking whites are grown throughout the region although Pessac-Léognan and Graves make some top-notch and superbly age-worthy drops. Further south again, we have the villages of Sauternes and Barsac, where brilliant dessert wines are made, including the famed Château d’Yquem.
Unfortunately with all this great wine sloshing around, Bordeaux is not the best place to look for a cheap quaffer. The Bordelais have been selling wines to the world for hundreds of years and they know how to make buck. So for drinkers on a budget, famous villages like Margaux, Pauillac, Sauternes and Pomerol are generally not the place to look for affordable and delicious wines. They are either one or the other, seldom both. But the good news is that Bordeaux has a host of less famous villages, shunned by the posh end of town, some of which produce very smart wines but at much more reasonable prices. Towns such as Listrac and Moulis on the Left bank make lighter and less-structured reds. Further out, satellites like Montravel (white), Côtes du Marmandais (red), Monbazillac (sweet) and Cahors (red) make many wines with real character, most of which are made for early consumption.
One final guide to quality is the complex classifications that list the top wines of Bordeaux, sometimes in a range of tiers. In 1855 the best Châteaus of the Left Bank were classified according to the quality of their wines at the time. Within that classification are 5 tiers, or growths, for red wines and 3 for sweet wines. Despite the significant passing of time, the classification remains relevant with few exceptions and classed wines are easy to recognise with the words ‘Cru Classe’ often emblazoned on the labels. Below this classification on the Left bank is the rating of Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel and Cru Bourgeois. Graves and St-Emilion also have their own classifications, which, while significantly more modern, are equally useful as indicators of quality. And for the wineries of St-Emilion there is also a wider Grand Cru classification below the Crus Classés listed on the following pages. Bordeaux may not make the cheapest wines in the world, but it is one of the finest regions and well worth some serious investigation.