Bordeaux. The name says it all. This whisper of a word conjures up images of luxury, gorgeous chateaux, elegantly dressed aristocrats, and lavish, sophisticated living.
We won’t even get into all the centuries of romance novel-style drama that must have included arranged marriages for the sake of building a family dynasty and all that, yet for millions of people around the world the word Bordeaux is almost a synonym for the very best life has to offer.
And yes, Bordeaux is all that and deserves its excellent reputation. Recently, delegates from Bordeaux’s L’Ecole Du Vin wine school (associated with the Bordeaux Wine Council, or CIVB), with a campaign financed with the support of the European Union, came to New York to update wine educators on Bordeaux’s history and future.
We will get to its history and terroir in a moment, yet from previous meetings with Bordeaux officials, the key message the region wants to convey is that the classified growths make up only 5% of Bordeaux’s exports. Yes, these wines are expensive – unaffordable to most of the world’s population. So if you are interested in trying Bordeaux wines, it is important to realize there are thousands of excellent wines from this region that retails for under $20 a bottle.
So why Bordeaux? Why now? Last night at the trendy NYC Waverly Inn celebrity hotspot I ordered a Bordeaux – Chateau La Rame (2007) that was fresh, spicy, and delicious. You can find it on wine store shelves for about $17.
The alcohol, approaching 13%, was just right. It paired perfectly with the steak my friend ordered, and because I always try to adjust the seasoning of my fish to better match the wine, it went well with my charred whole branzino as well.
As Bordeaux wine provides so much value for the money, are food friendly, and lower in alcohol than most new world wines, it is a region well worth exploring.
Now you might have heard people talk about the “right bank” and “left bank.” This relates to how the two key bodies of land are positioned in relation to the Dordogne and Garonne rivers. The “right bank” includes the quality appellations of Saint Emilion and the “left bank” the classified growths of the Medoc.
Overall, the right bank has the sort of clay soil and terroir that is better suited to the growing of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, while Cabernet grows best on the gravel-dominated Left Bank. The five grape varieties allowed by the appellation include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, and Malbec (the last two grape varieties are used as a sort of seasoning, typically less than 5% of the blend).
So what are the takeaway points from this information-rich seminar? Terroir and soil type remains consistent with the past several centuries, yet what is new is the upgrading of many small, family-run wineries (the vast majority compared to the big chateaux), a movement toward organic and biodynamic wine making, stricter yield control (via de-leafing, green harvesting, better testing for phenolic ripeness), and a major awareness campaign to showcase Bordeaux wines in the $15 – $20 dollar range as a quality alternative to the wines of the new world producers.
While many of the points in the lecture were familiar to me through my extensive wine education, reinforcement of the region was quite valuable. And to be very honest, Bordeaux is so vast and has so many appellations (60, now, instead of the ‘Heinz 57’) if you wanted to learn about Bordeaux you would be best advised to not tackle the entire region at once, but to start in a small region.
For example, during one visit I stayed in the Côtes du Blaye. Fascinating from a cultural standpoint and I really loved the wines. Next time you are in your favorite wine store, pick up a bottle from this region, taste it, then do some online surfing to find out more about the soil, the producer, etc. And in just one night, you could be a Côtes du Blaye expert. The following week, try a new region. It’s that simple.