Navigating Bordeaux

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  • By Brett Chappell
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Navigating Bordeaux

Navigating the wines of Bordeaux can be confusing due to the string of verbiage (en française, no less) used on a label. Add to that a region where vintage actually matters, and the world’s most famous wines waters become even more muddied...

Navigating the wines of Bordeaux can be confusing due to the string of verbiage (en française, no less) used on a label. Add to that a region where vintage actually matters, and the world’s most famous wines waters become even more muddied. If this information is viewed as a description of makeup, self-identity, reputation, and climate, however, the waters begin to clear a bit. Chateau Lafite-Rothschild will serve as an example.

Makeup – the parts that comprise a whole – these components are not found anywhere on a Bordelaise label, but must be inferred from the wines self-identity. Most Americans look for the grape variety on a wine label. Most French wine, however, is labeled not by variety but named after a region. In Bordeaux, the grapes planted are Merlot (60%), Cabernet Sauvignon (26%), Cabernet Franc (12%), and the balance (2%) is Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Carmenère. Each chateau or house determines its plantings according to what soil lies under its holdings. Merlot likes cold soils of limestone and clay; Cabernet Sauvignon, the warmth of sand and gravel. The other four grapes are minor in that they are used almost as spices in a dish. Most Bordeaux are Merlot based, but the left or western bank of the Gironde river is rich in sand and gravel and, correspondingly, the wines there have a higher proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon. Chateau Lafite-Rothschild sits on the left bank, is planted to 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, and usually produces its eponymous wine with 80-95% Cabernet Sauvignon.

Self-identity – that which one calls oneself – A wine defines what it is by its appellation d'origine côntrolée, a code which delineates variety, geographic areas, harvesting, and vineyard and winemaking practices. Chateau Lafite-Rothschild could call itself Bordeaux, Bordeaux Superieur, Medoc, Haut Medoc, or Pauillac. It meets all the criteria for each of these AOCs. But, just as POTUS can say that he is a resident of the District, the Northwest Quadrant, and Downtown Washington, when he says that he lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, he has informed much. Likewise, “Je m'appelle Pauillac,” says Lafite-Rothschild. "I come from some of the world's most esteemed vineyards, in a sweet spot midway the left back in the middle of the Haut Medoc."

Reputation – not what I think of me, but what others think of me – In 1855, France, under the rule of Napoleon III, mounted the Universal Exhibition in Paris and therein featured the wines of Bordeaux. The Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce displayed a document developed and used by the Union of Commercial (Wine) Brokers that structured pricing and taxation for the wines of the region. Those that commanded the highest prices were placed in tiers called crus, or growths. The public accepted and still accepts, a century and a half later, this tax document as a ranking of quality and the measure of a chateau's mettle. Chateau Lafite-Rothschild was and is one of the five highest ranking chateaux on the list. There have, since, been a number of different classification ratings of Bordeaux.

Climate – working with nature – Vintage in Bordeaux matters. The maritime/continental climate of the region is mercurial. Too much rain at harvest time, late frosts and freezes, cool temperatures, and a small diurnal swing all add up to years where things may not be great for producing the very best wine. Enter man and blending. Merlot ripens consistently early, Cabernet Sauvignon late. Merlot comes off fleshy; Cabernet Sauvignon, when under-ripe is green and stemmy, when ripe, structured and solid. The Bordelaise hedge their bets by allowing vignerons discretionary blending of the six grapes mentioned above. The nearly perfect vintage of 1961 allowed Chateau Lafite-Rothschild to bottle a 99% Cabernet Sauvignon/1% Petit Verdot blend. In average vintages, ripe, forgiving Merlot usually comprises up to 20% of this chateau's blend.

To recap: Chateau Lafite-Rothschild makeup is predominately Cabernet Sauvignon by nature of its gravel soils. It identifies as Pauillac due to location and its adherence to AOC statute. In 1855 it was one of Bordeaux's priciest wines which was then and is still (rightly or wrongly) equated to its quality.  Here's to smooth sailing.

I'd like to give a special tip of the hat to the French Wine Society (FWS), especially Julien Camus, President, FWS and Lisa Airey, Education Director, FWS. Some of the information in this blog comes from The French Wine Scholar Study Manual. Continue to to find out about the benefits of becoming a member


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