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There is little in the world more alluring then a glass of red or sweet Bordeaux wine. This region located in the south western corner of France was predestined to produce fine wines, and was improved upon by enterprising engineers who drained swamps on the left bank of the Grionde Estuary. There are approximately 110,000 hectares of vineyards classified as appellation d’origne controlee (AOC), producing, mostly red wines, and some of the most sought after white wines in the world.
The region has an ideal climate – moderated by the Gulf Stream, tempered by the Atlantic Ocean and the forest of the Landes, providing a wind barrier protecting the vineyards of the Medoc. The great diversity of microclimates and soils (clay, gravel, chalk, limestone and combinations of two or more of them) are ideally suited for grape varieties vignerons use. For the red wines, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot, malbec, and carmenere are planted, and for whites sauvignon blanc, semillon and muscadelle. White Bordeaux wines range from dry to off-dry and honey-sweet.
Some the Bordeaux reds are world’s best known, most sought-after and delicious. However, if you think all red Bordeaux expensive, rest assured this is not the case. You can still find fine Bordeaux wine at affordable prices that will provide immense pleasure with or without food.
The French government early on put controls in place to ensure authenticity and protect consumers. Some wineries and shippers have been caught blending inexpensive wines from other regions into expensive Bordeaux. This fraudulent practice is unacceptable and the A O C offices took steps to prevent it, but also to emphasise the important notion of terroir (combination of soil composition and climate) on wine taste and appearance.
Presently there are 52 appellations conveniently divided into six groups: Bordeaux, Bordeaux Superieur; Cotes des Bordeaux, Saint Emilion , Pomerol and Frontenac; Medoc and Graves; and Golden sweet wines and elegant dry whites. Each has sub-classifications. The more specific the appellation, the more recognizable and unique are the taste profiles. For example, Medoc and Graves are sub-divided into 10 appellations (Haut-Medoc, Listrac, Medoc, Moulis, Margaux, Pauillac, Saint Estephe, Saint Julien, Graves and Pessac - Leognan.
In addition to the above, in 1855 the classification of Medoc and Sauternes and Barsac wines took place, followed by the classification of Saint Emilion in 1954, and Graves in 1959.
The 1855 classificaiton includes 60 chateaux from Medoc and one from Graves and sub-divided into five categories called growths or “cru” i.e. Premier, deuxieme, troisieme, quatrieme and cinqieme. These were the properties that showed the most consistent quality, not withstanding vintage, and fetched the highest prices over time. After the cru, there are cru bourgeois, and then cru artisanal. In 2003, cru bourgeois was further refined to cru bourgeois exceptionelle, - superieur and bourgeois tout simple.
Red Bordeaux are always blended, mostly using different proportions of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot; the first provides structure, second “spice” and the third fruit. The other varieties are employed to fine-tie the bend for colour, aroma and aging ability. Red Bordeaux of high quality are cellar worthy up to 50 years. Today, most pending vintage age well up to 20 years, as winemakers produce their wines to satisfy demand insisting on shorter cellaring. Fine red Bordeaux wines possess brilliant crimson colour, smell of berries, are medium- to full bodied, with nuances of smoke, cigar box, cedar and fruit flavours and offer a balance of all finishing with long and satisfying aftertaste.
Bordeaux produces dry and sweet whites wines. Dry wines are fruity and acid-driven. Most are suitable for food mainly chicken and fish. Of course, pastas and light dishes go very well as well. They re meant to be enjoyed within a year or two of bottling. The sweet white wines on the other hand, marketed from appellations of Sauternes and Barsac require barrel and bottle aging. Bordeaux classifications should not be confused with appellation laws. The former is locally conceived controlled and enforced, whereas the latter is the law of the land, administered by the national office for wine controls in Paris.
Sauternes and Barsac are the result of a phenomenon called botrytis cinerea (noble rot in English, pouriture noble in French, Edelfaule in German, muffa nobile in Italian) that occurs when the grapes are ripe at the time when the weather is humid in the morning, sunny, and hot later in the day. Very tiny airborne insects attack bunches and drill small holes on the fruit causing individual grapes to lose water and shrink. The brown and mouldy grapes contain high sugar levels along with acidity. Hand picking these grapes is time consuming and the yield rarely exceeds 20 hectolitres per hectare. Thus, botrytis affected Sauternes and Barsac wines are expensive. Made from lusciously ripe, rich fruit, they smell of honey and beeswax. The wines are smooth and full-bodied and possess a very long aftertaste without cloying the mouth.
Sauternes and Barsac wines cellar well due to their high alcohol and sugar content. They compliment best, ripe fruits (peaches, apricots, berries) pastries containing fruit, seared foie gras d’oie, goose liver pates, and may even be enjoyed instead of dessert.
Cellared red Bordeaux wines tend to throw sediment and must be decanted before service. The time of decanting depends on the age of the wine. Very old wines require decanting and quick consumption, for otherwise they will turn black and literally die before your eyes. On the other hand, decant wines that are 10 – 12 years old carefully in an appropriately designed wide-bottomed decanter and let the wine “breathe” for 1 1/2 to two hours.
Most Bordeaux wines are carefully blended for maximum enjoyment, but vintages play a role in the colour, taste, and body of wines and should be considered before purchasing decisions.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu
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