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Bordeaux is best known for its great, long-lived red wines. Yet many winemakers produce white, sweet white, sparkling white and rosé wines. Many of those rosés are rather dark in color and are known locally as “clairet” (meaning “light” red); the British anglicized that word to “claret,” which is still used to refer to any red Bordeaux wine.
The region is roughly divided into five large subregions: the Médoc to the northwest, the Graves further south (very close to the city of Bordeaux), and further south, the Sauternais which is best known for its sweet white wines, including the great, ancient estate, Château d’Yquem. These three areas are known together as the “Left Bank” referring to its position in relation to the flow of the Garonne River. The Garonne comes to a confluence with the Dordogne River, and to the east of this confluence lies the Right Bank, with its most famous appellations Saint Emilion and Pomerol. Between the two rivers is a lovely, verdant area called Entre Deux Mers (“between two seas”, or rivers) where red, white, and rosé wine is produced. The whites really excel here and are most associated with the region. They can be delightful, refreshing wines, made mostly of Sauvignon Blanc, and quite a good value.
Bordeaux is the largest fine wine-producing area in the world. Although much of the public’s attention is focused on the greatest, most expensive wines, those wines represent only 2% of the total production of the region. There are nearly 10,000 separate wine estates in the Bordeaux region, and they all are entitled to the appellation “Bordeaux.”
Bordeaux is also one of the very few appellations that have had an active wine export trade for centuries. Its wines have been exported abroad (notably the Netherlands and Britain) since the 16th century. For centuries, nearly all the wine was aged, bottled, and exported by négociants (wine merchants). The mention on the cork “mise en bouteille au château” (bottled by the Château itself) is relatively recent as some of the greatest producers began to see the advantages of bottling the wine themselves (i.e., greater control over the process, the ability to bottle only one or two lots of each wine, etc.).
Much of the world’s attention is centered on the Médoc peninsula, specifically, the Haut Médoc (“high Médoc”), which is in fact south of the Bas Médoc, usually just called the Médoc. It’s called “high” because the area is higher above sea level than the Médoc, not because of its geographical location. This subregion was one of the newer areas to be developed because much of it was either underwater or swampy. The Dutch, great lovers of Bordeaux wine, were the first to settle here, and, using their great knowledge of draining land learned in their own country, set about creating small canals (“Jalles” in French) to drain the water out into the Gironde estuary. Once the water receded, small hills appeared (“Croupes”) near the river, and it was clear that on their slopes would be the best places to plant vineyards. Wine merchants from the city of Bordeaux came out to the Médoc and bought much of the land closest to the water that also had croupes. Those vineyards became the Grands Crus of the Haut Médoc.
In 1855, Napoleon asked the local winemakers union to create a classification of the wines of the Médoc, with five levels of “crus.” At the time, there were four Premier Grands Crus Classés; only three of these were in the Médoc. They had to include Premier Grand Cru ClasséChâteau Haut Brion in the Graves subregion, since it was, at that time, the most famous of all the Bordeaux estates and wines.
As for all wine regions, the climate plays a huge role in the choice of grape varieties, the viticultural practices, and the character of the wines. The overall climate in Bordeaux is Oceanic, with moderately hot summers, temperate winters with a limited amount of snow, and quite a bit of rainfall. There are microclimates: for example, the vineyards closest to the Gironde Estuary (which splits into the Garonne and Dordogne rivers at the city of Bordeaux) enjoy a more temperate climate because of the reflection of the light off the water. In the Médoc, they say that the best vineyards are the ones that “see the water”. In fact, when there is frost a mile from the Gironde, the vineyards right next to the Gironde usually do not have frost. The Right Bank is a bit warmer than the Left Bank during the growing season since it’s farther inland. The Sauternais’ vineyards are the farthest south of the region and enjoy the warmest climate. That subregion is known for its cool, foggy mornings and hot, dry afternoons, which lead to the growth of a fungus called botrytis cinerea, the “Noble Rot,” which shrivels the grapes, concentrating the sugar and acidity and bringing complex aromas to the wine created from them.
The soils vary as well. The Left Bank is known mostly for its gravelly soils (thus the name “Graves” for that subregion). These soils allow for good drainage, and the small stones absorb the day’s sunlight and reflect it back toward the grapes at night. The vines are kept very close to the soil and are trained and pruned so that the grapes grow close to the soil, so they may absorb that reflected warmth of the sun during the night. These soils are best for Cabernet Sauvignon, the emblematic wine variety of this subregion. Bordeaux is at a latitude that is at the limit of where Cabernet Sauvignon can achieve ripeness, so the reflection of the sunlight is vitally important. It also wards off frost which can damage the grapes. On the Right Bank, the soils are a mixture of gravel, clay, and sand, which works better for Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes, which represent the majority of the grape varieties planted there. In recent years, now that consumers want wines that can be drunk younger than in the past, old or dead Cabernet Sauvignon plants have been replaced with Merlot, which is easier to drink young.
© Lauriann Greene, 2021
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