Bordeaux remains the centre of the fine wine world.The maritime climate on
the 45th parallel provides for temperate winters and long warm summers, perfect
conditions for growing grapes suited to the production of classically
constructed, long-lasting wines. This vast region of 120,000ha of vineyards
(four times the size of Burgundy) is home to 10,000 wine producers and 57
different appellation contrôlées. Red now makes up 88% of Bordeaux
wine, and is usually referred to as claret. The origin of this name was to
differentiate the lighter-coloured wines of the coastal region from the deeper
"black" wines from up-country regions.
The "Left Bank", comprising the wine regions of the Médoc, Pessac-Léognan and Graves are planted predominantly with Cabernet Sauvignon, which thrives on the gravelly
soils left by the ancient course of the river. This is a thick skinned variety
which ripens late, producing powerful, tannic wines capable of long ageing. It
is blended with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and sometimes Petit Verdot. The highlights of the Médoc are
the four communes of St Estèphe
(blackcurrant concentration); classical, cedarwood and cigar-box Pauillac; richly fruited St Julien; and elegant, fragrant Margaux.
On the "Right Bank", most famously in St Emilion and Pomerol, it is the fleshy Merlot grape which
predominates, sometimes supported by cabernet franc. Here the soils are more
mixed, with gravel and clay underpinning the rich, fruity wines of Pomerol.
Styles vary more in St Emilion, depending on the predominance of sand in the
lower lying slopes, or limestone on the hillsides and plateau.
By the 18th century, individual properties - known as châteaux,
however humble - were becoming known for the quality of their wines and in
1855, those of the Médoc (plus Haut Brion, a property commended
by Samuel Pepys as early as 1663) were classified into five levels of classed growths. Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Haut Brion were cited as First Growths,
to whose ranks Mouton Rothschild was
elevated by presidential decree in 1973. Beneath the ranks of the classed
growths lies a raft of fine châteaux known as Crus Bourgeois,
while a host of less well known "petits châteaux" still makes attractive,
enjoyable claret at affordable prices.
The other jewel in the Bordeaux crown is the district of Sauternes, making some of the most outstanding
sweet white wines in the world (from the likes of Châteaux d'Yquem, Rieussec and Climens). The foggy autumn mornings along the
banks of the Garonne River near Sauternes and neighbouring Barsac enable the noble rot, botrytis cinerea,
to form on the skins of the grapes, which can still ripen in the afternoon sun
as late as the end of October or early November.The Sémillon grape is the prime component, but Sauvignon Blanc and a little Muscadelle are
also planted to provide insurance if the weather is less favourable to
Sémillon, as well as a counterpoint in flavour.
There are many inexpensive dry white wines - more Sauvignon than
Sémillon - from regions such as Entre Deux Mers and the Graves, with
just a handful of outstanding properties located in Pessac-Léognan. Most
famous of the
great dry whites are Châteaux Haut
Brion, Laville Haut Brion and Domaine de Chevalier.
The finer wines of Bordeaux are sold "en primeur" in the late spring
following the harvest, some two years before the wines are ready for physical
delivery. The chateaux offer their wines through a system of Bordeaux
négociants (brokers) who sell on to importers round the world. Prices
vary enormously from one vintage to another dependent on perceived quality and
world demand, which shows no signs of diminishing, especially for the great