Bordeaux is arguably the greatest wine region in the world. Great cellars around the world are filled with wines from the different chateaus of the region. America’s first wine connoisseur, Thomas Jefferson, not only drank wines from here, but made it a point to visit the region and see for himself what made these wines so great.
Bordeaux lies in the southwest corner of France where it follows the Gironde River inland from the Atlantic Ocean. The region takes its name from the largest city in the area (also named Bordeaux) which is a thriving port metropolis on the Gironde. It is a very large wine region with around 250,000 acres under vine. Although there are perhaps one hundred producers who have achieved worldwide fame, there are approximately 20,000 producers making wine in Bordeaux. Approximately 850 million bottles are produced each year.
Wine has been grown in Bordeaux for a couple of thousand years predating even the Romans arrival in 56 BC. Unlike most areas of France, where the Church developed and controlled the wine, the merchant class traditionally was at the center of the Bordeaux wine trade. Perhaps this is due to its location near a port which made for easier commerce. The area was under English rule for a long time. Wineries would sell their barrels to merchants in England. Boats filled with barrels of Claret, the English word for the red wine produced here, made their way from the port of Bordeaux to England on a regular basis. In the 1400’s half of all production was sold to England.
Bordeaux makes red, white and sweet dessert wines. The red wines come from five different grapes. They are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. The first two make up the bulk of the wines with the last two being used in very small quantities. The wineries tend to get divided based on which side of the Gironde they are on. While not required by law, the left bank wines tend to have more Cabernet Sauvignon than other grapes and the right bank wines tend to be Merlot dominated. In either case, all of the wines are blends of grapes. The white wines are for the most part Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grape blends as are the dessert wines. Some also have some Sauvignon Gris. The better white wines seem to come from the commune of Graves although many properties make both red and white wines. Most, however, have one they regard as their best.
The proximity to the ocean protects the grapes from too hot or too cold temperatures. The winters tend to be short. Due to the humidity from the ocean, rot in the vineyard is a concern. It is also the source of a mold that, under the right circumstances, allows the grapes to make wonder wonderful dessert wines. The climate is not consistent from year to year and in a given decade there may be two or three outstanding vintages and two or three subpar vintages. Vintages do matter here. The vignerons, however, are learning to make good wine even in off vintages.
Bordeaux wines are made to age and that includes the whites and sweet wines as well. In a good vintage, a top white Bordeaux can last thirty years and indeed, some might push it twice as far. When young, the whites have a crisp quality with grapefruits and peaches. As they age, they get more honeyed and minerals driven. The reds are some of the best aging wines anywhere. Even an inexpensive red in a good vintage may continue to improve in the bottle for five or ten years.