About Bordeaux Wines
All the main grape varieties [apart from 3] that produce the wines we have come to enjoy from every wine producing nation in the world, originated in France. So where better to start our wine journey, but here in Bordeaux. There is much to learn about Bordeaux as it is so important for us to understand the significance of not just its wines, but the complete influence this region and its history have on the wine world of today.
An Introduction to Bordeaux
2,000 years ago the Roman Port of Burdigala [Bordeaux] was a thriving centre of wine export activity, shipping wine to most other European countries with Holland and Roman Britain being two of their most important destinations. Although there were many other wine producing regions in France at this time, Bordeaux had direct access to the Atlantic giving it a major advantage over its ‘competitors’.
The Bordeaux wines produced in these times were rarely the red wines we associate this region with today, but mostly white or ‘Clairet’ meaning clear and very light red in colour. Clairet is from where the description ‘Clare’t was derived [by the English] and is now widely used for any red wine being produced in the Bordeaux region, known as ‘Le Department de Gironde’.
In the middle Ages, the marriage of Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine opened the Bordeaux region to the English market and eventually to the world's stage!
The City of Bordeaux is the sixth largest in France and represents the epicentre of this most renowned wine region, helping to make France the largest producer and provider of the finest wines in the world, to the world. It is recognised also - as a region, a wine and a particular way of making wine and growing vines. Other contributions to the wine world are the famous 225 litre oak casks called ’Barriques’ and the word Chateau was created here in Bordeaux. Another major influence has been through its famous oenological institute, providing so much of the scientific research into wine production and vine cultivation to the benefit of producers everywhere.
Bordeaux lies on the river Garonne, which then joins the Gironde just north of the city and it is the presence of these two rivers that helps to create the absolute phenomena that are the wines of Bordeaux. The alluvial plains feed the vines of the two main red grape varieties grown here, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, forming the very essence of their most individual style and characteristics displayed at their best. Other grape varieties for the red wines are Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. For the white wines: Sauvignon Blanc; Semillon; Muscadelle; Colombard and Ugni Blanc. These varieties have hardly altered since they were introduced to this region in the middle ages.
Style of Bordeaux Wines
The climate is also another important factor in the production of high quality wine and most other French wine regions are envious that Bordeaux has the best on offer. Although growers here can never completely rest comfortably with this supposition, for nature has a way of providing many an upset as in April 1991. Night time temperatures dropped to minus 11 degrees bringing complete devastation to the vines.
2,000 hours sunshine per year
Normally however, Bordeaux experiences an average of 2,000 hours sunshine per year with fresh and damp springtime, summer hot for ripening and a warm autumn time for harvesting. When all these fall into place, it provides the beginnings of a recipe for optimum success of fine wine creation.
It is difficult to provide a precise description of the characteristics of all Bordeaux Wines as each Chateau and producer have such individual styles, created as their own All are fiercely maintained and protected as this is their history, signature and success criteria, developed through the growing and blending of the different grape varieties allowed under the AOC laws. [The wine quality control laws of France – see our forthcoming feature on the Quality Control laws of Europe]
"Did you know that the name Bordeaux derives from ‘Au Bord de l’Eaux’ meaning ‘beside the waters’!"
So what we will do at this point is to give an overview of the two main and most influential of these grape varieties. Not only do they make a unique blending partnership, but also produce great wines of their own – Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
The most famous red wine grape of them all:
On the Eye – Should always display an elegant appearance showing dense, crimson tones.
On the Nose - Predominantly blackcurrants and red plums, with perhaps a hint of vanilla if the wine has been aged in new oak. Some may give an aroma of fresh mint and newer wines, a note of green pepper.
On the Palate – Subtle flavours of blackcurrants and red plums with a good tannic structure, well balanced with the fruit flavours.
On the Eye – Ruby to dark red with garnet highlights.
On the Nose - Aromas of red plums and cherries, sometimes with a subtle hint of strawberries and raspberries.
On the Palate – Softer, fleshier and lower in acidity, Merlot can lack Cabernet’s tannic structure which is why there are so successful when blended together.
"There are 5 levels of ‘Grand Cru’ in the Bordeaux wine classification structure!"
The Wines of Bordeaux were classified in 1855 [created for an exposition in Paris for Emperor Napoleon 111’s birthday] and this is of significant importance to the wine quality structure of Bordeaux. ‘The 1855 Classification’ is complex and needs to be understood as it forms the platform for all the great Bordeaux wines from the top 88 Chateaux as we know them today, along with structures such as Cru Bourgeois and Bordeaux Superieur, which we will expand upon in future articles. We will also travel around the region discovering many other wine treasures such as the luscious wines of Sauternes and Barsac and the significance of ‘Noble Rot’ in their wine production. We will also discuss the difference between the wines of the ‘left and right banks’ of the river Garonne and in between the ‘two seas’ - Entre de Mers’.
Matching Bordeaux Wines with Food
Again it is difficult to be specific, as each wine has its own style they can be matched with so many different dishes. So here is a general guide ‘to tantalise your taste buds’.
The best examples I can give you are that the cuisine of Bordeaux is as diverse and exciting as its wines. The ‘Bordelais’ seem to have it all, with succulent lamb from Paulliac; oysters from the Bassin d’ Arrachon [often eaten here with a small local sausage called ‘crepinette’] asparagus from Blaye; duck from Gers and the famous beef [blonde d’Aquitaine] from Bazas. All this with an abundance of fish from the Atlantic provide a banquet of choice for the most discerning of food and wine lovers.
Always remember to ‘keep it simple’ so as an overview for you at this stage we have designed an easy check list for all of the red wines of this region:
White Wines are all so different across this region and again, as a simple guide for you to match:
Sauvignon Blanc with fish, seafood and dishes with creamy sauces
Sweeter wines from Semillon such as Sauternes - with blue cheeses
Dry wines from Semillon - with fish, seafood and hard cheeses
Note: Try and avoid really spicy foods with Bordeaux wines.
So we can match our wines of Bordeaux with food as we go with local recipes for you to try at home. Why not arrange a wine and food evening or lunch for your friends, sounds daunting but it can be made simple so you can enjoy the complete experience. Once you have chosen the wines from our list ask your guests to bring different ones so you can compare and we will provide recipes for you in future articles.