Unlike any other wine region in France Bordeaux produces wine to suit every palate and pocket. If white wine’s your thing there’s Sauvignon and Semillon that comes in all conceivable styles from the fresh and zingy stainless steel fermented, to the oaked and full bodied comparable to the finest grand cru Burgundies. Those with a thirst for pink will find a bevy of refreshing roses made here too. The finest sweet wines in the world are found in Sauternes and at reasonable prices considering the dreadful economics involved in their production. But if it’s vin rouge you’re after, then look no further. Bordeaux is the finest red wine producing district in the world and it sets both the benchmark for the quality that that red wine can achieve and it scales the commanding heights.
Years ago in the 1960s and 1970s it also set the standard for how lousy red wines could be too, though there was a lot of competition back then in that department from Burgundy and the Midi. Today with modern winemaking methods, better vineyard management and huge levels of investment, Bordeaux is at the top of its game. The best stuff is not cheap, and prices have risen frighteningly in the past few years for the very best wines, but it’s impossible to imagine that better wine has ever been made here.
If Cabernet stimulates your senses then it’s off to the Medoc and Haut Medoc, and within the latter it’s the famous communes of St Estephe, Pauillac, St Julien and Margaux that produce the very finest wines. The most expensive are produced by the crus classes chateaux, the so called ‘classed growths’ by virtue of their selection by price for a classification that accompanied the 1855 Paris Exhibition. These wines are increasingly sought after, especially the famous premier crus or ‘first growths’ Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Haut Brion, actually not in the Haut Medoc at all but down in Pessac-Leognan, and Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, which joined the merry band by presidential decree in 1973,. Prices have ballooned now that the so called ‘emerging markets’, China especially, have developed a thirst for these wines. Chateau Lafite-Rothschild especially is reputed to be the gift of choice for the increasingly large wealthy Chinese elite and outstrips the rest in price and exclusivity.
Behind the first growths are a number of classed growth estates that are now operating at pretty much the same qualitative level, certainly in their best years. These are the so called ‘super seconds’, which used to be a band limited to Chateau Cos d’Estournel [St Estephe], Chateau Pichon Lalande [Pauillac], Chateau Leoville Las Cases and Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou [both St Julien] and Chateau Palmer [Margaux]. Today it now includes the following estates which are all capable of making great red wine – Chateau Montrose [St Estephe], Chateau Pichon Baron, Chateau Lynch Bages and Chateau Pontet Canet [all Pauillac], Chateau Leoville Barton and Chateau Leoville Poyferre [both St Julien] and probably Chateau Rauzan-Segla and Chateau Malescot St Exupery [both Margaux]. None of these wines come cheap but they are all a fraction of the price of the first growths.
Beneath the classed growths in hierarchy obsessed Bordeaux are the cru bourgeois, literally the ‘middle class’ growths. The classification was first introduced in 1932 and covered hundreds of chateaux. The classification system was re-organised in 2003 with three divisions, cru bourgeois exceptionnel, cru bourgeois superior and plain cru bourgeois. Unfortunately this system collapsed over disputes in the ranking system and had to be abandoned. In 2010 a new system was introduced after three years of painstaking effort, this time more of a selection than a classification and includes 243 chateaux who are selected as cru bourgeois on the basis of quality and independent tastings of the 2008 vintage. Some of the best chateaux previously classified as exceptionnel have upped sticks and left. Nevertheless some great value wines can be had here under the cru bourgeois banner.
In fact the great thing about Bordeaux in this period of renaissance is the depth of fine winemaking across the region. Clearly access to the finest terrior, the French term for place and locale, is the dominant factor in fine wine production, but dedicated vignerons, some even on less exalted soils can produce the goods because of their commitment in the vineyard and conscientious approach to winemaking. In the Medoc and Haut Medoc I’m thinking here of Chateau Patache d’Aux, Chateau Blaignan [from 2009], Chateau Tour St Bonnet, Chateau La Tour de By, Chateau Cissac, Chateau Charmail, all wines I’ve had a great deal of pleasure with. St Estephe is also a village with a lot of over-achieving crus bourgeois including Chateau Le Boscq, Chateau Ormes de Pez, Chateau Le Crock, Chateau Meyney and Chateau Haut Marbuzet. Moulis and Listrac also produce fine wines, Chateau Chasse Spleen and Chateau Poujeaux in Moulis are well known and worth every penny, but Chateau Maucaillou is also excellent as are Chateau Fourcas-Hosten and Chateau Fourcas Dupre in Listrac. Chateau Dacher de Delmonte in Listrac, a tiny estate, is worth seeking out if you like the wines of Madiran. It’s almost a Montus pretender.
Then beneath Bordeaux is the region of Pessac-Leognan and Graves. More Merlot is planted here , alongside Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. There is white wine too which you don’t get much of up north in the Medoc. Great value to be had here as well as some of Bordeaux’s greatest and longest-lived reds and finest whites. Pessac, caught up in the urban sprawl of Bordeaux is home to three of Bordeaux’s most fabulous wines, Chateau Haut Brion, Chateau La Mission Haut Brion and Chateau Pape Clement. These are all ancient estates, far older than elsewhere in Bordeaux, the Graves region itself, from which the Pessac-Leognan appellation was itself carved in 1987, was where Bordeaux wine first flourished. Other great estates here are Chateau Haut Bailly, Domaine de Chevalier, Chateau de Fieuzal, Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte and Chateau Malartic-Lagraviere. For those with less cash to burn then Graves itself offers some attractive plump, gravelly reds and appetizing whites. Try Chateau Ferrande, Chateau Rahoul and Chateau de Chantegrive.
If Merlot’s your drop then it’s the ‘right bank’ you’re interested in, that is the wine making land that right of Bordeaux’s Gironde River when viewed from above. St Emilion and Pomerol make some of the most decadent,and expensive wines in the world. In St Emilion the wines are classified too, the legendary Chateau Cheval Blanc and Chateau Ausone lead the field in the ‘A’ category of the appellations Premier Grand Cru Classe. In group B there are a dozen or so wines, of which for me the pick are Chateau Angelus, Chateau Canon, Chateau Figeac, Chateau Clos Fourtet, Chateau Beaj-Sejour Becot, Chateau Tertrerotebeouf and Chateau Troplong Mondot. There are two further layers to the classification into simple Premier Grand Crus and then Grand Crus, of which there are hundreds. In my recent tastings of these wines there’s certainly more notable extraction going on here than elsewhere, even than in neighbouring Pomerol. Whether or not that is a bad thing depends on whether you like your wines big and explosive. The only bad thing for me is when these things seem out of kilter and the tannins to dry and harsh. Sometimes it’s also a case of tasting young wines and them needing to settle. Sometimes it isn’t.
The finest Pomerols are so plump and sumptuous that they remind you of red Burgundy with three times the depth of colour. These wines are so delicious and precocious that they can often be extremely flattering to drink young. Chateau Petrus is the most famous and sought after alongside Chateau Le Pin. The prices for these wines reaches into the stratosphere. Qualitatively Chateau Clinet, Chateau l’Eglise Clinet, Chateau La Consiellante, Chateau Trotanoy and Vieux Chateau Certan can reach the same heights. Don’t come to Pomerol looking for bargains but if you do want to sample the sumptuous style without the hefty price tag then opt for Chateau Gazin, Chateau Beauregard and Chateau La Pointe in great vintages like 2009 and 2005.
The surrounding districts also produce some excellent value in Lalande de Pomerol, Montagne St Emilion and then further away on the Cote de Bourg, Fronsac and beneath in the Cotes de Castillon . For further information on each of Bordeaux’s principal regions click on the links, either for the village or commune, or check out the individual chateau profiles. There are some omissions but I’ve tried to be reasonably comprehensive.