The Basics of Bordeaux – The Wines & The Region
Bordeaux is a region in southwest France that is renowned for its wine production. Some of the most famous, elegant and expensive red wines in the world come from Bordeaux’s gravel, limestone and clay soils. A 2008 Chateau Petrus from the Pomerol sub-region can command a couple thousand dollars. However, most are more affordable, particularly wines from the 50-plus lesser known sub-regions.
Almost all Bordeaux wines are blends of various grapes. Permitted grapes for red wine are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and in lesser amounts, Petit Verdot and Malbec. The first three of these are often referred to as “Bordeaux Blend.” Although lesser known than Bordeaux red wines, the region also produces fine white wines. Grapes permitted for the region’s white wines are Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle. Other minor grapes are permitted but are only seen in small quantities, including Ugni Blanc and Columbard.
Bordeaux’s climate and soils – aspects of terroir – contribute to the characteristics of the wines. The climate is moderated by the Atlantic Ocean, with mild winters and warm summers. Topsoil is poor, forcing the roots to grow deep into the bedrock for nutrients and stabilizing the vines. The Gironde River and its tributaries, the Garonne and the Dordogne, separate Bordeaux into left and right Banks. Left bank red wines are predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon-based, while Merlot dominates right bank red wines. This is partially due to soil conditions. Cabernet Sauvignon performs better in the gravelly soils of the left bank, while limestone and clay soils of the right bank favor Merlot. The Graves area of the left bank also produces white wines from Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon grapes.
On the right bank, Merlot-based wines are fresh and easy drinking, more fruit forward and less tannic than those of the left bank. Two famous appellations are Saint-Emilion and Pomerol. Right bank reds are typically made with 70 percent Merlot, with the rest being Cabernet Franc and/or Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot provides a spicy, fruity aroma, and because Merlot ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, these wines are accessible earlier. The best, however, can improve in the bottle for decades.
The left bank produces Cabernet-based red Bordeaux, big, dry wines with lots of tannins. Aromas and flavors of black currant and cassis are often present. Merlot and Cabernet Franc are blended to soften these wines. Typical blends are 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc & 15% Merlot. Well-known appellations include Pauillac and Margaux. These concentrated, tannic wines are long-lived and most are meant to be cellared before drinking. As these wines age, the deep, dark red color can take on shades of brick, and initial fruity, floral aromas develop into subtle wood and spices that are often specific to particular vineyards. Tannins become softer and rounder with age, as well.
Also on the left bank, Sauternes is famous for the sweet dessert white wines made from Sémillon grapes that have developed “noble rot” from the fungus Botrytis cinerea. White Bordeaux from Graves are typically dry, crisp and refreshing, often made from 100% Sauvignon Blanc or a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon . Throughout Bordeaux, dry whites use the appellation Bordeaux Blanc.
Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon blend well together. Sauvignon Blanc provides a concentrated aroma, is crisp and lively on the palate, often described as “grassy.” Light-bodied, it develops early. Sémillon develops more slowly and is fuller in body, with delicate honey aromas and a round texture. Sémillon is lower in acidity than Sauvignon Blanc. The best dry white Bordeaux are crisp and lively when they’re young and develop honeyed, fuller-bodied richness as they age. Most, however, are meant to be enjoyed young when their fruity and floral aromas and flavors are most concentrated.
To get the full effect of aromas and flavors of these complex wines, choose the right wine glass. Both red and white Bordeaux benefit from using the proper wine glass. For more information about which wine glass to use, visit Southern Food and Wine.
About Yvonne Segrave: Cookbook author and wine lover Yvonne Segrave writes about her favorite topics, food and wine, whenever she’s not actually eating or drinking.
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