Geography and Climate
Bordeaux, the 8th largest city in France, lies about 30 miles from the Atlantic Coast. It is about 300 miles SSE of Paris. It is just south of the 45th (N) parallel (same lattitude as the northern extreme of New York State!) The region, which surrounds the city, has a climate moderated by the Atlantic (no high elevations between the coast and the vineyards). It receives an average of 33 inches of rain per year, and has a similar growing season temperature to the cooler parts of the Napa Valley. Summers are generally warm and dry, but sometimes the rainy season and harvest coincide. Near the city of Bordeaux, two rivers merge to form the 'Gironde'. They are the Garonne (S) and Dordogne (N)
Bordeaux is considered the wine capital of France. It is the largest producing appellation by far (just under twice as much wine as the Rhone). Much wine from other parts of France is exported from its port. It has had a very busy 'wine history'. It is part of the ancient kingdom of "Guyenne".
Towards the southern end of the Graves and Entre-Deux-Mers regions, along the Garonne River, exists a microclimate which fosters fogs in the autumn that are essential in the growth of the Botrytis Cinerea mold; this helps make the exotic sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac, and to a lesser extent the 'Entre-Deux-Mers' sweet wines of Loupiac, Cadillac, and Ste-Croix-du-Mont.
"Aquitaine Basin" (Fr Bassin) (Aquitaine is Latin for "A well-watered place")
It is believed that the basin down-warped when the Pyrenees were rising (75M-35M years ago).
The basin is full of sediments, from 3 main sources:
Erosion of the Pyrenees
Erosion of the Massif Central
Ocean sediments deposited during warm periods between ice ages (when sea level rose).
[The Gironde is a 'drowned estuary' (like the Chesapeake Bay and the Hudson's mouth).
This is the result of the river cutting deeply during a cold period (low sea level); later, when much of the continental ice caps melted, sea level rose to flood the mouths of these rivers.
Here in Acquitaine, this happened many times]
The 'Left Bank' (Medoc & Graves)
Mud flats left by the retreating seas contained pockets of brackish water which made much of northwestern Bordeaux swampy ("left bank" of the Gironde). These mud flats were drained by Dutch engineers during the reign of Louis XIV (Sun King) 1643-1715. This made the gravel beds of this area better drained (lower water table) and thus able to support vine growth. The gravel (Graves means 'gravel') visible on the surface is a cover for more fertile and water-retaining, lens-shaped layers of clay/sand/silt which lie underneath.
The 'Right Bank' and Entre-Deux-Mers
These two regions are more hilly and contain a lot of lime/chalk. The hills were formed during an uplift, which for some reason didn't affect the Left Bank. The soils are heavier and retain water better vs those of the Left Bank. The formation is basically an uneven plateau, with moderate elevation and varying surface layers, primarily marl and decomposed limestone.
- 1st century BC: City established by Romans as a trading port for wine and other goods. No wine yet.
- c200AD Planting of vineyards around Bordeaux begun on widespread basis
- c 300AD Roman poet Ausonius had an estate with vineyards in Bordeaux region
- After the fall of the Roman Empire, the town of Bordeaux was sequentially invaded by various 'tribes'
- 1152 Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II of England; this began 3 centuries of British control of the region.
- 1300's Wine was very perishable and Bordeaux could (and did) favor its own wines by holding up shipment of other wines (from further inland) at its port.
- 1338 The "100-years War" began, it culminated in 1453 at the Battle of Castillon, with the English losing control of the area.
- 1600's Draining of Medoc marshlands by Dutch engineers. They also persuaded some French vineyard owners to switch from red wines to sweet whites (Sauternes, Bergerac, etc)
- 1855 Classification of the "wines of Bordeaux" (really just Medoc and Graves) Grand Cru (Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Haut Brion) (Mouton added later- 1973!)
- 1899 & 1900 'Twin' great vintages in Bordeaux
(others include 1906, 20, 29, 45,  61, 82, 2000?, & 2005?)
- Post WWII, Bordeaux wines became popular again in the US and in other export markets
- 1970's and 1980's Japanese market became significant, especially for top wines
Culture, Food, and Drink
Lampray eels in red wine. Sauternes with foie gras or with Roquefort. Macaroons in St. Emilion
Duck; Black truffles (Perigord is nearby)
Nearby brandy regions of Cognac (north) and Armagnac (south). Walnut liqueurs (esp in Dordogne)
The Bordeaux Grape Varietals
Cabernet Sauvignon (60-80% of Medoc red grapes)
Produces perhaps the longest-lived wines, is the principal grape of the Left Bank
[There is good evidence that Cabernet Sauvignon was an accidental field cross between
Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.]
Merlot (most widely planted red grape in Gironde, almost 2X Cab. S. and 3X Cab. F.)
Softens the blend and adds different flavors, richness, and early drinkability
Produces better wines on heavier soils (more clay) than Cabernet Sauvignon
Ripens earlier than either Cabernet
Cabernet Franc (widely used as 'minority partner' of Merlot on the right bank, also used on left bank)
Lightens the blend, gives more aromatic quality to wines
Ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon
Reds: Secondary: Malbec, Petit Verdot, Carmenè re
Sauvignon Blanc (predominates in dry white wines)
Sharp, herbal aromatics, medium-light body, high acidity. Ripens early.
Semillon (predominates in sweet wines)
Subtle aromatics, rich, high-alcohol wines. Thin skin favors Botrytis formation and
dehydration. Tends towards low acidity.
Muscadelle (small amounts in sweet wines), Sauvignon Gris, Ugni Blanc*, Colombard
* French name for the grape called Trebbiano in Italy
The Bordeaux Sub-Regions
These are some of the world's best wines. Buying wine on 'futures' basis is dominated by Bordeaux.
89% of AC wine of Gironde department is red.
(Northern Medoc, Haut-Medoc, and Graves) Primary grape is Cabernet Sauvignon
Haut-Medoc is the home of famous sub-appellations (but is also its own 'generic' AOC):
Pauillac (home of Chateaux Latour, Lafite, and Mouton)
Margaux (home of Chateau Margaux)
Northern Medoc (no classified growths) ["Medoc" AOC]
Graves (home of Chateau Haut Brion); also makes white under "Pessac-Leognan" AC
Longest-lived wines of Bordeaux (and possibly in France)
(St Emilion/Pomerol and satellites; Fronsac & Cô tes de /Blaye/Bourg/Castillon/Francs)
Only red wines with above AC's
Merlot predominates, Cabernet Franc second
The wines are soft and rich and quicker maturing than left-bank wines
The flavors are considered not as 'classical' as those of Medoc and Graves reds
3"Great Wines" are produced here:
- Chateaux Petrus (Pomerol)
- Cheval Blanc (St Emilion)
"Between two Seas" (triangular-shaped region between Dordogne and Garonne)
Wines with this AC are all white. Reds can be produced here, but are labeled as "Bordeaux/Bordeaux Superieur". The dry white wines are light but distinctive, and usually excellent value.
Southern Bordeaux (Sweet white wines)
Best come from Sauternes, followed by Barsac (closer to the Garonne on south side of river)
Soils on the south side are iron-rich and gravelly/sandy
Barsac's soils are slightly richer and have more iron content
Other good/excellent-value sweet white wines come from "Entre-Deux-Mers" side of the Garonne: Loupiac, Ste-Croix-du-Mont, Cadillac (less Botrytis than on south side). These wines are
usually lighter and less-sweet than Sauternes. This is sometimes an advantage.
Bordeaux Communes (villages)
Pauillac is the most celebrated of all of the tiny villages that make up the Bordeaux sub-region of the Medoc. This is because within its confines are 3 of the 5 Chateaux awarded the top category of Grand Cru in the Medoc-Graves Classification. The 3 are Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Latour, and Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, which didn't receive its Grand Cru status until 1973- the only revision that has ever been made to the original 1855 listing. Pauillac also is home to many other classified wine chateaux that are almost as famous: Pichon-Lalande, Pichon-Baron, D'Armailhac, Duhart-Milon-Rothschild, Pontet-Canet, Grand-Puy-Lacoste and Grand Puy-Ducasse, Lynch-Bages and Lynch-Moussas, Haut-Bages Liberal, Pedasclaux, Clerc-Milon, Croizet-Bages, and Batailley; also the highly-regarded but unclassified Haut-Batailley, which was split from the original Chateau Batailley long after the 1855 classification. The best Pauillac wines (and also the best in other Haut-Medoc communes) come from vineyards that are said to have a 'view of the Gironde'. These vineyards have slightly higher elevation (thicker subsoil above the water table) and a warmer climate due to the heat-retaining effect of the nearby water. The soils contain heavy gravel and iron-rich sands that also contain limestone. These combine to provide good drainage and a supply of nutrients and minerals to the vines. The entire Pauillac AOC area is about 2 miles wide and 4 miles long.
Pauillac is viticulturally Cabernet Sauvignon territory. Elsewhere in Bordeaux (especially on the right bank), Merlot may dominate and Cabernet Franc may be the co-star of the wine blends, but in Pauillac the blends lean decidedly towards Cabernet Sauvignon. It is the latest-ripening of the trio, but it also gives the wines with the most longevity. Pauillac wines need time to peak; they are often described as having cassis/blackcurrant or blackberry flavors, with overtones of cedar and tobacco (mostly from the new oak barrels used for ageing) and, in their prime, an unforgettable spice-box melange of aromatics.
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