Thursday, May 16, 2013

Journey To The Dark Side (a.k.a Bordeaux) *by JS*

Place De La Bourse, Bordeaux

Every wine enthusiast journey begins with the clarets  of the new world(Australia, south America, etc). It must be the fruitiness that a primary palate can appreciate, hence the inclination towards new world wines. As time passes, the taste gets more discerning and sophisticated and there is also this yearning for better and better wines. Unfortunately the new world is “limited” when it comes to such a demand. This is the turning point where most people will turn to French Bordeaux wines. However even wines from this great region of France will not satisfy them in their quest for great wines. Rhone valley wines will be next in line and eventually they will arrive at the pinnacle of wine appreciation, that’s Burgundy wines. By this time there would be no turning back…….and they would have turn away from the dark side forever!
My wine journey also has it’s humble beginning down under in Australia and I used to think that’s the best wine in the world and nothing and nobody was gonna change my preference……..until one fine day a good friend introduced me to a  Burgundy red wine. That blew me away and as  I dwell further into the region, the history, the communes and its AOC(Appellation D’origine Controlee), the domains, the wine making, the passion( or was it the madness??), etc,  I knew life will never be the same again! Hence we never really went through the typical growth curve but instead leapfrog from new world directly into Burgundy! With so much passion for Burgundy wines, we have made many trips and pilgrimage to the this very special region of the world but deep down inside, we felt there was something lacking…..something that needs to be fulfilled. This is especially true When we are amongst our wino friends and Bordeaux was being discussed, we kind of feel unable to participate and contribute! It was when we realize that have out grown Bordeaux very quickly without dwelling enough in it and need to take a step backwards to re-visit this very important wine region. Hence our journey to the dark side began :)

The best way to learn about a place is to read a lot about it and for sure you need to make a trip. We fast track(1 month) the learning process  which the highlight was a 5 days trip to Bordeaux.
Bordeaux like anyway else(Paris included) in France is categorically divided into left bank and right bank of which the Garonne river joins up with the Dordogne river to form the Gironde River which drains into the Atlantic ocean.
map stolen from Google :)

In a nutshell, The wine sub-region of the left bank include Medoc and Graves of which can be subdivided further into communes or AOC like Paulliac, Margaux, St Julien, St Estephe, Pessac Leognan, Sauternes,  etc and which can be subdivided into the respective chateaus and their plot of dirt.
For the right bank the main sub-region or AOC include Pomerol and St Emillon and her satellite communes. Such prestigious Chateaus like Petrus, Le Pin, Chateau Cheval Blanc, Ausone, etc belongs to this sub-region.

In contrast left and right bank wines do vary substantially albeit the fact that the whole Aquitaine region is actually quite small but yet there is such huge variation in the end product. This is a result of the terroir and climat and micro climat of the communes which affects the grape varietal grown there.
On the left bank where the soil generally consist of well drained alluvial silt and pebbles, left behind by the retreating glaciers are perfect for cultivating the thick skin  Cabernet sauvignon grapes whilst on the right bank where the soil is mainly blue clay(in Pomerol) and terraced limestone in St Emillon, of which Merlot and Cabernet Franc grape varietal proliferate in this poor soil conditions. The poorer the soil condition, the harder the grapevines have to work to look for water, food and nutrients. In this case the roots of the grapevines will dig deep into the sub soil layer soaking up the chalk and other minerals and nutrients resulting in a more complex and sophisticated end product which is the wine.
Under each AOC or commune there is a classification system to rank the Chateaus. For instance on the left bank, Chateau Lafite, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Haut Brion and Chateau Mouton Rothschild are ranks as premier grand cru classe(ie, the best of the best) under the Medoc 1855 classification. The 1855 Medoc classification did not include Chateaus on the right bank…….i think it’s a bit prejudicial because the right bank also have wineries producing one of the finest wines in the world. This is none other than Chateau Petrus, Le Pin, Cheval Blanc, Chateau Ausone, Chateau Angelus and so on.
It is interesting to note that under the AOC of Pomerol, there is no ranking or classification system but yet when one think of Bordeaux, Chateau Petrus always appear on top!! Basically the wine producers don’t believe in a classification. Perhaps it’s works on a reputation system viz a viz a classification system…….but whatever it is, it works and wines from Cheteau Petrus and Le Pin are amongst the most sort after and expensive wines in the world!
As for the AOC of St Emillon,  the typical cepage here in wine making are cabernet franc, merlot and some cabernet sauvignon. This is the only commune that utilises the majority of cabernet franc in the wine making. This varietal of grape gives the wine structure and fruitiness. I like the wines from this historical commune especially the wines from Chateau Figeac which is located next to Chateau Cheval blanc.

St Emillon town-a very historical town named after the monk St Emillon who made this place his hermitage. It is now a UNESCO world heritage site.”

During our visit to Bordeaux, we travelled along the Route des Chateau on the left bank which is equivalent to Route des Grand Cru in Burgundy.
We passed by and visited some of the following chateaus of which many are world renowned and visits are “by appointment only”!

Chateau Lafite, the most famous chateau in the world

Chateau Margaux  “elegant but majestic””
Chateau Haut Brion   “looks exactly like the label on a bottle of Chateau Haut Brion wine”
Chateau Cos d’Estournel-one of the 15 Deuxiemes Crus(second growth) under the 1855 Medoc classification

On the right bank I noticed the wineries although called Chateaus but in reality are just large houses and are dwarfed by the left bank’s Chateaus.
Infact we noticed many of the Domaines are renovating their winery with a modern twist. It is definitely strange that the wineries turn their back on tradition in place of modernisation. I would have thought the French winemakers would have somehow maintained their proud traditional heritage.

Chateau Ausone-perched on the hill top, this is one of the premier grand cru wines of St Emission

 Chateau Petrus-this Domaine needs no introduction but the "chateau" is not impressive at all

 wanna guess which Chateau??       

“this is so understated. It’s hardly even a big house and yet its call Chateau Le Pin and producing one of Bordeaux’s finest wines. The production is only 600-700 cases per year!!

Chateau Figeau-My favourite wine during this trip to Bordeaux…..this is next to Chateau Cheval Blanc and rumours have it that they are negotiating to buy over chateau Figeac”

Deep colored full body red from the very Terroir that we are sitting on during lunch at St Emillon

Bordeaux as everyone knows is world renowned for her red wines but the greatest discovery and surprise and revelation for us on this trip are the great white wines of Bordeaux. Made generally from the Sauvignon blanc and Semillon grapes, these whites are rare as hen’s teeth. For instance Chateau Haut Brion from the AOC of Pessac Leognan produces only 600-700 cases per year whilst her sister chateau across the road, Le Mission Haut Brion produce approximately similar quantities. Other chateaus that produces great white wines are Domaine du Chevalier and Chateau Smith Haut Lafite. The Bordeaux whites are characterized by the signature exotic tropical fruity nose and the rich palate and a long finish. It is best drank young for one to enjoy the freshness and the fruitiness. However it’s also a white wine made to age and comes along with aging, one will get complexity and secondary aromas. It is by no means cheap and buying a bottle of Haut Brion blanc can set you back on a whole month’s salary :) Contrary to most people's impression, the Blancs from a similar Chateau are more expensive than their red counterparts!

After spending 5 days in Bordeaux and running all over the left and right bank, we now begin to see the light beyond the dark side. I must say it was indeed an eye opener and slightly regretted that we did not do this trip in the early years. Albeit the short 5 days(we wished it could be longer)We visited several Chateaux and vineyards which will be subject of a separate post. Had numerous lunches and dinners ranging from friendly street side stalls to michelin star restaurant. Had picnic in the park and sitting amongst and behaving like the Bordelais. Drank a hell of a lot of Bordeaux wines both red and white and the pleasant surprises and discoveries we encountered each time with these wines. Through all that however the one thing that really stood out for us was the friendly and peaceful people of Bordeaux who are proud to show and teach us about their incredible wine heritage and that will definitely bring us back to this beautiful Acquitaine region of France in the very near future.

1 comment:

CHER-RY said...

I had a very educational trip to Bordeaux. Thank you for prepping me up 1 month in advance with all the information and studies and notes. Reading me "bed time" stories of Bordeaux and its terroir hahahahaha. I came back an enriched person when it comes to wines from this region :)))))