Samui Wining & Dining
Bordeauxʼs Blockbusters

Or a lovely drop of Claret.


22Bordeaux... just the name conjures up all sorts of extraordinary wine expectations. And for so many wine drinkers around the world, red Bordeaux, or Claret as the British have always known it, can be the epitome of fine wine. The best wines exhibit a wonderful complexity of aromas and flavours, great elegance and refinement and an ability to age gracefully, some for a hundred years.

      Despite being considered archaic by many progressive wine buffs, Appellation Contrôlée (often abbreviated to AOC) still dogmatically governs all of France. AOC covers a certain geographical district and stipulates production methods (including grape variety) of wine within that district. Even after 150 years, the classification remains more-or-less unchanged. But it is worth remembering that many of the original classified Chateaus in Bordeaux are still producing some of the world's greatest wines (in dollar terms at least).

      Today, the five ‘blockbuster’ Bordeaux wines, from the iconic Chateaus of Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion, and Mouton-Rothschild, command very high prices, to the extent that only investors acquire the great vintages. And who knows if they will ever be drunk? Sadly, the fate of the modern classic is often to be hidden away for decades, locked in a darkened room somewhere in the Far East, simply to be auctioned off again to another heartless investor.

      Although the ‘great’ Clarets draw a lot of attention, Bordeaux does produce a large quantity of relatively inexpensive ‘everyday’ wine. And the region also enjoys an enthusiastic following for its very attractive, reliable white wine and sweet wine options. But it cannot be denied that the Bordeaux legend has been built on a foundation of red wine, for hundreds of years, forged in large part by that historical, and somewhat symbiotic, relationship with the British over the highly coveted Claret.

       When it comes to vintage quality, Bordeaux’s climate is a critical factor. Located in the southwest corner of France, just miles from the Atlantic Ocean, Bordeaux benefits considerably from the coastal maritime influence, and typically enjoys wet springs, fairly gentle summers and mild winters. The Gulf Stream exerts a warming influence on the region, yet summer weather can be fickle and inconsistent, making for interesting issues when it comes to getting grapes to fully ripen. With great vintages built on the backs of well-ripened grapes and intended to age for the long haul, and good vintages, maintaining the silver lining of being ready to drink earlier, and selling at more affordable prices, the best vintages are always the warm ones. Bordeaux can be a cool climate for red grapes, which need plenty of sun to reach full maturity, with optimum levels of sugar and tannin. Mature grapes create great wines. And great vintages are built to cellar. They have a density, intensity and overall complexity that will only get more interesting with age. Recent Bordeaux vintages that fall into the great category include 2005, 2009 and 2010.

         Don’t expect to find the grapes on the labels of Bordeaux wines, you’ll find producer names, various villages, appellations and AOC designations, but not grapes. Why? Mystical wine folklore, it’s where the grapes are grown - the terroir, the region, the village, the chateau itself that is most important. This can make it tough to navigate Bordeaux wines for New World consumers, who tend to be more grape-centric, born and raised on the varietal label. Remember the name of the game in Bordeaux is blend. But not just the dominant grapes, it’s the combination of the climate, soil and overall metaphysical nature that creates a wine from Bordeaux, and certainly nothing as mundane as the individual grape varieties!

         However, the simple fact, which guileful wine aficionados love to complicate, is that Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are the primary red grapes grown in Bordeaux. Weighing in at 60% and 26% respectively of the vines planted, with Cabernet Franc at 12%. Malbec and Petit Verdot may also be grown in Bordeaux, but they are grown in much smaller quantities and are used more for “seasoning.”

         White wines make up about 11% of Bordeaux’s total wine market. And Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, the floral Muscadelle and Ugni Blanc are the only four grape varieties allowed to participate in the white wine AOC labelled blends of Bordeaux. For a lean, dry white wine, brimming with acidity and food-friendly character, look for labels sporting the district of Entre-Deux-Mers. If you prefer more body and complexity, then scout labels with district designates of Pessac-Leognan, or the ever-popular Graves.

         It’s certainly true that labels focusing on geography and highlighting a wine’s AOC classification, makes buying wine from Bordeaux an intimidating experience. And there are often supercilious discussions amongst Bordeaux devotees, especially about whether a vineyard lies on the left or right riverbank. Why does it matter? Actually, it doesn’t really matter that much, but to the west of the river Gironde, the vineyards of the Médoc and Graves are based on gravelly soil, and are planted mainly with Cabernet Sauvignon vines. To the east lie Pomerol and St-Emilion, two smaller areas of predominantly clay soil, planted with a higher proportion of Merlot. Hence we have ‘left bank’ and ‘right bank’ wines.

         In fact, vintage is a far more important consideration - it’s the critical factor in buying Bordeaux wines. It should come as no surprise that big name Chateaus secure astronomical prices for their great vintages, but you still can find solid red wine blends, at reasonable (ish) prices, from Bordeaux's more modest Chateaus. Although there’s no getting away from the fact that you still pay a premium, merely for the bumptious Bordeaux AOC classification.


Peter James


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