When one hears “Bordeaux”, the most common assumption a typical wine drinker makes is that of a brooding red wine. Indeed, it’s harder to find an image more stereotypical than that of an aristocratic English gentleman chewing on piece of steak, sipping on a glass of red Bordeax, and puffing on an smoky aromatic cigar. And I agree, in my mind (and on my palate) those latter three ingredients achieve something of a perfect harmony, though one can replace the English gentleman with the non-English self and still achieve bliss. In fact, the British have a more specific name for this red Bordeaux - a "claret" - which is practically synonymous with "Bordeaux".
The brooding red is most traditionally a Cabernet Sauvignon based blend that also includes a significant percentage of Merlot and lesser percentage of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot grapes (and theoretically Malbec, though I did not run into a single mention of Malbec in my 3 days of wine tasting in Bordeaux).
But as with most things in life, Bordeaux is more complicated than a stereotype would have you believe. A week ago, I had the opportunity to visit several sub-regions within Bordeaux, and while there are many areas I did not explore, I did visit the most important appellations that provide for a more complete picture of this versatile region. One particular encounter stands out in my mind as perhaps one of those "moments of epiphany" that passionate wine drinkers sometimes refer to as an event that changed how they view wine.
But before I dive into that story, allow me to set the stage by giving a very basic 2-min refresher of what Bordeaux offers.
Bordeaux is world famous for primarily 3 main kinds of wine:
1. Big powerful reds – deep dark, fruity, earthy, often with tobacco or tea leaf aftertaste. Best aged for at least 5-10 years before drinking. These, of course, divide into multiple appellations with further differentiation of textures and flavor nuances, but the most important division is between the left and the right banks of the Garonne river. The left bank is renowned for its muscular Cabernet Sauvignon dominated reds, while the right bank is Merlot dominated, with sweeter, plummier wines. Both left and right banks produce wines that are tannic, long-lasting, and go great with heavy meats like steak, stew, grilled lamb.
2. Bordeaux also does a great job at world-class dry white wines (called “white Bordeaux”) that are dominated by Sauvignon Blanc. These are are fresh and flavorful, and are riper and rounder with more body and aging potential than New Zealand, California, and Loire Valley (Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé) siblings. It is thanks to blending in the Semillon grape and aging in oak barrels that gives the white Bordeaux the extra body and longevity, and makes it a very substantial white wine that pairs beautifully with non-red-meat foods. Great examples of this come out of Pessac-Léognan area in Graves sub-region of Bordeaux.
3. And finally getting closer to my epiphany story, Bordeaux is home to the world’s perhaps most renowned sweet white wine called Sauternes, named after a village located in Graves where the best examples of this sweet wine are produced. These wines are made from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon (and sometimes Muscadelle) grapes that are affected by a mold called Botrytis that sucks moisture out of them, thus concentrating inherent flavors of grapes as well as adding certain character of the mold itself. Wines made from such grapes are full of apricot and citrus tones. "So what?" - you might say - "There are other fruity sweet white wines that have those flavors - late harvest Rieslings, Ice Wine, sweet Muscats, Tokaji, Coteaux du Layon and Quarts de Chaume (from Loire), etc... is Sauternes really the best?"
Which brings us back to my story...
My wife and I rarely drink dessert wine, and due to its limited use in our family, she was not terribly excited about the whole 1-hr drive to Sauternes through the cold countryside of Bordeaux on early afternoon of Dec 23, 2008. And that indeed was partly my attitude as well, and the reason for my mostly academic curiosity when at approximately 3pm we turned up in front of Chateau Guiraud in Sauternes.
What happened next is the subject of my upcoming post! Talk to you soon.