A Taste of Bordeaux…
When thinking of Bordeaux many of us would envisage lush vineyards laden with ripening grapes. Being the world's largest wine region, there are approximately 120,000 hectares of vines there, with a planting density of almost 6,000 vines per hectare, so at least 720 million vines in Bordeaux alone, all pruned annually, each one by hand. But as in many areas, Bordeaux can also experience some of the most bitterly cold winters, where dedicated teams of people work their way through rows of bare vines pruning as they go. This is a picture repeated all over the world, every year, although particularly in Bordeaux.
The wine regions of Bordeaux lie in the area around the city of Bordeaux within the Gironde department of Aquitaine. The Gironde River divides the region. The Left Bank area includes the Médoc and the sub-regions of St-Estèphe, Pauillac, St.-Julien and Margaux. The Right Bank includes the sub-regions of Saint-Émilion, Pomerol, Bourg and Blaye. Other wine regions include the area of Graves, which is south-east of the Médoc and includes the sub regions of Pessac-Léognan, Sauternes and Barsac. Across from Graves, on the Right Bank, is the Entre-Deux-Mers area between the Gironde and Dordogne rivers. So with all of these sub regions and different laws governing each it’s little wonder that most people find themselves mystified by the complexity of it all.
While winemaking styles vary, the general rule is that the Left Bank produces red wines predominately from the Cabernet Sauvignon grape. The land here is mostly graves or gravel. The Right Bank tends more towards Merlot and the less well-known Cabernet Franc. Here limestone, clay and sand are more prominent. The Graves area produces both red wine and white wine from the Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon grapes. The area of Sauternes and Barsac, which lies south of the city of Bordeaux, are better known for their dessert wines.
All of these regions have their own Appellation and Appellation d'origine contrôlée, laws which dictate the composition of their vineyards, time of harvest and suitable yields as well as various winemaking techniques. Bordeaux wine labels will include the region on the front if all the grapes have been harvested in a specific region.
Let’s take a mosey around the area to see what we can uncover. Firstly to The Medoc located on the Left Bank of the Gironde estuary and to the north of the city of Bordeaux, it is home to around 1,500 vineyards. 40 million bottles of full-bodied fruity red wine are produced here each year. Oak, red fruits, spices & vanilla are the typical aromas of these wines with perfect food pairings to roasted red meats, game and cheeses.
Next we find the area of Margaux, which lays on a soil of white gravel - a special kind of gravel brought from the mountains by the river. Château Margaux is, of course, the most famous Chateau in this area covering approximately 100 hectares (250 acres). They are 18 Grands Crus Classés (great growths) in Margaux. The area produces the most delicate and elegant wines of the Médoc, 9.5 million bottles of medium to full bodied red wine each year that can be aged for 5 to 25 years. Some vintages to look out for 2005, 2003, 2000, 1998, 1995, 1990, 1989, 1986, 1982. Distinctive aromas of Margaux wines are red fruits, toast, coffee and truffles. Try them with roasted duck, game or red meats or a fine cheese board.
The area of Graves is next on our journey lying just outside the city of Bordeaux. It gets its name from the soil; a mix of gravels, clay and sand carried out by the river. The red wines here are recognizable by their garnet red colour, rich, attractive and more robust than the other Médoc wines. Two third of Graves wines are white and are among the best white wines in Bordeaux, they are generally fresh, fruity and dry or semi-dry. The appellation of "Graves supérieurs" is strictly reserved to sweet white wines.
Then on-route we find Sauternes – The King of Sweet Wines. Sauternes is made from Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grapes that have been affected by noble rot, causing the grapes to become partly raisin; this results in concentrated and distinctively flavoured wine. Production can be unpredictable, with widely varying harvests from vintage to vintage, so you can expect to pay quite high prices for these delicacies. The most famous estate in Sauternes, is the Premier Cru Supérieur Château d'Yquem, with Irish connections to Patrick Mac Mahon, dating back to 1877. Impress your guests by serving with Foie Gras, Asparagus, Lobster or trout.
Moving further along and deserving of a little mention is Entre Deux Mers; not exactly between two seas but between the two rivers; the Dordogne and Garonne. Entre-Deux-Mers produces a very good dry, fresh and fruity white wine from the Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle grapes. Winemakers prefer to keep their best grapes for Entre-Deux-Mers instead of Bordeaux AOC. However because of the compact soil, this is not the best place to grow vines in Bordeaux.
Hopping across then to Saint Emilion the oldest wine area of the Bordeaux region. This is a World Heritage site, with fascinating Romanesque churches and ruins stretching all along steep, narrow streets. The Romans planted vineyards here as early as the 2nd century AD. Saint Emilion wines are considered the most robust of Bordeaux. They are full-bodied, very rich and reach maturity quicker than other red Bordeaux. As in Pomerol and other appellations on the right bank of the Gironde, the primary grape varieties used are Merlot and Cabernet Franc, with relatively small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon. Typical aromas would be Truffles, Toasted bread and stewed red fruits. Try with Mushrooms, Game, Salmon, Roasted Lamb.
Exploring further on the right bank we come across the smallest wine producing area in the Bordeaux region with 800 ha, Pomerol. It is more a community where the vineyards are family-shared. You will not find typical huge Bordeaux chateaux as in the Médoc, however Pomerol hosts one of the most famous of all: Chateau Pétrus. Pomerol wine can be very robust but they have an exclusive velvety quality. Pomerol is at its very best when the bottle reaches the age of 15! Lying close by is Fronsac set in a lovely area of hills along the Dordogne and l'Isle rivers. Until the 19th century Fronsac wine was one of the most popular in the region. Merlot is the most important grape here giving to the wine body and richness.
Finally we reach Côtes de Bourg located on the right bank of the Dordogne at the point where it meets the Gironde river. South of Blaye, the small appellation around the village of Bourg produces about 31 million bottles of medium-body red wine from the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec grapes. The wine from Côtes de Bourg is quite tannic with strong aromas of red fruits. You can age this wine from 2 to 5 years with recommended vintages 2003 and 2005. Serve with grilled meats, veal, turkey or pâté.
When you’ve finished exploring the area of the Haute Gironde and enjoying a game of Boules with the locals, you can hop on the car ferry at Blaye that will take you back across the estuary to the Medoc, where you can start all over again…
David’s Top Tips of the Week
§ If you can’t light the BBQ, why not have some friends round for dinner with a difference. Host your own ‘Wine & Food Tasting’…Watch out next week for our Top Tips
§ Check out Aer Arann http://www.aerarann.com/ for frequent flights between Waterford and Bordeaux this summer.
§ Weekend Wine Tastings at The Wine Vault every Friday & Saturday 10.30am to 6.00pm.