Feeling All at Sea about Bordeaux?

The vineyards of this single region of France far exceed the acreage under vines of countries such as New Zealand and Germany, and are not far behind that of countries such as South Africa and Australia

Whatever about drinking it, just thinking about wine can give you a headache if you don’t approach it with moderation. The history of wine goes back 8,000 years. There are more than 10,000 wine grape varietals in the world and even using the same grapes will produce different tastes in different parts of the world, depending on the soil, climate and methods used. And even then, how the wine tastes to you in the glass may depend as much on the lighting of the room you’re in as the actual taste of what’s in the glass. It’s a vast world of terroirs, traditions, technologies, climates, customs, varietals, variables, weird words and, frankly, weirder points of view. To sauvignon blanc fans, the scent of cat pee is to be welcomed, for example. This makes wine selection for a lot of people something of a shot in the dark based on vague ideas around preferences and unreliable indicators such as price.

No wonder if it all feels very arcane, impenetrable and, frankly, intimidating. But as with so many things, building up bite-sized understandings around wine is one of those things that always yields wider insights than at first thought. Which brings us to Bordeaux, perhaps one of the least bite-sized wine-producing regions of them all. With 110,000 hectares under vines — around one and a half times the size of Pailin Province — the vineyards of this single region of France far exceed the acreage under vines of countries such as New Zealand and Germany, and are not far behind that of countries such as South Africa and Australia.

On the other hand, they’ve only been producing wine for 2,000 years and the overwhelming majority of the near one-billion bottles of wine that Bordeaux produces each year are derived from just three grapes. So it already looks a little more manageable. In a global scheme of things at least. So here’s a whistestop tour of the regions you’ll find represented on Topaz’s menu.

For the most part, Bordeaux wines are red. Indeed, many are surprised by a mention of white Bordeaux, which is not surprising as whites account for just 8% (around five million cases) of the annual production. We can save those for another day. For the reds with which most people are familiar, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon reign supreme, with Cabernet Franc trailing, importantly, behind. Between them, they account for 88% of all grapes cultivated in Bordeaux. Another three varieties, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carmenere, account for just over 1% more of terrain.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are responsible for the gutsy fruitiness for which Bordeaux wines are famous, and also for their enduring appeal as wines for laying down for the future. These two grapes have been reliable bedfellows in Bordeaux, and beyond, for centuries with Cabernet Sauvignon’s tannins providing the deep flavour, austere structure and durability, which are in turn mellowed by Merlot’s lush fruitiness. The third wheel, Cabernet Franc, is lighter bodied with a distinct herby fragrance.

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But given Bordeaux’s size, and the consequent diversity in weather, soils and traditions, how these grapes express themselves depends a lot on where they’ve been cultivated. Bordeaux itself is divided by the Gironde Estuary, which splits as it approaches the city. This estuary is why you may have heard of Left and Right Bank wines from the region.

On the Left Bank, Médoc is Bordeaux’s, and possibly the world’s, most famous wine district. Once nothing but unremarkable salt-marshes and pine forests, the marshes have long since been drained and the forests retained to help protect vines from the harsh Atlantic winds. Underneath, gravelly soil provides much needed drainage and heat retention for one the wettest and mildest parts of Bordeaux.

Médoc is further divided between Bas-Médoc and Haut-Médoc (Low and High-Médoc). Bas-Médoc wines are generally noted for being easy-drinking, with less acidity and notes of berries, liquorice and roasted coffee. These can be drunk on their own, but are elevated when paired with rich red meats such as beef, lamb and duck, firm-flavoured cheeses such as Brie, Gouda and Comté, and robust desserts like tiramisu.

If you’re looking for a quality wine, then you’ll want a Haut-Médoc, at the southern end of the Médoc flank. This is where you’ll find the ultra-prestige appellations, Margaux, Moulis, Listrac, St-Julien, Pauillac and St. Estèphe. This is where you’ll find wines that are deeper, more complex, acidic, with more structure and texture thanks to the tannins, and with notes of liquorice, blackberry and spices. This might be a bit strong to swill on its own, but goes beautifully with rich meats and cheeses, or perhaps something as simply but umami-rich as a mushroom omelette.

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Further south of the Médoc is Graves, which benefits from the same gravelly terrain as Haut-Médoc. However, they use more Merlot and Cabernet Franc in their blends to create wines that are more aromatic, but with good structure, and notes of chocolate, spices, vanilla and roasted coffee. Graves is also home to Pessac-Léognan, one of the youngest, but best known appellations.

Over on the right side of the estuary you find Libournais, home to some of the most sought-after names in Bordeaux, in particular Saint-Émilion, Pomerol and Fronsac. Here, Merlot’s and Cabernet Franc’s dominance gives robustly plummy wines with a gentler character than their Left-Bank cousins. Saint-Émilion is especially renowned for its deep, rich and “fleshy” wines, but the highly diverse soils and blends used mean that choosing a Saint-Émilion is not strictly a task for the light-hearted, or light-pocketed.

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Finally, we have Bordeaux Supérieur which is part of the Bordeaux AOC appellation. Bordeaux Supérieur are noted for their robustness and complexity, with generously fruity, floral and spicy overtones.

This is one of the most wide-ranging appellations, covering a huge area of Bordeaux with differing climates, soils and conditions. As a result, it can be more unpredictable, but the higher standards applied to Bordeaux Supérior, such as using older vines in smaller, but more densely cultivated, parcels, as well as a minimum ageing period, help to take some of the guesswork out of the game. However, on a carefully chosen menu, such as Topaz, there’s no need to guess at all, while our highly trained Sommelier is also on hand to answer any questions you may have.

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