Drink More Wine: Clarifying claret

The skinny on dry reds from France's Bordeaux region.

click to enlarge Chateau Mouton-Rothschild is one of Bordeaux's most famous cabernet-based wines. - Dale Cruse
Dale Cruse
Chateau Mouton-Rothschild is one of Bordeaux's most famous cabernet-based wines.

The red wines of Bordeaux have long held a special mystique. Thomas Jefferson, a noted connoisseur, fell in love with the wines of Chateau Lafite (now Lafite-Rothschild). Indeed, the French region is one of the largest wine producers in the world, about seven times the size of California’s Napa Valley. And while, like most things in wine, there is an overwhelming amount of information to master, learning just a few facts can aid in your understanding and appreciation of offerings from this most hallowed of regions.

First of all, unlike Burgundy, which is made from 100-percent pinot noir, the red wines of Bordeaux are all blends, so let’s begin with grapes. The major Bordeaux varietals are cabernet sauvignon and merlot mixed with some cabernet franc. Other grapes may appear in small portions in some blends, but we’ll skip those for now.

For our purposes, I want you to remember that the wines made in the Medoc (the region north of the city) on the left side of the Gironde River are mostly cabernet, and the right bank wines are predominantly merlot (in Pommerol and St. Emilion). These are the only two regions you should remember for red wine on the right bank. All the other wine communes are left bank and cabernet-based. If a French wine says “chateau,” it comes from an existing home in Bordeaux and the acreage attached to that location.

In 1855, the 61 top Medoc chateaux were rated as “grand cru classe” and divided into five levels referred to as “growths.” You may have heard of Bordeaux’s most famous cabernet-based wines, or first-growths. They are Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Ch. Latour, Ch. Margaux, Ch. Haut-Brion and Ch. Mouton-Rothschild, elevated from second- to first-growth status in 1973. The exact ratio of cabernet to merlot varies by chateau and vintage; Medoc wines are roughly two-thirds cabernet.

The most famous right bank wine is Ch. Petrus from Pomerol. It’s 95-percent merlot, but with old vines and low yields, meaning higher quality. For example, it takes Petrus a year to make as much wine by hand with meticulous technique as Gallo produces by machine in six minutes.

When I began studying wine, I learned that the prestige first-growth vintages were 1928, 1945, 1961 and all way beyond my budget. However, I was able to attend the New York Wine Experience (a trade show for professionals and consumers), where they poured a 1961 Haut-Brion.

As I prepared for my first small sip of supposedly profound Bordeaux, I wondered aloud, “What if I can’t tell the difference?” Will my palate recognize the nuances? If it tastes the same to me as the modest wine I’ve been drinking, won’t I be lucky?

Sadly (or is it happily?), it was a life-altering experience that only increased my ardor. Get to know a wine merchant. Start with a $20 Bordeaux and work your way up. Or, empty your bank account at Bern’s for a 1916 Margaux.

By the way, claret is the British name for dry reds from this region. Next month, we’ll look at a Bordeaux strategy that won’t explode the budget. 

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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