My first experience with Bordeaux wines was not a pleasant one. It was 8 a.m., and the previous evening's drink-fest had ended only a few hours before. A Bordeaux barrel tasting loomed in my immediate future, though Lord knows I wanted to cancel. Let me tell you about tasting wine straight from the aging barrel: It can either be a wonderful preview of a delicious wine in the making, or an exercise in big, tannic, furry-tongued horror. And my tongue was already hairy enough, thank you.
Post-barrel tasting, I couldn't help wondering why wine geeks continually swooned over Bordeaux wines. What was the big deal? Ever in search of answers, I put my hangover traumas aside and attended a Bordeaux tasting event. To my astonishment, the wines were fruity, accessible and delicious. To save others from similar ignorance, I'm sharing my newfound Bordeaux enlightenment. Just stay away from those 8 a.m. barrel samples and you'll be fine.
Located in western France, Bordeaux is the world's largest fine wine region. It's divided into 57 appellations (designated wine regions), the most famous of which are Medoc, Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, Graves and Sauternes. With more than 9,000 chateaux (a.k.a. wineries) and 13,000 grape growers in Bordeaux (restricted to growing certain grape varietals), wine styles can vary widely — from simple, refreshing whites to rich, tannic reds that will age for decades.
Red wines, for which Bordeaux is most famous, are usually blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, but sometimes include Malbec and Petit Verdot. Bordeaux reds range in style from medium-light-bodied and fruity to full-bodied and tannic.
Bordeaux also produces both dry and sweet white wines, which can be made with Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon or Muscadelle grapes. The dry whites are aromatic and fruity, while the sweet wines are rich and concentrated.
Wine geeks go gaga over Bordeaux, especially the reds, because they can develop deliciously complex flavors and aromas over long periods of time. The average red will age 5-15 years, while some will keep going for 50 years or more. Sweet dessert whites, like Sauternes, also have great aging power.
Since there are so many different Bordeaux wines, various ranking systems were created to let consumers know what level of quality they're buying. These rankings determine how the wines are labeled. If a wine label sports "Bordeaux," it's a cheap, easy drinkin' table wine. If it's labeled "Bordeaux," plus the region where it was produced (such as, "Bordeaux Graves"), it means the wine was made with grapes grown in a particular area. The best quality (and most expensive) wines are labeled "Bordeaux," plus the region and a chateau name (such as "Bordeaux Graves Chateau Graville-Lacoste").
There are also ranking systems to identify the best Chateaux within certain regions. Medoc's classification system dates back to 1855, when Bordeaux brokers ranked the top Chateaux in descending order of superiority, from First Growth (Premier Cru) to Fifth Growth (Cinquieme Cru). The designated First Growths are Lafite-Rothschild, Margaux, Latour, Haut-Brion and Mouton-Rothschild. These are considered among the world's finest wine producers. Other areas, such as St-Emilion and Graves, have their own ranking systems.
Even if you don't have the bucks to afford a First Growth (and who does?), there's a Bordeaux wine out there for all budgets. Here are a few good values you can drink now or hang onto a while.
1999 Chateau du Tertre ($25) — Fruity and accessible, with balanced raspberry and oak flavors.
1999 Chateau Phelan Segur ($35) — Tart cherry flavors and a good balance between fruit and tannins.
1999 Chateau Carbonnieux ($35) — This white Bordeaux has a great pear aroma, refreshing fruitiness and a slightly spritzy texture.
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