Bordeaux. The mere mention of the name conjures up images of centuries-old chateaus, pristine vineyards and superlative wines that have set the highest standards the world over.
Bordeaux wine styles are the dreams, the ultimate goal of Cabernet and/or Merlot winemakers everywhere. Whether the wines are called Cabernet–Merlot blends, Meritage, or simply Bordeaux-style blends, the styles from this region of France are the most copied.
I confess that I first started out as a Bordeaux wine lover a long time ago; it was the inspiration behind my home winemaking book Techniques in Home Winemaking. Over the years, I have come to love many other styles and types of wines, but last fall, I wanted to rekindle this first love and visit and discover the region; I had never been. So my wife and I embarked on a seven-day trip to Bordeaux to get acquainted with this French region, its wineries, its food and its culture. The end of October was the perfect time right after harvest allowing wineries to host us. The warm days and cool evenings were just perfect too.
Here I share my adventures during my visit, the wine-tasting experiences, and some of the winemaking techniques I observed. My focus during the trip was on reds and the sweet wines of Sauternes, and visiting a few handpicked and some of the best estates given our limited time. Many properties are not open to the public while a few provide guided tours and special wine tasting for those in the winemaking trade. Others offer comprehensive tours, such as the three-hour tour and tasting at Château Mouton Rothschild for 40 Euro — about $50 US (1 Euro = approx. CAD$1.41 or US$1.26).
But to truly appreciate Bordeaux and its famed wines, we need to first understand its geography and grape varieties grown, although for this story I purposely omitted discussing the 1855 classification of Bordeaux wines and other more recent classifications.
Overview of the Region and its Wines
The Bordeaux region is in southwestern France in close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean with the Gironde estuary stretching southeast from the Atlantic, splitting into two smaller estuaries: The Garonne River flowing from further southeast and the Dardogne River flowing from the east. See the map below. The sea and rivers greatly influence the weather, very favorably for growing grapevines.
The rivers divide the region into two major wine-producing areas with the most-sought-after wines: the Left Bank, located west of the Garonne, and the Right Bank, located north of the Dardogne. There is relatively very little white wine produced in these areas. A third region, appropriately named Entre-Deux-Mers (literally between two seas), is nestled between the Left and Right Banks.
The Left Bank includes such appellations as Pessac-Léognan, Graves, Haut-Médoc, Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac and Saint-Estèphe. Cabernet Sauvignon is king here, making up the majority of what are known as red “Bordeaux blends.” Other important components include Cabernet Franc and Merlot with perhaps a small amount of Petit Verdot, usually no more than 5% of the blend. Some blends may also include tiny amounts of Malbec. The wines tend to be bold and rich when young but develop complexity and silky tannins with aging. Wines produced from great vintages can last several decades and more.
The vines here are trained relatively low for protection against the harsher winter conditions compared to Right Bank vineyards.
Further south of the Left Bank lies the golden — and my favorite — region, Sauternes. Although there is relatively very little white wine produced west of the Gironde and Garonne rivers, the Sauternes appellation produces mainly sweet white wines from Botrytis-affected (noble rot) grapes from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon.
The Right Bank includes such appellations as Saint-Émilion and Pomerol with historic, charming towns and scenic wine estates. Merlot is king here, making up the majority of red blends with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in smaller proportions. In some cases, such as famed Château Pétrus, wineries choose to make 100% Merlot reds. Merlot makes these wines softer and much more approachable in their youth with less aggressive tannins; however, Left Bank wines, too, can age for decades.
Entre-Deux-Mers is more diversified producing relatively larger amounts of white wines, including a sweet wine in Loupiac and Sainte-Croix-du-Mont in the Sauternes style, and some generic reds.
Left Bank Wineries
Our first stop almost quite literally off the plane Monday morning was at Château Smith Havt-Lafitte (sic) followed by Château Pape-Clément, both in Pessac-Léognan.
I am very fond of Smith Havt-Lafitte and their wines as they offer better value for topnotch quality, particularly their “second label” bottling, Les Havts de Smith. A second label is made from wine that did not meet the high standards required for the first label, and so, very often it is priced considerably lower. Many wineries also have a third label, again priced very attractively for the quality. This strategy allows them more product and marketing flexibility, particularly in off vintages where perhaps only tiny quantities of first-label wines were produced.
My personal highlight from the tour at Smith Havt-Lafitte was observing the winemaker stirring the lees in barrels using a traditional lees stirrer, the kind I use. The advantage of this stirrer versus 2-paddle models is that it introduces negligible oxygen into the wine. Lees stirring, called bâtonnage in French, is a technique that involves stirring the spent yeast deposit (fine lees) from fermentation during the aging period to increase aroma and flavor complexity and intensity.
I also enjoy Pape-Clément wines though they are quite a bit pricier. This more-modern chateau is located on a rather busy thoroughfare, not out in vineland as I expected. They have invested in some new equipment and technology that would be the envy of any winemaker. There, I “touched” for the first time a concrete egg-shaped tank — yes, there was only one; perhaps the winery is conducting some research before investing in more.
These tanks are a throwback to the days of concrete tanks but with a new technological twist to improve the winemaking. Concrete is a breathable material and is believed to affect wine chemistry due to the exchange of an infinitesimally small amount of air between the inside and outside of the tanks. And the egg shape enhances the natural sedimentation process as there are no vertical walls as in straight stainless-steel tanks. Some also believe that the shape causes a vortex of sort that promotes a more efficient fermentation. And so, many curious North American commercial wineries have been experimenting with these over the last decade or so.
But the highlight of this tour was seeing délestage (more on this later) in action with absolutely no one around. The wine was being pumped back into a big stainless steel tank unattended; it was splashing so vigorously that it was frothing.
We spent Tuesday visiting Château Giscours in Margaux in the morning and Château Mouton Rothschild in Pauillac in the afternoon, and driving around snapping pictures of other favorite wineries in these and nearby appellations. Even if there are no tours offered, I believe that one must visit as many wineries as possible if only to say “I was there” and to take pictures.
I love Château Giscours and their wines already, but the reception we received there was extraordinary. The private tour was outstanding. Seeing winery workers (known as cellar rats) running about emptying and cleaning tanks, the host letting us taste and compare tank samples made for a most memorable visit.
There were two highlights here. The first was the rosé and the second the workers in bladder presses. Bordeaux is not known for making rosé, but Giscours made a tiny 16-hL (approximately 400 gallons) batch from recently-harvested Cabernet Sauvignon using the saignée method with a very short maceration with the skins, but it is not marketed. The French like rosés totally dry, unlike some popular sweet blush wines in North America. I could definitely picture myself drinking this Cab rosé every day in the summer. Then we saw workers in hooded raincoats in the bladder presses, which was priceless (see the photo at the top of this page). Once wine is ready for pressing, the grape solids are transferred from tanks to bladder presses but someone needs to be in there to level out the pomace. Dirty Jobs’ Mike Rowe would be jealous.
In what was probably the main highlight of our trip, we spent the better part of the afternoon visiting Château Mouton Rothschild. The tour is simply awesome. From the newly-constructed, ultra-modern winery through the Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s museum, this was the best tour ever. The equipment and facilities are state-of-the-art and squeaky clean. They have also commissioned a cooper (an artisan that crafts oak barrels and tanks) to replace a few wooden staves on oak tanks with Plexiglas “staves” (the dark-colored vertical members in the picture) to be able to monitor the cap during maceration and fermentation.
Although Mouton Rothschild has a second label, their strategy is to market their wines according to their family of chateaus, which include Château d’Armailhac and Château Clerc Milon. And so the tour ended with a horizontal tasting of their 2013 cuvées from the three wineries — no, we were not actually horizontal. A horizontal tasting comprises wines from a single vintage from different properties or wineries; a vertical tasting comprises wines from several vintages from a single winery.
But an outstanding day could only be closed off with a big bang — well, several bangs. We visited several other chateaus in and around Margaux and Pauillac, most of which do not offer tours and which make wines that many of us may never get to taste in our lifetime — a question of exorbitant prices and rationed availability. Some of these included Château Margaux, Latour, Pichon Longueville and Léoville-Las Cases.
Wednesday was reserved for St-Julien and St-Estèphe. These appellations don’t have the prestige of Margaux and Pauillac amongst wine aficionados but there are amazing wines to be found there.
We visited Château Gruaud Larose in St-Julien where a contraption, by any layman’s assessment, stood in the corner and caught my eye. It was a heat exchanger, but unlike those I had seen at other wineries (see the photo on page 44). This particular heat exchanger is used for temperature control of grape solids transferred in and out of tanks via several inlets and outlets that feed to different parts of the winery. A heat exchanger used at this stage allows for greater extraction of anthocyanins (the red pigments in grape skins) by heating the grape solids; it sure beats our amateurish but quite innovative, patentable contraptions to heat grapes in our home wineries.
We had some free time before our afternoon visit at Château Cos d’Estournel, and so, we headed to Château Sociando-Mallet up high in the Médoc, which offers a breathtaking view of the Gironde. Sociando-Mallet may be one of the most underrated wines but definitely my all-time favorite for its high quality-to-price ratio; I consider their second label, La Demoiselle de Sociando, a steal.
The Château Cos d’Estournel in St-Estèphe is architecturally impressive with its Indian-inspired pagodas gracing the estate’s buildings but which betray the winery’s modern almost futuristic interior. Everything here is done by gravity (we are told)—I did not see a pump. They have two elevators to move wine up and down levels, in and out of barrels and tanks.
Those who know me know how much I love sticky-sweet Sauternes wines, especially with seared foie gras (duck or goose liver), Roquefort (blue-veined cheese) or simply on its own as dessert.
Those of us familiar with the region and its fog phenomenon so central to the growth of Botrytis cinerea fungus still cannot appreciate this until you visit and experience the region. The fog results from weather conditions modulated by the Garonne and a barely-perceptible estuary called the Ciron that flows south.
We headed to Château Suduiraut early Thursday morning where we came upon a light fog hovering over the expansive vineyards in the appellation. As the sun pierced through and warmed the chilly morning, dew on grapes still persisted to enable the fungus to develop and shrivel berries into raisins. What an amazing sight! How one can extract juice, any juice, out of raisined berries is still beyond belief.
A side-by-side tasting of their 1989 and 2006 vintages demonstrated how these wines can gain so much complexity with aging. But my highlight here was seeing how they warm wines in barrels using inserts to ensure a complete malolactic fermentation.
Our afternoon visit was at Château Raymond-Lafon, across the street from the vineyard of Château d’Yquem, where Monsieur Meslier enthusiastically greeted us at his estate and into his house where we tasted his delectable 2006 Sauternes. Though a tiny property and small production, his wines are well known around the world, undoubtedly the result of his passion and marketing savvy; being adjacent to Yquem doesn’t hurt either. Aside from M. Meslier’s warm reception, my highlight here was seeing Sémillon juice dripping ever so slowly, drop by drop, in a seemingly abandoned barn.
But no visit of Sauternes would be complete without roaming the property at Château d’Yquem — my favorite (ok, I have a few favorites but this is my absolute favorite of them all). The chateau does not offer visits.
Drinking Yquem is akin to driving a Ferrari — you may get to do it once, if ever, and you get a major adrenaline rush. Just as one cannot appreciate such a performance car without understanding the work that went into its engineering and development, you must taste Yquem to understand why this wine is the undisputed king of Sauternes.
Right Bank Wineries
We had only one day to cover the wineries in the Right Bank as we also wanted to visit the charming historic town of St-Émilion during our visit. We had to pick and choose carefully which wineries to visit in St-Émilion and Pomerol, and so we picked Château Figeac in St-Émilion as I am very fond of the winery and their wines. And as those other wineries there and in Pomerol that I wanted to visit accepted no visitors, I had to settle on visiting the grounds and snapping pictures.
Château Figeac doesn’t offer visits except to those in the winemaking trade (there are some perks after all). They graciously accepted to offer a private tour for us. Here I witnessed pumps — many pumps — used for racking and transferring wines. And after tasting many Left Bank wines, it was a pleasant change to switch into Merlot gear. The Merlot component in Figeac wines make these very charming in their youth and certainly very approachable even as the first wine early in the morning.
I have tasted many great Bordeaux wines, but I have to admit I never was lucky enough to taste Château Cheval Blanc wines. But I have had the privilege of tasting the cult wines of Château Pétrus. Being able to simply see these chateaus on a sunny, warm fall day was priceless.
There were some specific things about the winemaking process that I saw that piqued my interest.
First, délestage is commonly practiced in Bordeaux, at least in Left Bank wineries from what I observed. Délestage is a rack-and-return technique whereby fermenting wine is allowed to drain and splash vigorously from stainless steel or oak tanks into large vats to hasten oxidation for the purpose of softening tannins and to remove seeds that may otherwise impart astringency. The wine is then pumped back into tanks to continue color extraction and fermentation.
As a major trend, those wineries that could afford optical sorters have invested in the equipment to weed out single berries not worthy of going into top-quality wine. The harvest is destemmed and the berries are quickly sorted manually on a conveyer and then fed into the optical sorter at very high speed. The sorter is programmed to detect unwanted berries based on size, color and other quality parameters. Individual berries not making the cut are automatically detected and immediately flushed out using a precise stream of air.
Bottling is also interesting. The Baron Philippe de Rothschild at Château Mouton Rothschild stirred the industry into a second French Revolution of some sort when he decided to start bottling his wine at the estate thereby bypassing all the négociants, or merchants. This practice of mis en bouteille au château, or estate bottling, only dates back to the 1920s. The Baron wanted to better control quality and prevent any downstream adulteration or fraud of his wines. The négociant business was big and powerful at the time, controlling the vast majority of wine distribution into markets. And so I expected to see bottling lines during my visits, but there were none that I could see during tours. In spite of all the capital invested in new technology, chateaus still prefer not to tie up precious fixed footprint for a bottling line that is only used occasionally in the year. Instead, they call upon the services of an on-demand mobile bottling line.
Well! After all that touring and tasting, there was only one thing left to do on the Bordeaux bucket list —on this trip anyways — oysters and Champagne by the sea at Arcachon. The French sure know how to enjoy the finer things in life.
The barrels at Château Mouton Rothschild. The winery commissioned a cooper to replace some wooden staves with plexiglass to be able to monitor the cap inside.
The Art of Blending – Bordeaux Style
It is said that blending wine is an art, where science has little to offer. A blend is crafted as per the winery’s “house style” based on many years of experience. As a winemaker, enologist, and expert master blender, it takes knowing what works and what doesn’t work in the blend. It goes well beyond winemaking. It requires a fine “nose” and a refined palate, a nose and palate able to seek out any unwanted aromas and flavors that may distract from the expected high quality. It is not simply an exercise in blending different wines in set percentages.
This is true of most wineries, at least those in the premium-wine market. And it is certainly true of Bordeaux where blends may contain up to five varietals — Cabernet Sauvignon (CS), Cabernet Franc (CF), Merlot (M), Petit Verdot (PV) and Malbec (MB). A sixth varietal, Carmenère, has almost disappeared and is seldom used in modern Bordeaux blends.
Cabernet Sauvignon is used for structure; for building full-bodied muscular wines meant for aging. Where tannin is desired, Cab Sauv, as it is known, delivers. Its parent Cab Franc adds finesse and a range of complementary aromas from bell peppers to cassis and tobacco. Merlot is much softer with smoother tannins and rich blackberry fruit aromas. Depending on the style of wine desired, Merlot can be used in relatively small proportions or be the dominant varietal up to 95% in blends. Petit Verdot is only used in small amounts because it is so difficult to grow in cool climates, but it can add color and some extra tannin for an extra bite. In a good vintage, the late-ripening Malbec, too, can add color and tannin to improve the overall structure and quality.
All varietals are vinified and aged in separate barrels and tanks until blending time to control and monitor the quality of each lot. This is unlike what some home winemakers do, which is mixing grape varieties at crush.
The percentage of each varietal in a blend depends on the quality of the vintage. Quality is primarily determined by climate, and then viticultural and winemaking practices. But wineries shoot for some percentages within some established ranges so as to maintain the house style and quality from year to year.
Wines in barrels and tanks are all tasted individually to segregate each into quality levels. For example, first, second and third label. Then, the chosen wines to go into the blend are tasted in countless combinations and permutations to determine the best proportions of each. Once blended, the wines are readied for bottling and possibly spend another year in bottles before they are shipped to market.
Following are some typical blends of first-label wines from those chateaus I visited or whose wines I admire or aspire to drink. Their appellations are repeated here to illustrate the shift in percentages from one appellation to the next.
Chateau, Appellation: Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc/Merlot/Petit Verdot/Malbec
Cos d’Estournel, St. Estèphe: 50/10/40
Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac: 76/16/8
Latour, Pauillac: 80/10/10
Léoville Las Cases, St. Julien: 67/13/17/3
Giscours, Margaux: 70/3/25/2
Sociando-Mallet, Haut-Médoc: 60/10/25/5
Smith Havt Lafitte, Graves: 70/10/20
Figeac, St. Émilion: 35/35/30
Pavie, St. Émilion: 20/25/55
Cheval Blanc, St. Émilion: 1/60/34/5
Pétrus, Pomerol: 5/95