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Tasting Corner: Simplifying Red Bordeaux Today, A Modernized Overview

Posted on  | January 1, 2013   Bookmark and Share
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Scene from the Left Bank: St. Emilion vineyard

Here in the U.S., we largely view Bordeaux as an elite category of wine. No doubt this maritime region in southwest France produces some of the globe’s most coveted bottles. Yet, as the world’s largest wine-producing region, most of its juice is produced for everyday drinking. There are good reasons to change the American paradigm as Bordeaux rouge can display multitudes of flavors and palate profiles, offer good value and pair well with a broad array of dishes.

Why These Blends Can Taste So Different

Red Bordeaux are blended wines, often called claret by traditionalist (the term claret originated in England). Six red grapes are authorized in Bordeaux: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carmenère. The latter three have fallen out of favor though some châteaux are reconsidering them in salt-and-pepper quantities (a percent or two of the final blend) as the region’s climate gradually warms. It is the first three grapes that dominate red Bordeaux, and their varied combinations in turn impart stylistic distinctions. Here is what each grape variety contributes to the classic claret blends: >>>

Not every wine contains all three primary grapes. Interestingly, while we often think of Cabernet Sauvignon as the player, Merlot is actually the most common variety in Bordeaux, except among Classified Growths (aka Cru Classé wines). Here are basic guidelines on blend composition based on appellation, with grapes listed in descending proportions:

• Classified Growths (Left Bank): Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc
• St. Émilion (Right Bank): Merlot, Cabernet Franc
• Pomerol (Right Bank): Merlot, Cabernet Franc
• Other Appellations: Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon

Underrated Food Wine

Aside from top wines, red Bordeaux’s style tends to be restrained and lean in fruit character, juicy in acidity and lightly bracing in tannin. This poses quite a contrast to New World, Bordeaux-style wines (like those from Napa and Washington), which usually have rich fruit, moderate acidity, creamy tannins and toasty notes from wood aging. While New World—style wines tend to be as pleasant to sip alone as they are with food. Bordeaux reds often need food to balance their leanness. Claret can be an ideal “go-to” wine for shoppers en route home to prepare dinner

Selling – Communes, Styles, Prices and Vintages

Bottom line: there’s the question of what to stock for your customers. I suggest selecting primarily by style and price. Then, vary the communes. Focus on recent, easy-drinking vintages since U.S. shoppers are most accustomed to youthful wines. Here are some profiles I suggest and why:

Easy Sipping, $12-$18 SRP: Lalande de Pomerol
These wines possess the soft tannins and Merlot-suppleness of big sister Pomerol yet carry a more petit price tag. They can usually be enjoyed with or without food.

Value for European-Style Wine Lovers, $10-20: Moulis or Graves
These are Left Bank communes based on Cabernet Sauvignon and offering moderate weight wines with finessed aromas. Moulis is north of Bordeaux, and like its well-known neighbors Margaux and Saint Julien, it offers firmer structure than wines from the southerly Graves region.

Value for American-Style Wine Lovers, $10-20: Côtes de Francs and Côtes de Castillon
These are neighboring appellations on the Right Bank, northeast of the famous Pomerol and St. Émilion communes. Many young and well-trained winemakers are crafting clean, ripe and exciting wines based on Merlot and Cabernet Franc. There are good values and discoveries to be found here!

More Than Everyday, $20-30: Second Labels of Left Bank Cru Classé wines, especially from St. Julien
These wines offer the Bordelais character and finesse expected from top châteaux at a reasonable price. St. Julien, in particular, offers that magic combination of the Left Bank’s finesse and power. Also, second labels from recent vintages are less oaky than their big brothers, making them more pleasant to drink earlier and better for pairing with food. Depending on the property, either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot may dominate.

Special Occasion for Merlot Lovers, $35+: St. Émilion Grands Crus Classés
St. Émilion exhibits more subtlety than its more imposing neighbor Pomerol. St. Émilion’s Grands Crus Classés usually aren’t aged as long in or in as much new oak as the hefty Pomerols, making them more food-friendly and more attractive early on.

Special Occasion for Cabernet Sauvignon Lovers, $35+: St. Estèphe and Pauillac Cru Classé
These two Left Bank communes show the blockbuster power of Cabernet Sauvignon. At the Cru Classé level, they will have significant oak notes of chocolate and coffee bean, so advise your clients that they are best enjoyed with rich steak or lamb dishes.

Vintages: 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2005
For any of these profiles, it is very easy to suggest the recent vintages of 2008, 2009 and 2010. These are available now, show ripe fruit and possess good balance. Cooler years like 2006 and 2007 can be tough in their youth, and Americans tend to dislike such wines. Another vintage still available for your More Than Everyday and Special Occasion categories is the much-loved 2005. These wines are impressively ripe, so they are easy-to-understand for more palates.

Bordeaux is a dynamic region that is changing dramatically. By focusing on U.S. Bordeaux-style blends, we miss out on the mother region’s diverse styles and good values. It gets harder by the day to find value in Napa, so why not look to Napa’s original inspiration? 

Bank On It: Bordeaux Wine Regions

The terms Left Bank and Right Bank are central to the geography of Bordeaux. The region is naturally divided by the Gironde Estuary. The Right Bank (shown in green) is known best for the communes of St. Émilion and Pomerol. The Left Bank (maroon shades) includes the Médoc peninsula and Graves. The region of Entre-Deux-Mers (literally “between two seas”) lies between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, which combine to form the Gironde.

A rather new designation, Côtes de Bordeaux—encompassing a handful of perimeter appellations, including Blaye, Côtes de Blaye, Premières Côtes de Blaye, Côtes de Bourg, Premières Côtes de Bordeaux, Côtes de Castillon, Côtes de Francs and Graves de Vayres—actually stretches across 60 miles of land. This umbrella name was created for maketing purposes, to raise the visibility of the regions as a whole as they are not well understood individually. The wines are primarily red and only 15% of these wines are exported.


Promotional Paradox

One of the challenges faced by Bordeaux in the 21st century involves promotion. With so many producers, and with importers handling multiple estates, few estates are in a position to merit their own promotion in the U.S. Moreover, to the American eye, the bulk of clarets appear the same—with labels projecting a château name, traditional graphic and just-the-facts appellation data. The complicated nomenclature and sense of sameness (sans visual bells and whistles) can put them at a disadvantage on retail shelves—not to mention make the somewhat subtle but important distinctions among sub-regions harder to grasp.

Generic promotion of Bordeaux is difficult as well; clarets are essentially regionally defined wines living in a branded world. That said, retailers looking to tweak or augment their French wine offerings may want to examine the “Today’s Bordeaux” campaign, whose focus on value is right in step with today’s American wine lover. Now in its seventh year, the campaign highlights a range of 100 affordable ($9-$35 SRP) Bordeaux (red, white rosé and sweet) available in the U.S.; and this year’s selection featured a few adjustments designed to make the results more trade- and consumer-friendly.

A team of Bordeaux Wine Council-appointed wine educators and three guest judges blind-tasted 300-plus wines submitted by importers. The scoring method used this year was derived from the New Wine Fundamentals Wine Evaluation Protocol developed by Tim Hanni MW. The system features a 0-7 ranking that focuses on assessing the wines at a more hedonic level that is closer to the way in which consumers experience wine. In addition, to ensure better availability of recommended wines, the Today’s Bordeaux criteria required that the wine be sold in one or more of the following U.S. regions: Northeast (CT, MA, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, DC); South (FL, TX); Midwest (IL, IN, OH, MI); and West (AZ, CA, CO, NV, WA).

All 100 wines can be found at www.bordeaux.com/us/wines, where they are categorized by color and tasting notes as well as occasions such as wines for gifts or dinner parties. A variety of generic Bordeaux on- and off-premise POS materials (posters, maps, drop-stops, table tents, etc.) are available from the Sopexa office in New York (sopexa.com).


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