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Sainte-Foy Bordeaux
The best wines from Bordeaux reflect the personality of the Bordelais, the name of the locals, not the sauce. As a group, the Bordelais tend to mix the haughtiness of the Parisians with even more haughtiness of being producers of wines that everyone wants at seemingly any price. Think of them as Parisians with big egos. So what does that say for the taste of the wines? Well, in a nutshell, they are very serious, tautly structured, well-flavored, tannic, and of the finest quality. “Mais oui, but of course! Zat is why it is zo expensive. It is ze best quality, it is from a famous chateau, how dare you question ze price. You are American, yes?” And so it is that you will be “welcomed” into the hearts and homes of Bordeaux, the worlds most famous wine region.

While you can’t expect the warmth and charm of a visit to Sonoma, you just might be impressed by the chateaux and the wines. Bring along your own good company and things will be just fine. The region is vast, and may be best approached from a home base in the city of Bordeaux. Driving north from the city, you will arrive in the heart of the sub-region known as the Medoc. The Medoc, or Left Bank, is littered with famous wine villages such as Margaux, St. Julien, Pauillac, and St. Estephe. The better vineyards hug the gravelly left bank of the Gironde River. Red wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon primarily, with added Merlot and Cabernet Franc, reach unsurpassed levels of quality here. Lafite Rothschild and Latour are neighboring chateaux in Pauillac. But in this swank vineyard area, the chateaux are mostly a façade purchased by Asian and Parisian bankers.

Across the river to the Right Bank is the somewhat more inviting village of St. Emilion. This village is all cobblestone and history. Just outside the town are the vineyards which produce the world-famous Cheval Blanc and Chateau Ausone wines. The reds of St. Emilion and the adjacent Pomerol (Pomerol doesn’t have a village, per se) are relatively softer, smoother, and more voluptuous than the wing-tip wines of the Left Bank. This is due, for the most part, to the focus on Merlot and Cabernet Franc primarily, with Cabernet Sauvignon as a minor player. They are still very serious, very well-made, and very long-lived wines. Chateau Petrus is a Pomerol estate you may have heard of.

The Bordeaux region is also known for world-class dry whites from Graves, which are made up of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, and for the sweet, botrytised wines of Sauternes. Chateau Haut Brion Blanc is one of the best dry whites, while Chateau d’Yquem is the role model for all the sweet wines of the world, let alone Sauternes.

Bordeaux is like no other wine region in the world. To be more precise, Cru Classé Bordeaux is sold like no other wine in the world. Americans do not actually drink all that much Bordeaux wine--about the same volume as many small European countries. In the U.S. wine trade Bordeaux is synonymous with Cru Classé wines, although they only represent the tip of the iceberg of the vast amount of wine produced in the Gironde Department of South Western France. The vast bulk of this unclassified wine from humble producers is sold at modest prices for everyday consumption.

Opaque, impossibly tannic wines are a thing of the past in Bordeaux. Winemaking styles are far from homogenous but Bordeaux wines are increasingly of the deeply colored, softer, riper mold, particularly at the top level. Even first growths are much more approachable on release than they were twenty years ago. Modern vineyard management and winery techniques are permitting the Bordelaise to produce ever more attractive young wines. There seems little doubt that the French have taken a look at the manner in which Australian, Chilean, and California wines have threatened their markets and acted accordingly to raise their technical game.

Distinctly non-traditional technology is allowing the well-funded chateaux to combat their occasional unfriendly climate. Many of the top growths now have must concentrators, devices that allow the removal of excess water from the grape must. These devices are called into action in the Médoc during a rainy harvest and could well be the reason that many top estates show wines with little evidence of rain dilution.

Key Varietals

Red Wines
Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Sauvignon is the world's most popular premium red wine grape due to the quality of the red wines it produces in the Medoc, where it forms anywhere from 60- 90% of the blend of a typical wine. It forms a lesser though still dominant proportion of Graves blends and a minority (with a few exceptions) of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol blends. Its late ripening accounts for the later harvest in the Medoc. It is strongly associated with the flavors of blackcurrants when ripe and when unripe it can be herbaceous and display unpleasant tannins.

Cabernet Franc
Cabernet Franc is an earlier ripening relative of Cabernet Sauvignon. When ripe it has a spicy, olivey character though it can be overtly herbaceous when unripe. It is generally used in small amounts to add complexity to Medoc and Graves blends. In Saint-Emilion and Pomerol it can form as much as 50% of a blend.

Merlot is the perfect blending counterpart to Cabernet Sauvignon as it produces softer, fleshier wines with more supple tannins that can soften the sometimes tough, austere nature of Cabernet Sauvignon. It rarely dominates a Medoc or Graves blend; though frequently does so in Saint-Emilion and is used almost exclusively in Pomerol. Significantly, Merlot ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon.

Petit Verdot
Petit Verdot is a minor variety in Bordeaux whose principal contribution is color and backbone supplied from its thick, tannin-rich skin. However, it rarely ripens in Bordeaux. When unripe it produces harsh blending wine. If used it will be in very small quantities of 1-5%.

White Wines
Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon
Sauvignon Blanc is the most widely planted white variety in Bordeaux, where, under the guise of Bordeaux Sec it typically produces cheap, pleasant white wines of no great distinction. Large appellations such as Entre-deux-mers are synonymous with value priced, clean Sauvignon Blanc. Nowhere in Bordeaux does Sauvignon Blanc reach the varietal intensity of examples from the Loire. However, in the Graves, Sauvignon Blanc is rendered in its finest form, often with some oak influence and a small proportion of Semillon, the other white grape of Bordeaux. Indeed, this is the basis of Pessac-Leognan, a sub-appellation of the Graves. Here, use of new oak and low yields produce rich, succulent white wines that have the capacity to age.

Semillon's ability to rot in a noble fashion, concentrating sugars within the grape, in the communes of Sauternes and Barsac is, of course, the basis for the great sweet wines of Bordeaux. Sauvignon Blanc plays a minor, supporting role in Bordeaux's sweet wines. (Wine/Appellations)