Here we are in the midst of winter! For the next couple of months, the weather will be cold and the days short. This is the perfect time of year for big bold red wines to keep us warm! All of these wines pair beautifully with the foods of the season like roasts, game, stews and root vegetables.
My favorite wines in this category are the red wines of Bordeaux in France. Bordeaux is also my favorite place on the planet to visit. Bordeaux is the largest wine growing region on earth. The red wines produced there outnumber the whites by a factor of eight to one. The geographical region that makes up Bordeaux is known as the department of the Gironde. In this region there are two major rivers that flow northwest to the Atlantic Ocean. The Dordogne River flows from the southeast, and the Garonne River flows almost due north. These rivers join to form the Gironde that flows into the Atlantic.
These two rivers create the boundaries that define the major wine regions in Bordeaux. The area west of the Garonne and the Gironde is known as the Left Bank. The area north and east of the Dordogne is known as the Right Bank. The area between the rivers is known as the Entre-Deux-Mers, which translates to “between the seas.” Within these regions there are a myriad of wine producing areas, each with its own soil type and wine characteristics. We will limit this discussion to the Left and Right Bank, which produce the greatest wines of the region.
The Left Bank
Grapes have been grown in Bordeaux for wine production since the days of the Roman Empire, and wine has been exported from this region to other parts of France and to England for centuries. The earliest known review of wine from this region was on April 10, 1663, when Samuel Pepys had a glass of what was commonly referred to in those days as claret at London’s Royal Oak Tavern. He recorded later that evening that he had drunk “. . . a sort of French wine called Ho Bryan, that hath a good and most particular taste that I ever met with.” With this writing he became the first writer to praise the excellence of Chateau Haut-Brion. By that date the label had been established for over a century. The famous chateau on the property was constructed beginning in 1549. It is recorded as having been served in the court of the English king Charles II in 1660 and 1661. Haut-Brion, Margaux, Lafite and Latour were the first brands from the Left Bank to develop name recognition.
The most famous of the wine growing regions in the Left Bank are the Médoc, which includes Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Margaux; Pessac-Léognan, Graves and Sauternes. The soil in the Médoc and Graves is composed mostly of sand and gravel. The drainage capacity of this soil contributes greatly to this area’s ability to produce amazing wines. The major grape varieties grown in this region are Cabernet Sauvignon (54%), Merlot (40%) and Cabernet Franc (6%).
In 1855 Napoleon III organized an Exposition in Paris to showcase the riches of France to the world. Agricultural products, including wine, were the stars of the Exposition. A classification of the wines of the Left Bank was ordered as a part of this Exposition. The top ranking of Premiers Crus was given to Lafite-Rothschild (Pauillac), Latour (Pauillac), Margaux (Margaux), Haut-Brion (Graves), and d’Yquem (Sauternes). Other great wines of the region were classified as second through fifth crus. The only change to this classification since that time has been the elevation of Mouton-Rothschild to Premier Cru in 1973 after decades of relentless lobbying by Baron Philippe de Rothschild. It is important to note that
the red wines included in the Premiers Crus include much higher percentages (70% to 80%) of Cabernet Sauvignon in their wines than the average.
The bold red wines of this region pair beautifully with grilled or roasted meats, lamb, game birds, foods with heavy sauces and aged shaved firm cheeses such as parmesan. Red wines from Graves are a marvelous companion to fish dishes with sauce.
Grapes have been grown in this part of Bordeaux for just as long as the Left Bank. However, the lack of a bridge across the Gironde River prevented these wines from making it to the port in Bordeaux and reaching export markets and other parts of France for centuries after the wines from the Left Bank had made their mark on the world. The expansion of the vineyards of this region began in earnest in the 17th and 18th centuries. While many of the wines from this region are equally exceptional, they are often not as well known as the wines of the Left Bank.
The two most famous regions for wine in the Right Bank are Saint-Émilion and Pomerol. The soil of Saint-Émilion is composed of limestone, clay, gravel, sand and iron deposits. The best wines here come from the estates located on the famous limestone plateau. As in the Left Bank, soil composition can vary dramatically from one vineyard to the next. In contrast, the soil in Pomerol is also composed of gravel and sand, but with large concentrations of clay of varying types and colors. The blue clay found at the famous vineyard of Petrus in Pomerol is the reason for the wine’s uniqueness, quality and astronomical prices. Because of this soil composition, the Right Bank is the kingdom of Merlot. The merlot based wines produced here are warm, seductive and often very well-rounded.
The classification of the Saint-Émilion wines was established in 1955 and is revised every 10 years. The Premiers Grands Crus Classés of the top order are Ausone and Cheval-Blanc. The second group includes 12 additional wines. 52 additional wines are classified as Grands Crus Classés. The vineyards of the Right Bank do not have the grand château of the Left Bank. The region is more modest as a whole. The recent growth of popularity of the wines of this region has given rise to a phenomenon known as the “microcuvées” or “garagistes,” called this because their production is small enough to be vinified literally in a garage. The best known of these includes Le Pin, Château Valandraud and Gracia. This style of winemaking emerged as a reaction to the traditional Bordeaux wines, which can be highly tannic and can require long ageing in the bottle. This new style of wine is more consistent with international wine tastes. These red wines are bigger, bolder, fruitier, with a higher alcohol content. This new style is very controversial with some critics claiming that the wines do not age well and do not reflect the terrior.
The wines of the Right Bank are an incredible pairing with game animals as well as roasted meats, lamb, duck, pork, mushrooms and mushroom sauces.
These are my favorite wines in the whole world, which may be a result of the wonderful memories of my visits in this region and some incredible visits to vineyards there!! While some of the wines of Bordeaux are extremely expensive, there are many fabulous wines from this area that are reasonable and ready to drink early. Enjoy some of these wines this winter with a warm, hearty meal or in front of a fire!!
Written by Pat Daniel. Permission to publish by Columbus & the Valley Magazine.