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The Rules of Bordeaux: Demystifying France's Classic Wine Region

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During a PowerPoint presentation at the Ecole Du Vin in Bordeaux, a mild-mannered but somewhat intense little argument has broken out regarding the calculus of terroir-specifically, between people who feel strongly that the human hand is, versus isn’t, part of what creates it. It’s not a new debate; wine nerds nerd out about this sort of question all over the world every day. But this is France, and there are rules. Like the rule about families of aromatics. There are precisely 11 of them. Not 10, not 13. Eleven. (For those of you keeping score at home, they are: fruity, mineral, balsamic, animal, woody, chemical, ephemeral, spicy, floral, vegetal and “empyromatic,” which encompasses “fire” smells like smoke or caramelization.)

A certain percentage of the journalists in the room seem to follow the party line that terroir is composed of climate, geology, soil (including other organisms that interact with the grapes) and terrain. For some of us, it feels wrong, reductive, to cleave to this definition. For me, it’s a lie like pretty much all dualities: “Human” is no more separable from “nature” than weather is from climate. If you have no problem accepting that a wine’s character is influenced by nematodes and myceliae and what kind of bedrock and how far down it is, it seems to me that you can get your head around the idea that it’s also influenced by farmers and winemakers, that they are fundamentally part of the equation, and in the same way as the bugs and fungi in the soil.

As a Californian, I admittedly find French wine a little mysterious. What Napa Valley is generally famous for and what Bordeaux is famous for are at one level the same wines-Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc. The similarity ends pretty fast, though, and for a number of reasons. First of all, the common grapes of both regions simply express themselves differently in these two places (especially Merlot, which is a totally different animal in France than it is in California). Napa winemakers tend to be preoccupied with pure varietal wines while Bordelais producers are dedicated to blends. Napa winemakers are more about experimentation while Bordeaux emphasizes tradition and consistency. And at first glance, Napa emphasizes personality (of the winemaker, not the wine) in a way French winemaking just doesn’t seem to. It got me thinking about whether it might not be realistic to consider attitude as an element of terroir, but that would probably have scored me an eye-roll at the Ecole Du Vin, and fair enough. What I’m saying is, it gets deep and strange very quickly.

French oak barrels being toasted at Tonnellerie Nadalie’.

Bordeaux is a storybook-gorgeous region (I dare you to travel through it and not feel like you parachuted into Cinderella, peppered with ancient towns, picturesque farmland, and vineyards and chateaux that reasonably earn the painfully-overused descriptor “iconic.” Situated between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, it has the privileges and challenges of exposure to the Atlantic (it gets really damp), as well as a mindblowing diversity of soils, which is a major driver for the truly geek-worthy obsession with DOC within DOC within DOC designations. I’m the first to admit you need some training to understand French wine labels, but it’s also important to note that you don’t need to fully understand the microscopic terroir intricacies of a region like Bordeaux to enjoy its wines.

Here are a few things you should know about Bordeaux wines:

First, American consumers tend to think of it as an incredibly expensive wine region, but while there are certainly top-shelf wines with pricetags to match, that’s not the whole story or even the main story. Tons of good and affordable wine comes out of Bordeaux. That said, expect top-tier “Grand Vin” to cost upward of a C-note.

Second, there are basically 12 acceptable varieties of grape you can use in making anything that says “Bordeaux” on it. If the wine is red, it is Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, or, as in most cases, a combination (Occasionally Malbec, Petit Verdot or Carmenere are added in small quantities). Whites are Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle, also usually blended (. If you don’t like Sauvignon Blanc (I would raise my hand for that), consider not writing it off if you’ve only had US or New Zealand styles: blending with oily-textured, honeyed Semillon is a whole other ballgame, and it is delish. Semillon is also the player in Sauternes, a viscous, honey-and-apricot tasting dessert wine from the region that can seriously knock the socks off even the most diffident tasters.

Third, Bordeaux is a region that pays lots of attention to biodiversity and sustainability. Organic and biodynamic practices are common and growing in the mainstream; not everyone pursues certification (even the bureaucracy-loving French draw a line in the sand sometimes), plans are afoot for the whole region to be observing these practices within a few years from now. Currently, something like 10% of vines in Bordeaux are sprayed with sketchy chemicals-meaning 90% are not. Meaning if you’re not an ace label-interpreter, Bordeaux is a region to lean on when you want to buy clean wine, because statistically it’s super likely that this is what you’re getting. But beyond “no chemicals,” it’s useful to understand the region’s winemaking is profoundly steeped in reverence for tradition, and they are avid old-schoolers, so farming au naturel, so to speak, comes to them … you know, naturally. Yes, sustainability best practices are observed, and vineyards are complemented by companion plants for beneficial insects, bat boxes and other non-chemical pest controls. But additionally, in Bordelais countryside you will see vineyards interplanted with orchards and fields of hay and livestock grazing areas. In other words, this region still cares about balance. The same cannot entirely be said of, say, California, where hundred-year-old heritage apple trees are ripped out with abandon if Pinot Noir will thrive on the site.

Finally, the whole craziness around the specific village the wine comes from is for real reasons, but you don’t need to sweat the teensy details. Basically, the appellation can tell you a ton about what kind of soil the vines are on (gravel seems to produce the best ones but clay and sandy soils are also common) and give you some other info about typical terroir elements. And there’s a book’s worth of deep-dive information about that, but for folks looking to familiarize themselves with Bordeaux wines, my advice is don’t sweat the small stuff until you’re ready. In broad strokes, there are relatively generic wines that say “Bordeaux” on the label, and that means the same thing “California” does on a domestic wine-the grapes might have come from a wide variety of places and the result might be tasty or plonky, but it won’t be a super terroir-driven craft-bomb. Drilling down, there are Right Bank (Saint-Emilion and Pomerol, for instance) and Left Bank (Medoc, Margaux, Graves, for example) sub-regions and Entre-Deux-Mers, which is in between them. Each has its own distinct character, but they’re all Bordeaux. It’s common for major Chateaux to have multiple tiers, all of which come from the same grapes, ranging from weeknight-worthy table wine to the thing you pull out of the cellar to toast your 50th wedding anniversary or being shortlisted for the Pulitzer. You don’t need to get caught up in it. The best plan is to experiment broadly and figure out what you happen to love.

Bordeaux wines to try:

Splurge: Chateau Beychevelle Grand Vin 2016 (Saint-Julien, Medoc-$100)

This insanely beautiful chateau is now owned by Suntory, and features expansive grounds with views of the river, amazing gardens and the cleanest cellar I have ever seen in my life. Although there is no bad wine to be found here, the “Grand Vin” class is especially impressive. Equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with splashes of Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. The combination results in a heady, lavish wine showing notes of leather, violets, currants, blueberries, plums and a hint of tea and tobacco. Opulent, elegant, grown-up, gift-worthy wine.

The cellar at Chateau Beychevelle.

Semi-Splurge: Clos Du Jaygueyrons “Nout” 2014 (Margaux, $60)

Biodynamically farmed and a love letter to gravel soils. This highly cellarable wine is fresh and bright and mainly Merlot, which is a more restrained creature in Bordeaux than it tends to be in Napa. Compact on the palate with bright red fruit and a whole lot of mineral notes. Strawberry and blood orange, resinous herbs and pencil shavings, redcurrant and pepper. Words like “pure” and “young” come to mind. If it is possible to taste attention to detail, I think this wine expresses it.

Only Feels Like A Splurge: Despagne Chateau Mont-Perat (Entre-Deux-Mers, $12-20)

Possibly the overall best, or at least most enjoyable, wines I had in Bordeaux came from Chateau Mont-Perat, and I’m not just saying that because Thibault Despagne dazzled me with a duck he roasted on an open flame, although in the spirit of transparency I guess that could play a role because it was a hell of a duck. Both red and white (and rosé) wines from Mont-Perat are excellent, stylish, good-natured wines, and they’d be amazing at twice the price. The red we had was silky and suave, full of black fruit and dark spice notes. The white (they seem to be more enthused about whites than some producers in the region) was a creamy yet crisp paean to apples and oranges, with auxiliary notes of linden and elderflower, jasmine and lemon. It had a fabulous backbone, pronounced minerality and a warm spice finish. These guys don’t have the most fashionable address in the region, and they are proving there is no point to being snobby about it. These wines have soul.

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