Musings on Bordeaux and Global Indulgences
by Sara d’Amato, with notes from David Lawrason
While John Szabo is on the lam, in Hunter Valley (or so we think), in pursuit of semillon with a team of Canadian sommeliers as part of a scavenger hunt for Wine & Spirits Magazine, David and I have been tirelessly tasting away at a selection of new wines that are about to appear on your local VINTAGES shelves.
This week we delve into that great intimidating abyss, the giant that is Bordeaux. However, instead of talking about the region’s guts and glory, I’d rather talk about modern Bordeaux. Although it has fits and fads, it is a region that wavers remarkably little in its style, in its tenacious grip on aristocratic holdings and its class system – a bubble that is perhaps less of a “republic” than the rest of France. This has in some measure to do with its historical success and the world reverence it has built but also to the price it can still (to some degree) command.
Bordeaux’s upper class of wine can secure some of the world’s highest prices and it inevitably turns its head to the highest bidder, even if that bidder takes it away from more traditionally supportive markets. Relatively recently, the movie “Red Obsession” had us talking about Asia’s influence on Bordelaise pricing in the upper echelons and highlighted the dangers of focusing so much interest in one market. In the spring of this year, a group of respected UK wine merchants wrote an open letter to owners of négociants and Châteaux asking for a return to more “reasonable” pricing with regards to the 2014 en primeurs – to prices similar to those of 2008. What they got was not exactly what they were asking for.
While top Bordelaise producers are busy creating new roles and positions in Asia to deal with its recent boom, as well as funding the planting of Bordelaise varieties in foreign soils, more traditional markets are certainly feeling neglected. However whether these top ranking bottles be sold in China or elsewhere, there is still the problem that they have unfortunately become commodities rather than beverages. The highly lauded back-to-back stellar vintages of 2009 and 2010 in Bordeaux really broke the bank and highlighted the out-pricing of great Bordeaux in many markets. For many, this most vividly brought to light the fact that brand and status had become more important (to some at least) than the holy grail of French wine: terroir.
However, modern Bordeaux is not only about big names and big games, but rather the struggling underbelly: the mass of Bordelaise wine at affordable price points. These lesser ranking producers and growers, of which there are many, must sell their glut of wine. I use term glut, not disparagingly, however, but as a testament to the spirit of perseverance of an industry in the shadow of its upper class.
There is a common misconception that great Bordeaux is never cheap, which may have been true five even ten years ago. But as I have been tasting, year to year, almost every new entry into our VINTAGES tier of wines, I am more and more pleased by the offerings at relatively low prices. Why might this be so? Competition from the new world is steep especially from regions that have more flexibility in changing their styles and methods of production. There is also a great deal of lower ranked and more humble Bordelaise wine on the market that must be sold. Bordeaux has been therefore forced to compete by the only means at their disposal – an increase in quality and value. It is a very Darwinian world now in Bordeaux with “arrachage” (or “vine pulling”) on the increase as well as the collapse of smaller houses. If you can’t sell you must then fold. The only option open now is a forced increase in quality – dare I say this is a benefit of a global capitalist market (my inner socialist self cringes at this statement).
Its commodification aside, Bordeaux is a region that produces a unique wine with plenty of diversity. The apparent lack of emphasis and appreciation of terroir and quality of the wines of Bordeaux is merely a result of circumstance, of literal situation. Located on a tributary leading to one of the most important of European ports, the trade value of the wines of Bordeaux was easily established. The marriage of Eleanor d’Aquitaine to King Henry II in the 12th century made Bordeaux British and the wine a lucrative export commodity. The coupling’s son Richard’s ascension to the throne of England solidified this very important trade relationship. As Bordeaux was the wealthy, controlling region of this great port, its wines were given preference over nearby regions – one of the reasons that wines of Bergerac have had so little international recognition even to this day. Dutch traders were responsible for yet another phase of the agrandissement of Bordeaux – the arduous task of draining of the marshlands around Médoc made planting vines north of Graves possible. This had the added benefit of increased accessibility to those wines with better roads. It is thus money, trade and power that are responsible for overshadowing what is beneath the label, within the bottle.
Its situation and its history established, what has become of modern Bordeaux? Undeniably, Chateaux and négociants suffer from the loss of important markets due to the pressure of increased prices but also international competition. Its future and international reputation may just lie in its less expensive, less known, less important regions, appellations and price points.
As much as I had mentioned previously that Bordeaux likes to hold on to tradition, it is secretly a very progressive part of the world. In fact, it is probably one of the most progressive wine regions of the world in terms of pushing the boundaries of the usage of new oenological technologies and biological innovations. Just because it doesn’t show it outwardly like the flashy stelvin caps of Australia and New Zealand, it doesn’t mean magic doesn’t happen behind the curtain. Of course such assistance from the new happens discretely, if not downright covertly. French wine culture asserts that terroir is the key element to making great wine and in one of its greatest wine regions; it must also uphold that belief. However, the Bordelaise have a unique way of blending respect for terroir with ways of improving quality to for greater marketability.
Many have heard of Vinexpo, one of the most important international trade shows in the wine world and an international platform on which the great wines of Bordeaux may show their stuff. However, between the years of Vinexpo, biennially, there is one of the most important wine tech fairs in the world held known as Vinitech – a marvel of new advances in the world of wine showcasing everything from new types of machine harvesters to carefully engineered yeasts. It is at this time of year that Bordeaux takes off its veil and shows, at least to the industry, its inner workings.
Beyond the history and prestige, there is a great deal to appreciate about Bordeaux. From left to right bank, it produces distinctly differently wines, each putting rival varietals cabernet sauvignon and merlot on pedestals showing what makes them both gutsy and elegant. Beneath its classification systems, producers are being forced to live up the grandeur of the region for their very survival. It is fight or fail now for those that make up the majority of wine production in Bordeaux. And in these times of stress, that creativity, innovation and competitive nature may just be responsible for producing exceptionally exciting wines.
Without further ado, here is a selection of our top picks from a modern Bordeaux. In addition, we’ve included our favorites from the rest of the release from both the new world and old.
Château De l’Orangerie 2013, Entre deux Mers, Bordeaux, France ($14.95)
Sara d’Amato – Literally “between two seas”, Entre deux Mers is the wide open space that lies between the rivers Gironde and Dordogne. Good value can be found in this expanse such as this perky white with notes of lemongrass, honeydew and passion fruit. A more interesting than average weeknight white.
Château Le Caillou 2009, Pomerol, Bordeaux, France ($52.95)
Sara d’Amato – The 2009 vintage is developing beautifully and is just beginning to shed some of its tanninc aggression to reveal its complex under layers. A wine that will prove widely appealing, its right bank origin make it a little more friendly at present that its neighbors from across the bank. Saline and an abundance of voluptuous fruit are brimming within its constraints.
Vieux Château Gachet 2000, Lalande-de-Pomerol, Bordeaux ($29.95)
David Lawrason – This is fully mature 2000 merlot based red from a very hot vintage, so its delivering more weight and plushness than I would expect from Lalande de Pomerol. Also mature flavours on the edge. I recommend it as an education in mature Bordeaux at an affordable price, and it scores on complexity and balance. Drink up.
Château Donissan 2011, Listrac-Médoc ($19.95)
David Lawrason – The 2011s lack the depth and structure of 2010s, but this scores on complexity, tension, fragrance and just a bit of intrigue with cranberry-raspberry fruit, violets, mild green pepper/veg and creative, nicely honed oak. There is a certain unique sensuality.
Château Lagrange 2011 Lussac-Saint-Émilion, Bordeaux ($18.95)
David Lawrason – Again, at this price point you can’t expect Bordeaux of depth and structure, but I am not missing that when there is so much charm to be had. This is a lighter, pretty, youthful merlot-cab franc blend with lifted aromas of violets, raspberry and fresh herbs and nettles. Bordeaux might want to think of rebranding as a source of fresh, delightful young wines instead of pompous, over-priced grand crus that languish in cellars of the rich.
Château Les Tourelles 2010, Bordeaux, France ($14.95)
Sara d’Amato – Although Tourelles has a solid reputation for white wines it also produces some exciting and well-priced merlot/cabernet franc blends. This is a very peppery, aromatic version from 2010 with good intensity and little notable oak.
Château de Lisennes 2010 Cuvée Tradition, Bordeaux Supérieur, Bordeaux, France ($16.95)
Sara d’Amato – This terrific value 2010 offers compelling floral and herbal notes with tomato leaf and lavender at the forefront. An everyday Bordeaux poised for immediate consumption.
Château Guiraud 2011, Sauternes, 1er Grand Cru Classé, (375ml), Bordeaux, France, ($39.85)
Sara d’Amato – The lush, southern wines of Bordeaux are not only head-turning but can prove greatly distracting in a tasting of three or more. Lucky for it, the Chateau Guiraud was the only offering from Sauternes in this release – but it does not disappoint! Hold on for another decade for optimal enjoyment.
2027 Cellars 2012 Wismer Vineyard Fox Croft Block Chardonnay, Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Peninsula ($30.00)
David Lawrason – From one of the best Niagara “virtual wineries” by Kevin Panakapka, this is a delicious, demure, tight and elegant chardonnay – very sleek and well balanced, not as blowsy as expected from the warmer 2012 vintage in Niagara. The nose shows finely woven hazelnut, smoke, vanilla and pear fruit. Niagara needs to aim for this kind of restraint and elegance in chardonnay.
Domaine Séguinot-Bordet 2014 Chablis, Burgundy, France ($22.95)
David Lawrason – Whereas many regions of Europe are reporting a less good 2014 vintage (especially for reds) Chablis, with its early ripening chardonnays, is very happy indeed. From a 16 ha family domain this well-priced, tidy basic Chablis may be the proof. It’s firm, well-structured with subtle aromas of apple, lemon, wet stone and at touch of youthful leesiness. Nice sense of brightness and focus.
Gorgo 2014 San Michelin Custoza, Veneto, Italy ($14.95)
David Lawrason – This demure but delicious white is a blend of cortese, tocai, trebbiano and garganega grown on rocky, limestone soils near Lago di Garda in northeast Italy. It offers dandy flavour depth and richness, and elegance with ripe aromas of peach, honey, fennel and marzipan – very much the signature of the Veneto whites. Huge value.
Carpinus 2013 Dry Furmint, Hungary ($14.95) (417865)
Sara d’Amato – Here is an outside the box pick for dinner with company but would also make a compelling solo sipper. Playful with brightness, verve and pleasantly unexpected viscosity on the palate. The slightly honeyed finished would make it a great match for pork Schnitzel.
Joh. Jos. Christoffel 2013 Erben Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Spätlese, Prädikatswein, Mosel, Germany ($28.95)
Sara d’Amato – A shockingly good wine in which you will overlook completely the sweetness and instead savor the balance. This is part of the In-Store-Discovery program so seek it out it in more prominent VINTAGES stores.
Cavino Grande Reserve 2008, Nemea, Peloponnese, Greece ($17.95)
Sara d’Amato – Agioritiko is the grape of southern Greece’s Peloponnese wine growing region. A gutsy wine with presence and a food-friendly attitude, this well-priced find to whom age has been kind, would pair nicely with cool-weather stews.
Kenwood Jack London Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Sonoma Mountain, Sonoma County, California, USA ($39.95) (944843)
Sara d’Amato – A long time favourite California cabernet sauvignon of mine which benefits from higher elevation fruit and careful winemaking. There is restraint, dryness and purity in this wine that gives it an old world character. If you are impatient, decant.
Altos Las Hormigas 2012 Terroir Malbec, Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina ($19.95)
David Lawrason – This is from Italy’s Alberto Antonini, one of most talented and terroir-driven of the many European winemakers working in Argentina. This is a refined, fresh and engaging, naturally produced, synthetic-free malbec with minimal old oak. Expect accentuated, ripe jammy raspberry/plum fruit, with licorice, herbs and some earthiness in the background.
Tabali 2012 Reserva Syrah, Limarí Valley, Chile ($14.95)
David Lawrason – I have rated this 90 points, almost impossible at $15. It is so pretty, so syrah, so Chile! I don’t add points for value but if I did it would be even higher a rating. What a fine nose of violets, blackberry, wood smoke pepper and vanilla cream. It’s mid-weight, slender and quite elegant with fine tannin. Even a mineral tweak on the finish.
Fonterutoli 2012 Chianti Classico, Tuscany, Italy ($25.95)
David Lawrason – This is so stylish, nuanced, complex yet fresh – a great modern Chianti. Very pretty, lively, firm and elegant with classic sour cherry/raspberry fruit, herbs and some minerality, nicely framed by new oak. It has fine tension and firm tannin. Excellent length as well.
From VINTAGES Oct 3, 2015
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