Champagne Floozy: [sham-PEYN FLOO-zee], noun: 1. A woman of the early days of Champagne, before her time, who decided it was ok for women to partake in the drinking of Champagne. 2. A lifelong foodie turned wine industry professional based in Durham, NC.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Champagne Floozy's Guide to Bordeaux: A Primer for the Rest of Us

     I'll come right out there and say it, I love Bordeaux. Its one of my favorite categories of wine, and few dining combinations delight me more than a nice Bordeaux and a couple of perfectly-seared lamb chops. I am fortunate in that my tutelage on the subject began in the summer of 2010, as the wine world was riding the euphoric wave of news from the 2009 vintage, and I first became employed at the Asheville Wine Market. Although I am no longer employed there, I cannot say enough wonderful things about Eb, the owner of that shop, who gave me my primary education on this subject, and who also prevented me from getting wrapped up in the often false mythology that surrounds Bordelais wines in the minds of many American consumers. I have been inspired to pen out this humble primer on the subject of Bordeaux for two reasons:

     1. I can not help but notice that, amongst many wine drinkers, there is widespread confusion and intimidation about the subject of Bordeaux. This seems to be true for both new wine consumers who are put off by what seems like mysterious labeling and confusion about what is actually in the bottle, as well as more seasoned wine lovers who are sick of the wine media's Bordeaux hype machine. The two primary misconceptions I hope to dispel in this writing are thus: A.) Bordeaux is just too damned expensive. and B.) Bordeaux is just too damned confusing.  

    2. I have also seen, time and time again, perfectly average consumers - which means, in this regard, no wine geekiness or big bank account required - come to love Bordeaux as much as I do, and integrate Bordeaux into their wine-lives in the same way that they have with Chianti, Malbec, and Vinho Verde. I firmly believe that Bordeaux can be a wine for everyday consumption, and that anyone who loves wine is capable of appreciating it.

   So, without further ado, I give you Champagne Floozy's Guide to the Red Wines of Bordeaux: The Casual Consumer Edition.

   For the purposes of this primer, please note that I am covering a.) only red wines, and b.) only wines that fall into a price category consistent with a casual consumer ($10 - $30 USD).

   First of all, if we are going to dispel some myths about Bordeaux, we need to consider the most basic facts of the region: Bordeaux is ENORMOUS. With 300,000 acres of vines and a yearly output of 61 million cases, it would be the world's 12th largest producer of wine if it were a country. Languedoc-Roussillon is the only region in France with a larger output, and that is only if we include Languedoc and Roussillon as a single region, which most wine educators no longer do. 55% of the region's wines are bottled under the very humble AOC designations of "Bordeaux" or "Bordeaux Superieur," while another 14% carries an only slightly less-humble labeling of "Cotes de Bordeaux" or "Cote de Bourg." What that means is that a total of 69% of the wines produced from this very large region do not carry a prestigious label, and are, in fact, generally quite affordable. This 69% figure does not even include other regions that are known for high quality and relative values to be found, such as Graves, the Medoc, and the satellite appellations around St. Emilion.

   Alright, all that being said, lets back up a minute: yeah, in a big region like this there is also plenty of plonk to go around. Just because something says Bordeaux does not mean it is automatically great wine. But within this ocean of wine, just like the oceans of wine made in Spain, South America, and California, there are more than plenty of great wines to be had. This, of course, is where quality importers and wine retailers become your best friend.

   So how do Bordeaux prices compare to other regions' wines? Although I was unable to find an online price aggregator for all the Bordeaux-Superieur labeled wines of any given vintage, from a combination of my personal experience as a retailer and from running searches on both Wine Spectator and, I can confidently say that the average entry-level bottling of Bordeaux, for the American consumer, is roughly the same as the average bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot carrying a Californian label designation of Paso Robles, Lodi, or Sonoma, and perhaps even slightly lower. What about pricing on the high-end? Even though that is not the focus of this article, it is worth noting that a Wine Spectator search of 90+ rated Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa Valley from the 2009 vintage reveals an entry-level price of $48. The exact same search for Pauillac (one of Bordeaux's most prestige zones, home to Chateau Lafite-Rothschild) shows an entry-level price of $30, even for the prestigious 2009 vintage.

   So when we combine this information here is what we come up with: Bordeaux makes a whole lot of wine, and most of it is quite reasonably priced, especially when compared to wines made from similar grapes and of similar quality in California. 

   Now that we have put that misconception to bed, we can get on to the good part: What Bordeaux actually is, why it is deserving of the wine lover's attentions, and how the casual consumer can confidently purchase a bottle of the stuff. I have boiled the rest of this primer down to four simple sections, and my sincerest hope is that you, the reader, find it useful.

1. Relax. Its just wine. 

And contrary to popular misconception, its not the big, bold, tannic monster that requires patience in the cellar. At the price range we are discussing, the wines are surprisingly elegant and more medium-bodied, with dark berries dominating the fruit character, and other nuances that range from oaky to earthy to mineralic. The best examples are polished, incredibly food-friendly, and imminently drinkable, and most have a drinking window averaging from 3 to 7 years.
2. Its probably Merlot. And here's why that matters less than you might think.

One of the first things a student of wine learns is the five grape varieties grown and used in red Bordeaux. The grapes are usually listed in this order: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. (And yes, an acre or three of Carmenere, to preempt the wine nerd who would call me out lest I forgot the include it.) Although Cabernet Sauvignon gets top billing, namely due to its dominance in the blends of the top estates of the left bank, in terms of actual acres of vines, the earlier ripening, easier-to-grow Merlot blows every other grape away. Merlot is planted at almost 165,000 acres, while the 2nd most-planted, Cabernet Sauvignon, is not even a close second at 65,000 acres. Cabernet Franc has less than half of Sauvignon's acreage, and the latter two grapes are barely worth mentioning. In the price range that this article is discussing, the wines are generally (no, not always, of course) dominated by at least 60% Merlot, usually more.

But here's the thing, and its one of the reasons why a bottle of Bordeaux should be approached as a bottle of Bordeaux, and not a grape variety: The grape used in the blend matters far less than you might think. Now, I'm not going to be one of those esoteric wine nerds who says that grapes don't matter because soil and terroir trump everything. Thats silliness, and the grapes that are used to make a wine certainly have enormous effect on the finished wine. However, in the case of the Bordeaux varieties - Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, specifically - these grapes don't taste all that different from each other. Really. Most tasters, including exalted Master Sommeliers, can't tell the two apart in a blind tasting, and certainly not without difficulty. While the flavor profiles of these two grapes are closely paralleled, some people think that Merlot has a softer, rounder tannin profile. This is true in many, but not all, cases, and there are many 100% Merlots produced throughout the world that are "bigger" than an average Cabernet Sauvignon.

3. How to decipher a Bordeaux label: First consider the shelf.

I am not going to dismiss many average consumers' concerns that Bordeaux labels are confusing and intimidating. Sure, they certainly can be. Hell, there are 60 different Bordeaux Appellations, but learning them all is far from necessary for the casual consumers' enjoyment. And, if one approaches the Bordeaux label armed with the information found above in section two (Its Merlot!), things get a lot easier. Other factors to consider when looking at these labels:
  • "Chateau" is just a fancy word for winery. For some producers, their "Chateau" is just a garage.
  • Just like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, most Bordeaux regions that you will find on the labels in our price range have more in common than differences. Three different wines, all labeled regionally with Premiere Cotes-de-Blaye, Bordeaux Superieur, or Medoc, all priced at $20, will have a heck of a lot in common. This is not to say they will all taste the same, and I certainly don't intend to over-simplify here, but they will all fit a very general flavor profile, in the same way that a Merlot of Cabernet Sauvignon from California or Washington State or Chile will all have a lot in common. 
  • Vintage variation is over-hyped. This is true for every price range, but is especially true for wines that are intended for immediate, youthful consumption. For example, the 2011 vintage was panned by the wine press at the beginning of 2012, as were the 2001 and 2004 vintages a decade ago. However, the 2011 wines now reaching the market have taken much of the wine press aback in terms of a surprising overall quality, and the earlier vintages mentioned have stood the test of time and proven far better than originally deemed. 
  • The most important decision you will make, when facing a wall of bottles gilded with Chateau and confusing terminology, comes some moments before you are facing that wall: when you walked in the wine retailers' door. Your confusion can be overcome by trust in your retailer. A good retailer is going to weed out the junk and stock their shelves with the best wines they can find for the money they are charging. Also, a good retailer should have a friendly, competent staff on hand to help guide you through the selection process. If they don't, find a new retailer. There are even a number of grocery stores, such as Whole Foods and Wegman's, that have excellent wine departments staffed with knowledgable folks. Obviously, things get trickier if you are trying to buy Bordeaux at Publix or Food Lion, which I would generally not recommend. 
Clos du Pavillon Puisseguin-St-Emilion 2009. Delicious. 20 Bucks.
4. Introduce Bordeaux to the dinner table.

   I discussed in section #1 some misconceptions that I have encountered about the stylistic leanings of every-day priced Bordeaux. It is worth noting again that these wines are not big bruisers, and as such, as surprisingly food friendly. There are a number of different wine categories that I think are worth keeping in the larder as utility pairers - these include Rose, Riesling, Rioja, Chianti, Gruner Veltliner, and Austrian reds. Bordeaux is certainly a diverse dining companion as well, and worthy of being introduced into your rotation. While it certainly has the stuffing for lamb and beef, it also plays well with chicken, mushrooms, hard cheeses, burgers, and pork chops. (I have even been told that the Bordelais like to drink it - yes the red wine - with white fish from the Gironde river!) 

   And here we have reached the end of my Bordeaux Primer for the Casual Consumer. My goal has been to dispel any misconceptions that would prevent any lover of wine from exploring this noble category of delicious juice. This primer is also, obviously, intended for an entry-level consumer, though I hope that a more seasoned wine aficionado might have gotten some good stuff from it as well.

  Finally, I would be remiss if I did not say that Bordeaux is one of the world's greatest wine regions, and, fittingly, can be as complex or a simple as one desires. For anyone who develops a profound love for the wines of the region, there will always be more to study and learn - about producers, nuances between regions and soil types, to vintage variations. For those fortunate enough to be able to collect and cellar wine - of all price ranges! - Bordeaux is one of the most rewarding regions to explore. I do believe that Bordeaux can be, in fact, is a wine for everyone. 

Note: All facts and statistics regarding Bordeaux's size, acreage, output, etc. are sourced from the most recent edition of the Society of Wine Educator's CSW Study Guide, published at the end of 2013.

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