Bordeaux


My recent sojourn in Bordeaux brought pleasures and revelations of many kinds — people, places, wine, food, history, tradition — but the most acute revelation, in fact the big story, occurred on the last night, when our small group had a tour, tasting and casual dinner at Domaine de Cantemerle — not to be confused with Chateau Cantemerle, the Fifth Growth Haut-Medoc estate in the commune of Macau. The proprietor of Domaine de Cantemerle is 73-year-old polymath Christian Mabille, who with his three sons in 1998 took over the property whose origins go back to the early 19th Century. Mabille, who seems as fluent in English as he wants to be, mainly spoke French when we visited the producer of Bordeaux Supérieur wines that lies about 20 kilometers north of the city of Bordeaux, on the right bank of the Dordogne river, in the commune of Saint-Gervais. (The domaine’s wines are available in New Jersey, California, New York, Connecticut, Illinois, Virginia, Washington D.C., Missouri and Michigan.)

We were enjoying a meal of charcuterie and cheeses in one of the winery’s barrel rooms when Mabille, who is not immune to the twinkling eye and well-placed bon mot, dropped this bomb: “We are trying to anticipate climate change by bringing in chardonnay and other white varieties to replace sauvignon blanc, which is not going to be appropriate in a few more years.”

My colleagues and I scrambled for our notebooks. Chardonnay in Bordeaux? Sacre bleu!

I won’t belabor the point, but to recap briefly, grape-growing and wine-production in France are heavily regulated by the INAO through the AOC system. Each region where grapes are grown and wine is made, from the tiniest, most obscure appellation to the vast and geographically sweeping, is subject to rules that determine what grapes are entitled to be cultivated, how abundant the yields can be, whether certain vineyard and winery practices are allowed (irrigation, chaptalization) and how wines from specific areas are to be labeled. In fact, regulations were recently enacted that determine how many meters high vines can grow for some appellations, though there’s a five-year grace period to retool vineyards, as it were.

No rules exist that say that chardonnay grapes cannot be grown in Bordeaux and that wine cannot be made from those grapes; you just can’t label that wine as being from Bordeaux or anywhere within Bordeaux. The white grapes allowed in Bordeaux are sauvignon blanc, semillon and muscadelle along with a few others like ugni blanc and colombard not used for top-flight wines. Chardonnay is not one of those permitted white grapes, primarily for reasons of practicality; chardonnay grapes to not perform at their best in Bordeaux’s maritime climate.

Mabille’s point is that as climate change continues to alter traditional weather-patterns and the gradual warming of the region becomes more acute, chardonnay and several other white varieties common to the South of France — Mabille is looking in Corbieres — will not only be suited to Bordeaux but necessary if the region is going to continue to produce white wine.

“We’ll only plant one or two hectares,” said Mabille — 2.57 to 5.14 acres — “just as an experiment, and this will happen in a year or two. Everything is in place. We have chosen the root stock and the vines, we have made cuttings, but the hail in September set us back.” (The domaine lost half of its crop of 2011 because of hail.) “Of course the wines will have to be made as Vin de France,” that is, they will not be allowed to carry any Bordeaux designation, a prospect that doesn’t bother Mabille because the domaine’s rosé is bottled as Vin de Table. “We wanted to give our rose a different character that’s not typical of Bordeaux rosés,” he said, “something a little darker, with a little more residual sugar. We didn’t want to confuse things administratively.”

Most startling was Mabille’s attitude toward the AOC structure: “It’s no longer a question of regulations,” he said, “but of client and customer confidence.” He goes further: “In this region, of course we have the traditional varieties, but you know carmenere has almost disappeared and petit verdot is no longer found in the northern Gironde except right here.” (Petit verdot makes up about one percent of the domaine’s 115 acres.) “Even the traditional producers and merchants have accepted that a part of the old grape varieties of Bordeaux are no longer present or viable.”

In fact, Mabille believes that the entire regulatory system needs rethinking.

“In 10 or 15 years, the AOC rules must be changed to allow more grape varieties,” he said, “or the whole thing is just going to blow to pieces. As I travel to other regions of the country and the world, I note that the French appellation system is very much appreciated and admired but not fully copied because it goes too far, it is too complicated. It’s essential to have rules, but they shouldn’t be extreme. I really support the changes to a simplified EU system that are coming in the future. It’s inevitable.”

Photo of Corie Brown, of zester.com, and FK frantically taking notes was shot by Fred Minnick. Many thanks to Jana Kravitz for her heroic translating efforts on this occasion.

Two wines from France, first the white, from the Maconnais region in the south of Burgundy, then the red, a Bordeaux Superieur.
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The Henri Perrusset Macon-Villages 2010 is the real deal as far as chardonnay goes, and I mean that this little beauty, because of its intensity, dimension and detail, could pass as a ringer for a Cote de Beaune blanc — all right, a minor Cote de Beaune blanc –at half the price. My first note on the wine, which was made all in stainless steel, was, “Damn, that’s good!” Lovely purity of chardonnay character here, with spicy roasted lemon and baked pear scents and flavors accented by cloves, quince and ginger and a scintillating limestone element that goes hand in hand with crystalline acidity; oh, and a zephyr-like wafting of camellia. Yes, this is fresh, clean and vibrant, and it delivers terrific balance and integration; not only does it taste good, but it feels good in the mouth. 13 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013. Very Good+. About $16-$20.

Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Ca. Tasted at a wholesaler’s trade event.
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Speaking of the real deal, the Chateau Senailhac 2005, Bordeaux Superieur — from a great vintage in Bordeaux — is the real deal as far as merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc are concerned. In fact, unusually for Bordeaux Superieur, this wine contains all five of the classic Bordeaux grape varieties: 43 percent merlot, 25 percent cabernet sauvignon, 23 percent cabernet franc, 7 percent malbec and, finally, a 2 percent dollop of petit verdot. At six years old, the wine displays a transparent medium ruby color tinged with brick-red/garnet at the rim; classic, too, is this bouquet of spiced and macerated black currants and black cherries with hints of cedar and tobacco, black olive and bell pepper and a touch of walnut shell and brambles. The wine offers slightly fleshy and meaty flavors of black currants and plums encompassed in a dense and chewy structure that’s firm and close to velvety without being heavy or obvious; tannins are mellow and a little chewy, a bit gritty with dusty graphite-like minerality that extends through the finish. Chateau Senailhac 2005 is drinking beautifully now and should do so through 2014 to ’16. Alcohol content is 13 percent. Very Good+. I paid $19; prices around the country start at $16.

Imported by Luxco Inc., St. Louis.
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As a basic concept, a Bordeaux wine is any wine made within the defined region of Bordeaux, a geographical but not a political entity in the Gironde départment in southwest France. Within Bordeaux, however, there are 57 separate appellations, that is, official growing and winemaking areas defined by the INAO, the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine, established in 1935 and taxed with regulating (in great detail) some 470 wines and spirits as well as other agricultural products. The fact that a region like Bordeaux consists of 57 appellations might seem difficult enough to encompass, though the system is further complicated by the existence of different rules within appellations — white wine made in Margaux, for example, cannot be designated as Margaux AOC — and by certain limited choices of designation that producers can make.

Bordeaux, in its most celebrated guise, is home to some of the world’s greatest wine estates, well-nigh legendary properties that annually release to the waiting arms and open pocketbooks of connoisseurs, collectors and high-end restaurants wines of finesse, breeding, power and longevity. These wines, famous indeed but only about five percent of the region’s total production, tend to originate in the appellations of Graves, Pessac-Léognan, Margaux, Pauillac, St.-Estephe, St.-Julien, Pomerol and St.-Emilion, all for red wine, and Sauternes and Barsac for dessert wines. Most of these appellations are communal, meaning that they are named for old towns and villages around which the vineyards and chateaux cluster.

In the regional sense, however — and let’s not forget that Bordeaux is also a city on the Garonne river that has been a center of wine-trading for eight centuries — in the narrowly (or formally) determined sense, the word “Bordeaux” officially applies to seven of the 57 appellations according to the A.O.C (Appellation d’Origine Côntrolée) regulations: Bordeaux Red; Bordeaux Supérieur Red; Bordeaux White; Bordeaux Supérieur White; Bordeaux Rosé; Bordeaux Clairet; and Crémant de Bordeaux — yes, small amounts of champagne method sparkling wine are produced in Bordeaux, and its quite tasty, if generally simple and direct. These seven appellations and their growers are represented by the Syndicat Viticole des AOC Bordeaux et Bordeaux Supérieur from its headquarters at Planete Bordeaux in Beychac et Caillau, just south of the Dordogne river in Entre-Deux-Mers.

The vineyards that supply the grapes for the seven “Bordeaux” appellations account for 54 percent of Bordeaux’s vineyard area, some 61,000 hectares, or about 156,770 acres. These vineyards are farmed by 6,085 growers, many of whom make, bottle and market their own wines, though the majority sell either grapes or wine to cooperatives, of which there are 44. The average holding for each grower is just under 26 acres; these are not large landowners, and they do not sell their wines for hefty prices. Obviously we are talking about a realm far removed from the heady preserves of the Classified Growths and grand chateaux nestled in their parks and illustrious, historic vineyards from which spring the hallowed, long-lived wines — Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion, Mouton-Rothschild, Petrus, Ausone, Cheval Blanc and so forth — that command tremendous feats of fiduciary prowess on the part of American CEOs and Asian magnates. No, I am writing here of smaller, more intimate chateaux, glorified farmhouses really, surrounded by a few hectares of vines often tended by the same families for generations, even back to the 18th Century. (Let me add that there are many beautiful old estates and chateaux in all regions and appellations of Bordeaux.)

Like the tremendous gulf that yawns between the salaries of business leaders and wage-earners in America, the untenable gap between the prices fetched for the top five percent of Bordeaux wines and the rest of the vast sea of wine produced in the region is economically insupportable. And where are these small landowners going to sell their products now that the French consume less wine than at any point since records began being kept yet more wine — a glut of wine — is being made? (Answer: The United States of America and the People’s Republic of China.)

Anyway, the differences between Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supérieur AOC are matters of degrees. Bordeaux Supérieur red wine is supposed to be made from older vines (though the age is unspecified in the regulations) and aged for 12 months; it must finish with a minimum of 10.5 percent alcohol, as opposed to the minimum of 10 percent for “regular” Bordeaux, though the reality is that almost all the wines produced from both appellations vary from about 11.5 to 13.5 percent. The “Supérieur” designation does not mean that the wine is inherently “better” or “superior” to a wine that carries a plainer “Bordeaux” designation; the implication, however, is that because the rules are slightly more demanding, the possibility exists that a Bordeaux Supérieur wine would display more character and be capable of aging for four or five years.

One may think of Bordeaux, then, as a structure of concentric circles, with Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supérieur AOC, which may be made anywhere in the overall Bordeaux region, as the outer circles, while the rest of the (theoretical) circles become smaller and smaller, until finally we come to the communal appellations and their Classified Growths. Bordeaux Rosé AOC, Clairet and Crémant can also be made anywhere in the Bordeaux region, but you can bet that such production is limited to the broad AOCs; the winemakers at Classified Growths have better things to do with their expensive pedigreed grapes than knock out a few cases of rosé. There’s always the possibility that an estate could take advantage of the allowance to declassify a wine to Bordeaux AOC in an irregular year, though that decision has to be reached before the wine is made, not after; Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supérieur AOC are not to be used as dumping appellations for inferior or mediocre wines.

Thanks to Jana Kravitz of Vin’Animus for clearing up some points of confusion; if there’s anything confusing in this account, it’s my fault. Image of the old port of Bordeaux from darvillsrareprint.com.

No, blanc de blancs Champagne will not yield its supreme place in my heart to any upstart, but I tasted and, yeah, just outright drank a great deal of what’s called Bordeaux Clairet when I was in Entre-Deux-Mers during the last week of September, and it’s a wine that brings lots of pleasure, delight and savor, qualities that are often overlooked in our search for vinous experiences of the profound variety. Sometimes it’s fine if a wine just makes you feel good and perhaps brings a smile to your undernourished lips and a twinkle to your jaded eye. Bordeaux Clairet — the final “t” should be pronounced according to the regional idiom of Bordeaux — is a bit darker and slightly more substantial and flavorful than Bordeaux Rosé, which is made in the traditional pale French manner, but less dark and less substantial than Bordeaux rouge. The color tends to be brilliant cerise or scarlet rather than the onion skin or light copper of a rosé or the dark ruby of red Bordeaux. In fact, Bordeaux Clairet resembles, as far as people understand, the delicate light-colored wines that began to be exported to England in the 12th century and continued until the late 17th Century when the wine’s character began to be darker, weightier and more age-worthy. Those earlier wines gave the British the word “claret,” by which they still refer to the red wines of Bordeaux.

The grapes for Bordeaux Clairet are the same as for any red wine made in Bordeaux: merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, with malbec and petit verdot allowed but seldom seen. Clairet tends to come from younger vines and typically is not aged in barrels. The ideal is a young, fresh, juicy wine of immediate appeal — think spiced strawberries and mulberries with a hint of black and red currants — that offers moderate texture and body and avoids the austerity or aridity that sometimes defines a very dry and delicate rosé. Clairet really goes well with charcuterie.

The Bordeaux Clairet appellation coincides with all of the Bordeaux region; in other words, chateaux in any appellation, even high-toned Margaux and Pauillac, Pomerol and St. Emilion, could produce Clairet if they so desired. Imagine the cellarmaster at Mouton-Rothschild or Latour saying, “Alors, I have a thought. Let’s take these three rows of not quite up to snuff grapes and turn them into a few thousand bottles of Clairet.” Well, no, that’s not going to happen; grapes at the grand houses are too valuable to waste in such a way; that’s why the concept of the “second wine” was invented.

Realistically, Bordeaux Clairet is made by the smaller properties that produce A.O.C. Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur wines. In fact, most of the chateaux we visited on our brief tour offered both Bordeaux Rosé and Bordeaux Clairet, but the latter is not made in large amounts. Clairet production totals about 33,912 hectoliters — a hectoliter, which is a hundred liters, equals 26.4 gallons — or about 377,000 cases. That’s about 13.5 percent of the production of Bordeaux Rosé and just a drop in the barrel compared to AOC Bordeaux Red and Bordeaux Supérieur Red.

Very little Bordeaux Clairet is exported to the United States, if any is at all. Many wineries in California now produce rosé wines in a “New World” style that’s darker, spicier and more flavorful than the traditional pale Provençal-style rosé, so what would it behoove properties in Bordeaux to send their Clairet across the Atlantic? Better, perhaps, for the wine-producing families to keep Clairet for local restaurants, for themselves, their friends and honored guests. I know that I’ll look forward to a glass or two of Clairet when I return to Bordeaux.

Hélène and David Barrault bought Chateau Tire Pé, in Bordeaux’s Entre-Deux-Mers region, in 1997. The couple had no experience growing grapes or making wine, and their families were not involved in those trades either, so by what means except trial and error and hard work and luck did David Barrault manage to produce that rarity in Bordeaux — Bordeaux the encompassing idea and Bordeaux the specific A.O.C. — a 100 percent malbec wine which to describe I am now overdrawn at the bank of the word “beautiful.” It sells in the United States for $25 to $28.

The central part of the house was built in the 1750s; identical perpendicular wings were added soon after. It’s a large but simple two-story edifice, plain and dignified, a sort of glorified farmstead; its rosy salmon colored plaster reflects the early morning and late afternoon sun with a confidential glow. The view from the long wide knoll upon which it stands, 80 meters above the Garonne river, provides a spectacular panorama of the countryside.

The couple converted one wing of the chateau to bed and breakfast accommodations in 2007, a practice that many of the old properties in Bordeaux are taking up, for the same reason that the grand manor houses of England nowadays often include petting zoos and miniature railroads; bills must be paid, banks must be satisfied. The artistic Hélène Barrault designed the labels for Tire Pe’s wine bottles, she makes and glazes pottery, and she decorated, if her elegant intuition allows that word, the three B&B rooms and the downstairs kitchen-parlor in a spare, timeless manner that evokes an ideal of childhood country life, a kind of austere yet inevitable Eden, well, if the WiFi connection were more reliable and if towels were delivered in a more timely fashion. Still, if the proximity of ancient beamed ceilings and the soft luminosity of ambient light in wooden cupboards send you into a nostalgic dither — guilty as charged! — this is the place for you.

The estate’s vineyards slope in well-tended rows down the hills from the focal point of the chateau. Cultivation is along sustainable practices, with no chemical fertilizers or herbicides. The production varies from 40,000 to 50,000 bottles a year — about 3,300 to 4,160 cases annually — of which more than half is sent to the U.S., imported principally by Jenny & François Selections in New York. Barrault, seen in this photograph, allows natural yeasts to start fermentation and limits the use of new oak to 10 to 12 percent, “depending on the vintage, never more.” He employs a few Bordelaise barrels (the standard 225-liter or 59-gallon size) but also 400-, 500-, and 600-liter French barrels “with little toast,” he said, “or between medium and low.” Chateau Tire Pé’s wines carry a Bordeaux designation (and, yes, I promise that I’m preparing a post about the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur A.O.C.s. Soon, maybe not tomorrow, but soon …)

Here are quick evaluations of the wines:

*) Chateau Tire Pé Diem 2010. The estate’s basic wine, 100 percent merlot from young vines; no oak, aging six months in concrete vats. Bright, ripe and vibrant; black currants, blueberries and mulberries; lively, dense and chewy, touches of briers and walnut shell; great presence, personality and length for the price. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $8 in the U.S., said Barrault, so let’s say under $10, and even if it were a few dollars more it would represent Great Value.

*) Chateau Tire Pé 2009. This is also merlot, made from older vines with lower yields; it spent one and a half years in concrete vats. There’s more acidity here, more structure, more grip, grit and give, more sense of earthy, graphite-like minerality and briers and brambles; this is quite dry, yet very ripe, wild almost, bursting with notes of blueberry and mulberry lashed with dense, chewy yet supple tannins. Begs for a medium-rare ribeye steak, hot and crusty from the coals. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $12, perhaps $14 depending on the state. Another Terrific Bargain.

*) Chateau Tire Pé La Côte 2007 is a blend of 60 percent merlot and 40 percent cabernet franc; it was fermented in concrete vats and aged in barrels. The year was not an easy one, but Barrault liked it; “it made me pay attention,” he said, “and make progress in my job.” As winemakers say, you delight in the easy vintages and learn from the hard ones. The most rustic of the Tire Pé wines, La Côte 07 is very earthy, loamy and mossy, with tremendous tannic grip and almost fierce acidity bolstering intense and concentrated flavors of deeply spicy black currants and blueberries. A wine to chew on with braised short ribs or venison and best from 2012 to 2015 or ’16. 14 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $18.

*) Barrault is justly proud of his 100 percent malbec wine. Chateau Tire Pé Les Malbecs 2009 is frankly riveting in its seductive mulberry-magenta color; its beguiling aromas of blueberries, briery black currants, crushed violets and gravel; its combination of dusty-mossy-graphite tinged depth (there’s a touch of intense bitter chocolate and lavender there) and paradoxically balletic, elevating acidity and spice. A warm, stylish and immensely appealing expression of the malbec grape that doesn’t sacrifice structure for accessibility. Best from 2012 through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $25 to $28.


When you’re on a wine tour, you never know what the next visit is going to bring. On our schedule for the last day of this trip to Entre-Deux-Mers, the entry said merely: “9h30 – 11h00 — Visit Chateau L’Escart in Saint-Loubés with Damien Laurent.” Sounds pretty low-key, but we had a terrific time at Chateau L’Escart and encountered the two wines mentioned in the title of this post, which are available in the U.S. but with geographical limitations.

The chateau, built in 1752, sits in the middle of the village of Saint-Loubés. It’s not a true mansion — we saw some of those — being more of a large and refined stone farmhouse whose center block holds the family quarters — strewn when we visited with children’s toys and scooters — and whose wings encompass barrel-aging rooms and other winemaking necessities. As you can see from the aerial photograph, the estate includes various other outbuildings and sheds, a small park and then the vineyards beyond. Proprietor and seventh generation winemaker Damien Laurent is personable and articulate and clearly loves his work. “Wine is human,” he said, as we sat outside tasting through the wines of Chateau L’Escart, “vineyards, soil, what goes on around here. You cannot sit down for an hour and get the whole picture. It’s more complicated. We don’t have the same tools as the big chateaux. We are small. I am on the tractor. I’m in the tank room, on the phone, I sell the wines. We do it all alone.” And then — because the day feels perfect and the harvest is almost complete — “September is the tender month. I love September. It’s beautiful.”

Chateau L’Escart produces about 220,000 bottles annually — French winemakers always speak in terms of bottles — which means about 18,330 cases. A whopping 80 percent of that wine is exported, to Canada, Australia, the United States, Belgian and, inevitably, China, a huge wine-thirsty country of increasing importance to French producers of any size because there are too many people making wine in the country and more wine than French (or European) consumers can absorb. The output at L’Escart is overwhelmingly red, based on merlot, malbec, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc; a mere 5,000 bottles of white are made, “a warm-up,” Laurent said, “for the reds.” The appellations are Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur (about which more soon).

The estate is run on organic principles, with explorations into biodynamic methods, though Laurent insisted that he is skeptical of some of the biodynamic movements more esoteric practices.

First on the roster of wines we tasted was the basic-level Chateau Bergey 2009, Bordeaux, a blend of 60 percent cabernet sauvignon and
40 percent merlot that sees no oak. (Estates in Bordeaux often bottle their various grades of wine under different chateau labels.) The color is a lovely cerise-magenta, and the aromas are an exquisite weaving of potpourri, lavender, graphite, black currants and blueberries, with touches of wild raspberries, cedar and tobacco. This displays real grip and presence, with vivid acidity, a penetrating mineral quality, plenty of earthy tannins and round, spicy black fruit flavors. Why do wineries in California so rarely deliver such quality for the price? Very Good and perhaps even very Good+. “The price is the U.S. is about $8,” said Laurent, “certainly under $10.” If you live in New York, North Carolina or Texas, run, do not walk, to the nearest retail store and browbeat your friendly wine merchant into procuring this for your house red. Great Value.

But — always a “but” — even better at not much more cost is the Chateau L’Escart Cuvée Eden 2009, Bordeaux Supérieur, a blend of 60 percent merlot, 30 percent cabernet sauvignon and 10 percent malbec from 35 to 45-year-old vines. This is the wine, frankly, that made my colleagues and I cast sidelong glances at each other, giving the nod with raised eyebrows and mouthing the syllable “Whoa!” Here, at an irresistible price range, is a wine of lovely balance and integration, with all elements working in harmony. There’s plenty of tannin, of course, plenty of the gritty briery-minerally-earthy elements we expect from the clay-and-limestone soil that nurtured these grapes — and don’t forget that 2009 was a superb year in Bordeaux — and yet there’s also a surprising sense of delicacy and refinement, along with a factor of resonance that has to be called confidence; the wine is packed with ripe, slightly macerated black currant and black cherry flavors bolstered by taut acidity and permeated by dense spice and chewy tannins. It will drink nicely through 2014 or ’15. Definitely Very Good+ and another Great Value at $13 to $15.

The next step up for Chateau L’Escart is the Omar Khayam label, introduced with the 1998 vintage. The connection is that the great Persian poet, Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), was a mathematician as well as a poet and astronomer, and Damien Laurant’s father was also a mathematician; each vintage of the wine, a beverage about which the poet was fond of writing, features a different verse. The grapes for the Omar Khayam label, as it’s spelled, derive from 50 to 60-year-old vines; the wines age in all new oak barrels from 16 to 18 months. About 830 cases are made, depending on what the year allows. The blend changes but is dominated by cabernet sauvignon. The appellation is Bordeaux Supérieur. We tried the 2009, the 2004 and 2003. The 2009 version is well-balanced and integrated for being so young and being influenced by new oak; it would be best from 2013 through 2020 or ’22. The ’04 was smoother and riper, more fleshy and meaty, with spiced and macerated black fruit scents and flavors supported by sufficiently lively acidity and dense tannins; it’s a warm, spicy, earthy wine for drinking through 2015 or ’16. From the extremely hot year of 2003, Omar Khayam offers fleshy and roasted black and red fruit, heaps of graphite and gritty tannins but feels a bit hollow in the middle and finish, lacking the balance of the ’09 and ’04, which I would rate Excellent, while the ’03 would rate Very Good. The price is about $35.

The last wine was the estate’s top-of-the-line Agape 2009, Bordeaux Supérieur, a 100 percent cabernet sauvignon that aged 15 months in new Burgundy barrels (which are slightly larger than the standard 225-liter or 59-gallon Bordeaux barrel.) Not marketed in the U.S., the wine is certainly well-made for the type but at $50 a bottle seems no more interesting or compelling than hundreds of similar wines made all over the world.


The heart of Bordeaux may be its legendary grand chateaux and the great, long-lived and very expensive wines they produce, but the region’s soul lies in the thousands of small estates where families, some of many generations’ duration, turn out well-made, accessible, little-known wines that labor in the shadows of their illustrious brethren. These are not the wines for which those who possess fiduciary prowess fork over inconceivable amounts of money and store them away in their cellars (increasingly in China); these are, however, the wines that more modestly endowed folk enjoy with lunch and dinner, wines that are solid, dependable and enjoyable.

On the other hand, let’s not eliminate any aspects of ambition. Winemaker Laetitia Mauriac, for example — the writer Francois Mauriac was her great-uncle — is justly proud that her Chateau la Levrette 2007, Bordeaux Blanc, is served at a Michelin-starred restaurant. The small group of writers I’m traveling with this week tasted Mauriac’s wines and those of Chateau Sainte Barbe, made by Antoine Touton, last night at Chateau Sainte Barbe, a charming edifice built between 1760 and 1780 by Jean-Baptiste Lynch, the Irish emigre whose name appears on such well-known classified properties as Lynch-Bages and Lynch-Moussas and who served as mayor of the city of Bordeaux. Touton, a former coffee, vanilla bean and cocoa broker, and his wife Lucy bought the decrepit chateau and estate in 2000 and restored the house and replanted the vineyards.

On the chateau’s terrace, looking right onto the Garonne river, we tried Mauriac’s Bordeaux Blanc and Bordeaux Clairet with bowls of green olives and tiny river shrimp boiled with star anise. (The shrimp were whole; one holds them by their teeny heads and eats the rest, shell and all.) La Levrette 2007 — “levrette” means greyhound — made completely from sauvignon blanc grapes, sports a brilliant golden color and a remarkable bouquet of almond blossom and almond skin, roasted lemons, pears and cloves. The wine aged eight months in new oak, with regular stirring of the lees (b?tonnage), resulting in lovely suppleness in texture and a deeply spicy quality in the ripe, round stonefruit flavors (with hints of ginger and quince), all abetted by crystalline acidity. This is a wine that it would be instructive to revisit in three or four years. Mauriac said, “When I make my white wine, I don’t think of it as Bordeaux. I think of it as a wine that I like.”

I had not encountered Clairet, which has its own Bordeaux A.O.C.. It’s darker and possesses more character than rosé but not as much body and flavor as a straight Bordeaux rouge. Chateau La Levrette 2009, Bordeaux Clairet, embodies pure raspberry and mulberry scents and flavors with heady aromas of mulling spices and soft, moderate tannins for a bit of firmness and structure in the mouth. This was absolutely delightful as an aperitif wine and would be terrific, served slightly chilled, on picnics or around the pool or patio.

Dinner was promoted as “light,” but consisted of two preparations of salmon, roast beef with foie gras and scalloped potatoes, a green salad, a cheese course and two cakes. We ate informally in the chateau’s kitchen and tasted a range of wines that included Sainte Barbe 2009, 2007 and ’05, Mauriac’s La Combe des Dames 2008, Bordeaux Supérieur, and La Levrette 2007, Bordeaux Supérieur, which aged for 14 months in oak barrels. The reds are predominantly merlot blended with cabernet sauvignon. Sainte Barbe is a blend of 70 percent merlot with the rest being cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc; these robust and earthy wines age 9 to 12 months in oak, 30 percent new barrels. It’s interesting that Mauriac and Touton made very attractive wines in 2007, generally a difficult year in Bordeaux.

I’m writing this Monday morning after breakfast. It’s warmer in Bordeaux than I anticipated; I brought sweaters and jackets, but today will be a t-shirt day. I’ll shut down here in a moment, pack my gear, and head out for a day of visits and tastings and, inevitably, eating.

In the indispensable Grand Vins: The Finest Chateaux of Bordeaux and Their Wines (University of California Press, 1995), Clive Coates unravels the long and tangled familial, political and financial history of Sauternes’ three “Doisy” estates: the two most prominent, Doisy-Védrines and Doisy-Daëne, and the seldom-seen Doisy-Dubroca, which produces only about 500 cases annually. All three were awarded Second Growth ranking in the 1855 Classification of the wines of Sauternes and Barsac; arguments could be made for or against that status now, but certainly Védrines and Daene often make superb sweet wines, while Dubroca would be difficult to make a case for since it is so rarely encountered. Suffice to say that Doisy was once a single and ancient vineyard that was divided in the 1830s or ’40s. Our concern today is Chateau Doisy-Védrines, because I recently tried Doisy-Védrines 2005, two glasses of which, in an untypical fit of decadence, I consumed with a lunch of pan perdu, maple syrup and blackberries. The property has been owned by the Castéja family since 1840. The estate covers just over 66 acres; the vineyards are planted with 80 percent semillon grapes, 15 percent sauvignon blanc and 5 percent muscadelle. For 2005, the wine spent 18 months in oak, 70 percent new barrels.

Chateau Doisy-Védrines 2005, Sauternes, sports a radiant medium gold color that goes quite delicate and limpid around the rim. The first impression is of ripe, spiced, macerated and roasted peaches, apricots and pineapple infused with honey, vanilla and cloves and a burgeoning element of honeysuckle, camellia and bees’-wax; the sense is of filigrees upon filigrees of scents layered in ethereal jewel-like proximity. Some dessert wines feel as heavy as money in the mouth; this, while not attaining elegance, is more refined than weighty, more supple than o’ermastering. Upon entry, Doisy-Védrines 05 is powerfully sweet and honeyed, with the super-ripe, earthy, creamy character we expect from a vintage that was rich in flavor but a little low in acid; this lacks somewhat the essential tension and ultimate resolution between enveloping richness and piercing acidity — I first wrote “squinching” acidity; do you get it? — that mark the best products of Sauternes and Barsac. This is, still, as lovely as it gets, and the acid does plow a moderate swath on the palate and the (slightly rotten) luscious peach and apricot flavors are tempered by a hint of bright green apple and toasted hazelnuts, all of this panoply leading to a finish that’s dry and a little austere and permeated by limestone. 14 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2015 to ’18, well-stored. While my French toast may have been an extreme pairing — it really shivered my timbers — you could try this wine with simple fruit desserts, or just a plain shortbread cookie, or a piece of fine bleu cheese. Excellent. Prices on the Internet reveal a ludicrously wide range from about $30 to $60; look, realistically, for $45 to $50.

A sample for review. Image of Chateau Doisy-Védrines by Neal Martin at Wine Journal.

Two French wines made from blends of grapes, a white from Bordeaux’s Graves region and a red from Corbieres in Languedoc.
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Chateau Graville-Lacoste is owned by Hervé Dubourdieu, whose family roots in Graves and Sauternes, southeast of the city of Bordeaux along the Garonne river, go back to 1890. His other properties are Chateau Ducasse, for Bordeaux Blanc, and Chateau Roûmieu-Lacoste, where he makes a lovely, sweet, nervy but delicate Sauternes; the irresistible 2005, made from 100 percent semillon grapes, is available in half-bottles for about $22 (Very Good+).

The dry white Graville-Lacoste 2010 — fresh, clean, pure and intense — is a blend of 60 percent semillon grapes (a high percentage for dry Graves), 35 percent sauvignon blanc and 5 percent muscadelle. Produced all in stainless steel, the wine is lively and compelling, with fetching aromas of celery and tarragon, sage and thyme woven with roasted lemon and pear and hints of leafy fig; in the mouth, the citrus-and-fig-flecked flavors carry a deep bell-tone of black currant bolstered by an earthy character shot through with shattering acidity and scintillating limestone elements. This is an elegant, buoyant Graves, sleek and stylish, that finishes in a wash of austere limestone and chalk. Drink through 2012 or ’13 with trout sauteed with brown butter and capers or grilled shrimp. 12 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $19 to $22.

Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Cal. Tasted at a wholesaler’s trade event. The label image says 2009, but it is the 2010 under review here.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ The distance from the city of Bordeaux to the city of Narbonne in Languedoc is 352.37 kilometers or 219 miles; a train ride takes 3 hours and 14 minutes. While in geological terms that’s not much of a stretch — one hardly needs Seven-League-Boots — in the realm of geography these are different worlds. As diverse as it is in micro-climates, the Bordeaux’s Left Bank is relatively flat and influenced by Atlantic winds and moisture; Languedoc is hilly, occasionally even mountainous, and its dry, stark climate is definitely Mediterranean. A good area then for Rhône-style grapes and wine, so our red Wine of the Week is Blason d’Aussières 2008, from the region of Corbières, a vast area to the west and southwest of Narbonne. The property is ancient, going back to the Roman days of grape-growing in southern France, but no, the vineyards are not that old. The estate was acquired by Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) in 1999, and much replanting and upgrading have occurred.

Blason d’Aussières 2008, which matured 20 percent in barrels and 80 percent in large vats for 18 months, is composed of 45 percent syrah grapes, 40 percent grenache and 15 percent mourvèdre. The wine is rich and dark and deep but balanced by dusty, mineral-laden tannic austerity and vibrant acidity. Blackberries, blueberries and spicy mulberries define the aromas and flavors, to which a few minutes in the glass bring notes of roses and lavender, licorice and bitter chocolate and a hint of tar; a bit more time unfolds touches of thyme, sage and black olive. Despite its sense of depth and gravity, the wine flows in smooth and mellow fashion across the tongue and palate, making for a drink that offers delight as well as levels of seriousness. We opened this wine with Jamie Oliver’s Pasta alla Norma, a robust dish with eggplant, tomatoes, oregano, basil and a bit of red pepper flakes. 14 percent alcohol. Now through 2013. Very Good+ About $20.

Pasternak Wine Imports, Harrison, N.Y. A sample for review.
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It’s nice to know that after writing about wine for 26 years I can still be surprised. Readers, I had never heard of Crémant de Bordeaux, or I passed right over it in my reading, so I jumped at the chance to try three examples when they were offered to me as samples.

Clive Coates, in his valuable An Encyclopedia of the Wines and Domaines of France (University of California Press, 2000), mentions Crémant de Bordeaux briefly, saying, “There is only a small quantity … and it is rarely seen.” In his comprehensive World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine (Wine Appreciation Guild, revised and updated edition, 2003), Tom Stevenson dismisses Crémant de Bordeaux thus: ” … there is nothing special about Bordeaux bubbly. For a region that is supposed to have the best climate in the world for winemaking, Bordeaux performs very poorly when it comes to sparkling wines.” One problem, he says, is the belief that “the Crémant appellation makes a useful dumping ground for unripe or poor quality grapes.” All in all, the stuff “is a modest and inoffensive fizz at best.”

Well, take that, Crémant de Bordeaux! This wine was once called Bordeaux Mousseaux (“moo-so”), as Steven Spurrier notes in The Concise Guide to French Country Wines (Perigree Books, 1983) — one of the first books about wine that I studied assiduously — but that designation was replaced by Crémant de Bordeaux in 1990, with Bordeaux Mousseaux being phased out by 1995.

Perhaps matters have improved. The trio of wines I tried were not, I’ll admit, terrifically compelling (well, one was), but they were certainly better than mere curiosities, ranging in quality from more than O.K. to (I suppose improbably) excellent. The prices are quite reasonable.

First, the Jaillance Brut Rosé, Crémant de Bordeaux, is a blend of 80 percent cabernet franc and 20 percent merlot. The color is rosy-strawberry-copper; whiffs of orange rind, dried currants and raspberries with a hint of ripe strawberry lead to a lively sparkling wine that delivers notes of ginger, pomander and spiced and macerated red currants in a dense, almost viscous package that starts a bit off-dry but firms up to clean, fresh dryness on the finish, aided by heaps of limestone minerality. Quite charming. Jaillance also produces other basic Bordeaux wines and a nifty Crémant de Bourgogne. Very Good. About $17.

Chateau de Lisennes Brut, Crémant de Bordeaux, is a blend of 50 percent merlot, 30 percent cabernet sauvignon and 20 percent cabernet franc. The property, in the Entre-Deux-Mers, between the rivers Garonne and Dordogne, dates back to the 18th Century. This is another charming, indeed almost elegant, Crémant de Bordeaux, that sports a pale gold color, a plethora of tiny bubbles, and a distinctive smoky, steely aura with a slight floral cast. The wine is crisp and vivacious, with spicy roasted lemon and lemon balm flavors heightened by orange zest and limestone supported by a pleasingly dense, almost chewy texture. Very Good+. About $17.

Third in this line-up is the Favory Brut, Crémant de Bordeaux, produced by Elizabeth and Armand Schuster Ballwil’s Chateau Montlau, on an estate where grapes were first cultivated in 1473. The blend is 65 percent semillon, 35 percent muscadelle. This is elegance personified, a steely, stony sparkler, bright, dry, crisp, clean, with traces of roasted lemon and lemon balm, a whiff of sea-salt and salt-marsh earthiness, and a seemingly vast field of limestone. It’s bracingly effervescent, high-toned and rather amazingly good. Excellent. About $16.50.

These wines are limited in production, limited in importation and, sadly, limited in availability, which seems to be mainly in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. Keep an eye out for these or any other Crémant de Bordeaux sparkling wines; the Favory Brut is especially Worth a Search.

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