Bordeaux



Today, Friday Wine Sips offers 10 white wines and two reds, the whites mainly chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, mainly California but touching down in Italy, Spain and France, the reds collage-like blends, one from California, the other from Argentina.

As usual, I dispense with matters technical, geographical, climatic, philosophical, historical, anthropological, psychological, heretical and hermeneutic to focus on quick, incisive reviews that get at the essence of the wine. These were samples for review or tasted at wholesalers’ trade events.

By the way, I was curious, so I went back and checked through the Friday Wine Sips series, which I launched on January 5, to see how many brief reviews I’ve done, and counting this post today, it’s 86 wines. That’s a lot of juice.
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Hess Select Sauvignon Blanc 2010, North Coast. 13.5% alc. Very dry, crisp and lively, with pert acidity and a sleek texture; kiwi, celery seed, tarragon; tangerine, lemongrass and grapefruit skin, with a touch of citrus rind bitterness on the finish. Uncomplicated and tasty. Very Good. About $11.
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Cortenova Pinot Grigio 2009, Veneto, Italy. (% alc. NA) Clean and fresh, hints of roasted lemon and lemon balm with almond and almond blossom and an undertone of pear; the citrus spectrum in a smooth, crisp, bright package; good character and heft for the price. Very Good. About $13.
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Chateau Suau Bordeaux Blanc 2010, Cotes de Bordeaux, France. (% alc. NA) 55% sauvignon blanc, 35% semillon, 10% muscadelle. A lovely white Bordeaux, brisk and refreshing, bordering on elegance; pear and peach, jasmine and honeysuckle, surprising hint of pineapple; all suppleness and subtlety but in a lively arrangement of balancing elements. Very Good+. About $15, representing Great Value.
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Shannon Ridge Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Lake County. 13.5% alc. Crisp and sassy, with tremendous appeal; quince and ginger, lemongrass and peach, lime peel and grapefruit and fennel seed, all intense and forward; animated, provocative in its spiciness, its leafy herbal qualities and alert acidity running through steely citrus flavors. Very Good+. About $16, a Real Bargain.
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Valminor Albariño 2010, Rías Baixas, Spain. 12.5% alc. This boldly spicy and savory albarino offers real grip and limestone fortitude with enticing citrus and grapefruit scents and flavors, whiffs of jasmine and camellia, hints of apple skin and roasted pear; eminently refreshing, spring rain and sea-salt with a bracing punch of earth and bitterness on the finish. One of the best albariños. Excellent. About $20.
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Hall Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Napa Valley. 14.8% alc. An organic wine. Pale straw color with faint green highlights; nectarine, pear and melon, dried thyme, cloves and a hint of fig, jasmine and honeysuckle; dry, smooth, suave; bright brisk acidity, scintillating limestone element; ethereal spareness and elegance of lemon, pear and grapefruit flavors. Excellent. About $20.
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Benessere Pinot Grigio 2010, Carneros, Napa Valley. 13.9% alc. Pretty exotic for a pinot grigio but super-attractive; pale straw color; apple peel, orange zest, roasted lemon and pear; cloves and clover, touch of mango; nicely balanced between moderately lush texture and zippy acidity, crisp and lively but just an undertow of richness; lemon and tangerine with a touch of peach skin; long spicy finish. 895 cases. Excellent. About $22.
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Molnar Family Poseidon’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2009, Carneros, Napa Valley. 14.1% alc. Uncommonly spicy and savory; deep, rich, full-bodied, yet so light on its feet, so agile, deft and balanced; classic pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors, exhilarating feeling of limestone and river rock minerality; smoke, cloves, cinnamon, hint of sandalwood, yeah, a little exotic but nothing overstated, and blessedly avoids any overtly tropical element. Excellent. About $24.
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Black Dog Cellars Chardonnay 2010, Sonoma Coast. (% alc. NA) Exactly the kind of chardonnay I would drink all the time: lovely purity and intensity of the grape; exquisite balance and integration of all features; pale straw-gold color; pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors highlighted by cloves and limestone; oak lends firmness, suavity and suppleness; there’s a touch of camellia in the nose, and an intriguing bit of resinous grip in the long resonant finish, all bound by acidity you could practically strum like a harp. Sadly only 313 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Morgan “Highland” Chardonnay 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey. 13.8% alc. Bright straw-gold color; fresh, clean, boldly spicy, apple, pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors, just a hint of mango; lovely finesse, balance and integration; rich but not creamy pineapple and grapefruit flavors, touch of cloves and buttered cinnamon toast, all beautifully modulated; limestone and flint come in on the finish. Excellent. About $26.
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And two reds:
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Shannon Ridge Wrangler Red 2009, Lake County. 14.2% alc. 38% zinfandel, 18% tempranillo, 13% barbera, 12% merlot, 12% cabernet sauvignon, 7% grenache. A pastiche of grapes that produced a warm, spicy, fleshy fruity and engaging wine; dark ruby-magenta color; cassis and blueberry, lavender, lilac and licorice; graphite and shale; hint of cloves and vanilla; quite dry, but juicy with black and blue fruit flavors supported by dense chewy tannins and burnished oak. Great for pizzas, burgers and such. Very Good+. About $17.
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Amalaya 2010, Calcahquí, Salta, Argentina. 14% alc. Malbec 75%, cabernet sauvignon 15%, tannat 5%, syrah 5%. Dark ruby-purple color; what a nose: rose hips and fruitcake, walnut shell, black currants, black raspberries and blueberries, cocoa powder and bittersweet chocolate, graphite; in the mouth, very dry, very intense and concentrated, amid the tightly-packed tannins and firm oak a deep core of spiced and macerated blackberries and currants, lavender and licorice, briers and brambles. Needs a grateful steak. Very Good+. About $17.
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Here are notes on two terrific French white wines we took to dinner at Restaurant Iris in Memphis. Great meal, too, and thanks to our generous friend Allison Jacob, editor and publisher of CorkIt! magazine, for bringing the splendid Eagles Trace Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley.
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Chateau La Louvière, fortuitously located in the Bordeaux commune of Pessac-Léognan, traces its origins to the year 1476, when the first vines were planted, though for the modern period the important date is 1965, when André Lurton acquired the property and completely transformed it. The exquisite Neo-Classical style chateau, dating from the late 18th Century, is listed in the official Roster of Historic Properties. La Louvière produces about 12,500 cases of red wine and about 4,160 cases of white wine annually, as well as red and white wines under the second label, L de La Louvière. The cepage for the blanc is 85 percent sauvignon blanc and 15 percent semillon. The wine ages typically for 12 months in a combination of oak barrels, 30 to 50 percent new, depending on the year.

Chateau La Louvière 2009, Pessac-Léognan, is about exactly what one wants a sauvignon blanc-based wine to be, or at least it thoroughly convinces you that that’s the case when you’re drinking it. (Pessac-Léognan was separated from Graves in 1987 and granted its own AOC status; most of the finest chateaus in this former area of Graves were included in the new appellation.) The wine opens with a burst of roasted lemon and a snap of flint, quickly joined by notes of grapefruit and jasmine, lemon curd and acacia; a few minutes in the glass unfold hints of a sunny, leafy, slightly herbal element and a touch of fig. This is so clean and fresh, utterly youthful, shot through with bright, almost joyful acidity — well, the liveliness makes you feel that happy — and bolstered by a keen limestone edge; these factors do not prevent the wine from exhibiting lovely resonance and vibrancy and a texture that’s close to talc-like while balanced by intense crispness and a supple, lacy spiced oak structure. So complete, pure and intense, yet balletic and light on its feet. Drink through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. Average price in the U.S. is $42, but I sure did pay $50 right here in good ol’ Memphis, Tennessee.

Imported by W.J. Deutsch & Sons, White Plains, N.Y.
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The William Fevre Bougros Grand Cru Chablis 2006 is the best white wine I have tasted in a blue moon; it’s the kind of wine to which one says, “O.K., I place myself in your hands. Do with me what you will.” This is an astonishing revelation of the purity, intensity and authority of the chardonnay grape, and while the wine does undergo oak aging — a controversial position in Chablis where many great wines are made in stainless steel — the amount of new oak barrels at the domaine was reduced in 1998 when the Champagne house of Henriot acquired the property. The color is light straw-gold with a slight green tint; the knock-out bouquet weaves tremendous elements of limestone and flint with lemon balm and lemon curd, fleshy and lightly spiced stone-fruit and an earthy undercurrent — just a hint — of sauteed mushrooms. The wine is indubitably rich, almost lavish, yet it’s taut with crystalline acidity and scintillating limestone elements and exhibits really amazing energy and dynamic qualities; call it charisma, because this is one freakin’ gorgeous wine! And yet, for all its star-quality, the William Fevre Bougros Grand Cru Chablis 2006 is built on layers of subtlety and nuance, and ultimately it allows its elegant character to dominate its power. At just over five years old, this is drinking beautifully and should continue to drink beautifully through 2016 to ’18, as long as it’s well-stored. Exceptional. I paid $70.

Imported by Henriot Inc., New York.
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Mixed reds and whites today, with some great wines, some good wines and some clunkers. Geography and prices are all over the map; this is how it gets done. Arrangement is by ascending outlay of shekels. Unless otherwise indicated, these were samples for review. As is the case with this “Friday Wine Sips” series, inaugurated last week, these brief reviews do not go into the more technical aspects of winemaking, history or geography.
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Un4seen Red Wine 2009, California (though Lodi & Clarksburg). 13.9% alc. A blend of zinfandel, malbec, petit verdot and merlot. Nothing offensive but even inexpensive wine needs more personality than this example of the bland leading the bland. Good. About $11.
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Much better is the un4seen White Wine 2010, California (again, Lodi & Clarksburg). 13.5% alc. A blend of chardonnay, semillon, moscato & viognier. Pale straw color with faint green tinge; fresh apple and peach, slightly leafy and floral, touch of fig; very dry and crisp, very nice texture, almost lush, vibrant, spicy; hint of grapefruit on the finish. Charming; drink up. Very Good. About $11, A Bargain.
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Villa Antinori 2010, Toscana I.G.T., Bianco. 12% alc. 50% trebbiano & malvasia, 35% pinot bianco & pinot grigio, 15% riesling. Dry, crisp, lively; apples and pears, hint of thyme and tarragon, touch of almond and almond blossom; scintillating limestone gradually insinuates itself (say that three times fast); quite pleasant and engaging, nice balance between bright acidity, clean and spicy citrus flavors and a modestly lush texture. Drink through Summer 2012. Very Good+. About $12, Great Value.
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Tormaresca Torcicoda Primitivo 2009, Salento I.G.T. 14% alc. Heaps of black pepper and cloves, forest, graphite, smoky black currants and plums; robust, plummy, juicy, chewy, dense with soft, grainy tannins and mineral elements; unusually well-balanced and integrated for primitivo; great with pizza, burgers, braised meats. Drink through 2013. Very Good+. About $17.
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Concannon Conservancy “Crimson & Clover” Red Wine 2009, Livermore Valley. 13.7% alc. Blend of 50% petite sirah, 25% cabernet sauvignon, 15% syrah, 10% zinfandel. Lacks oomph, stuffing, character; we speak of chemistry to describe the energy and magnetism of movie couples, but the grapes in this blend don’t provide that “chemistry.” Pleasant enough, but we deserve more for the price. Good. About $18.
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Ponzi Tavola Pinot Noir 2010, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 13.5% alc. Ponzi’s “entry-level” pinot. Entrancing medium ruby color with blue-black depths; smoky, spicy, earthy, wild; black cherry and mulberry edged by cranberry and rhubarb; super-satiny, dense, verges on chewy; graphite-like minerality, leather, brambles. Pure pinot with an untamed heart. Now through 2013. Excellent. About $25.
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Chateau Gombaude-Guillot 1996, Pomerol, Bordeaux. 13% alc. This is typically about 65% merlot and 30% cabernet franc with a dollop of malbec. Lovely balance and maturity, sweet spices, dried black and red fruit and flowers, undertones of cedar, tobacco and potpourri, mild earthiness and hints of leather. A real treat. I bought this to accompany our traditional Christmas Eve dinner of standing rib roast, Brussels sprouts in brown butter, roasted potatoes and Yorkshire pudding. Excellent. About $99.
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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.

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