Bordeaux


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.

Fans of super-ripe, velvety, alcoholic cabernet- and merlot-based wines from California might have a difficult time understanding Chateau Bahans Haut-Brion 2001, a classically spare, lean, highly structured yet sensually appealing red wine that we drank with our usual Christmas Eve dinner of standing rib roast and Yorkshire pudding, roasted potatoes and Brussels sprouts in brown butter, followed by a selection of cheeses and Dow’s Trademark Reserve Porto. Yes, very English in the Old Sense.

Bahans Haut-Brion is the “second” wine of the celebrated Chateau Haut-Brion, the only red wine from Bordeaux’s Graves region admitted to the pantheon of the almost sacred 1855 Classification. Many chateaux in Bordeaux use the second wine concept to divert grapes that might not be of the highest quality into a wine that will be much less expensive (and less great) than the primary product but still reflect the character of the estate. Second wines have been around for a long time; Bahans Haut-Brion has been produced since 1907.

Chateau Haut-Brion is an old property, dating back to the mid 16th Century. English diarist Samuel Pepys was a fan, as was American President Thomas Jefferson. It has been owned since 1935 by the Dillon family, the only Bordeaux First Growth in American hands. The part of Graves where Chateau Haut-Brion stands, now encompassed by the busy suburbs of the city of Bordeaux, was designated Pessac-Leognan in 1987. The vineyards yield about 45 percent cabernet sauvignon, 37 percent merlot and 18 percent cabernet franc. With the 2007 vintage, Bahans Haut-Brion was renamed Le Clarence de Haut-Brion, after the American banker who bought the estate. For some period, Bahans Haut-Brions was sold as a non-vintage wine, a marvelous example of which I tasted in the late 1980s.

I decanted our Christmas Eve bottle of Chateau Bahans Haut-Brion 2001 an hour before dinner, not because of the possibility of sediment — there was none — but because a taste I had tried several weeks earlier indicated some hardness that needed a little airing to soften. By the time we sat down to eat, the wine seemed close to drinkable, though it continued to evolve as several hours passed. At first sniff, the wine offers notes of wheatmeal and walnut shell, cedar and tobacco and a tinge of dried spice and dried red and black currants. Gradually, as moments passed and we sipped and partook of perfectly rosy-rare slices of beef, Bahans Haut-Brion 2001 unfurled hints of violets and lavender, mocha and bitter chocolate, the latter seemingly wrapped around ripe black currants, black raspberries and plums. Even as it opened and became more approachable and enjoyable, though, the wine retained a sense of lithe sinewy muscularity and animation, based on an architecture of dry, dusty tannins, polished oak and profound acidity. The wine did not let us forget that while it was, after all, made from grapes, that fruit found its origin in dirt, subsoil and underlying strata, nor did it neglect, finally, the beguiling, vinous appeal that compelled us to return to the glass. 13 percent alcohol. Typical production of Bahans is 7,500 cases; production of Chateau Haut-Brion itself is about 15,000 cases. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. Prices on the Internet range, ludicrously, from about $40 to $70. I was fortunate enough to purchase two bottles at the lower end of that spread.

Imported by Diageo Chateau & Estates, New York.

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