This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux’s big tasting of the 2013 vintage in San Francisco. My experience of Bordeaux until now extended little beyond a few bottles of Cru Bourgeois, I think all from the Medoc, that I purchased over the years in France and here in the United States. I jumped at the opportunity to taste wines from across Bordeaux and to learn more about the nuances across sub-regions and styles.
Bordeaux is divided by the Gironde river that eventually empties into the Atlantic. The area to the west of the Gironde is know as the Left Bank, while the area to the east is the Right Bank. The Right Bank is home to the most famous names, the great Chateaus of the Medoc, Paulliac, Margaux, Pessac-Leongnan, and Sauternes. However, viniculture actually has a much longer history on the Right Bank, home of St. Emilion and Pomerol appellations. These divisions lead to important distinctions in the wine. Many of the great estates of the Left Bank, grown on gravel, tend to make excellent Cabernet Sauvignon. The Right Bank, with it’s limestone soil, is known for it’s Merlot, sometimes mixed with Cabernet Franc.
One should not forget the white wines of Bordeaux, both dry and sweet. Just south of the city of Bordeaux lies Pessac-Leongnan. This region, home to great historical estates like First Growth Haut-Brion, produces both excellent reds and dry whites. Even further south in Sauternes and Barsac, the fogs coming off the river lead to the perfect conditions for the development of botrytis, a fungus that grows on the grapes. Botrytis removes water and concentrates the flavors of the grapes, resulting in sweet, aromatic wines.
Map provided by the UGC de Bordeaux
2013 was widely described as a ‘difficult’ vintage. In wine talk this means that the weather was pretty bad, and the resulting wines are not likely to have much long term aging potential. The wines overall seemed much lighter than most of the other Cabernet and Merlot based wines that I drink and the tannins seemed much more approachable than Bordeaux from the 2010 vintage I had a few months ago, despite being three years younger.
However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; I think there’s a large market for lighter, well balanced red wines, as long as they are not thin and astringent. What’s more, Bordeaux that is ready to drink now are the only Bordeaux that I (and many other young wine drinkers) would consider buying at the moment because of a lack of appropriate storage space.
What really disappointed me about some of these wines was the number of producers who decided on excessive use of new French oak. I don’t know if it was to compensate for the ‘weakness’ of the vintage, but far too many reds transmitted the flavors of the barrels instead of the grape or the terroir. Maybe they will become better integrated and balanced with time, but many didn’t appear to have much substance beyond the oak.
The real highlights for me were the white wines, particularly the sweet whites of Sauternes. Because Sauternes picks later than the rest of Bordeaux in order to give time for the botrytis to develop, they benefited from a long Indian summer that the reds did not see. These wines were sweet, with high acidity and beautifully balanced. I enjoyed tasting all of them, and would happily buy if I had the money. Sweet wines get a bad rap among many wine drinkers, often for good reasons. But when done right—the sweet wines of Sauternes, or Tokaji in Hungary, or the Auslese Rieslings of Germany—they can be treasures.
A Few Favorites
- Chateau Pape Clement (Pessac-Leognan)
- Chateau Canon-La-Gaffeliere (St.Emilion)
- Chateau Beauregard (Pomerol)
- Chateau La Pointe (Pomerol)
- Chateau de Lamarague (Haut Medoc)
- Chateau La Lagune (Hau Medoc)
- Chateau Angludet (Margaux)
- Chateau Kirwan (Margaux)
- Chateau Guiraud
- Chateau Doisy Daene
- Chateau Coutet