The Wines of Bordeaux

Italy long ago surpassed France in terms of quantity of wine produced, but the French have always maintained that the quality of their wines can never be matched. The two most famous wine-growing regions of France are Burgundy and the area around the city of Bordeaux. Red Burgundy wines, made primarily from the pinot noir grape, are noted for their deep flavors and rich textures, and can stand up to the heartiest, most savory foods. Most wine snobs, however, prefer the red wines of Bordeaux, considering them to exhibit a wider and more subtle range of sub-flavors: deep cherry or raspberry, light vanilla, rich banana or chocolate, all depending upon the mixture of soil conditions, rainfall and sunshine of a given grape-growing season. Bordeaux wines are made primarily from a blend of two grapes: cabernet sauvignon, whose sharp flavor stimulates the back of the tongue and the upper palate, yielding a “vertical” taste; and merlot, with a softer, more “horizontal” flavor affecting the sides of the tongue and mouth.

There are two main wine-growing areas around Bordeaux. To the east of the city, rising into the hills upstream on the Gironde and Dordogne rivers, is the Saint-Emilion district, which includes the wine appellations of Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, and Saint-Julien. Beginning in medieval times or perhaps even earlier, the landed nobility of this area grew grapes in order to produce wine for their own consumption. Competitions developed among the various local barons to see who could produce the best wines. Over the centuries, as the wine production grew from a local art form into an international business, investors moved in with mechanized mass production techniques and scientific quality control, but the unit of production has remained the few dozen hectares of land once owned (and sometimes, rarely, still owned) by a baron or other denizen of the local aristocracy. These wine estates are called, with typical Gallic bombast, châteaux, even though they are usually centered around small manors and not castles at all. (In the case of Château Petrus, one of the most expensive wines in the world, the “château” is really a small peasant’s house.) There are several hundred châteaux in the Saint-Emilion district, each producing a limited quantity of often superb wine. The wine business is the economic mainstay of the towns in the district; wine production and marketing, and the substantial tourist business that the vineyards bring, provide for most of the employment in the area.

The other wine-growing district is called the Médoc, downstream from Bordeaux along the Gironde river. This area produces the wine appellations of Margaux, Pauillac, and Saint-Estephe. Like the Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, and Saint-Julien wines, these are produced mainly from the cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes, and the quality of the wines is similar; in fact, wine lovers everywhere enjoy arguing whether the best wines in the world come from Pomerol or Margaux. The economic models of the two districts, however, are completely different. Whereas the Saint-Emilion district has kept the small châteaux and thriving wine villages that have been there for centuries, the Médoc district has consolidated the châteaux into a much smaller number of wine empires run by large international investors, the most famous of which is the Château Rothschild. The difference is immediately evident to the casual tourist: huge fields of vines surrounding large manors that more accurately merit the title of château, with their large, rambling structures, finely maintained lawns and gardens, and Rolls-Royces in the driveways. The wine-producing methods of the Médoc are clearly more efficient and profitable than are those of the Saint-Emilion region, but this also means that fewer humans are employed; the towns of the Médoc are dying for lack of jobs, and the tourists do not flock there as they do to the ancient post-card villages in and around Saint-Emilion. The only other industry in the Médoc area, an oil refinery in the town of Pauillac, was closed down several years ago when the Baron de Rothschild objected to the effect that its pollution was having on his wine crop. As a result, the once-charming Pauillac, right on the Gironde estuary and next door to the most lucrative vineyards in the world, now has some of the cheapest waterside real estate in France.

Our friend Mark Eliott, a New Zealander who was once wine-tasting champion in that country, now works in the wine industry in Bordeaux. His wife Christine grew up in the area. They took us on a tour of the two wine districts. In Saint-Emilion, where Mark has worked on several occasions, we visited the Château Pavie-Macquin, rated by wine judges as one of the finest new wineries in the region. The cellarmaster of the château allowed us to taste the wine from the 1997 crop, harvested just two weeks previously. The wine from each section of the property was stored in a different vat, labeled with girls’ names: The wine in the Hélène vat came from the hillside facing south, which got the most sun and therefore probably contained too much sugar; the Céleste vat held wine from the hillside facing north, which had a strong flavor but was probably not sweet enough; the Cunégonde vat contained wine from the area near the stream, which received a bit too much rain this year and produced a juice with fine but weak flavors. Half of the vats contained cabernet sauvignon, and the other half merlot. The wine in each vat holds a special character, and the cellarmaster’s art consists in blending the vats in such a way as to enhance the good qualities and mask the weaknesses of this year’s crop. A cellarmaster who has the intuition and experience to produce excellent wines in a consistent manner will achieve superstar status after several years, like any other artist.

We sat one day on the steps of a fifteenth-century church in Margaux, eating baguette sandwiches and French pastries and looking out on the broad fields of grape vines. Mark Eliott pointed out a field of cabernet sauvignon vines, and another of merlot vines. How could he tell the difference? It seems that the cabernet sauvignon vines send their shoots straight up, seeking the sun, whereas the merlot vines send them outwards, seeking territory. As a result, cabernet sauvignon vines can be planted closer together than merlot vines, although a merlot vine will typically bear more fruit per plant. The behavior of the plants parallels the taste of the wine that they produce: vertical for cabernet sauvignon, horizontal for merlot. The same could almost be said about the two wine-producing districts of Bordeaux: Saint-Emilion is like cabernet sauvignon, with its closely-spaced châteaux rising into the hills, reaching upward for the holy grail of oenological perfection; whereas the Médoc is like merlot, horizontal, broadly-spaced, prosperous and territorial.

Bordeaux, October 1997

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Copyright © 1997 T. Mark James