I attended a Planet Bordeaux tasting here in Chicago (99th floor of Willis Towers, you were high before the first sip) and to my surprise what did I see? Bordeaux wines with the grape varietal on the label and back labels that included wine maps, pairing suggestions and technical notes, the label actually told you what was in the bottle, it didn’t just figure that you somehow knew in advance. In all honesty and I sort of hate to admit this, but I have sampled so few Bordeaux white wines, that I didn’t know that they were almost all Sauvignon Blanc (with maybe a little Semillon blended in). I like Sauvignon Blanc and I never thought to look for them in Bordeaux and when I walked down the wine shop’s French aisle, the bottles never gave me a clue that I was walking past exactly what I was looking for. Ok, I get it, I am an American and I have no interest in any other country’s language and traditions. But I am not going there to get the wines, they are sending their wines here and I can’t figure the wine labels out, so maybe its them who don’t have much interest in my language and traditions. Since the wines are really good and they are making some concessions for my ignorance, I won’t hold a grudge.
Here are a few things you should know about the wines of Bordeaux:
1) They have very good and competitively priced Rose’ and Sparkling (they call it Cremant) wines. There are other areas of France you think of first for these wines, but Bordeaux Rose’ and Bubbles are very good. The Sauvignon Blanc is excellent, it had more body than the Sauv Blanc from the Loire Valley, less minerality than New Zealand and a bit more floral than California, a really wonderful summer wine. The Red blends are either Merlot first or Cabernet Sauvignon first, depending on where the grapes are grown. There are certain areas of Bordeaux that produce outstanding Merlot, if you never figured out what all the fuss is about concerning Merlot, because it makes a nice wine but nothing very exciting, try a first rate Bordeaux Merlot blend, you will get the picture. Value Bordeaux blends tend to be fruit forward, but remember French fruit forward is not the same as California fruit forward, with solid structure and balance.The other grape used in virtually all Bordeaux Blends is Cabernet Franc, there are a couple of other grapes that are approved for Bordeaux, but Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab Franc are the work horses.
2) Bordeaux wines have been traditionally very vintage dependent in terms of quality. About once every decade there would be one, maybe two excellent vintages where the weather cooperated, one, maybe two poor vintages where it rained too much or got too cold or too hot at the wrong time, and then the rest were varying degrees of good vintages. When choosing a wine, you had to be very certain of the right vintage year and the right producer. Because in bad years only the greatest producers make good wine, in good years the great producers and the good producers make good wine and in excellent years everybody makes good wine. Lately, that has all changed, the weather conditions in Bordeaux are becoming warmer and excellent vintages have become the norm, in fact there is some worry that if the warming trend continues, Bordeaux will become too warm to grow grapes.
3) Bordeaux wines are complicated if you are purchasing expensive bottles, then Left Bank, Right Bank and all matter, but if you are picking up a value Bordeaux ($8 to $20) it is more important to find a good tasting wine in a style you enjoy. The thing to remember about buying imported wine is that each and every wine has been vetted. First an importer has to decide that they found a wine that will appeal to their cliental, then a distributor has to agree that he can successfully offer the wine to store owners and the wine shop’s agree that their customers will buy the wine. Sub-standard wines usually do not make it thru this process, you might not like a certain bottle, but it is far more likely to be because it is made in a style you do not prefer and not that it is a bad wine.
Bordeaux makes quality value priced wines, you don’t see Napa Valley offering $12 blends, unless it is a distress sale wine that Trader Joe’s bought up. The problem of trying to figure out if a bottle is from a good vintage or bad vintage, is just about gone and with a $12 bottle it is far less important if the grapes were grown in Graves or the Medoc. To find quality, value priced Bordeaux, the only thing you really need to be knowledgeable about is the location of a wine shop that you trust.