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Beautiful Bordeaux

Beautiful Bordeaux!

Grand Vins de Bordeaux, a fabulous wine store to explore!

Grand Vins de Bordeaux, a fabulous wine store to explore!

Despite the explosion of New World wines out there, no one country or region has managed to snatch the title of “World’s Most Emminent Wine Region” that Bordeaux holds tightly in its grasp. It is the red wines of Bordeaux, (formerly called “Claret” by the poms for centuries), that have set the standards for quality wine the world over.

That’s not to say that all of them are exciting … there are the vin ordinaires for the princely sum of a few euros, and only the backpackers are thankful for those … But the true Bordeaux red rewards those with patience, and offers a challenge not for the feint-hearted. Opening these wines too early is a waste, as is opening them in the middle of their maturity, or too late.

Big Bordeaux are tannic and tight for the first 5 or 6 years, holding back the blackcurrant or plum flavours of the signature Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Then strangely, they seem to slump – becoming flat and lifeless for the next few years, before taking on a new depth of complexity, aromas and fruit.

Probably Bordeaux’ biggest enemy is itself. It’s out of control in terms of … err, control.

Chateaux in the Blaye Bourg region, Bordeaux, France

Chateaux in the Blaye Bourg region, Bordeaux, France

In an area of 123,000ha under vine, there are 10,200 growers, 35,000 Chateaux, 400 Distributors and 100 Brokers. One out of every six people in Bordeaux work in the wine industry.

Stats (at time of my visit – late 2006) held that 790,000 bottles are produced every year to reach a market value of €3,000,000,000. 90% of these are red – Merlot, Cab Franc, Cab Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and 10% white – Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle, Ugni Blanc, Colombard.

Harvest in Bordeaux is determined by chemical analysis. What they’re looking for from grapes is 220 g/ltr sugar, 12.5 Baume – min level as per AOC. Bordeaux reds must be fermented dry, and the use of tartaric acid addition is prohibited.

Vineyards in the Blaye Bourg region, Bordeaux, France

Vineyards in the Blaye Bourg region, Bordeaux, France

There are a whopping 57 appellations within this region, telling growers what to grow, how to grow it, how much to grow …

In 2007, a new appellation “Côtes de Bordeaux” was introduced. This encompasses an area of the right bank of the Garonne river, from Saint Maixant and Cadillac to the city of Bordeaux, and in short paves the way for lower value wines to use oak chips during production. All these sub-regions are located on the right bank, and all currently produce easy-gowing, fruit-driven, primarily Merlot-based wines, 85% of which are reportedly consumed locally.

Bordeaux wines reflect terroir

Beautiful Bordeaux city

Beautiful Bordeaux city

They’re not allowed to irrigate in Bordeaux. Underground water supplies keep them alive, but also provide sediment to feed the vines – which helps the grapes and resulting wines take on the characters of the soils, which are actually quite poor.

Bordeaux wines are named after their location. So you won’t see the names of the grapes used in a wine on the label.

They divide the Bordeaux region between the left and right banks of the Gironde Estuary, which continues divided between the Garonne and Dordogne tributaries.

On the hilly right bank the soil is primarily clay and limestone – suitable for fruit-forward, lower tannin Merlot. These cooler soils slow down the ripening stage (avoiding August heat and rain), and budburst (avoiding April frosts).

The right bank encompasses Côtes de Blaye and Bourg to the north, and St Emilion, Pomerol, Lalande-de-Pomerol, Fronsac, Canon-Fronsac, Côtes de Castillon and Francs divided from Entre-deux-Mers by the Dordogne.

Roman ruins @ Palais Gallien, Bordeaux.  Once on the outskirts of the city, now in the suburbs!

Roman ruins @ Palais Gallien, Bordeaux. Once on the outskirts of the city, now in the suburbs!

The left bank is more sandy, and has pebbles to absorb heat during the day, for distribution during the nights. It is a continuation of the sedimentary Acquitaine Basin; lowlands boundaried by Gironde Arch, the Pyrenean mountain chain, and the Bay of Biscal. This is big, tannic Cabernet Sauvignon territory, producing wines with pronounced blackcurrant and cassis flavours.

The left bank is home to five major communes of Saint-Estephe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Margaux and Graves. Located here are the five esteemed First Growth Chateaux: Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Haut-Brion. Further north we find the Médoc, and in the hinterland we find the Haut-Médoc. Alas, poor Médoc doesn’t get a mention on Grand Cru labels, however Haut-Médoc does.

I must add here that the above is not an exhaustive list of all vignobles Bordelais but quite frankly this page is getting too long, and I haven’t talked about Cellar Door visiting yet … such is the complexity of Bordeaux!


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Viticulture for Virgins Part IV: Voluminous Vitis Vinifera

Cinsault - photo courtesy Mulineux Family Wines, Swartland, Africa

Cinsault – photo courtesy Mulineux Family Wines, Swartland, Africa

Most people know the major grapes used to make wine: Shiraz,Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, blah blah blah …

But the truth is, there are actually a whole gamut of grapes that are used all around the wine worlds (new and old) for making wines.

I’ve come across many in my travels and studies, and it really became too hard to memorise them all.

So I started building this list to refer to.

Hope you find it helpful, and please – if you know of any that aren’t on my list, I’d love you to add a comment at the bottom telling me of others!

These here are the more well-known ones:



Barbera One of the world’s most widely planted red grapes. Important in Italy, Argentina and parts of California. Retains higher acidity even in hot areas. Intensely coloured and astringent.
Cabernet Franc Important variety in St Emilion and Pomerol, France. These areas of north Bordeaux have less maritime influence and are subject to cooler winters. This red prefers cool climates – budbursts and ripens early. Makes softer, higher quality wines than Cabernet Sauvignon. Mostly blended.
Cabernet Sauvignon Comes from Bordeaux, France where it is the major variety in Medoc wines. Considered the world’s premium red grape. Grapes have good tolerance of bunch rot, and damage as berries are small and tough. Vines don’t like damp, clay soils – they need drainage. The Medoc has gravelly, well-drained soils. Takes a long time to ripen so likes hot summers and long mild autumns.
Carignan Red grape which makes wines of good colour but average quality. Takes time to age, so is often blended with faster aging grapes such as Grenache or Cinsault. Spanish name – Mazuela. Used for bulk wines in USA. Likes hot, dry climates.
Chardonnay Versatile white grape widely planted in many wine regions around the world. Used in Champagne – blended with Pinot Noir & Pinot Meunier preferably. Easy to grow, good yields, few problems.
Chenin Blanc Used mainly in Loire Valley, France for still and sparkling white wines. Widely grown in South Africa – where it’s sometimes called Stein. Has good acidity so is blended to balance other whites.
Cinsaut (or Cinsault) Southern France varietal red. Often mispelled ‘Cinsault’. Sometimes a table grape, sometimes wine. Adapts well to hot, dry climates, tough skins resistant to rain damage, but prone to fungal rots. Makes average quality, low tannin wine – often blended.
Colombard One of the whites used for Cognac in France, although larger plantings exist east of Gironde in Bordeaux. Often a table grape. High-yielding, tolerant of rot and mildew. High acidity, and has a distinct varietal flavour.
Crouchen White grape originating from (but not grown there much these days) south-west France. History of being associated with the name Riesling in South Africa and Australia – however it is not Riesling. Real problem child … doesn’t ripen well in cool regions, and is very susceptible to rots and mildews in hot regions. Thus its decline in favour globally.
Durif This majestic red, also known as ‘Petite Verdot‘ or ‘Petite Sirah‘ originates from the Rhone Valley, France. This grape ripens late and is tricky to grow. Durif offers wines of intense, blue-black colour, guaranteed to stain your teeth, and high tannins which require long ageing before drinking. However, Durif grown in warmer areas presents as a faster aging wine – probably due to advanced characteristics in the grapes – and is more approachable at younger age. Also used for Port.
Frontignac The official name for this grape is ‘Muscat a’ petit grains” (Muscat of small berries), and it can come in white or coloured varieties. The ripe berries wilt and shrivel quickly to concentrate sugar – thus its extensive use in sweet fortified wines called Muscats. The white variety is commonly used for table wines, with coloured grapes preferred for fortifieds.
Grenache Spaniards call this red “Garnacha”. Blended in southern France (Rhone) popularly with Shiraz and Mataro or Carignan. Before Cabernet Sauvignon took its place in the 1990’s, Grenache was important grape in Australia. Likes hot, windy conditions. Wind is important as it’s also prone to rots, fungus, mildew, etc. Makes wines of low colour, but faster aging. Most often used for Rose` or Tawny Port.
Malbec Red grape known as ‘Cot’ in west France, where it’s decreasing in popularity due to productivity issues. Grown near Bordeaux and Loire Valley, France as a blender. Important grape in Argentina. In Australia it has been confused with Dolcetto and Inta Amarella. Irregular crops have been improved through cloning. Rich in colour and tannin and used for blending mostly.
Marsanne As the name suggests, this white is another originator of France, where it is grown in the Rhone region. Similar to Viognier, the wines made from Marsanne have little varietal character and age quickly. Used as a varietal in Australia – famously by Tahbilk – as it seems to develop more character in this climate.
Mataro In Provence, France, this red is known as Mourvedre, and in Spain (where it holds more importance) is called Monastrell or Morastell. Recovers well after frost, and yields well. Hardy grape, and needs warmth to ripen. Makes neutral wines of high astringency. Good for blending.
Merlot The principal red of Bordeaux. Sensitive to salinity, enjoys cool damp clay soils. Makes softer wine than Cabernet Sauvignon, ripens earlier so avoids the summer rains and autumn winds from the Bay of Biscal. These two wines are often blended. Wines made from Merlot age quicker than other red wines.
Palomino White grape used for Sherry and other fortifieds – makes low quality table wines. Important to Spain – providing most of the wines for Sherry (Jerez). High sugar content, low acidity and neutral flavour.
Pedro Ximinez Also used in Spain for Sherry. This white is tender-skinned and thus prone to weather damage and rots. Sometimes blended into table wines.
Pinot Noir Burgundy, France’s favourite red grape, and one of the most popular varietals for white sparklings and Champagne. In Germany and Switzerland, it’s known as ‘Spätburgunder‘. An old varietal, it is claimed there are over 1,000 different clones. Has little colour, and excels in cool areas. Has distinctive varietal characters ranging from “barnyard” to “cherry”.
Riesling The white grape king. Widely grown around the world. Originated in Germany – prolific in Rheingau and Mosel regions, makes excellent wines from Alsace, France. Moderate producer, Riesling ripens well in many conditions, and produces distinctive, aromatic wines.
Sangiovese An Italian red grape, most used in Italy’s Chianti, becoming more popular in the north-eastern area of Victoria, Australia.
Sauvignon Blanc This white grape put New Zealand on the map, at the same time as it was decreasing in plantings in France. A large leaf-area:fruit ratio enables successful capture of sunlight to produce sugars in colder regions. Wines have distinct varietal characters.
Semillon This poorly identified white historically gets confused with Chenin Blanc, Crouchen and Riesling – particularly in Australia. In Bordeaux it claims fame as second most important white. Berries split easily in rain when ripe, leaving it susceptible to rot – which can be a good or bad thing, depending on what you want to do with the grapes. In Australia, botrytised semillon is probably the most famous dessert wine in the country.
Shiraz The red grape king in Australia – however not necessarily so important elsewhere. Also known as ‘Syrah‘. Red wines from Hermitage region of Rhone Valley are 100% Shiraz. Yields well in variety of climatic conditions, but berries tend to wilt when ripe – making mechanical harvesting difficult.
Tarrango An Australian-born red grape developed by CSIRO as a cross-breed of Sultana and Touriga grapes. Makes a light-bodied red table wine with good acidity, and faster aging. Don’t hold your breath looking for it in an Australian bottle shop, though.
Touriga Red Port variety, more succinctly called Touriga Nacional, of Douro Valley in Portugal. Mostly used in fortified wines. Excellent colour and flavour for Ports. Sometimes used as productive blender in table wines.
Verdelho This Portuguese white varietal, known on the island of Madiera as ‘Gouveio‘, has until recent days been used for fortified wine. In the new millenium however, table wines have been popping up in the bottle shops made from this varietal. Ripens early, and offers distinct tropical fruit characters in hot regions.
Viognier Wine made from this white have been traditionally blended with Marsanne and Roussanne to increase complexity as it’s pretty ordinary on its own. [Mind you, I’ve had workmates threaten to string me up for saying that] Often apricot flavours and aromas. Ages quickly. Relative new kid on the block in Australian market is Shiraz/Viognier – emulating the Cote Rotie wines of France.
Zinfandel Common red varietal in California, USA. Reportedly the same grape as Primitivo in Italy and Mali Plavac [or more distinctly Crljenak – a parent of Mali Plavac] in eastern European countries, eg Croatia. Wines made from Zinfandel have distinctive Raspberry characters.
Chardonnay - photo courtesy Dusan Jelic, Belgrade, Serbia

Chardonnay – photo courtesy Dusan Jelic, Belgrade, Serbia

Sauvignion Blanc - photo courtesy Dusan Jelic, Belgrade, Serbia

Sauvignion Blanc – photo courtesy Dusan Jelic, Belgrade, Serbia

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Posted by on August 14, 2013 in Viticulture


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