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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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La Belle France

There is no doubt, despite the past decade’s trend towards New World wine consumption, France is untouchable in terms of perception of its wines. French wine is renowned around the world as the benchmark for fine wines.

Map of french wine regions

Map of french wine regions

France has the ideal terroir to produce fine wines – with climate-moderating benefits of two large bodies of water [Atlantic and Mediterranean oceans], varied soil types to accommodate and bring out the best in grape varietals, and centuries of expertise.

Ironically, in the war between Italy and France for wine-world supremecy, it is interesting to note that the Romans actually brought winemaking to France in the early ages.

In fact, if it weren’t for the ingenuity of Roman aquaducts, Bordeaux may not exist today.

Regardless, the French ran with it, perfecting the art of winemaking to the point that today France is so synonymous with wine that it’d be hard to picture the two not coexisting. However, that was almost the case in the late 1800’s when phylloxera nearly wiped the whole industry out!

French labeling system:

All over the world, people are both captivated and bamboozled by the complex control systems in place for the past two centuries- “appellations” – which render French wine labels incapable of enunciation or comprehension. I won’t bore you with all the details of every appellation but let’s look at the basics:

The labelling system consists of two classifications – Quality Wine and Table Wine, which are further split into two categories:

Quality Wines:

Vins de Délimités de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS) Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC/ AC)
Small category – covers only around 1% France’s production;
Regulations similar to AOC but less stringent – eg yields and varietals can differ.
Criteria varies between regions, however this is the most stringent of the controls;
Delineation of production areas – based on soil composition;
Short list of grape varietals based on suitability for region, history and reputation;
Maximum yields set per hectare in each region;
Viticultural practices defined: planting density, pruning techniques, etc;
Winemaking practices also defined;
Minimum natural alcohol potential imposed;

Table Wines:

Vins de Table Vin de Pays (Est 1979)
Produced anywhere in France;
Any grape can be used;
Cannot be chaptalised;
No maximum yield;
Proportion of production over 100hl per hectare must go for distillation.
Certain areas of production: regional, département or zonal;
Certain grapes listed for Vin De Pays – more than VDQS and AOC wines;
Maximum yields imposed – usually 80 or 90hl/ha;
Minimum alcohol content – 9% (some southern regions – 10%);
Controls (max usage guides) placed on Sulphur Dioxide and Volatile Acidity levels.

I’ll publish more information on individual French wine regions in seperate postings. There’s far too much info for one post!

 

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Organic, Bio or Preservative Free?

Reaction to SO2 is something I am very familiar with.  I am clinically allergic to anything remotely resembling sulphur – which is serious misery for a vinophile.  The truth is, although I taste a lot of wines, I can’t actually have long sessions of wine drinking without shocking migraines the next day. The more heavily-sulphured ones give me cheeks resembling Santa, and sinuses stuffed with cotton wool within a single glass.

In the past six months, I’ve noticed a lot more customers asking for preservative-free wines.  I thought this was reflection of the demographic around the particular store I was in, but a few weeks ago I moved to a store on the other side of Melbourne, and the trend continues there – albeit to a lesser degree.

When they first come into the store, they are certain of one thing – they don’t want stuffy sinuses and headaches from their wines. What they don’t seem certain about is what all the different claims are on the bottles.  So, let me offer some advice:

Organic

Organic wines are made from grapes grown without the use of artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides or herbicides.  However, this does NOT mean the wine is preservative free. Sulphur can be added during the winemaking process to stabilise and preserve the wine, and chemicals from neighbouring vineyards can be carried in the wind to the otherwise organically grown grapes.  If you’re sensitive to sulphur, read the back label.  It MUST list any preservatives, and the one you’re trying to avoid is 220.

Biodynamic

This takes ‘organic’ to a whole new level. It’s not just about the absence of chemicals, but espouses a ‘holistic‘ approach to raising grapes by emphasising the interrelationships between plants, animals, and soils.  And it goes further – using an astronomical calendar to indicate plant sowing times, and I’ve even heard of farmers  dancing naked among their crops under full moons … however, having seen a few winemakers over the years, I’m not sure that’s something to either believe or get excited over.   Biodynamic is sustainable, environment-friendly and very new age.  But again, check the back label for information about any 220 added during winemaking.

Preservative Free

Fermenting grape juice actually contains a small amount (10-50mg/L) of sulphur dioxide – a natural preservative – produced by the yeasts.  Thus, technically speaking, there’s no such thing as preservative FREE wine.  Those claiming to be preservative free are referring to the absence of ADDED preservatives.  They really should be labelled “lower preservatives“.  Regardless, most customers who try them seem to come back for them – although they do admit the wines are somewhat ordinary.  The few that I’ve tried at tastings confirm that, and are often a little oxidised.

Personally speaking, to restrict oneself to a small range of wines, when there are tens of thousands out there to enjoy, seems a bit depressing.  As I said, I can’t handle sulphur myself – so, how do I deal with it, and still enjoy a wide variety of wines?  There’s a few considerations I make:

Close to half of the organic producers around the world are French. Admittedly, I don’t appreciate a lot of French wines, but I am working on that, as I have personally found that French wines give me less/no reaction.

I try to avoid mass-produced wines, or wines from hotter regions – where SO2 is added as a fermentation-control measure as early as harvest. No, this doesn’t mean cooler regions DON’T practice this, just less so.

Finally, I carry a bottle of Pure Wine around with me.  That way, I can drink any wine being poured by friends, ordered at a restaurant or given as a gift.  One drop per glass.  Yes, people look at me with suspicion when I pull the bottle out of my bag and ‘spike’ my wine – but that doesn’t worry me – it makes me look cool.  😉

 
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Posted by on June 5, 2012 in Wine & Health

 

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Visiting Cellar Door: Champagne

There are several towns you can travel to to experience Champagne, however Epernay claims to be the capital, so that’s where I headed.

It’s easy to get to Epernay by train from Paris (130km), Reims or even from the west via Strassbourg.

With a population only around 26,000 people Epernay is small and comfortable, and if you’re there primarily to discover its champagne caves and view some surrounding vineyards, you can do it all on foot from the town center.

The primary destination for visitors is the Avenue de Champagne, originally known as the Fauborg de la Folie, which is lined with mansions and Champagne producers.

The avenue runs over the top of around a quarter of a million bottles of Champagne stored in deep underground caves. The Moët & Chandon caves, for example, run 2km under the avenue!

The tourist office is on this avenue … but it appears to close down outside peak tourist season.  I arrived just after the 2006 vintage, and never saw it open.

At the end of the avenue is Place de Champagne. This is where you’ll find the Mercier winery, as well as some of their vineyards extending up a slope. Climb up the slope beteen the rows, and you get a great panoramic view over Epernay and the surrounding hills covered with vines.

The largest producer, and indeed the most impressive winery, is De Castellane. Running along the train line, the tower of this winery is a centrepiece of the town. In contrast to the more traditional champagne houses who tuck away the industrial side of their production, De Castellane bares its massive stainless fermenters, automated riddling, bottling, corking, labeling and finishing lines for all to see during tours.

Moët & Chandon claim to be the leading house of Champagne in the region, and indeed their world-reknowned status supports this. Of the 41 Premier Crus, and 17 Grand Crus in the region, 25 and 13 respectively are part of their heritage.

The tour of Moët & Chandon’s Champagne house and Hotel Moët [conveniently the first one you come across on Avenue de Champagne] was a highlight of my visit.  A sculpted Dom Perignon stands watch out front, as fluent-english-speaking, immaculately presented guides with the most meticulous French pronunciation skills  lead you through the house and underground caves. Interesting that they claim the Dom as the ‘father’ of champagne – when in fact he hated the bubbles forming through a second fermentation after winter, and went to great lengths to work out how to get rid of them.

At the end of the tour is the obligatory tasting, and my group were left to finish our generous pourings at our leisure, then find our own way out.  Tour cost was around €10.

Epernay was one of the friendliest places I came across in my travels around France.  As soon as I got off the train and headed up the street, locals were quick to point out highlights, where to stay etc. As with most areas of Europe, the younger people speak English at least to some degree, which helped me, as I speak only the basic pleasantries of French.

You could easily visit Epernay, do a Moet tour and wander the streets a little as a day trip from Paris.  I stayed a few nights so I could soak up the historic ambience. Expensive place, but worth it to a vinophile such as myself.

One more thing about Epernay … make sure you spoil yourself with the magnificent French pasties at the local bakeries!

Read more interesting information about Champagne on my wine web. CLICK HERE to go now.

 
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Posted by on May 8, 2012 in France, Wine Touring

 

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Visiting Cellar Door: Bordeaux

Some of my fondest memories of wine-touring come from Bordeaux.

It was a breath of fresh air in terms of wine tourism, particularly after my dissappointing experience with Provence. This surprised me, as if any French wine region has earned the right to rest on its laurels and remain aloof, it would have to be Bordeaux.

The city of Bordeaux is a wanderer’s paradise.

Ride the huge ferris wheel on Esplanade des Quinconces for a great aerial view of the city, and yes, the walk to Palais Gallien is worth the look at the Roman ruins – which once stood well beyond the boundaries of the city, but are now amidst suburbia.

For a quick lesson in class distinction, walk the entire length of Europe’s longest shopping strip, Rue St Catherine, from Place de la Comedie to Place de la Victoire.

Anyway … back to those vineyards.

I booked bus tours of Côtes de Blaye and Bourg, Medoc and St Emillion. Our tour guides were very knowledgeable [although displayed almost venomous prejudice towards New World wine countries], and although I spent most of the tour itching to get out of the bus, inside it was very comfortable.

Without a doubt, the tour to St Emilion was my favourite. Not only do you stop to view vineyards, but the tour also takes you on a walk through the township, including an inside guided tour of the church and the quarters of the Saint himself.

The church is carved into a sandstone cliff, meaning you actually go underground. I was fascinated by the discovery of evidence of a link between christianity and the horoscope; with zodiac symbols carved into the walls and ceiling of the magnificent underground cathedral.

Also easily viewed are the crypts housing the remains of church elders through the ages … some of the bones still on show … gruesome, but interesting!

Whilst in Bordeaux, I attended wine-tasting education at the L’Ecole du vin du CIVB Wine School opposite the tourism office. Details of classes are available at reception, and in most cases you’ll find they will fit you into a class that interests you. Even if you don’t want to sit in on a class (but why wouldn’t you!?), the stained-glass windows on the ground floor are worth a look.

 

A personal highlight for me during my touring of Bordeaux’s wine regions was visiting Château Prieuré-Lichine in Margaux. If the emphasis is lost on you, then you don’t know who Alex Lichine was.

I won’t repeat what Wikipedia can already tell you, so have a look there for information on him. One of my very first wine books in my collection was his Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits.

I was ecstatic to learn that he is buried right out there in the vineyards he poured himself into. No, they wouldn’t show me where exactly, but I spent quite some time staring out across the vines, hoping to catch a glimpse 😉  …

 
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Posted by on May 7, 2012 in France, Wine Touring

 

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