What Makes Bordeaux Bordeaux
Most every wine region lays claim to key characteristics that define terroir and the wines themselves. Sonoma depends upon the cooling influence of the Pacific while Napa utilizes the inland warmth of summer. Mendoza is perfect for Malbec while the northern cool clime of Mosel with its slate soils is home to deliciously fresh and sweet whites. And of course the Rhone has the Rhone River and the famous Cote Brune and Cote Blonde soils.
But there is something quite special about Bordeaux that lends a unique quality to the region and it goes, I’ve learned, far beyond terroir. It’s history, a unique sense of royalty and nobility and the precision of the Bordeaux marketing machine, all enveloped in our world of instantaneous communication.
Over two centuries ago, the Romans knew that the soils and climate of Bordeaux was hospitable to agriculture, evidence still present in vineyards planted some two thousand years ago. It took until the 15th century for vineyards to be established with recognized names such as Chateau Haut Brion, Margaux, and Lafite. In 1716 Marquis Nicolas Alexandre de Segur (think Calon Segur & Phelan Segur) became known as “the Wine’s Prince,” elevating the prestige of Lafite in both foreign markets and the Versailles court. The wine became referred to as “the King’s Wine.” In 1755, Governor Marechal de Richelieu, on his return to Paris, was told by Louis XV that he looked twenty five years younger than when he had departed. Richelieu responded that he had, at last, discovered the Fountain of Youth, the ambrosia of the Gods of Olympus……………….Lafite wine. Shortly thereafter, there were several attempts to classify the outstanding wines of Bordeaux, including that of our third President, Thomas Jefferson, culminating in the now famous 1855 classification fueled by Napoleon III in an effort to one up England which had just organized the Second Great Exhibition is great red wine. And so the rest was written. Kings, queens, emperors and Presidents all had a say in the launch and marketing of the Bordeaux wine empire. Not a bad team to have on your side, I’d say!
Bordeaux sits in an enviable geographic location, both in terms of climate and soil. The climate is highly influenced by its proximity to the Gironde River and its tributaries, the Garonne and Dordogne and the Atlantic. The result is a maritime climate punctuated by cool winters and period rainfall but usually without much frost or snow. The summers range from mild to on occasion hot (as in 2003) but even here, the Atlantic usually tends to moderate the extremes.
The soil of the region is quite complex geologically and often varies from one appellation to the next. In the Medoc (left bank), top soils tend to be gravelly at the surface with sand interspersed. At the subsoil level, the gravel may extend a couple of meters and mix with or turn to sand, limestone and clay. Dissecting even further, one finds distinct changes from north to south with massive gravel beds in Pauillac to shallow, pebbly, siliceous white gravel over gravel and limestone subsoil in Margaux. The result feature vines that are perfectly suited for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
The right bank is characterized by the renown appellations of St. Emilion and Pomerol. In St. Emilion, the soils become extremely complex and defy blanket categorization. Within the region, you find nearly every category of top soil: gravel (graves), sand, clay and limestone. Subsoils vary as well, the result being that one single estate may span more than one type of top and subsoil, adding further complexity. Closest to the town of Saint Emilion is an area of deep limestone which is covered by a fine layer of clay and limestone soil (referred to as Cotes) on steep slopes, typical of the Saint Emilion area. Pomerol soils consist of gravel, sand and clay and as well, are perfect for both Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The result here are deep, rich, full bodied wines with an unctuous personality that avoid heaviness while retaining an element of freshness and purity. Think Cheval Blanc and Vieux Chateau Certan.
Then there’s the Graves appellation (Haut Brion/La Mission and Domaine de Chevalier) with soils of gravel, sand and clay producing rich wines with notes of earth, flowers, deep red and black fruit and burnt embers from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and at times, a little Petit Verdot. The truly remarkable thing about Bordeaux soils is that while so complex and far ranging, geologic history has assembled the ideal top and subsoil to nourish world class vines and wines.
While mother nature has asserted her influence in establishing the foundation for nobile wines, it’s man that has injected the final ingredients that make Bordeaux Bordeaux. It’s what I like to call “ the great Bordeaux marketing machine,” comprised of the rise in popularity of en premieur or futures (fixing the price of wine now for delivery on bottle in the future), the ascent of world renown wine critics, and a communications network that shares data globally in a nanosecond.
This part of the equation starts as harvest approaches and vintners share their opinions about the grapes with critics and consumers. If the (red) grapes are perfectly ripe with balanced acidity and tannic structure and the information is shared instantaneously worldwide, this potentially sets the stage for a highly competitive, if not frenzied, en premieur (futures) campaign the following year (think 2000, 2005, 2009 and 2010).
The popularity of modern day consumer en premieur exploded on to the scene with the year 2000 vintage (even though it was in operation more crudely decades earlier). After a superb growing season and vintners lauding the quality of the grapes and juice, it didn’t take long for esteemed wine critics to share the news with consumers primed to jump on the futures train as soon as prices were released. I remember this well, having participated in the campaign, plunking down what seemed to be outrageous sums for wines that wouldn’t be delivered for a few years. I couldn’t believe that I was paying so much. Yet looking back, it was a fraction of what you’d pay today. Since then, we’ve witnessed the 2003, 2005, 2009 and 2010 campaigns, one seemingly more competitive and crazy than the next as the China market comes on board.
Through the 1980’s, 90’s and into the new century, we witnessed an unheralded rise of wine publications and the expert wine critic, sharing opinions and wine ratings. As wine journalists reported on the latest grape harvest, rumors of the best of the decade, half century or century “hit the wires,” reaching thirsty consumers and priming the upcoming en premieur pump. But even in “non century” vintages, the Bordeaux marketing magic is at work, often referring to those vintages as “classic” or wines reflective of a long term average growing year (think 2008 and 2011).
Finally, we have Vinexpo, the largest, most comprehensive (Bordeaux) wine marketing event in the world. Launched by the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce and Industry for the wine and spirit trade in 1981, this mammoth event displays everything about the wines from seminars to tastings and much more, attracting tens of thousands of people from around the globe. There is simply nothing like it on earth…………courtesy of………….you guessed it………….the great Bordeaux marketing machine. Ideal terroir, a sense of nobility and a keen sense of marketing……………….Now that’s what makes Bordeaux Bordeaux!