Tuesday, March 3, 2015
FRANCE AND THE WINES OF BORDEAUX
Winemakers around the globe look to France as the benchmark; Burgundy for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the Rhone Valley for Syrah, Bordeaux for Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot, the Loire Valley for Sauvignon Blanc, and Champagne.
France encompasses an extraordinary range of terrain and weather patterns. In the north, grapes sometimes do not see enough sun and warmth to get perfectly ripe. In other years, all might be progressing well and then devastating hail tears through the vineyards, or torrential downpours arrive just before the harvest.
Bordeaux has a moderating maritime climate. The prevailing dampness means that disease is a perennial threat, but one such infestation, Botrytis cinerea (noble rot), is a boon for the sweet-wine producers of Sauternes. Burgundy, inland to the north and east, is cooler. Its continental climate, with relatively high rainfall, places it at the northern limit (in the northern hemisphere) for making red wines. But consider those wines: at their best, they have a fragrance, complexity of flavor and silkiness of texture that leaves normally voluble critics speechless. The Loire Valley lies even farther north, but vines still thrive there as a result of the moderating influences of moist Atlantic breezes and the expansive river and its tributaries. In France’s most northerly wine region, Champagne, the grapes barely ripen each year, but that’s rarely a cause for concern—high-acid, relatively low-sugar grapes are perfect raw material for the finest sparkling wines.
Climate is only one factor. Terroir, the complete package of soil and subsoil, aspect and altitude, climate and mesoclimate—and any other natural feature that might affect the vines, is what really counts. Soil types vary greatly. Burgundy and Jura have limestone, Beaujolais and the northern Rhône sit on granite, Champagne has chalk, the Médoc has gravel, and some of the vineyards in Châteauneuf-du-Pape are covered with huge, smooth stones for as far as the eye can see.
France’s finest vineyards tend to be located on poor soils where little else will thrive.
In regions such as Alsace, Burgundy and Beaujolais, the best vineyards (often called crus – as in premier, and grand) tend to be on the hillsides and the more ordinary vineyards on flatter ground. Similarly, the exciting new domaines that have made a name for themselves in Languedoc in recent years are not located on the coastal plains but on the inland coteaux, or hills.
Most of the important French wine growing areas have been divided into sub-regions based on the characteristics of their terroirs. Such distinctions form the basis of France’s national classification system, known as appellation d’origine contrôlée, often abbreviated to AC or AOC (and more recently to the EU's AOP). The appellation system was created in 1935 to protect the authenticity of wines and the livelihoods of their producers. It does this by defining boundaries and, within each area, stipulating the permitted grape varieties, yields and alcohol content; cultivation, vinification and maturation practices; and labeling procedures.
Bordeaux’s reputation rests squarely on a group of illustrious châteaux and their highly sought-after and increasingly expensive wines. Margaux, Lafite and Pétrus are considered amongst the finest of the region, yet products at this quality level represent just 5 percent of Bordeaux’s total production. About 85 percent of the region’s output is red; the rest is mainly dry and sweet white, with a little rosé, clairet and sparkling crémant. This includes good value offerings come from the petites appellations as well as a large quantity generic Bordeaux blends.
Bordeaux is in southwestern France and is crossed by the Dordogne and Garonne rivers. Bordeaux has a temperate maritime climate. Rainfall is abundant, summers are warm, and winter rarely drops below freezing. The absence of extremes means that the grapes ripen only to a certain level of intensity, resulting in wines that are subtle and reserved.
Most of Bordeaux is flat or undulating, there are no steep slopes, and generally soil types determine which variety of grape is planted. On the “left bank” (the Médoc and Graves), the soils are mainly pebbles, gravel and sand and are generally poor, but they retain heat and have good filtration properties, ideal for late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon. On the “right bank” (St-Émilion, Pomerol and Fronsac), the soils are mainly of clay, limestone, sand and pockets of gravel, and are cooler, making them more suited to early-ripening Merlot as well as Cabernet Franc.
White Bordeaux ranges from the inexpensive sauvignon blanc-based Entre Deux Mers to the full-bodied Semillon-based wines of Pessac-Leogan, and include perhaps the most famous white wine in the world – sauternes. This sweet white wine, exemplified by Chateau d’Yquem, is made with semillon that has been infected with “noble rot,” or botrytis cinerea. After selective harvesting, the grapes are pressed and then fermented, either in stainless steel, or, increasingly at the top estates, in new or relatively new oak barrels. The fermentation process is necessarily long and slow. When the wine has reached the desired alcohol-sugar balance, the fermentation process is halted by reducing the temperature, racking, and adding sulfur dioxide. Aging in barrel then continues for another two or three years.
Several classification systems are in use in Bordeaux. The most famous is the 1855 classification for red wines of the Médoc and sweet white wines of Sauternes, but others operate in St-Émilion and the Graves. Even the Crus Bourgeois of the Médoc have a grading, although it is limited by a European Union directive to the use of that term. Pomerol is the only major appellation without a classification. Each ranking has its own history and set of controls.
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