By: Olga Sgibneva
Bordeaux is the best known and most successful wine region in the world. It is deservedly considered a trendsetter in modern winemaking. The first attempt at charting a classification was made here, and the rules were defined, by following which winemakers can produce wines of guaranteed quality, and the consumers, leveraging very basic knowledge, can buy a product of the same guaranteed quality. The success of Bordeaux winemaking is supported by the scope of scientific support, laboratory research, and the basics of winemaking taught at the local University of Oenology. However, certain less predictable factors can mar the picture of stable success; one of them is the climate change affecting the character of traditionally delicate Bordeaux wines.
History of Winemaking in Bordeaux
Bordeaux is a port city, the capital of the Gironde department of the Aquitaine region in southwest France. It is also an endless sea of vineyards, a beautiful corner of the Earth, and easily one of the foremost wine regions in the world. Wines were being made around these parts in antique times already. Most likely, it was the Celts who brought here the knowledge about the wholesome drink, later successfully developed by the Romans. But the wine itself and the grapes were very different in those days from what we have today.
Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux’s claim to fame, came to the picture much later, only in the 19th century, as a result of line breeding and crossing of the ancient Cabernet Franc and the white Sauvignon Blanc. Interestingly enough, Bordeaux wines were not always this famous: for a long time they could hardly compete in the local market with wines from the Loire Valley and Burgundy, and in the international market, they were deemed inferior to the «black» wines from the Cahors region, located 80 km southeast of Bordeaux.
In Cahors, wines had been made from Malbec grape and sold in England to great success, until Bordeaux’s efforts resulted in an administrative ban on the sale of wines through the port of Bordeaux until St. Martin’s Day, November 11. This was the lever that tipped the wine map over and completely rearranged the pieces on the board.
In the 17th–18th centuries, quality Bordeaux wines would mainly be shipped to England for sale, as the sea route provided for short delivery times with no effect on the quality, which left Bordeaux wines without many competitors in the English market. The domestic market was still dominated by products from Burgundy and the Loire Valley, but the demand for Bordeaux wines in England was constantly expanding, prices were rising, and over time, the producers’ reputation developed, creating a tiered system.
An interesting fact is that right off the bat, the top tier only included four estates which were the first to penetrate the English market and, thanks to the supreme quality of their wines, were able to gain strong recognition, and, consequently, the freedom to sell their wines at prices lower-tier producers could not match.
Classification of Bordeaux Wines
As new estates were entering the market, a five-tier gradation of producers and their wines (Grand Crus Classes) came into existence; it was formalized by Grand Crus Classes de 1855 Medoc & Sauternes, the official classification issued in 1855 by the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce during the month before the opening of the World Fair. It was the first attempt to create an official system of wine quality control based on two criteria: the reputation of the wine among consumers and the market price per bottle. In fact, this system reflected the then-established regional hierarchy of wines associated with the special commercial sale conditions. The 1855 classification only covered red wine producers from the Medoc subregion, sweet white wines from Sauternes and Barsac, and one chateau from Graves.
Naturally, Bordeaux’s wine map is much bigger. Incredibly favorable and diverse natural conditions allow for growing both red and white grapes in Bordeaux, as well as producing refined, well-structured red wines with a rich, multilevel range of aroma and taste profiles, of which the best ones can build up for decades on end. One also cannot overlook white dry wines, fresh and rich, and those incredible botrified white sweet wines. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find such a motley collection of styles with guaranteed high quality in any other region in the world.
Overview of Bordeaux Wines
The Bordeaux wine region is located in the French department of Gironde on the Atlantic coast. The region is nominally divided into the right and left bank of the Gironde estuary, opening into the Atlantic. Wineries of Bordeaux sit on the banks of the Gironde debouchement and its junctions with the Garonne and Dordogne rivers.
The oldest recognized wines come from the left, west coast, with their blends dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. The oldest estate in Bordeaux is the Chateau Pape Clement which recently celebrated its 700th anniversary.
In 1855, by the order of Napoleon III, the Grand Cru Bordeaux classification was drawn up. It only included wines from the left bank of the Gironde River with large Medoc, Haut Medoc, and Graves subregions. This historical classification is topped by five red wines, the so-called premier cru: Château Lafite Rothschild (Paulliac Municipality of the Haute Medoc subregion (Paulliac AOC)), Château Mouton Rothschild (also from the Pauillac AOC), Château Latour (Paulliac AOC), Château Margaux (Margaux Municipality of Haute Medoc, (Margaux AOC)) and Château Haut-Brion (Pessac Municipality of Graves (Pessac-Leognan AOC)). A separate classification was created for white sweet wines, and of those, Château d’Yquem (Sauternes Municipality of the Graves subregion, Sauternes AOC) was proclaimed the best, premier cru superior.
Wines of the right bank are dominated by Merlot supported by Cabernet Franc. The Grand Cru classification, however, did not encompass those. At the moment, the unofficial list of Great Bordeaux Wines includes the five premier crus from the left bank and the premier cru superior of Sauternes, as well as three wines from the right bank: two from the Saint-Emilion AOC—Chateau Cheval Blanc and Chateau Ausone—and Chateau Petrus from the Pomerol AOC. Unlike St. Emilion, which has adopted a left bank-style classification, Pomerol still does not have a proper wine classification, which applies even to wine legends such as Chateau Petrus.
Right and Left Bank
The climate, soils, and terrain—what is called terroir, or appellation—have been created here by nature as if with a strong suggestion to grow grapes and produce wines, those great wines that live and develop for years.
The Atlantic and the warm Gulf Stream, alongside the Dordogne and Garonne rivers, provide the region with the necessary humidity and stable weather conditions without major temperature fluctuations and cold snaps, while landes, the forests in the south of the region, their long strips reaching almost as far as Biarritz, protect the vineyards from strong winds.
The mystery of the wine region begins with the local terrain: right bank or left bank, between rivers or seas, as they say here. Toponyms in Bordeaux are pretty self-explanatory: Bordeaux (le bord des eaux) means «the shore of waters,» medoc stands for «mid-water,» entre-deus-mers translates as «between the two seas,» and so on and so forth.
The relief of the area has not only divided Bordeaux into two banks but also created those special conditions providing for such diverse, wonderful wines. Bordeaux wines are often colloquially referred to as left bank wines and right bank wines. This is due to the location of the Bordeaux wine appellations along the mouth of the Gironde and other two rivers, the Garonne and the Dordogne, characterized by original climate conditions, soils, and terrain, permitted grape varieties and their ratio in the wines produced here.
Following the classifications of Medoc and Sauternes wines, other appellations in Bordeaux were also categorized, and the Crus Bourgeois and Crus Artisans lists arose, but this happened later, in the 20th century. By now, the St. Emilion and Graves subregions have their own classifications. Furthermore, Bordeaux itself is a major appellation, sometimes referred to as the general entity encompassing a long list of smaller constituent subregions of Medoc, Grave, St. Emilion, Pomerol, Fronsac, Sauternes and Barsac, and those, in turn, can be further divided into even smaller and more valuable appellations. Case in point, Medoc features the Margaux, St. Julien, and St. Estephe AOCs.
The biggest difference between the right and left bank wines lies in the composition of soils and grape varieties used when producing wines. The left bank wines are generally more expensive and prestigious than the right bank ones. Even the estates on the left bank are invariably called chateaux, which stands for «castles,» while those on the right bank are more modest, often simply called Domaine, meaning «area.»
This quirk, however, in no way diminishes the quality of the wines produced. Besides, there are exceptions to those rules. On the right bank, there is a chateau producing the most expensive Bordeaux wine and perhaps the least accessible—Chateau Petrus. While the Rothschild castles on the left bank can be visited for wine tasting, becoming a guest at Petrus is great luck even for chosen ones (an interview with Christian Moueix, the owner of Chateau Petrus, was printed in Issue 8 of Code de Vino).
The foremost grape varieties grown in Bordeaux are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and, less frequently, Cabernet Franc. Different proportions of those make up the famous Bordeaux blend. Small quantities of Petit Verdot, Malbec, and other local varieties can also be added. The composition depends on the appellation. While on the left bank along the mouth of the Gironde and the Garonne, where Medoc is located, the blend is dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, on the right bank along the river Dordogne, in St. Emilion and Pomerol, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are used more.
The French National Institute of Appellations by Origin (INAO) monitors compliance with all requirements.
Product Controlled by Origin
Bordeaux wines may have the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlee) status, which means a wine with a controlled name of origin. This is the highest level in the hierarchy of French wines, and those are the most famous in the world. To attain such status, an appellation must comply with the conditions laid down in the Code of Controlled Names of Origin, adopted in France on July 30, 1935.
Any violation of these requirements may result in the forfeiture of the right to sell the wines coming from the concerned vineyard as AOC. The strict rules introduced in accordance with the identified terroir features exist to outline the boundaries of the wine regions. Winemakers are not allowed to break these rules.
For example, you cannot add a plot of land that was not included in the classification to a classified chateau, as this will inevitably lead to the revocation of the right to sell wines indicating their origin as a classified chateau. The grape varieties for this appellation, the frequency of vine planting, the yield requirements, the processing and pruning methods, the vine age, etc.—everything is outlined and controlled, and virtually no issues are left unattended. Vinification methods are also regulated, such as minimum alcohol content, type of wine produced, permitted additives, and wine storage process.
All the production regulations were designed so as to uphold the quality level and establish a wine production culture with a unique character inherent to a particular territory. Of course, wine is too versatile and lively to be fully regulated. The climate change observed in recent years and the resulting shifts in temperature, solar/rainy day ratio, and soil composition all illustrate the complexity of the quest to standardize production under changing conditions.
For centuries, classical natural conditions in Bordeaux have allowed Cabernet Sauvignon vines to develop evenly and reach polyphenolic maturity, which organically created the necessary conditions for the production of complex, structurally rich wines. All winemakers had to do was to follow the rules until the biochemical processes passed the necessary stages, and abstain from disturbing their best wines before 10–15 years passed from the moment of their bottling.
But at one point, the usual conditions began to change: in hotter weather, the grapes mature faster, gaining higher sugar content and losing acidity, which means, on the one hand, the loss of the ability to develop evenly over a long period, and on the other hand, the ability to produce more fruity wines that resemble the New World style. Or, conversely, it could get too cold at the time the fruit is setting, and rainfall could spoil the harvest.
Under these conditions, grape varieties that have been thriving on these lands for centuries must adapt to the changing conditions. If a winemaker is big on quality control and supports the winemaking process with a proper level of scientific and lab research, it might not be that big of a problem, but only if they are not subject to artificial restrictions and can handle and negotiate the issues thus emerging, i.e. how to help the vine to adapt to unusual conditions, when to harvest, in what style and with what alcohol content to make the wine, and so on. The once-introduced production regulations designed to protect the quality and identity of wines, in some cases, already backfired.
In France, as in the rest of Europe, changing laws is a difficult undertaking, often taking years, if not decades. But in this case, the future of the most famous and commercially successful wine region may depend on the flexibility and timeliness of decision-making.
Updated conditions dictate new rules, which focus on the ability of the individual to process everything that goes on in a reasonable and timely manner, rather than staying an uninvolved bystander.
Malbec: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow
One of the possible solutions for Bordeaux winemakers in a changing environment is the increased use of southern grape varieties. Some of those have been used in Bordeaux for quite some time now, such as Malbec. This thick-skinned grape needs more sun than, say, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. When grown under ideal conditions, Malbec turns into ink-black wines that are almost opaque, powerful, tanninous, and very suitable for long aging.
This grape variety is widespread in France, and researchers collected several thousand local variants of its name. In Bordeaux, it has been long known as Pessac. In a number of appellations in Medoc, it is still a recommended grape variety for production.
By the way, back when Medoc was still an undrained bog, and Cahors, where Malbec was actively cultivated, was thriving thanks to the large volumes exported through the port of Bordeaux, powerful Malbec wines often helped the neighbor out with fortifying the structure of Bordeaux clarets. Besides, hotter weather is much more suitable for Malbec than Cabernet Sauvignon…