Bordeaux is misunderstood. Like an older, mysterious brother, the region so familiar to us both from holidays and supermarket shelves somehow manages to lead an unexpected ‘other life’. We tend to think of its rich, red wines, yet the region’s been producing whites for a thousand years.
Bordeaux itself has a reputation for dark, enigmatic architecture but after a dramatic clean-up it’s suddenly clear how the Blonde City got the nickname, its bright, white limestone fresh and inviting once again.
Even Bordeaux vintages aren’t always what they seem. The wine press wrote off 2013 as an unmitigated disaster, but longer reflection reveals much to be enjoyed. Weather conditions saw yields tumble, but the wines themselves, while not pretending to reach the heady heights of 2000 or even 2010, are still good – if you can find them.
Sweet whites are actually very good, as the weather that caused havoc for regular grapes helped to swell the ‘noble rot’ essential to enrich the wines of Sauternes and Barsac.
For those new to tasting, the Bordeaux Ecole du Vin, opposite the tourist information centre in the heart of the city, can teach you the basics in a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon or immerse the would-be sommelier in longer, more in-depth courses. Ultimately, though, the only way to discover any wine is to experience it for yourself.
There’s something satisfying about entering a town bearing the name of a wine you’ve been drinking for years, and one of the best ways to get to know the different appellations within this vast region is to take a short break in the area.
Whether a river cruise up la Garonne, cycling the ancient slopes of St Emilion or driving between chateaux, it’s worth visiting the vineyards themselves. Many are open to the public, either by appointment or on a walk-in basis.
Some are enormous, luxury piles surrounded by acres of neat green rows, perhaps owned by an insurance giant or, increasingly, Chinese companies. They are flashy, gorgeous, sumptuous. Others remain family enterprises, just a couple of hectares in size. Anything they may lack in size, however, is more than made up for with passion and charm. Linking them all is the desire to create the best possible wine for that particular terroir.
What sets French wines apart from many of the New World giants is the concept of blending. Blending has occasionally been portrayed as somehow ‘substandard’ in comparison to the 100% grape varieties of the massive Californian, Chilean or New Zealand estates but makes complete sense given French, and especially Bordeaux’s geography.
Unlike the vast areas of the same soil type in, say, Australia or South Africa, the terrain in France changes almost by the row, from gravel to clay, sand to chalk.
Over millennia farmers have worked out which grapes work best for every inch of their soil and grow varieties accordingly. Once harvested, careful blending will help create the best possible wine for each particular soil. It’s an arcane and deeply personal business; every Chateau has its own unique taste.
Both reds and whites are blended in Bordeaux. White grapes are typically Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle. Fruity dry whites are excellent with fish, poultry and summer salads, look for Entre Deux Mers, Bordeaux Blanc and Côtes de Bordeaux appellations.
The well-structured, more floral whites of Graves and Pessac-Léognan can take stronger flavours such as Asian cuisine, smoked fish and goats’ cheese and have more potential for ageing.
The best way to understand blends is to create your own, and it’s possible to do that with the B-Winemaker experience at the Chateau Haute-Sarpe. The equipment may be straight out of a school chemistry class, but the results from all those test tubes and pipettes are distinctly grown up: your own personal wine, blended, bottled, corked, sealed and labelled by yourself to be enjoyed with the smug satisfaction of a true viticulturist.
Individual chateau openings can be found at the Tourist Information Office, Bordeaux, 12 Cours du 30 Juillet, Bordeaux
Ecole du Vin, Bordeaux – 1-3, Cours du 30 Juillet, Bordeaux
This feature by Sandra Lawrence originally appeared in City magazine. If you would like to syndicate this story or commission Sandra to write something similar please contact her at the following address, missing out the obvious gap…