“A once in a lifetime vintage”
Published April 2017 - Andrew Caillard MW
Pauillac is Bordeaux’s most acclaimed appellation, the only one with three Premier Cru properties: Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château Latour. These and other Pauillac chateaux produce robust, full-flavored and long-lived red wines made from Cabernet-based blends. Though winemaking techniques and microclimates vary throughout Pauillac, producing some variations in style, classic Pauillac wines have juicy flavours of blackcurrant and cedar, often with coffee, chocolate and graphite notes.
Pauillac, part of the Médoc region on Bordeaux’s Left Bank, has gravelly and well-drained soils that force vines to grow long and strong roots. Struggling a bit for water, the vines produce grapes with high tannins and concentrated juices. Nearby rivers and the Atlantic Ocean modulate temperatures, preventing the grapes from ripening too quickly. Such grapes make powerful wines that may age and improve for decades. However, in Pauillac, as in other old-world wine regions, some winemakers are working to develop softer red wines that maintain the local wines’ traditional substance and flavours, but are more approachable immediately upon release.
Listrac, Moulis & Haut Medoc
The Médoc, Bordeaux’s largest and best-known wine region, is located on the triangular piece of land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gironde River estuary in western France. This Left Bank parcel stretches some 50 miles north to south, with varying soils planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc vines. The area comprises two regions: Médoc to the north and Haut-Médoc (the “upper Medoc”) further south.
The Haut-Médoc encompasses the famed communes of Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Margaux, but also includes vineyards surrounding these appellations. The wines from these surrounding vineyards are labelled Haut-Médoc AOC. They share many of the traditions and qualities of their prestigious neighbours but are generally produced in a lighter style with fragrant aromas.
On Bordeaux’s Left Bank, near the southern end of the Haut-Médoc, lies Margaux, one of the most celebrated villages in the world of wine. Margaux is home to Château Margaux, the revered first-growth property, as well as 20 more Grand Cru Classé estates ranked in the 1855 classification of Bordeaux.
The acclaimed wine of Margaux benefits from the diverse soil types in the appellation. In general, Margaux has a very thin layer of topsoil, and the very best vineyards, above the Gironde River, have gravelly soils that encourage deep root growth and allow for good drainage. Because of the variations in soil, Margaux wines can range from delicately flavoured to highly concentrated, from medium- to full-bodied. Yet all Margaux wines share a fragrant bouquet, silky texture and remarkable balance.
Cabernet Sauvignon dominates in the wines of Margaux, as it does throughout the Left Bank, with Merlot and Cabernet Franc used in small percentages for blending. Because of their excellent ageing potential, the best Margaux wines are prized by collectors.
St.-Émilion is the star of Bordeaux’s Right Bank, north of the Dordogne River. The rich red wines produced in St.-Émilion, based on Merlot and Cabernet Franc, are less tannic and generally more fruit-driven in flavour than the Cabernet-based wines of Left Bank. Merlot thrives on the plateaus high above the Dordogne, where the soil is filled with sand and clay, a perfect medium for creating opulent, fruit-forward wines. With a typically savoury character, St.-Émilion wines are sometimes called the “Burgundies of Bordeaux.” These refined reds, with loads of finesse, are elegant companions to beef, chicken, pork and duck.
The wines of St.-Émilion were not included in the famous 1855 classification of Bordeaux, which ranked wines of the Left Bank. In 1955, St.-Émilion published its own classification, based on soil analysis, wine quality and reputation of the properties. Unlike the 1855 classification, St.-Emilion’s system requires properties to continuously prove themselves. The list is revised regularly, most recently in 2012. There are two tiers within the classification, Premier Grand Cru Classé and Grand Cru Classé. There are currently just 18 Premier Grand Cru properties and 64 Grand Cru Classé properties.
The St.-Émilion appellation is home to hundreds of individual producers, enhancing the variety of wines made there. Many of the properties remain small, family-run enterprises, unlike the large châteaux of the Left Bank. The area is also the base of France’s controversial micro-châteaux or garagiste wine movement; these innovative winemakers operate outside the traditional classification system, making very high quality (and very expensive) highly extracted wines.
Pessac-Léognan & Graves
Though wine has been made in Pessac-Léognan since ancient Roman times, it was only in 1987 that the neighbouring villages of Pessac and Léognan were singled out from the surrounding Graves region and given their own appellation. The designation acknowledges that Pessac-Léognan is home to the most acclaimed properties of Bordeaux’s Graves region, such as the Premier Cru Château Haut-Brion.
The vineyards of Pessac-Léognan, just south of the city of Bordeaux, are crowded by suburban sprawl. About 3,000 acres are dedicated mostly to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grown for red wines, with a small portion devoted to Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and other grapes for white wines. Pessac-Léognan red wines are elegant and concentrated, with medium to full body. They offer distinct aromas and flavours of mineral and earth and can have lush fruit or smoky tobacco character. Pessac-Léognan white wines are dry, unlike the famous sweet white wines from nearby Sauternes. They are generally crisp and minerally with citrus notes, often with rich character from oak ageing and capable of improving with additional age.
Pomerol, on the Right Bank of Bordeaux’s Gironde River, produces some of the world’s most sought-after wines, including those from such storied properties as Chateau Petrus. Yet Pomerol, the smallest of the fine-wine-producing districts of Bordeaux, offers no Grand Cru or Premier Cru wines: It’s the most significant Bordeaux appellation not included in any quality ranking. At the time of the historic 1855 Classification of Bordeaux, Right Bank chateaux were considered remote and difficult to travel to, and so were ignored by the merchants who created the classification. (St. Émilion, a notable neighbour on the Right Bank, created its own classification system in 1954.) Pomerol has managed to do quite well without this form of validation.
Pomerol’s predominantly clay soil is ideally suited for Merlot, the primary grape used in the appellation. Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon are also included in Pomerol’s blended red wines. The wines of Pomerol are lush and rich, and generally not as tannic as the Cabernet-based wines of Bordeaux’s Left Bank.
Although Pomerol’s very best wines are capable of ageing for decades, most are made for immediate consumption. These Merlot-based wines are known for their lush texture, elegance and grace, as well as the softer tannins they offer in comparison to the Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines made elsewhere in Bordeaux.
Small but mighty, the appellation of St.-Julien, on Bordeaux’s Left Bank, has long enjoyed a reputation for exceptional quality and consistency. Compared to its neighbours in Bordeaux, St.-Julien produces the highest proportion of classified-growth wines, with more than three-quarters of the vineyards devoted to top-ranked producers. They include several “Super Second” chateaux and many other outstanding classified growths and Cru Bourgeois.
Saint-Julien wines are beautifully balanced, with a great richness, depth of colour, and elegance. Cabernet Sauvignon prevails, with Merlot and Cabernet Franc used for blending in the classic Bordeaux style.
Saint -Estèphe, with 1,377 hectares under vine is the largest of the major Bordeaux appellations in the Medoc. Located in the most northern part of the Left Bank, on average, 585,000 cases of wine are produced each year. The soils see a rich mixture of rocks, clay, limestone and gravel that rests on the surface and of course below, deep in the terroir. Beneath the surface lies a complex blend of different soils, subsoils and terroir.
Over the past several decades, the general trend in the Saint -Estèphe vineyards has been to add more Merlot, which has added a lot of softness to the tannins and the wines. Merlot works well in the appellation due to the large amount of clay found in the soils.
Sauternes & Barsac
Sauternes is home to arguably the most prestigious and long-lived sweet wines in the world. Located 65 km south of the city of Bordeaux at the southern tip of the Graves, the appellation has 2100 ha of vineyards planted on flat, alluvial gravels overlying thick layers of limestone.
Although viewed as one appellation, Sauternes actually consists of five communes; Barsac, Bommes, Fargues, Preignanc, and Sauternes with Barsac also a designated appellation in its own right. What makes Sauternes unique is its special mesoclimate caused by the confluence of the Ciron and the Garonne rivers. The region experiences evening mists in autumn which set in until late morning and are subsequently burnt off by warm sunny afternoons. It is precisely these conditions that provide the ideal environment for the growth of botrytis cinerea – a fungus that attacks the grapes, causing them to dehydrate leaving sweet shrivelled fruit, ideal for sweet wine production.
Sauternes wines are made predominantly from Sémillon with Sauvignon Blanc with small amounts of Muscadelle. Golden in colour with enticing aromas and flavours of honey, acacia, stone-fruit, candied citrus and marmalade, classic Sauternes is rich, unctuous and beautifully balanced by fresh acidity. Capable of long-ageing, the wines turn deep amber with age, taking on more tertiary caramel flavours over time.