News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 22, 2012

GRAPE SENSE: The most legendary and mystifying of all the world’s wine regions

Howard Hewitt
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — It’s time to discuss Bordeaux. Of all the world’s wine regions it’s probably the most legendary and mystifying. It’s not easy to understand France’s iconic wine country but it’s possible.

The French, of course, make it difficult to understand any of their wine regions.

The French labeling system tells you the producer, the region, the appellation (region) where the grapes were grown, and the vintage but those darn French don’t tell you what grapes are used for the wine.

That’s old world wine making and you’ll find the same from Italy and Spain. Burgundy isn’t Burgundy at all; it’s Pinot Noir. The Loire Valley is Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc. Champagne is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and some minor varietals. You get the picture.

Bordeaux is largely Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. There are other grapes but we’ll get to that.

If you know just a little about Bordeaux, it’s probably all the confusion over left bank and right bank. Let’s try to simplify. The area is divided by the Garone River running about 375 miles through the southwest region of France and a bit of Spain. The river divides Bordeaux right down the middle.

The left bank is the one closer to the Atlantic Ocean. The soil has gravel allowing for good drainage — ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon. The right bank has limestone and clay soils which act like a sponge when it rains keeping vine stock roots moist long after the rainfall. That is perfect growing conditions for Merlot.

If you can remember those simple facts Bordeaux gets a lot simpler. We’ve mentioned Cab and Merlot but the area also grows Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Carmenere and Malbec. Bordeaux wines are driven by the two dominant grapes but almost never 100 percent Cab or Merlot. So remember Bordeaux is always going to be a blend.

Now, let’s say you’ve seen Sideways one too many times and you’re convinced you don’t like Merlot. That is probably because the only Merlot you have ever tasted was crappy Merlot. The right bank wines of Bordeaux, which are Merlot driven, will surprise you. The blends are big and rich and might even make you think you’re drinking Cabernet.

The left bank wines, and particularly the areas of Medoc, Haut-Medoc and Margaux, are where the insanely expensive French wines are produced. But that still leaves more than 15 other appellations on the left bank for you to explore. There are more than 20 appellations on the right bank, perhaps the best known is Saint Emilion. And those wines are beautiful.

The French love regulations when it comes to making wine. Let’s just say what grapes grown, how long those grapes are aged, and virtually every step of the process has some government regulation.

It’s highly unlikely you’re going to find Bordeaux wines in your neighborhood supermarket or neighborhood shop. But retailers with larger inventory and shops catering to wine enthusiasts will definitely have Bordeaux wines. But with just under 10,000 wineries how do you decide what to buy?

I’d suggest you start with your preference of Cab or Merlot and go from there. There are plenty of good Bordeaux wines at value price points. But keep in mind that Bordeaux’s high end goes to thousands of dollars per bottle for the world’s best wine.

Grape Sense has always focused on finding a small wine shop where the proprietor knows wine. That’s never more true than when buying in Bordeaux.

Having visited Bordeaux recently, it’s not as complicated as it seemed before. We can argue if Bordeaux makes the world’s best wines. But it’s a region wine enthusiasts need to sample and understand.

Bonjour!



Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, writes Grape Sense every other week for 18 midwestern newspapers.