Friday, June 17, 2011

BORDEAUX: Take It to the Bank(Left)

Medoc Vineyard

Bordeaux. It is such a benchmark wine subject and region of such esteemed prestige that countless volumes have been written about it. Some scholars have even built long careers around trying to get a grasp of regal Bordeaux.  But, I cannot contribute to that here.  All I can do is try to understand it simply, so that its many references are not too obscure. Plus, Bordeaux is a huge and varied maritime vineyard environment where everything produced, red or white, is a blend of grapes, with multiple and overlapping classifications in 60 appellations. Arguably the greatest wine region in the world is such a big nut to crack, that I'll only look at half a nut here, the Left Bank of the river Garonne and the Gironde Estuary.

Bordeaux today is simply a massive wine producer. But it was not always that way. Although inhabited for more than 20,000 years, the region did not begin wine production until the arrival of the Romans in the first century AD.  Much of the region was marshland and rocky plains, so the first grapes appear to have been planted around Graves, south of the city of Bordeaux, as well as on the hills of the Right Bank. As part of a thirsty English empire for 300 years, Bordeaux's wine growers enjoyed favored nation status in the Middle Ages, and a deep water port with secure access to the Atlantic for their export products. In the following centuries the Hundred Years War, the Black Death and the Protestant Reformation combined to stall commercial growth in Bordeaux's wine trade, but the seed of its quality reputation had already been planted.

Bordeaux's vineyard acreage expanded northward with the drainage of Medoc marshland by the Dutch, and late in 17th century benefited commercially from the development of an overland Canal du Midi to connect the Mediterranean with Bordeaux(Atlantic), and then the 19th century Canal de Garonne. Socially, Bordeaux's principal trading partner saw the rise of its English middle class in those decades, the growth of the middlemen: wine merchants and brokers, and then ultimately the evolution of the French bourgeois in what was becoming a booming export trade for the regions wine.

Attempts to guarantee origins had already been decreed in Portugal's Douro, and in France's Jurancon to the southwest by the late 16th century, and in the Rhone several decades later. By the end of the 17th century leading chateaus like Latour in Pauillac and Haut Brion of Graves already had strong reputations, as did other large wine estates of the established region. By the time Napoleon requested a regional ranking for the Universal Exposition in Paris, Bordeaux's Chamber of Commerce could only agree on 5-tiers based on reputation and price from its best chateaus to produce the required Classification of 1855. For its purposes, the Bordelais only rated 56 of the hundreds of red wines of the Medoc, one(1) stellar estate from Graves, Haut Brion, and a handful(21) of sweet wines from Sauternes and Barsac. These rankings remained basically unchanged, even as properties have been divided, changed ownership, and have produced inconsistent wines.  But, these exhaulted growths(crus) in this dated classification continue to spare little expense in producing a quality standard that even today gives us some of the greatest, most age-worthy wines in the world.

In the late 19th century, Bordeaux's vineyards had to face yet other challenges. Sweeping outbreaks of a fungal powdery mildew, or oidium, were followed by the vineyard louse phylloxera, which was followed by the first World War. Bordeaux's vineyards and wine trade were devastated. As rebuilding/re-planting efforts began in earnest, the government's INAO passed its first national Appellation d'origine Controlee or AOC laws in 1936 in an effort to regulate the qualities of origin, including Bordeaux. Among other regulations, these laws helped to control permitted grape varieties, planting densities, harvest yields, and winemaking practices. Today, Bordeaux has more than 250,000 acres planted with mostly red grapes throughout its 60 appellations, with more than 10,000 wine producing chateaus and 13,000 grape-growers producing almost a billion bottles of wine each year. A testament to its quality control achievements, the European Union used the AOC laws of France as the basis of its current 'protected designation of origin' (PDO) system.
Premier Cru Classe'

Chateau Latour
Bordeaux's Left Bank situation may make it the perfect wine-growing environment. The Atlantic coast and tall pine forests to the west moderate the harshness of its maritime climate. Its Garonne River snakes its way out of the Pyrenees to the south, across well drained graveled soils, where it is said the best elevated properties can see the river. The Dorgonne River meets North of the commercial center of Bordeaux,  flowing into a wide, deep water estuary that spills into the Atlantic, creating its deep inland shipping port. In 1936 a list of the Medoc's best un-classified wines were given the designation of Cru Bougeois.  Long a subject of debate and legal squabbling, the latest version was approved in 2010, with additional production requirements regulating 275 wine producing Bordeaux estates.

To the south of the Medoc's eleven AOC appellations and the city of Bordeaux lies Graves. Named for its extremely gravely soils, Graves has a longer wine growing tradition than neighboring Medoc. Classified delinquently in 1953, these five(5) AOC's within Graves produce superior red, white and sweet wines. As with most AOC's, broad regional appellations, such as Graves AOC or Graves Superior AOC, are simply the most generic. But, within this large region we find the high quality AOC's of Cerons, Sauternes, Barsac, and Pessac-Leognan. Uniquely, Pessac-Leognan's Ch. Haut-Brion appears both on the Medoc's 1855 Classification, as well as the 1953 Graves Classification.

Today, the Left Bank of Bordeaux is facing new challenges, perhaps unlike those it has seen before. Dramatic price increases in the 2009 vintage, prompted the important wine critic Robert Parker to warn of a coming "big, big crisis" in Bordeaux. It seems that a growing Far East market of nouveaux riche are supporting the unwarranted price increases. For its many growers, the winter of 2010-11 was among the driest and warmest on record in Bordeaux, creating a vineyard challenge for its many small producers and co-ops. On the export side, Chateau & Estates, a leading Bordeaux importer, suddenly pulled out last year, as its publicly traded parent company thought it no longer made solid financial sense to continue sourcing Bordeaux's best wines.  What we do know is that great volumes of high quality wines will continue to be produced from this very special grape growing region.  Throughout its long commercial history, Bordeaux has remained a standard for those who enjoy the some of the worlds best wines and it will continue to be.  And that you can take to the (Left) Bank!


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