Tuesday, January 14, 2014

BORDEAUX: Great White Sighting

Vineland(Vinland) is how Leif Ericson described berry-bearing North America after sailing west about 1000 years ago.  If he had sailed south instead on to the Franc shores of Bordeaux, he would have discovered grapevines in much greater abundance in the gravel soils of the long established Roman outpost of Graves.  The Holy Empire had long since collapsed centuries earlier, and his fellow Viking raiders had already plundered Bordeaux and Gascony by the mid-9th century. But the vines and the wine culture had already been well established by Leif's time, their quality reputation increasingly galvanized from the English gains in the Hundred Years War. It was a succession of thirsty English kings who began exporting from the Right Bank of St. E'milion as early as 1302. The international business of Bordeaux took further steps in the centuries to come via the Dutch engineered drainage of its swamp water and the emergence of their many wine loving negociants.

In Bordeaux, the largest winegrowing area in France, almost 300,000 acres of vineyards support more than 13,000 grape growers and more than 10,000 producers. Annually, more than 960 million bottles, produced under 5 broad classifications, within 63 appellations continue to define this important commercial region. By comparison, all of California produces about 207 million cases of wine from more than 500,000 acres and 5000 grape growers. Bordeaux is a perfect place for the vine, vitis vinifera.  A maritime climate, its mild ambient temperature, combine with the natural drainage of its poor soils, the prominent influence of the numerous waterways(Aquitaine: land of many waters), and the protection from its western Landes forest to make Bordeaux a very unique vine land.  Here, the years can start out cold and wet, as they did in 2013, slowly producing drastically reduced yields from poor fruit set(coulure). Disappointment was compounded by record hail in August of that same year.  But, in Bordeaux, when one hand is soiled the other typically raises in triumph, as it did when the fungus botrytis(noble rot) broke out early enough to take advantage of good October weather in Barsac and Sauternes in the south.
'Noble Rot' fungus, botrytis cinerea
Its this on-the-edge environment that created a need to historically blend varietals, where the sum of the parts are greater than the whole. Unlike Burgundy, Alsace or the Rhineland, the Bordelaise have become the masters of that art; blends that optimize the unique ripening schedules and essential personalities of companion grape varieties. Combined with their growing export demand and commerce, regional quality controls were increasingly necessary. At the broad base of the stringent quality control pyramid Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supe'rieur AOC represent slightly more than 50% of the Gironde department's annual production and can be produced from anywhere in the Bordeaux region. Cotes de Bordeaux,  a more limited & elevated designation is available to producers in the eastern banked hills above the river Garonne, and balance stringent regional AOC's of Me'doc, Graves, Saint-E'milion, Pomerol and Fronsac which straddle both sides of the important waterway.  Under this umbrella of locale there sits the sub-Me'doc classifications: Crus Artisans, and then Crus Bougeois which recognizes about 250 prized properties belonging to the Cru Bougeois Alliance.  Crowning the pyramid are the 61 chateaux ranked Grand Cru Classe's, spawning from the famous 1855 merchant ranking required by Emperor Napole'on III.  Historically, the commercial ranking was the first of its kind.
Gravel topsoils dominate vineyards of Graves

Within the 5-tier classification, only Chateau Haut-Brion in Graves was outside the northern region of the Me'doc.  Additionally, sweet white wine(27) properties from Sauternes and Barsac were ranked separately within three(3) Crus; with long revered Chateau d'Yaquem sitting at the top. Almost 100 years later, sixteen(16) properties south of the city of Bordeaux were classified as, Cru Classe' des Graves; established in 1953, it was revised in 1959. Geographically, these chateau were clustered in the north of this region, resulting in its world class reds and whites breaking away in 1987 to form the Pessac-Le'ognan AOC, as a more prestigious appellation. Although these regional siblings produce more white wine than red, it is the only place in Bordeaux where red and white wines are equally regarded, per wine historian Oz Clarke. Stemming from the 1959 administrative decree, quality semi-sweet and sweet wines were regulated under AOC Graves Supe'rieures.

If Entre Deux Mares, the land between two seas(rivers), is on the label the wine must be a white varietal blend from its sandy and clay soils.  Here, the large production regions best reds are sold as Bordeaux Supe'rieur. To the southwest, the white wine 'superior' appellations of Barsac and Sauternes produce luxuriously fine sweet wines of honey, fig and dried yellow fruit character in the viscous, rich body that makes the perfect match for foie gras, a rich cheese or a decadent fruit dessert.  Importantly, some of the greatest white wines in the world are produced in these regions, south of the city of Bordeaux.  At thier base is Semillion, an easy to grow thin-skinned variety is easily effected by botrytis, offering musky notes of apricot and oily honey; one of the most widely planted Bordeaux grape varieties a few centuries ago, but of late its vineyard march has reversed.  Much of its acreage has been taken by blending partner, noble Sauvignon Blanc, with its aromatic freshness, bright acidity and traces of minerality.  Together they are brilliantly yin and yang. In a support role, Muscadelle, is a minor white grape with bright floral tone, although it too is easily effected by the noble rot.

Every region needs a work horse.  Here, it is the ubiquitous Ugni Blanc(know as Trebbiano in Italy), where it produces aromatic though simple, everyday white table wines when it is not blended with other Bordeaux whites.  However in Cognac to the northeast, and in Armagnac to the south, this everyday worker is the varietal basis for the areas internationally famous fortified wines. Although not typically part of the Semillion-dominated blend that makes some of the worlds best sweet wines, Ugni Blanc does make its way into the beautiful, rich discoveries we so often called White Bordeaux.  Their body, their texture and aromatics make them richly different from Sancerre or a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.  These wines can be refreshingly complicated and multi-faceted, yet offer great examples of  food-friendly whites that marry beautifully with light seafood dishes or a light lunch. Should room be left for dessert, a Sauternes or a Barsac would be the perfect partner for a decadent fruit tart or creme brulee.

Great whites have been sighted in Bordeaux, and when found they offer us a discovery that would even make Leif envious. Cheers!

Recommended: Chateau Tertre de Launay Entre-Deux-Mers 2012