Celebrated wine aficionado, Ron Kapon, who is known in wine circles as the Peripatetic Oenophile — the traveling wine expert — answers questions that Cheese Connoisseur readers have asked.
Portions of this article are excerpted from “Discovering The World of Wine”, an online course offered by Fairleigh Dickinson University that I co-authored. It is used with the permission of Fairleigh Dickinson University. Anyone that would like to register for the online course at a special rate can contact FDU’s Continuing Education Department at (201) 692-6500; http://www.fdu.edu/academic/wineonline/.
Cheese Connoisseur: Every article I read talks about the very high prices of wines from Bordeaux in retail shops, restaurants and especially at auctions. What is so special about Bordeaux wines?
Ron Kapon: The Romans introduced the vine to the Bordeaux region around the mid-first century to provide wine for local consumption. Vines have been cultivated here since at least the 4th century. Back then, large sections of the Médoc, which are now home to the stars of Bordeaux, were marshland covered with water. But in the 17th century, Dutch merchants, seeing untapped potential in British markets, brought in engineers from the Netherlands to dig a series of ditches and canals. Once drained, vineyards were planted and estates were created. The maritime climate on the 45th parallel offers perfect conditions for growing grapes that are constructed for long-lasting wines. In the southwestern corner of France, flanking the estuary formed by the Dordogne and Garonne Rivers as they flow to the Atlantic Ocean, is Bordeaux. It is the pre-eminent wine region in the world. The rivers divide the growing area into three major parts – the Left Bank, the Right Bank and Entre-Deux-Mers (a triangle that lies south of the Médoc, literally “between the two seas or waters”). The climate is oceanic and temperate, with short, cold winters, hot summers, long autumns and high humidity from the Atlantic Ocean. Soils range from gravel and sand to limestone and clay.
CC: What are the major grapes grown in Bordeaux?
RK: The Bordeaux AOC allows 14 grape varieties to be grown. The primary white grapes are Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, with Muscadelle, Sauvignon Gris and Ugni Blanc used in small proportions. The Semillon-based wines are richer and fuller bodied, while the Sauvignon-dominant blends are lighter. The two grapes also are used to make Sauternes that produce some of the finest sweet white wines anywhere. The most important reds are Merlot (the most widely planted grape), Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. The other permitted red grape is Carmenère, but it is grown only in minute amounts. The wines of the Left Bank are Cabernet Sauvignon-based (with a typical blend being 65 to 70 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 10 percent Cabernet Franc and 20 to 25 percent Merlot), while Right Bank wines are mainly Merlot-based (with a typical blend being 60 percent Merlot, 30 percent Cabernet Franc and 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon).
CC: I keep hearing about the 1855 Classifications. What is it and what is the top level?
RK: It is important to understand that within all but one acclaimed Bordeaux sub-region (Pomerol), wine estates, or châteaux, are ranked by official classifications. In the Medoc and other sections of the Left Bank, the Bordeaux Official Classification of 1855 ranks 61 châteaux into five categories, from Premiers Crus (first growths) to Cinquième Crus (fifth growths). It includes most of the leading Médoc and Sauternes estates as well as Château Haut-Brion in Pessac-Léognan. The Classification was the idea of Emperor Napoleon III, who wanted to showcase Bordeaux wines in the Exposition Universelle de Paris of 1855. The wine brokers who created the Classification used price as the key-qualifying factor. They rated 18 châteaux as Premier and Deuxième Cru. In 1855, Mouton-Rothschild was ranked a Second Growth. In 1973, it was elevated to First Growth status (the only time this was ever done). The wines of estates that were not classified in that listing were designated Cru Bourgeois. Today, one might question the accuracy of a classification of an agricultural product that was determined over 150 years ago. But in the absence of any alternative, the 1855 Classification continues to have a dominant influence. In 1955, a separate classification of Saint-Émilion wine was established, with the classification revised every 10 years. Châteaux Ausone and Cheval Blanc have long been the stars here. However, in 2011 they were joined by Châteaux Angelus and Pavie in the top tier. Pomerol has no official classification. It is the smallest of all the Bordeaux regions, but home to top châteaux, such as Pétrus, Trotanoy and Le Pin. Given that some of Pomerol’s wines command top prices, it does not seem to have hindered the winemakers too much.
CC: I keep hearing that this wine is from the Left Bank or this is from the Right Bank. What does that mean, and are all wines grown in Bordeaux red?
RK: The Bordeaux region is home to 275,000 acres of vineyards, 6,600 wine-producing estates that produce on average 59 million cases of wine per year. Red, or “Claret” as it’s known, comprises 88 percent of Bordeaux wines. There are five important sub-regions in Bordeaux: Médoc, Graves, Pessac-Léognan, St-Émilion and Pomerol. The first three are on the Left Bank, while the latter two are located on the Right Bank. Within the Haut-Médoc, there are 15 Communes, or subdivisions where wine is made. The four most important, from north to south, are Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Margaux. Just south of the Médoc on the Left Bank, the Graves region produces white, red and sweet wines. In 1987, the Pessac-Léognan appellation (AOC) was created as a sub-region within Graves. Châteaux of this appellation include Château Haut-Bailly, Château Haut-Brion, Château La Mission Haut-Brion and Château Carbonnieux.
CC: I don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a bottle of wine. Are any regions in the area reasonably-priced?
RK: Believe it or not, most Bordeaux wine retails for less than $50. Look for wines that carry the following Bordeaux region appellations: Côtes de Bordeaux- a collection of appellations created from Côtes de Castillon; Côtes de Franc; Cadillac (red wines); Premieres Côtes de Blaye and Sainte Foy-de-Bordeaux; Canon-Fronsac, located east of Bordeaux; Listrac, nine miles northwest of Bordeaux; Entre-Deux-Mers, the largest sub-region of Bordeaux; Moulis, located close to the Atlantic Ocean; and Côtes de Bourg, located 12 miles northwest of Bordeaux.