Making Sense of Bordeaux Wine

How to Approach Claret

There is no doubt that Bordeaux is the source of some of the world's most compelling red wines. For many consumers, Bordeaux provides an entry into the world of fine wine: less complicated and capricious than Burgundy, more famous than the Rhone, more readily available-to European consumers at least-than the great wines of California, Bordeaux is a very good place to start. Yet wine consumers sometimes find their high expectations are not met by the product in the glass. Why?

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1. The myth of the ‘classic’ wine

‘Classic’ is a word heavily overused in writing about Bordeaux. If classic means a wine that has been made using traditional techniques, or a wine that offers an exemplary expression of the vineyard and vintage from which it originates, all well and good. But the term is often used to describe wines made in poor Bordeaux vintages that, far from being classic, lack character. Such wines, which abound in vintages like 2002 and 2007, often display subdued, unripe fruit, high acidity, and unripe tannins. It is frequently claimed that such wines are for true connoisseurs, who are not so readily seduced by the exuberant fruit, balanced acidity and fine tannins of more popular vintages; and it is often implied, particularly by wine merchants, that a more refined European palate will prefer these ‘classic’ wines to the fruity fare favoured by American consumers.

Of course, this is mistaken. All great wines are distinctive. They have a unique and pronounced character. That is not to say that they must be flashy or gregarious: but elegance is not the same as a lack of individuating characteristics. Now not all vintages can be great, and wines that are good, rather than great, often offer a great deal of interest. That interest will be amplified for anyone who knows a particular estate-it can be fascinating to drink wines that say something different to the great vintages. But the pleasure such wines offer is often as much intellectual than hedonistic, and they are a poor place for a first-time consumer to start. If you are expecting to be blown away by Bordeaux, do not open a bottle from, say, 1994. Moreover, in the current marketplace, these so-called ‘classic’ Bordeaux wines are poorly priced relative to the competition from the other wine regions.

2. Ageing Bordeaux

Just as consumers who drink Bordeaux regularly will enjoy wines from less outstanding vintages more than first-time consumers, it is also true that experienced consumers will derive more pleasure from wines that are too young. A sense of how red Bordeaux ages is often important to enjoying it young, at the beginning of the drinking windows often suggested by wine critics. In terms of aromatic expressiveness and complexity, red Bordeaux does not mature in a linear manner, gaining year on year. Of course, this is a generalisation, but great wines from the Médoc will often be exuberantly fruity and primary for a year or two after bottling, and then begin to close down, becoming inexpressive and much more obviously tannic. By ten years of age, some maturity will be in evidence-but for the best wines of the Médoc, not that much. By age fifteen, the wine should have entered its plateau of maturity. But many will continue to gain in expressiveness for the next decade. The 1990 vintage is now twenty-two years old, and many of the wines have only just begun to show their full potential in the last few years. The same applies to some of the more backward wines from 1982.

Now, of course, some Bordeaux wines never shut down; some vintages mature earlier than others: and, of course, great wines offer pleasure at any age. I am very far from saying wines have to taste unpleasant young to taste beautiful when mature. But anyone looking for a conversion experience is much more likely to find it in the aromatic fireworks and silky texture of a mature Bordeaux than in a young wine, dense, crunchy, and bursting with potential. Many of the great wines of the 2005 vintage are totally closed, tannic and backward right now, and anyone who knew the reputation of the vintage and wanted to try their first great Bordeaux would surely be confused and disappointed if they opened a bottle expecting to find something else.

3. Too fruity, too oaky?

One phenomenon that confuses many people who are discovering Bordeaux for the first time has a lot in common with the misuse of the term ‘classic’ which I have already discussed. It often has the same spokesmen. This is the argument that the halcyon days of Bordeaux are over: modern oenology and the American wine critic Robert Parker, so the argument goes, have conspired to rob Bordeaux of its soul; and most châteaux, in the pursuit of high scores, now produce superficial wines in which the twin scourges, fruit and oak, obliterate the character of the terroir.

This seems, to me at least, simply untrue. The overriding concern of modern oenology in Bordeaux is to preserve the character of the fruit, which grew in the vineyards: and this should, self-evidently, issue in a more pure expression of those vineyards in the finished wine. A young Bordeaux wine simply cannot be too fruity. The primary fruitiness of the young wine mellows away to yield a much more complex and varied aromatic profile; the nuances of site emerge more strongly. This is a fundamental aspect of how Bordeaux ages. If you don’t like fruity wines, don’t drink them young. The classic example of this process will be found in the wines of Château Haut Brion, which begin life very fruity and acquire flavours and aromas of smoke, burnt earth and tobacco as they age. Before the advent of modern oenology and Robert Parker, the best wines from great vintages like 1953, 1959 and 1961 were by all accounts fruity in their youth; the best are still very fruity now. Though they retain lashings of ripe fruit, the notion that wines like 1959 Château Mouton-Rothschild or 1961 Château La Mission Haut Brion are somehow flawed, characterless or ‘modern’ is patently ridiculous; and such criticisms are equally ridiculous when applied to the great wines of the 2009 vintage.

The excessive use of new oak is a different matter, but this was never a problem for more than a handful of Bordeaux wines, and it is certainly under control now. Anyone seeking a candidate for the excessive use of new wood might like to consider Château Lafite-Rothschild during the 1960s, when wines were given an extended elevage in one hundred per cent new oak, no matter how weak the vintage: which is one reason why Lafite made such bad wines in the 1960s. Today much more care is taken to marry the percentage of new oak and the duration of the wine’s elevage to the character of the vintage. If this marriage is successful, the new wood is seamlessly integrated when the wine reaches maturity. May Château, La Conseillante in Pomerol being one example, are reducing the amount of new oak that they use.

In actual fact, of those Bordeaux wines that command the highest prices in the marketplace and which receive the highest critical accolades, only a handful of micro-production wines from Saint-Émilion can meaningfully be singled out for their reliance on ‘modern’ techniques (often adapted from the practice of Burgundy winemakers). Most consumers will never taste these wines. Yet while they may be specious, the claims to sophistication that criticising wines for their ‘modern’ and fruity character seem to endorse can be seductive. It is not uncommon to hear people who are new to Bordeaux complaining about these characteristics. Read tasting notes on www.cellartracker.com, and you will often find tirades against excessive fruit or complaints about the influence of new oak (sometimes, amusingly, in wines which were actually fermented and aged in stainless steel and saw no new oak whatsoever). This is a pity, because if these tasters left their prejudices behind, or had more experience of how Bordeaux ages, they might actually enjoy their wines.

4. Too little acidity, too much alcohol?

The same applies to two other shibboleths among the critics of contemporary Bordeaux winemaking: acidity and alcohol. Wines that are picked late, so the argument goes, are too low in acidity to taste fresh, and too high in alcohol to age. Now, acidity is a useful concept when assessing some wines, especially white wines and pinot noir, but its relevance to Bordeaux is dubious. As François Mitjavile of Château Tertre Roteboeuf is wont to say, acidity is irrelevant to macerated wines. In other words, Bordeaux ages thanks to its extract; thanks to its tannin and fruit, not by merit of its acidity. Wines that are picked too late will have low acidity, certainly, but their flavours will also taste burnt and unpleasant, which is much more important. The wines age poorly not because they are too alcoholic, but because their phenolics are over-ripe and prematurely degraded. The acidity of grapes attains a natural balance when they reach maturity, which varies depending on the vintage: ripe grapes in 2010 had higher acids than ripe grapes in 2009, largely because of the cooler nights. Acidity, like alcohol, is simply an aspect of vintage character. The 1953, 1982 and 1990 Bordeaux, all vintages with notably low acidity and high alcohols, are all evidence that these characteristics are no impediment to greatness or long and graceful ageing. A preference for Bordeaux with higher acidity is just that, a preference. Historically, the curse of Bordeaux has been premature picking, responsible for many wines with vegetal characteristics and painfully high acids, even in acclaimed vintages like 1970; or in wines with coarse tannins that outlive their fruit, like many of the wines made in another year that was touted as a great vintage, 1975. So it’s a pity to see new consumers being led by critics who chastise alcohol and low acidity by numbers, when what is really important is whether a particular wine is over-ripe or not. Some wines from warm vintages with low acidities and high alcohol levels display impeccable balance and finesse: obvious examples would be two great wines from the challenging 2003 vintage, Château Cos d’Estournel and Château Montrose. Both these wines are stunning and give every indication that they will age beautifully for decades.

There can ultimately be not better advice than to ignore the numbers and taste the wines. There is no substitute, after all, for your own palate.

Written by William Kelley

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