What keeps drawing me back? What is it about Bordeaux I can't get out of my system? Why do the names of its wine villages and châteaux play like music in my ears? Why has this place snuggled its way into my soul, and why can't I cast it out?
Well, Bordeaux was my first love. My first tasting was of Bordeaux wines. And the final wine was Château Léoville-Barton 1962. I remember to this day every nuance of the wine's flavor. The penetrating blackcurrant flavour was so dry a dragon must have sucked all the sugar from it. A perfume of cedar wood and Havana cigar tobacco that matched the austerity of the fruit but took it to another level of such scented beauty you could begin to wonder whether there wasn't a little sweetness in the wine after all. At my first ever tasting, the gods of wine had thrown me a classic Bordeaux and said, 'Beat that if you can'.
So Bordeaux was my first tasting. And my first great wine. And my next. And my next. And my next. Châteaux Léoville-Barton '62, Montrose '61, Beychevelle '61, Langoa-Barton '53, Haut-Bailly '55, Lynch-Bages '55, all begged or borrowed from richer and older wine lovers than me.
Indeed, I was visiting Bordeaux even before I'd left university. And since then, I've kept going back. I've visited Bordeaux more than any other wine region on earth.
Bordeaux calls itself the greatest wine region in the world. Is it? Until recently that title of 'world's greatest wine region' was supported on perilously few shoulders. But the Bordeaux that I grew up with has changed beyond recognition. The flavor of Bordeaux has changed. The way of growing and vinifying Bordeaux has changed. The way of criticizing and marketing Bordeaux has changed. It has become a hotbed of ideas, of experiment and of ambition. The old Bordeaux I knew was conservative and visit after visit I found hardly anything had changed. The new Bordeaux exhausts and excites me as I'm endlessly faced with new people, new places, new flavours.
This change has meant that one or two of my favorite flavors of Bordeaux are now not much respected and are difficult to find. The positively austere blackcurrant leaf and cigar tobacco Médoc styles, for instance, that needed a dozen years or more just to become drinkable have largely disappeared.
And in Pomerol and St-Émilion we have a different selection of styles, scents, textures and flavors - richer, deeper, more powerful, but still based on the disarming succulence of ripe Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes. Indeed, if you're looking for radical wines radical Bordeaux has a Right Bank address.
But the Bordeaux which isn't glitzy and top end is the silent majority - the wines of the Blaye, Bourg, Entre-Deux-Mers, Cadillac and the Graves. It's more difficult to find good wines in these areas but there is an affordable Bordeaux - not dirt cheap, but affordable - that makes appetizing, savory mealtime reds like no other place in the world. The top wines of course - well, they are finding new markets all the time, even as they lose old ones, because they have cunningly and assiduously fostered the idea that the height of elegance, the height of sophistication in wines lies in the red wines of Bordeaux. And as many parts of the world get richer and become interested in the symbols of success and luxury, France still rules and French wines, led by the cream of Bordeaux, flow into the cellars of the newly wealthy.
Oz Clarke is the author of "Bordeaux: The Wines, The Vineyards, The Winemakers" [Sterling Epicure, $35.00].
Much of making wine is hustle and bustle, frenzy and action and chaos. But maturing wine is different. Here are Ch. Pichon-Longueville's beautifully modern but timeless cellars; silence reigns, as the new wine begins the slow, calm process of marrying all its component parts together during a period in new oak barrels that can last as long as two years. The flavors that will thrill you when you open a bottle of Pichon-Longueville in 10 years, 15 years time were melded here under the quiet gaze of these noble pillars.
It's scenes like this that make me think - oh, wouldn't it be lovely to own a château. The beautiful building on top of the hill, the vines tumbling down the slope beneath the house as I sit blithely on the verandah with a chilled glass of my house white in my hand, watching the sun go down on another perfect day. Well, I bet the people who do own this lovely château - Pardeillan in Blaye-Côtes de Bordeaux - would tell me life is much tougher than that, especially in the lesser known areas of Bordeaux, where you have to make just as much effort to create fine wine as the stars of St-Émilion or the Médoc, and yet you can only charge a fraction of the price. The gentle hills and valleys of places like Blaye, Bourg and Cadillac are some of the loveliest parts of Bordeaux, and some of the toughest to make a living as a wine producer.
To understand Bordeaux, you have to appreciate the importance of water, whether it's rain from the skies, the beneficial effects of the Gulf Stream or the protective influence of the wide Gironde estuary. This is the Gironde at St-Estèphe, the mudflats briefly become meadows then, at only a few meters above sea level, the vineyards appear and rise up to plateaux overlooking the water. The Bordelais say that the vines like to see the water, but not get their feet wet. In geographical terms that means they want well-drained sites where they can still benefit from the mild climates that accompany large expanses of water. In the best parts of the Médoc where the broad Gironde estuary lies just beyond the choice vineyards in St-Estèphe, Pauillac, St-Julien and Margaux, they should be exquisitely happy. Blaye is on the horizon across the Gironde.
Just gaze at this photograph and think, gosh, how beautiful, how tranquil. But there is a serious point to it, too. These are the vines of Ch. Troplong-Mondot just outside the town of St-Emilion on the Right Bank, and the vines are planted very close together so that they have to compete for nutrients and moisture. This reduces the yield per vine and increases the flavor in the grapes that are left.
What do you get when you combine ambitious château owners with a classification that was created in 1855 and has hardly changed since? There's no formal list but the notion of Super-Seconds has been adopted in the Bordeaux trade as a way of recognizing that certain Second Growth châteaux are making wine far better than their peers, perhaps even of First Growth standard. Most are charging significantly higher prices than their peers too, sometimes - as in the case or Léoville-Las-Cases - not far off those of a First Growth. This photograph shows my personal selection of Médoc Super-Seconds, plus a longtime favorite, Third Growth Ch. Palmer which is considered a Super-Second too: (from left to right) Pichon-Longueville, Palmer, Montrose, Cos d'Estournel, Ducru-Beaucaillou, Léoville-Las-Cases, Pichon-Longueville-Comtesse de Lalande and Léoville-Barton.
I never tire of the thrill of visiting Bordeaux's châteaux and I keenly anticipate the moment the big door swings open, the cool air hits my face and as I gaze into the gloom I can pick out row upon row of barrels, bursting with young wine, slumbering, quietly forming the flavors that will mature in bottle, often for decades. But tasting is damned hard work. Stop laughing! It is. The wine's cold, bitter, acrid, thick and purple and angular. I've got to work out what it'll be like in 10 years' time. And often I'm there in February or March, so I'm frozen anyway. I'm not convincing you, am I?
The vineyards and the winery of Ch. Latour in all their glory. Latour's vineyards are on deep gravel running down to the Gironde estuary. Where the gravel stops, the vines stop, and meadows take their place by the shore. The protective, warming effect of the Gironde on the vines is more marked at Latour than anywhere else in the Médoc.
Just because you are one of the great original estates of the Médoc doesn't mean you can't move with the times. This magnificent, circular underground barrel cellar at Chateau Lafite-Rothschild is one of the Médoc's modern architectural wonders; and I've even had dinner here once.
Château Latour may have been making wine seriously for over 300 years old but in order to maintain its position as a leading First Growth the current owner, French tycoon François Pinault has made significant investment since he bought the estate in 1993. Latour was one of the first Bordeaux properties to adopt stainless steel tanks for vinifcation in the 1960s. As part of this new investment the vat room was fully renovated in 2001. There are now 66 stainless steel vats of various sizes enabling each plot to be made into wine separately. They look positively space age, but in fact they copy the shape of the old wooden vats because some experts believe this helps with a gentler yet efficient extraction of color, tannin and flavor from the skins.
Ch. Pétrus is the wine that's got me half hysterical in the photograph on the right. No wonder I'm laughing. That's about $32,000 worth of wine I'm holding - an extremely rare 6-bottle jeroboam of one of the greatest Pétrus vintages - the 1990. I asked if I could have a taste. First, show me your money, said the owner of the shop in Bordeaux.
Tertre-Rôteboeuf is St-Emilion's most exceptional unclassified estate. The richly seductive, Merlot-based wines sell at the same price as the premiers Grands Crus Classés - and so they should. Here is the charming, philosophical François Mitjavile making a point about his delicious Tertre-Rôteboeuf which I may or may not understand. That's his tasting room, by the way, his kitchen.
Ch. Rieussec in Sauternes on a misty harvest morning with the sun just breaking through. This is just the sort of weather the sweet white wine producers of Sauternes and Barsac pray for in the weeks leading up to harvest. In September and October humid overnight and early morning fogs, helped by the cold waters of the little river Ciron that flows through the area, followed by long, hot sunny afternoons and evenings are crucial for the development of noble rot. This fungal spore, also known as Botrytis cinerea, penetrates the skins of the Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes and reduces the water content, thereby increasing the concentration of sugar, acidity, flavor and viscosity.
Only my friend, fine wine expert Michael Broadbent MW would have the slightest idea what these Margaux wines from the nineteenth century tasted like. Perhaps I'd best just gaze at them and imagine the pleasure without risking disappointment. 1848, now there's a vintage - it was the Year of Revolutions in Europe, but an outstanding vintage for red Bordeaux.