Mad About Bordeaux

The largest and perhaps greatest of French wine regions is also—according to wine critic Jancis Robinson, at least—the most exasperating. Here's why.

For 27 years I have been roaming the wine world looking for adventure—in the vineyard, cellar, and glass. The region responsible for most of the greatest wines I've ever tasted is an unremarkable sweep of flat countryside around the southwestern French city of Bordeaux. I have a love-hate relationship with it.

What I love is wines like one particular magnum of Château Cheval Blanc 1947 containing an essence of deep red velvet so nuanced, so complex and delicious, that I could have buried my nose in it for a week. Or Château Lafite 1959, a wine in its 50s that is still almost kittenish in how it plays with the palate, spreading warm, ripe flavors generously, languorously across it while keeping Lafite's trademark sprightly, dancing flirtatiousness in reserve. Unlike red Burgundies, for example, which are made exclusively from Pinot Noir grapes, red Bordeaux are varying blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, with sometimes a grace note of Petit Verdot. But don't try discussing grape varieties with the Bordelais. What they're interested in is the overall effect.

Then there are the great sweet white wines of Bordeaux, Sauternes and Barsac. These are made from Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes so shriveled by the mold botrytis—the so-called noble rot—that their sugars, acids, and everything else are concentrated enough to yield wines that last for decades and even centuries while most Chardonnays are lucky to see out their third or fourth summer in bottle. The greatest of all the white Bordeaux, Château d'Yquem, can outlast even the finest reds. I once attended a tasting where I couldn't decide which was the greater Yquem, a delicate 1847 like the most delicious raspberry crème brûlée ever made or an incredibly concentrated, vibrant 1811. No other region on earth makes so much great wine, destined to live increasingly gracefully for so long.

What I hate about Bordeaux: the social structure, the increasingly intricate knots the region's wine business is tying itself into, and a strange new style of red wine that is being made there.

Bordeaux, with at least 57 appellations, 7,200 winemakers, and 12,000 grower/producers, is the largest fine-wine region in the world. Its heartland is the Médoc, a tongue of gravelly soil that curls up the left bank of the Gironde estuary from just north of the city of Bordeaux toward the Atlantic Ocean. It was here that the great wine estates arose after a Dutch-engineered system of drainage ditches in the 17th century made viticulture possible on what had been marshland. In the mid-19th century, thanks to a heyday not rivaled until the 1980s, fantastic buildings so grand that they could only be called châteaux were built to bear witness to the lucrative vineyards around them. Today you can drive up the Médoc on the D2, a backroad that winds north through the settlements of Margaux, St.-Julien, Pauillac, and St.-Estèphe, and marvel at a succession of gray stone edifices adorned with turrets, balustrades, and witch's-hat roofs that could have provided the inspiration for Disneyland.

The great majority of these châteaux stand empty most of the year. Though debonair Anthony Barton, producer of Château Léoville-Barton, does make his principal home at Château Langoa Barton, just south of the village of St.-Julien, other Médocain owners are much more likely to live in the city of Bordeaux or Paris or Switzerland than in the viticultural backwater of the Médoc, no matter how much has been spent on formal gardens, statuary, gilded furnishings, and marble tasting rooms in their châteaux. Many of the most famous estates aren't owned by individuals at all anymore but by banks and insurance companies. Whatever the case, all the châteaux come to life when the region is in entertaining mode: at harvest time, in September; for the May or June Fête de la Fleur, a gala event celebrating the flowering of the vines; and during the all-important period in late March/early April when the Bordelais present the new vintage, then just six months old and still in barrel, to the world's wine trade and commentators.

Commerce has long ruled Bordeaux, an essentially mercantile city since the Middle Ages. All sorts of numbers therefore govern the region's wines, the first significant one being 1855. That was the year when Napoleon III held his great Universal Exhibition in Paris. For the occasion, wine brokers were asked to come up with a ranking of the region's most important wines, classifying the reds into five divisions, called the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth growths, or crus. (The whites were separately rated, with 26 châteaux classed.) This they did on the basis of prices fetched over the past century for the most prominent 61 châteaux of the day; all were from the Médoc except for Château Haut-Brion, on the outskirts of the city in the Graves subregion. Internationally esteemed since the 16th century, Haut-Brion was ranked as one of only four first growths, alongside Châteaux Margaux, Latour, and Lafite.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing is how seriously the 1855 classification is still taken today, especially considering that during the intervening century and a half all manner of real-estate transactions have taken place, so that remarkably few properties take their grapes from exactly the same tracts of land they used in the mid-19th century. And although reputations come and go according to new regimes at the helm or new policies, there's been but one official change to the classification: the promotion of Château Mouton-Rothschild from second to first growth in 1973, thanks to intense lobbying by the talented arch-publicist Baron Philippe de Rothschild. He died in 1987, safe in the knowledge that he'd achieved his life's ambition: to see Mouton raised to the status of his cousin's property next door, Château Lafite.

Bordeaux—and particularly the Médoc—has to be the world's most stratified fine- wine region. About a quarter of the Médoc vineyards that stretch almost to the sea from the dense pine forests to the south form part of a cru classé—a classified growth, according to the 1855 rankings—and between these ranks there are very real social and financial distinctions. I have heard tales of a second-growth proprietor's being snubbed by the owner of a first-growth property, and petty rivalries even among châteaux within the same cru have long been bedrocks of local gossip. And while its aristocrats inhabit (however temporarily) the grand châteaux, Bordeaux can boast none of Burgundy's hands-on paysans, who prune the vines and top up barrels by day but make such sought-after wine that they can afford to dine at Michelin-starred restaurants by night. Most of Bordeaux's winegrowers are, in fact, peasant farmers in such ill-favored and undercapitalized subregions that they have difficulty selling their wines at all.

Maintaining a first-growth reputation takes a great deal of money, but it is a vicious circle: Only if your wines command first-growth prices (typically twice as much as even second growths) can you afford expensive first-growth luxuries like a generous staff-per-acre ratio, routine culling of surplus or less-than-perfect grapes to concentrate the sugar and flavor in the rest, top-quality new barrels every year, the ability to eliminate less-than-perfect vats from the final blend, and so on. Nevertheless, there are lower-ranking Médoc properties whose wines rival the first growths in some vintages, such as Château Palmer (a third growth that may have been underranked in 1855 because it was then in receivership) and the so-called Super Seconds, premium second growths like Châteaux Pichon Lalande and Pichon-Longueville. Other second growths that have made glorious wines in recent years include Châteaux Cos d'Estournel (1982), Ducru-Beaucaillou (2001), Léoville-Barton (2000), and Montrose (1990).

Among the most important numbers in Bordeaux is price, the great barometer of success for a château owner. There's none of the laid-back openness of California vintners—only in the past few years have most châteaux actively welcomed visitors (by prior arrangement)—and it is impossible to simply roll up to a famous château and buy the wine direct, as one can do virtually everywhere else, even in France. Instead, it is sold through a complicated and dusty web of brokers and merchants here and abroad, each of whom takes a cut, so that a bottle can easily end up costing two to three times the château's opening price.

Until the early 1990s, prices pretty much followed the old rankings, with the first growths of the Médoc and Graves on the left bank of the Gironde being far more expensive than anything produced on the right bank, apart from a handful of top châteaux in the right bank's two most famous appellations, St.-Emilion and Pomerol. Even wines as celebrated as Châteaux Pétrus, Cheval Blanc, and Ausone were thought of as parvenus in some quarters not so long ago. Part of the initial problem for more traditional red Bordeaux drinkers was that Pomerols and St.-Emilions tend to be based on the fleshy, early-maturing Merlot grape, which ripens more reliably on the cooler soils of the right bank, rather than the more austere, late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, which only left-bank vineyards are warm enough to ripen. They were therefore generally ready to drink sooner and, with their ready sweetness, were thought of as being somehow less serious than a fine Médoc, which tended to need cellaring for at least a decade before being broachable.

In the past few years, all this has changed. First, Bordeaux producers have recognized that the world is in a hurry—few of us are prepared to tie up capital and store wine for years and years before it can be drunk. As a result, grapes throughout the subregions are likely to be picked much riper than they used to be, so that the wines themselves will taste much riper and softer sooner. Second, there has been a virtual revolution on the right bank, with some of Bordeaux's most expensive reds carrying on their labels the appellation St.-Emilion and château names that were unknown even in 1990.

Mirroring cult Cabernets like Screaming Eagle and Harlan that sell in tiny quantities for huge prices in California are Bordeaux such as Bellevue-Mondotte, La Clusière, Le Dôme, La Gomerie, Gracia, L'Hermitage, Magrez Fombrauge, La Mondotte, Péby-Faugères, Quinault L'Enclos, Rol Valentin, and Valandraud. The last of these can boast a history that dates all the way back to the 1991 vintage, when Jean-Luc Thunevin—the St.-Emilion wine merchant who founded Château de Valandraud two years earlier—set out to fashion a wine so deeply colored, intensely oaked, and richly sweet that it was bound to command attention.

The distinguishing mark of these vins de garage (so-called because most are produced in such small quantities that a domestic garage would be large enough to make them in) is that, unlike traditional red Bordeaux, which should uniquely express the specific characteristics of the vineyard that produces it—its terroir—they instead express the winemaker's ambition. Indeed, Valandraud is made from the fruits of at least three very disparate plots of land in some of St.-Emilion's less distinguished corners. Quinault L'Enclos was resurrected as recently as 1997 by the owner of Château La Croix de Gay, who has somehow managed to make a luxury product from a patch of sand (not the most propitious soil type for fine-wine production) in Libourne.

These wines owe much of their flavor to winemaking techniques deliberately adopted to garner a high score (the number crucial to commanding a high price) in the all-important en primeur tastings each spring, when the previous fall's vintage is presented to the trade and press in Bordeaux's version of a futures market. These wines tend to have the essential elements of a red Bordeaux (acid, alcohol, and potentially mouth-puckering tannins—the same sort of preservative found in brewed tea) concentrated to painful levels. They are deeply colored and handcrafted in heavily toasted barrels so as to have the sort of dramatic sweet mocha flavors that stand out in a row of glasses of young wines. More typical young red Bordeaux is paler and less alcoholic and therefore easier to overlook during the weeklong scrum, whose purpose is to persuade consumers, via the intermediary of experienced tasters, to pay up-front for these infant wines, which won't be bottled and delivered for two years.

Since the system began in the 1970s, no commentator has been more important in determining market prices than America's wine guru Robert M. Parker Jr. A score in the 90s (out of 100) in his Wine Advocate newsletter is what almost all Bordeaux proprietors crave; most of them, amazingly, have tended to wait for his numbers to be published before setting their release prices. As Jean Gauteau, owner of Château Sociando-Mallet, told the London Times this spring: "Wine merchants don't even bother to taste the wines anymore. They just wait for Parker to come out with his marks and follow his advice." Parker's enthusiasm for this new style of wine has been almost solely responsible for the success it has enjoyed.

There are signs, however, that the market for garage wines has peaked. Each new microchâteau is becoming harder and harder to sell. A number of early practitioners of the new style are reining back their more manipulative techniques in favor of making more digestible, harmonious wines further from the blockbusters that California and Australia can supply and closer to the Bordeaux archetype of a wine that expresses its terroir—a trend that is being mirrored all over the world.

Meanwhile, a solid core of wine producers in St.-Emilion and Pomerol has refused to be blown by the winds of fashion and has carried on making the same sort of wine, vintage in and vintage out. Christian Moueix, who is responsible for a vast stable of wines under the umbrella of his family firm, J.-P. Moueix—Châteaux Pétrus, La Fleur-Pétrus, Magdelaine, Hosanna, Trotanoy—is one example. Alexandre Thienpont of Vieux Château Certan is another, despite being a cousin of Jacques Thienpont, the mild-mannered Belgian who in the early 1980s inspired the likes of Thunevin by coaxing from a few acres of Pomerol Le Pin a wine so seductively rich that certain Asian buyers have boosted its price ahead of Pétrus'. A dozen bottles of the 1982 vintage famously sold at Sotheby's London just before the Asian crash of 1997 for more than $30,000. It's numbers like this that keep the machinery of Bordeaux's wine trade turning. But in the end, it's what's in the glass that counts.

Wines to Watch For


Between September 2003 and May 2004, the Bordeaux introduced at this April's tastings arrive at U.S. wine cellars, there to sit until they're ready to be fully appreciated, starting around 2010. (Sample futures prices at press time: $30 to $130 for first- and second-growth reds.) While the sweet whites from Sauternes and Barsac were exceptional, the reds generally paled into insignificance beside the more consistently superb 2000s. Still, some very good reds were made in 2001. A selection of wines from each region:
SAUTERNES/BARSAC Châteaux Climens, Suduiraut, Rieussec, Coutet, Guiraud, Lafaurie-Peyraguey • PESSAC-LEOGNAN Châteaux La Mission Haut-Brion, Haut-Brion • MARGAUX Châteaux Rauzan-Ségla, Margaux, Palmer • ST.-JULIEN Châteaux Ducru-Beaucaillou, Léoville-Las Cases, Léoville-Barton, Gruaud-Larose • PAUILLAC Châteaux Lafite, Latour, Mouton-Rothschild, Pichon Lalande • ST.-EMILION Châteaux Canon-La-Gaffelière, Tertre Roteboeuf • POMEROLLe Pin, Vieux Château Certan, Châteaux Pétrus, La Fleur-Pétrus, L'Eglise-Clinet, Trotanoy, Hosanna, Clos l'Eglise.


GOLD-STANDARD LABELS Châteaux Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion, Margaux, Latour, Lafite, Mouton-Rothschild, Pétrus,Cheval Blanc, Ausone (from '98), Le Pin.

BEST VALUES Châteaux Belgrave, Brane-Cantenac, Duhart-Milon, Talbot, all from 1998 on.

VINTAGES FOR YOUR CELLAR 2000, 1998 (right bank), 1996 (left bank).

VINTAGES TO DRINK NOW 1997, 1994, 1990, 1989, 1985, 1983, and the pricey (often overpriced) 1982.

ONES TO SELL THE FARM FOR Cheval Blanc or Latour 1990 ($600-$750), Lafite 1996 ($275-$500), and if you can find one: a 1961 La Mission Haut-Brion or Palmer ($1,400-$2,000), Pétrus ($5,000-$8,000), or Trotanoy ($1,700-$3,500). A good source for the rare vintages:

For more of Robinson's thoughts on wine, check out