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Bordeaux's Finest

There Has Never Been a Better Time To Buy, Enjoy and Cellar Wines from France's Premier Red Wine Region
Posted: December 1, 1996

My tongue feels like old cotton balls. My teeth are stained black from the wine's deep purple essence. My senses are slightly numbed by a day-long assault of alcohol and young tannins--for the third day in a row. And there's another round tomorrow, with dozens of additional wines to be tasted.

Tasting raw, red Bordeaux from the barrel is definitely not the same as leisurely sipping your favorite silky Cabernet from a well-aged bottle. The concentration of alcohol, fruit, tannins and acidity in young red wines can be almost overwhelming. By day's end, you start to feel like you've done a few rounds with Mike Tyson. Yet, since 1983, I have spent two to three weeks a year evaluating the latest crop of red wines from Bordeaux's finest chateaus for Wine Spectator magazine.

Despite the difficulties, it has never been a better time to taste Bordeaux's finest red wines. In the past 15 years, France's premier wine region has experienced no fewer than six outstanding to classic vintages--an unprecedented run of excellence in this century. Not since the 1860s and '70s has Mother Nature lavished the area with such terrific weather, fabulous grapes and superlative wines. The result has been amazing quality in the vintages of the 1980s, which people have realized only after four mediocre to good vintages in the '90s. Vintages such as 1982, 1986, 1989 and 1990 are already considered classics and are becoming harder to find and more expensive to buy. The message is straightforward--don't delay. If you have ever thought of buying great Bordeaux, now is the time.

It may sound simplistic, but buying the best is the only strategy to take, especially in selecting young reds for cellaring, but even if you're looking for everyday wines. There's a good reason: Most wines from the Bordeaux region are eminently forgettable. No fewer than 15,000 growers harvest grapes each year from more than 250,000 acres of vineyards. Bordeaux's massive annual production exceeds 50 million cases in just about every color and type. Most are simple reds, made primarily from Merlot, and bottled by large merchants or small wineries. These bread-and-butter Bordeaux are sold mostly in France and seldom appear abroad.

The best chateaus, however, are to Bordeaux what Partagas, Hoyo de Monterrey and Cohiba are to Havana. These top-flight wineries offer the finest wines money can buy, producing a level of quality and pleasure unmatched by just about any other wine in the world. Some enthusiasts might turn their noses up at the thought of focusing only on a few of the top chateaus and forgetting the rest. But Bordeaux is enormous. Struggling through even the basic definitions of regions, subregions and grape varieties can be confusing at best. In addition, the traditional rules and classifications are widely regarded as outdated, and should be used only as signposts, not buying guides etched in stone.

The traditional approach to understanding Bordeaux begins with the area's geography. It goes something like this: Bordeaux is broken down into many appellations, or districts. The best wines are confined to nine districts: Haut-Médoc, Médoc, St.-Estèphe, Pauillac, St.-Julien, Margaux, Pessac-Léognan, St.-Emilion, and Pomerol. Many of the other regions produce undistinguished wines and go by virtually unknown names like Blaye, Graves de Vayres or Puisseguin-St.-Emilion. They are probably best forgotten. Are you lost yet?

The struggle isn't over. Once you master the basic geography, you must also understand the style of wines produced in each district and by each chateau. For instance, Pomerol tends to produce softer wines than St.-Estèphe because it predominately uses Merlot for its wines; that tends to make them more accessible. In one very prominent region, Pauillac, the unpredictability of wine production is highlighted in the Pichon-Longueville wineries, which sit across the road from each other. Pichon-Longueville-Lalande usually makes more approachable reds than Pichon-Longueville-Baron, because the Lalande estate uses a higher percentage of Merlot in the predominantly Cabernet wine. Are you thoroughly lost now?

Further complicating matters is the reliance some Bordeaux aficionados place on the legendary 1855 Classification. That ranking 140 years ago placed 61 of the region's top chateaus from first growth to fifth growth, according to the prices they fetched in the marketplace at the time. Granted, price does sometimes have a relationship to quality, but not always. Since the evaluation was based on the wine-making skills and savvy business practices of men and women six to seven generations ago, how relevant can it be? Get the idea? The classification can be as misleading as Hollywood's promotion of a blockbuster movie.

However, there's no point in getting hung up on the minutia of classifications, varietal blends and vintage ratings. It is interesting for the devoted Bordeaux wine lover, but you don't need it at your fingertips to buy great Bordeaux. The reason is simple. The top red wine estates in Bordeaux have gone through an unprecedented renaissance in the past 10 years. Many wine makers have studied updated production techniques and traveled the world to observe other great wine making, so they now possess the technology and methodology of all the best wine regions. The updated methods have improved the wines. As a result, many of the long-established rules for buying Bordeaux have been further compromised by the inability of the market to keep up with the changes.

For instance, anyone who buys Bordeaux reds only according to the 1855 Classification would be missing out on some of the greatest wines of the region, particularly the chateaus of Pomerol, including Pétrus, Lafleur, Le Pin, and La Fleur de Gay. They were excluded from that rating. Another example of the classification's shortcomings is Lynch-Bages. It is clearly one of the top 10 wineries in Bordeaux, yet it remains a fifth growth in the 1855 Classification behind dozens of others making inferior wines.

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