One reason people love to play golf, I am told, is that you can never play a perfect game, and there is always opportunity to learn something new and to improve. The same can be said about learning about wine. Even master Sommeliers, have to learn about new vintages and varietals, and for most of us, there is something to learn about nearly every bottle that we open. This is one reason why I like to attend classes and wine tastings both virtual and in-person. But the ones that we participate in that are in person are the most intriguing as you get to meet and taste wine with both experts and often, those from the trade as well as novices and other members of the press.
The Advice Sisters were given just such an opportunity in September with an invitation to a Bordeaux Master Class at New York City’s Corkbuzz Wine Studio (13 East 13th street in NYC). Corkbuzz is a very interesting venue. It is more than just a restaurant and bar, but also a venue for wine dinners, classes and events like this one sponsored by Counseil Interprofessional Du Vin De Bordeaux (the Bordeaux Wine Council).
The class was led by Wendy Narby. who has spent a couple of decades in the French Food and Wine Industry. She now lectures on behalf of the Bordeaux Wine School (Ecole du Vin de Bordeaux) and she is a treasure-trove of knowledge about the subject. She provided a history of the region along with a detailed description of the terroir and the grape varietals. Bordeaux is one of the oldest and most famous wine regions of France, and is home to some of the most dominant varietals in wine making world wide. The classic three four red varietals, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, are joined by the Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle white varietals to generate over 700 million bottles of wine every year.
For those interested in farm to table cooking, or in craft produced foods, Bordeaux is a good choice. There are over 7,800 farm winegrowers and most of the 7,300 vintners in the region are quite small. Most Bordeaux producers produce blended wines, using all of the available varietals in some mixture. This is because the weather in the region is very volatile, and the best grapes each year may be from different varietals or different vineyards, and vines are generally replaced every 60 years or so. This means that Bordeaux wines are all about style and vintage, and less about varietal and place.
As we have said before, the different tastes (and for that matter smells) in wine come from the types of grapes used, the process by which the wine is made, the weather during a particular year, and the location where the grapes are grown. Each of these elements will bring special characters to the wine. In Bordeaux, the different grape varietals predominate in different regions (what the French call AOCs) and the style of each region differs due to the soil types, the micro-climate and the history. Each Chateau generally produces a first wine (generally under the house label) using the best and most concentrated grapes, and then a second or even third wine under a different name using the remainder. The first wine’s can be quite expensive and many from the most prestigious houses are sold at auction to collectors mainly in Britain and China but also to collectors throughout the world.
Interestingly, as we learned in the class, the traditional classification methods for Bordeaux are historical with some dating back to 1855, and some of these very pricy wines from very pricy chateaus may be no better today than the plonk produced by a neighboring estate. In other words, just because 1946 Petrus was spectacular does not mean that 2014 will be wonderful. In general, wines from a particular region tend to have the characteristics of that region and the style of wine that is generally produced there.
Another interesting thing about Bordeaux wines is that, while they are generally thought of as tannic wines that need to age forever before they can be consumed, this is not really the case. In fact, about 70 percent of the grapes used in red Bordeaux wines are Merlot, and only about 20 percent are the tannic Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot varietals. This means that most of these wines can be consumed young, and while aging can improve them somewhat, there is generally no need to cellar these wines for more than 3 or 4 years.
The other thing that I learned was that Bordeaux produces some really lovely white and desert wines. In the tasting that was part of the class, we sampled three whites, and two desert wines along with 6 of the more famous reds.
Alas, the class was so full of information, it ran longer than the allotted time, and some of the pourings become a bit confused, so I am not certain that my notes follow along properly after about the 6th wine, so the review below is more general in nature. In the case of these wines, where the labeling is complex and there is a lot of variability from year to year even for the same house or the same region it is always best to sample prior to purchase if at all possible, particularly because these wines tend to be pricier that similar varietals (or blends) from other parts of the world.
The three whites that we sampled were all excellent and were all based on the Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle varietals. The first, was Chateau Sainte-Marie Vieilles Vignes (2013) from Entre-Deux-Mers (the region between the three rivers that make up Bordeaux). Priced at just $165 a bottle the wine had white flowers, pineapple and lychee on the nose, and had a palate similar to a fresh apple, right off the tree. There was good acid and some citrus on the finish, and the wine had a think buttery mouth feel.
This was followed by a wine from Graves on the western shore of the river valley. Chateaus Auney L’Hermatage (2012) was clear yellow in color with a rubbery nose with some strawberry in the back. The wine was way too oaky for my personal taste, but if you like California Chardonnays this would be a good crisper alternative. *Editor’s Note: I liked it, but then again, I like oaked wines as long as they are not overpoweringly so. This wine was pleasing to me, which just goes to show that there is something for everyone’s taste.
Finally we tried Chateau Carbinnieux (2012) from the recently established Pessac-Leognan appellation. This is an old family owned vineyard that is classified for both its red and its white (though remember classification matters less than vintage). At $50 a bottle the wine is pricy, but it is extremely well made. The nose is floral with perfume notes of Oud. On the palate, the oak is there, but it is not overwhelming and there is great minearality and citrus. The wine is crisp, clean and well balanced.
On the reds, we began with an inexpensive 2010 from Chateaux de Brague. The wine is labeled as Bordeaux Superior which means that the grapes come from lower-yielding areas (and are therefore more concentrated) and the wine is aged for a minimum of 9 months. Light ruby in color the nose was filled with strawberry, plumb and dark fruits, and the wine itself was very fruit forward with plumb and cherry. Interestingly, while the wine is 70 percent merlot, it was quite tannic and could use some time in the bottle.
We followed this with Chateau La Peyre (2011) from Haut-Medoc, and Chateau Gombaude-Guillot (2006) from Pomerol. Priced at $26 and $39 respectively, both of these wines showed exactly how younger wines (though 2006 is well aged) can bring. With fruity noses featuring cherry, and strong blueberry on the La Peyre and pumpkin pie spice on the Pomerol, both wines had soft tannins and good structure. They were both fruit forward with a lot of cherry and a good sweetness. Both are ready to drink today, as were most of the other reds that we tasted. Unfortunately, at this point the pouring stopped matching the class so I am a bit uncertain of my notes.
The class finished with two desert wines. At the end of the season some of the Semillon grapes are allowed to decay in the field. They grow a mold known as noble rot, that gives then a spicyness forh on the nose and the palate. While I am not a fan of desert wines, the Chateau La Rame (2005) and the Cru D’Arche-Pugneau (2011) both priced at about $60 for a full 750ml bottle are good buys. Editor’s Note: *desert wines are really sweet, but they should be served cold, and enjoyed “as-is.” They make an exciting and elegant end to a dinner party.
There is a lot to learn about wine, and from this class I came away with a different view of Bordeaux, particularly the reds. Rather than looking for expensive first wines from classified houses that need to sit for decades, consumers should learn about regions and pick less expensive second or third wines from a range of houses and vintages. These wines can age but may not need to and can provide some excellent pairings for meats and vegetables. And don’t forget Bordeaux’s white wines, which can provide good alternatives to chardonnay, particularly when a more acidic and minerally wine is called for. Editor’s Note: If there’s one thing I took away from this class, it’s that there are affordable Bordeaux wines both white and red and while it might seem daunting to select wines from the region, you can hone in on what you like and then find that the next year, there’s something else to love. And, also, many of the wine makers are starting to make more user-friendly, drink-them-now wines that everyone can understand and enjoy, even if they don’t have a wine cellar. The challenge is to find the ones that suit your particulate taste and budget. But isn’t that what makes wine tasting, exciting, anyway?
Learn more about the region, its wineries and other attractions on the Bordeaux Wine Council Website: – visit Sopexa USA m the Bordeaux Wine Council, and look for a tasting at your favorite wine store.
The Advice Sisters want to thank our “wine columnist,” John Dunham, for this report.
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