Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Discovering Bordeaux: Marvelous Margaux

Bordeaux is considered by wine experts to be the greatest wine region in the world (Burgundy and the Rhone Valley are my personal preferences). It is difficult, however, to argue with that lofty praise after tasting 50+ quality Bordeaux wines at yesterday's "Discovering Bordeaux," a trade tasting and seminar event sponsored by Robert Cavanaugh's Wine Adventure. When writing about wine, we should not assume the basics, as Robert Cavanaugh aptly stated. First, Bordeaux is a wine region, not a grape. The region is located in southwest France, near the Atlantic Ocean and spread along the Gironde River.

Jay Youmans, the only Master of Wine in the Washington, DC area (24 in the U.S) and owner of the Capital Wine School ( stated three primary reasons for Bordeaux's greatness. The first two are low alcohol (but rising) and high acidity which makes the wines wonderful partners with food. The third is their extraordinary ability to improve with age. No wine region in the world, particularly new world, can compare to Bordeaux's age worthiness. Grand Cru Burgundy and the Northern Rhone's Hermitage and Cote Rotie regions have rightful claims to excellent aging.

Now, here my thoughts and reflections from an afternoon of listening to Bordeaux experts and tasting the fine wines of the region.

To aid your understanding of Bordeaux, Youmans also offered a useful primer. To summarize briefly, Bordeaux is split by the Gironde River into the Right and Left Bank. The famous communes of Margaux, St. Julien, Paulliac and St. Estephe reside on the Left Bank (west of the river). Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominate grape variety because of the gravel composition of the landscape. The better drainage of the gravel allows the Cabernet Sauvignon to ripen earlier. Here the wines are blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and small amounts of Malbec and Petit Verdot. The Right Bank (east) includes the renowned Pomerol and St Emilon and other lesser known appellations. The Right Bank is primarily Merlot, which now accounts for more than 60% of all wine produced in Bordeaux. The high composition of clay in the soil which is cooler and retains water easily is more suitable to Merlot. Because of the lack of drainage, Cabernet Sauvignon has difficulty ripening in clay.

Now, there's much more to understanding Bordeaux such as the classification systems. Those discussions will be parked for future postings. For an in depth study, read The Complete Bordeaux, by Stephen Brook.

We need some wine ideas for the holidays.

From yesterday's tasting, the wines from Margaux were my personal favorites. Elyse Kudo, General Manger, Monument Fines Wines, offered a fantasy line-up. The 2006 Palmer Alter Ego, second wine of Chateau Palmer, typified the elegance and femininity of Margaux. The 2006 Chateau Malescot's silkiness and brightness could get my nod for best of the day (picking bests is a senseless exercise). My old friend Chateau D'Angulet illustrated the promise of the renowned 2005 vintage. The soft and integrated tannins framed the gorgeous fruit aromas. There was none of the drying coffee sensation on the palate that often comes from top youthful Bordeaux. Remember, this wine was from 2005, which is not known for its youthful drinkability. The 2006 Chateau Prieure-Lichine showed more richness, while retaining that Margaux elegance. Chateaux La Gurgue and Monbrison are worth a look. Simply, Margaux wines are made with food in mind.

The 2005 Phelan Segur showed surprising approachability for a St. Estephe, often burly when young. This a consistent chateau worth looking at every year. Youmans remarked that wines from St. Estephe are good value compared to the complete lack of value in Paulliac, St. Julien and Margaux. More Merlot is being added to the blends to improve approachability in their youth. St. Estephe is worth exploring.

Maisons Marques & Domaines presented a steller group led by the wines of former Decanter "Person of the Year and owner of Chateau Petrus, Christian Mouiex. From 2006, his Chateau Magdelaine, St. Emillion, (Premier Grand Cru Classe) and Pomerol properties Chateau Certan-Marzelle (Pomerol) and Lafleur-Gazin showcase Mouiex's distinct style which is the antithesis of the modern, international style of big, blockbuster fruit. These highly structured wines require patience, but worth the wait. Another St. Estephe, Chateau de Pez, is recommended.

Here are some other noteworthy wines that merit your consideration: Chateau Loudene (Medoc); Chateau Fleur de Rigaud (Bordeaux Superieur); Chateau Rilet Rouge (Fronsac), Chateau St. Andre Corbin, St. Andre Corbin, St. Georges St. Emilion; Chateau Larose de Gruard, St. Julien (formerly Sarget de Gruard-Larose and second wine of Chateau Guard-Larose); Chateau d'Aggassac (Haut Medoc); and Chateau Pibran (Paulliac).

Here are some other regions worth exploring. Pessac-Leognan in the Graves has to be at the top of the list. Also, venture into some smaller or lesser known appellations such as Haut Medoc, Listrac, Moulis, and Fronsac where good value can be found.

For most of us, it is impractical to attempt mastering a large region such as Bordeaux. The good news is that we do not have to. The fun is always in the adventure.

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