Time was, the vignerons of Bordeaux thought that the wine world revolved around them. Is this where Planet Bordeaux is coming from?
Granted, they are in the market to push the Département Gironde, and their splashy and convivial website (planet-bordeaux.com) maintains that its raison d’être is to help American consumers ‘interact with the wines and lifestyle that ‘make Bordeaux the world’s wine capital’.
Is Bordeaux, in fact, the world’s wine capital? They certainly bear the weight of history along with the encumbrance of ego, but I can say that the title has been used at various times by Napa, Christchurch, Capetown, Florence and Mendoza.
So, just to make sure we are all singing from the same hymnal, let’s run down the pros and cons of Bordeaux:
- Bordeaux is France’s largest fine wine region in both production and vineyard acreage.
- Bordeaux has more than 9,000 wine producers, 60% of whom make the wine on their own premises.
- Bordeaux wine has been produced in the region since the 8th century and today, the wine economy is worth 14.5 billion euros every year.
- Unlike Burgundy, the name ‘Bordeaux’ will never be associated with strippers, wallpaper color or cheap jug wine from the Central Valley.
- Bordeaux is literally overrun by French people.
Okay, so you decide. Moi, I will move on to a topic closer to my liver: Planet Bordeaux’s mission to promote the region via accessibly priced selections from Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supérieur.
Both of these appellations cover the same geographical area (all of Bordeaux) and differ only in the age of production vines and requisite aging time prior to release, which even for Supérieur is less than a year after harvest. Slightly less ‘base yield’ is permitted (50hl/ha compared to 55) at Supérieur harvest, and the wines themselves must have a minimum alcohol content of 10.5% (as opposed to 10% for basic Bordeaux Rouge). Otherwise, there is not a massive amount of difference between Supérieur and inférieur; neither provides massive flash or structure, but both should be fruity, approachably acidic and only superficially influenced by oak. They are not ageworthy, but should still possess true Bordeaux character—albeit in a Roloff-sized package. (What true Bordeaux character means is a topic for hours of debate, but essentially, you should expect an earthy wine with plum, blackberry, cedar and stone on the nose and palate.)
Approximately four times as much Bordeaux Rouge is made than Supérieur, and the total of both winds up as 55% of the entire output of Bordeaux—equating to a worldwide consumption rate of (this is not a typo) fourteen bottles per second.
Four of those bottles recently went down my gullet thanks to the kind folks at Balzac Communications, who inexplicably continue to send me samples despite the fact that I make fun of their name every time they do. (I did promise to stop once I hit puberty).
Anyway, these wines, ranging in price from $10 to $14, have a combined value of $47, and it begs the question: If Planet Bordeaux’s mission is to showcase the terroir of Bordeaux, thus gaining converts from around the world, would they be better off suggesting a single, excellent wine for $47 (for example, Château Beau-Séjour Bécot, Saint-Émilion 2008, rated 90 + by each of the ‘big three’, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Wine Advocate) rather than four middle-road, somewhat homogeneous value wines?
Maybe not. One thing you would not gain from traveling the former route is an understanding of how vital vintage is in Bordeaux. The four bottles I sampled came from three different harvests: 2007, 2008 and 2009; all were drastically different:
2007 was a dull, drizzly season in Bordeaux, with a condition known as ‘shatter’ or coulure affecting the flowering. Spring was followed by an equally dismal summer, and a rainy August so affected futures that many high-ticket speculators didn’t even bother to attend the en primeur barrel tastings. Top estates produced fair, early-drinking wines without a lot of ‘wow, but the broader AOCs were thin, green and herbaceous—likely the worst vintage since ’98.
2008 started off on a downhill note; like ’07, the Spring was cool and damp, but in July, it brightened up considerably. More rain in August had vintners holding their breaths, then sniffing for mildew, but the vintage was saved by a prolonged heat wave in September. The wines, for the most part, wound up ripe, perfumed and complex.
Initially, 2009 was almost universally considered to be a stellar vintage; possibly the best in decades. Prices rose accordingly. Not all are aging quite as predicted, but clearly, this would be a vintage with which to stock up if you could afford to. The best, from top estates, were beautifully balanced and integrated with tannin, fruit and acidity; the worst were a bit dilute, but still lovely.
Château Majoureau Hyppos, Bordeaux Supérieur Rouge, 2008, about $10: At 14 bottles a second, the world would consume the entire output of this petit château within about twenty minutes. The hundred acres are planted to all the classic Bordeaux varietals, white and red. Hyppos is primarily merlot spiced up with 30% cab franc, the wine shows a bright, meaty side that’s touched with bell pepper, graphite, clay and tobacco leaf. You feed the hungry, hungry Hyppos and I’ll save this for the thirsty, thirsty ones.
Château de Lugagnac, Bordeaux Rouge, 2008, around $10: A beauteous bargain basement Bordeaux, structured and fleshy. Nose notes include with currant, plum and pipe tobacco; the tongue tang is ripe and fruity and the finish longer than you have any right to expect at the price point. The delight’s in the detail, of course— de Lugagnac sits on an ancient shelf of iron and chalk from which it picks up many subtle flavor nuances.
Maison Sichel Sirius, Bordeaux Supérieur Rouge, 2009, about $13: The forty fingerprints that are all over this luscious red belong to Allen, James, David and Benjamine, the Sichel brothers who produce it. Although their printed hype refers to its namesake, Sirius, as ‘the brightest star in the solar system’, I will leave it to you poindexter types to explain to the brothers what’s wrong with that picture—me, I’ll sit down to another glass of this impressively endowed, concentrated wine, whose terroir—centered on the clay-limestone soils of the Garonne river bank—lend notes of smoke, cassis, mocha and slate. Still a bit closed, but drinkable.
Château d’Argadens, Bordeaux Supérieur Rouge, 2007, around $14: The priciest wine of the quartet comes from the most challenged vintage; perhaps due to the Sichel name associated with it. In fact, the property fared better than most of its brethren as it sits upon one of the highest hills in the Entre-Deux-Mers between the Garonne and Dordogne, and the soils are well-drained and nicely exposed to the sun. The fruit has begun to fade already; what’s left is black cherry and cranberry; it’s been replaced with leather and light hints of chocolate and coffee. Since ‘drink yesterday’ doesn’t fly in this particular continuum, let’s call it a ‘tonighter’.