By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
They are the most prized and highly coveted wines in the world, and with good reason.
Bordeaux wines, produced in the southwestern corner of France, are renowned for their tangy fruitiness, elegant balance and gracefulness in aging, traits that have made them the international gold standard for vintner excellence.
Divided into five main sections, Bordeaux (the name is derived from “au bord de l’eau,” which translates to “along the waters”) is, in fact, the largest Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée in France, with more than 100,000 hectares under vine, producing nearly 670 million bottles of red, white and rosé each year, making it the world’s largest vineyard of quality wines.
The extraordinary success of Bordeaux wines is due in large part to the region’s vast variety of climates, soil types and varietals that allow a plethora of different blends and flavors.
Although today Bordeaux is primarily known for its reds – which now make up more than 90 percent of the region’s total production – the first grape variety planted in the region, back in 1736, was Sauvignon Blanc, and up until the late 19th century, it produced far more white than red.
Even today, Bordeaux is still famous for its golden sweet Sauternes, which were the vins de choix for the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte and Thomas Jefferson.
What is important to remember about Bordeaux wines is that, red or white, they are almost all blended or Meritage wines.
In total, there are only 10 grape varieties that can be used for the production of Bordeaux wine, six for reds and four for whites.
In the case of red Bordeaux wines, the blend is usually composed of a mixture of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, often with an additional splash of Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and sometimes even Carménère grapes.
White Bordeaux blends are generally made up of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, sometimes with a hint of Muscadelle.
The purpose of the blending is to be able to create the ultimate equilibrium of elegance, tannins, flavor, complexity and texture, and each estate and winery has its own specific recipe as to how the different varietals should be blended (and that formula can change year-by-year, depending on the particular outcome of the vineyards due to weather and other factors).
Back in the mid-19th century, when the vintners of Bordeaux had already decided that their wines were the best in the world, Emperor Napoleon requested that they establish a classification system to rank the quality of each blend based on its respective château’s reputation and trading price so that they could be better appreciated during the 1855 Exposition Universelle de Paris.
The result of that (somewhat biased) division was the now-famous Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855, and its First to Fifth Growths.
The exclusive First Growth wine list developed in 1855 has basically remained unchanged to this day, although after much lobbying, the prestigious Chateau Mouton Rothschild estate successfully managed to wield its way onto the list in 1973.
Notwithstanding, many of the Bordeaux wineries that did not make the cut to First Growth category 163 years ago are as fine in quality and taste as the pricey elite château favorites that did. (Besides, a lot can change in the course of 16 and a half decades.)
The wines from the Médoc section of Bordeaux, on the so-called Left Bank of the region (because it lies on the left bank of the Gironde Estuary), tend to be almost exclusively red, and are known for their intense full-bodied flavors with high tannins, low acidity and medium to high alcohol levels.
Composed predominantly of Cabernet Sauvignon, these wines usually have rich bouquets and fruity flavors of cassis, blackberry, black cherry and spice.
The area known as the Graves (referring to the gravelly texture of the soil), which is also on the Left Bank of Bordeaux, are more granite-like in flavor, with an intermingling of tobacco, dark fruits, cassis, leather and truffles encased in textures of silk and velvet.
Graves wines can stand the test of time, improving with age.
As in the case of Médocs, Cabernet Sauvignon is the predominant grape in Graves wines, but with a greater proportion of Merlot and smaller amounts of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec.
This is also the Bordeaux sub-region where the sweet Sauternes are produced.
Bordeaux’s Right Bank area – composed of the Libournais, Bourg and Blaye – also blends its wines from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but unlike their esteemed Left Bank counterparts, the focus in these vintages is more on the Merlot side, which means they are generally more restrained in the tannin department with bursts of red fruits and soft, easy finishes.
Almost all of Bordeaux’s First Growth wines come from the Left Bank area.
But regardless of what sub-region of Bordeaux a wine may be produced in, the one certainty you can have is that a “fait en Bordeaux” label is a pretty sure bet that you are going to be getting a superb blend of vintage grapes.
And it was with that fact in mind that on Tuesday, Oct. 30, Mexico City’s Presidente InterContinental Hotel presented a one-day-only exhibition and tasting of 12 of the region’s most distinguished Grands Crus Classés (the wines that somehow managed to get on that 1855 list) inside its Café Urbano restaurant.
The event at the Presidente InterContinental (which just happens to have the largest and most extensive wine cellar in all of Latin America) was part of a weeklong Latin American Bordeaux Rendez-vous tour by French wine merchants Barrière Freres that included Mexico City, Monterrey, Cancun, Cozumel and Lima, and each of the labels showcased was presented personally by a member of the respective estate’s family or their representative.
Leading of the presentation and tasting were the wines of Château Lafon-Rochet, represented by Lucas Leclercq, the estate’s technical director, with an offering of 2014 Saint Estèphe, a highly concentrated Left Bank Fourth Growth blend of 57 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 37 percent Merlot, 4 percent Petit Verdot and 2 percent Cabernet Franc.
Heavy on body, this wine had a distinctive red berry flavor with a suggestion of cocoa and a subtle balance of oak.
The second winery presented was Château d’Armailhac, fronted by Florent Fresse, export head for the Baron Philippe de Rothschild group of Grands Crus Classés , including Château Mouton Rothschild, Château Clerc Milon, Château d’Armailhac and Domaine de Baronarques.
On behalf of the Château d’Armailhac, Fresse offered a 2014 Pauillac from the Haut-Médoc Left Bank, an extremely refined Cabernet-flushed blend made from some of the oldest vines in the region.
The wine was unusually earthy with an underling taste of clay and limestone mixed with lush red fruits and a spike of tobacco.
Fresse also represented the Château Clerc Milon, another Rothschild group estate, with a second 2014 Pauillac, an elegant, spicy, cedar-infused, ripe red fruit amalgam of 58 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 29 percent Merlot, 11 percent Cabernet Franc, 1 percent Petit Verdot and a surprising 1 percent old-vine Carménère that gave it a taste of raspberry jam and a bitter suggestion of kale.
Château Pédesclaux, also from the Pauillac region, was represented by Manon Lorenzetti, a member of the family that owns the estate.
She offered 2014 Fifth Growth Grand Cru Classé with a seductively woodsy aroma and a cedar and licorice palate embraced by ripe red cherries.
Wine Number Five was from the Château Beychevelle estate (now owned by Grands Millésimes de France), a stately 2014 Saint Julien presented by the winery’s managing director Philippe Blanc.
This Fourth Growth wine was a Left Bank wonder of sweet raisins, dark chocolate and kitchen herbs wrapped in a smoky jam of ripened blackberries.
Wine Six was another 2014 Saint Julien, this time from the Branaire-Ducru Château, presented by second-generation owner François-Xavier Maroteaux.
This well-structured and succulent brought forth hints of lavender and plums swathed in a spicy cloak of ripened berries.
Château Lascombes, represented by the estate’s public relations manager Karine Barbier, showcased a 2014 Margaux Grand Cru Classé.
This full-bodied Second Growth Haut-Médoc was truly exceptional, with a toasty oak nose and a black cherry and blueberry palate.
Wine Eight came from Margaux as well, from the D’Issan Château, repped by its head of exports, Agustin Lacaille.
This 2014 Third Growth Merlot-heavy garnet red from one of the most beautiful estates in all of Bordeaux was perhaps the most floral of the wines presented, although the ripe red fruits came through loud and clear, draped in silky tannins.
Jean-Antoine Nony, the third-generation owner of Château Grand Mayne, brought out a 2014 Saint Emilion that tasted of cherries and licorice and everything nice from a spicy cookie cabinet in your grandmother’s house.
This crimson-red, warming-but-light, Right Bank vin practically screamed to be served with gamey foods, where its multilayered flavors could be best accentuated.
Château Canon La Gaffelière, another Right Banker, was represented by owner Véronique Bonnie-Leplanne, whose parents Alfred-Alexandre and Michèle Bonnie purchased the estate 21 years ago.
She served a 2014 Comtes von Neipperg bursting with black fruits and a touch of fig that went down easily thanks to its subtle tannins and satiny texture.
The last two Grands Crus presented – a 2014 Pessac-Léognan from Château Malartic Lagravière and a sumptuous, amber-toned Sauterne from Château Guiraud – were presented by Magali Malet-Serres, communications and marketing manager for both estates.
Both wines were remarkable.
The Left Bank Pessac-Léognan was well-rounded with mocha and truffle undertones that seemed to become more intense with every sip.
As for the honeyed Sauterne, it was the epitome of an ideal dessert wine and the undeniable pinnacle of the 12-wine Grands Crus Classés tour.
It also was a rock-solid reminder of why Bordeaux, for all its fabulous red Meritages, should never stop producing whites.