There's no finer place to learn the finer points of wine tasting, writes STEPHEN SCOURFIELD
Bordeaux is the world’s most popular wine growing region — the wine capital of the world. About 6000 chateaux produce 9000 different wines.
And more than four million people a year tour the region, sniffing, sipping and enjoying the vintages and the French terroir.
TERRORS OF TERROIR
This word is the place to start on our own little journey, in this story.
For appreciating “terroir” is fundamental to appreciating all that Bordeaux, in the south west of France, has to offer.
Terroir blends the geographic and the cultural — it is not just a description of the landscape, but all it means.
Geographical, terroir covers geology, hydrology, soil and climate characteristics.
Culturally, it reflects the human societies working on that land. It is true that different societies in the same region change the terroir.
Bordeaux has the Pyrenees to the south-east, feeding silty rivers that stream, caramel coloured down the Gironde estuary into the Atlantic to the west. Just after Bordeaux, the Garonne empties into the Gironde, which is also fed by the Dordogne. The Gironde then flows towards the ocean.
Wines from the two sides of the river are distinctly different. Left Bank wines are dominated by cabernet sauvignon, while on the Right Bank, the vineyards of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol have more merlot.
The rivers are turbid and it is calculated that between two and eight million tonnes of particles can be on the move, suspended in the water, at any one time.
The Garonne flows strongly — both in and out. There’s often a 4m tide at Bordeaux.
Add to this a glacial history, which has left stones which scatter some slopes, holding heat and keeping the vines warmer longer at night, and gravel rises and sand and clay, and then the French aptitude for politics and complexity, and we’re starting to see terroir in all its intricacies.
GRAPES & WRATH
It’s a tough place to be a grape. Late in the season, bunches of grapes will be snipped off by hand, to leave maybe only the two or three best on a plant. Individual grape plants maybe each giving just one glass of wine.
Bordeaux chateaux are legally limited to producing a maximum of 6000 bottles per hectare of vines. This helps to protect complex, high-quality wines.
The Romans introduced grapes to the region about the middle of the 1st century and vines have been cultivated here since at least the 4th century. Fourteen varieties are permissible in the Bordeaux AOC and irrigation of mature plants is not allowed.
MATTERS OF TASTE
Bordeaux reds are medium-to-full bodied, with the fruity aromas of blackcurrant and plums and earthy notes from pencil lead to wet gravel.
Sommeliers guide us through the minerals and burst of fruit notes and into savoury, dry tannins.
I’ve just been to a lot of chateaux and spent a lot of time with sommeliers. From all they’ve said this is their compiled guide to tasting:
First look — not holding the glass up to the light, but over a piece of paper, under a direct overhead light. A red flame is cast on the paper, and sommeliers can read this flame. A good Bordeaux sommelier will tell the age, the type, the region. The older the wine, the less red and more amber this can become.
Swirl (or not)
Then, if it is a young wine, swirl it aggressively in the glass to wake it up. “It’s been stationary in a bottle for years” exclaims one sommelier. “But do not swirl my aged wine. You will kill it. Shatter the struct-ure!” (And, yes, it needs the hyphen as the last three words are best spoken loudly and with indignation in a strident French accent, with one arm then thrust in the air, alors!)
Swirling the wine pumps oxygen through it and releases the aromas and flavours. Sniff before and sniff after, and you are pretty well sure to experience the significant difference. This is my favourite part. “Don’t be shy!” instructs one sommelier. “Stick your snout right in the glass — inhale it all!” Not only does the use of the word “snout” seem appropriate in this area famous for its truffles, snouted out by scent, but of Gerard Depardieu, who’s had quite a stake in Bordeaux chateaux and who recently starred in the French wine film Decanter.
Now wake the mouth up with a first small sip. But don’t expect much from it. The mouth has to wake up, too. Take just a little and “chew it around like chewing gum”, I’m advised at one chateaux. “You can spit!” The next big sip is the one that should reveal all the wine has to offer, in the mouth and afterwards. Good wines last in the mouth and have resonance.
“And you can spit!” another Bordeaux sommelier tells me. She rubs her throat: “I am interesting in the mouth — not what it does down here. Not in the alcohol.”
In 1855 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, Emperor Napoleon III asked the wine regions of France to establish classification systems. The Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce and Industry, founded in 1705, undertook the task — their “crus classes”, or “classified growths”, defines the characteristics of an exceptional terroir, and an exceptional winemakers’ touch.
The classifiers included only red wines from the Medoc, the Sauternes and Barsac sweet white wines, and one Graves red cru.
Sixty one chateaux were given the top ranking for reds — and the assessment was so accurate that only one has been added since, in 1973. So what we see today not only has its roots in 1855, but is also the result of Bordeaux being the biggest AOC wine area in France — the “Appellation D’origine Controlee”, or “protected designation of origin”.
BORDEAUX’S BIG GLASS
The dramatic new La Cite du Vin wine museum stands like a table setting beside the Garonne. It’s a good place to put in a foundation of understanding about the vineyards and wines of Bordeaux, but also the city and it’s the history and architecture that have earned it UNESCO World Heritage listing.
laciteduvin.com (and click Menu and EN for English)
GREAT ROOTS (& routes)
I am on Uniworld’s eight day Brilliant Bordeaux itinerary on SS Bon Voyage, which takes us to lots of chateaux and tastings. And with every meal, all inclusive, we are consistently served good Bordeaux wines.
But you can coach tour, cycle or drive Bordeaux, too.And the last is an attractive option, as this is pretty easy driving and navigation. Drive routes are numerous, covering the entire region, from Bordeaux city to Medoc, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gironde estuary, along the right bank of the Gironde estuary, to the right bank of the Dordogne and Saint-Emilion. The biggest winemaking region of Bordeaux is Entre-deux-Mers, and in Graves and Sauternes, the river Garonne is the guide.
Aux Quatre Coins du Vin (8 Ru de la Devise) has an Enomatic tasting machine which dispense about 40 wines — one of the biggest wine selections in Bordeaux, and one of the easiest ways to try them.
- Join the West Travel Club team for the French & Fantastique lunch at Perth’s best French restaurant, Bistro Guillaume Perth, at Crown Perth, on Sunday, September 15. For details on how to be part of this exciting event, see here.
- Uniworld’s eight-day Brilliant Bordeaux river cruise includes visits to chateaux, wine tastings and good Bordeaux wines on board. uniworld.com and travel agents