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Hello, Bordeaux.
Hello, Bordeaux.
Alex Ulreich

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There’s More to Bordeaux Than Super Expensive Wine

Don’t overlook the small producers

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Enter the Bay of Biscay from the Atlantic Ocean, and France’s southwest coast stretches out in a straight line counterpart to the north’s jagged shore. The wide Dordogne estuary breaks this sensible coastline, running more than 50 miles inland before landing at the port city of Bordeaux, a commerce center of the world’s most money-minded fine-winemaking. This region’s best known wines are subtle yet awe-inducing, launched not by spiritual concerns of Roman Catholic monks in the way of places like Burgundy, but by merchants with eyes sharply trained on the marketplace. In Bordeaux, terroir has always included a feature most other wine areas do not: consumer trends, which are now quietly bringing a whole new Bordeaux to the foreground.

At their zenith, Bordeaux bottles are trophies, selling for hundreds to thousand of dollars at auction, often well in advance of being bottled, or en primeur—sometimes destined never to be opened. First growths, those elite wines from storied châteaux like Margaux, Lafite, and Latour, head Bordeaux’s classification system, which was created by brokers in 1855 for the Bordeaux Center of Commerce as a listing of the top selling wines, most likely in descending price order, and still firmly in place today, with barely perceptible changes. Almost 300 years later, critic Robert Parker’s first Wine Advocate newsletterfilled with detailed tasting notes on Bordeaux’s 1982 vintage, each wine crowned with a score between 80 and 100launched an American-led buying frenzy then new to a global market. All of a sudden, oenophiles were willing to pay investment-grade prices for wines molded to Parker’s love of "richer, more dramatic, fleshier" concentrated styles, per his description of 1980s vintages in Bordeaux: A Consumer's Guide to the World's Finest Wines.

Changing Tastes

But the world is a more crowded and better-connected place these days, and a shift in mass taste is underway. Between premium Bordeaux and a glut of unremarkable wine that has been scaled back in recent years lies a wealth of bottles that taste of that famous land, at completely affordable prices. "I think that it’s become, in some ways, a land of opportunity as wine is becoming more popular or more consumed, especially here in America," says Patrick Cappiello, wine director of New York City’s Rebelle restaurant. "For a long time, people were focused on a smaller bandwidth with Bordeaux, on the more prestigious ones that come from the Left Bank. I think we got distracted by other regions, and forgot to notice the other things happening there in Bordeaux. In our absence, things started to change."

A New Generation

That evolution is a purposeful one, headed by younger vignerons taking over their family business and by passionate young newcomers from Burgundy, the Loire Valley, and even the U.S. who are buying small pieces of land on the Right Bank and, in direct contrast to previous generations, working together. "Whereas the traditional view was, ‘my neighbor is my competitor,’ now there’s sharing information," explains Mary Gorman McAdams, the Bordeaux Wine Council’s market adviser to North America. These younger winemakers have traveled the world, culling winemaking experience from places like New Zealand and Australia, and returned home with the desire to use that knowledge to make better Bordeaux wines. Armed with today’s desire for sustainability; in dialogue with a whole new market of well-educated, value-seeking wine drinkers; and with a contemporary mixture of traditional and modern winemaking techniques, they are reclaiming pride in Bordeaux’s unsung areas and uniting local terroirs with today’s market demands. Think bright, fruit-driven reds, and, even in fabled sweet areas like Sauternes and Barsac, fresh, crisp dry whites.

Between premium Bordeaux and a glut of unremarkable wine lies a wealth of bottles at affordable prices.

With its maritime climate defined by a mix of rain, morning mists, and sun, it’s not easy to grow grapes in Bordeaux. Damp conditions foster fungal vineyard diseases like powdery and downy mildews, so most of Bordeaux relies on fungicide and pesticide spraying, to the dismay of local residents and eco-aware imbibers around the world. In response, in 2010, the Bordeaux Wine Council launched the Environmental Management System (the EMS in French) whose focus on sustainability relies on a collective approach—vignerons openly share vineyard and winemaking practices—along with a slow but steady move toward organic or biodynamic methods, which many see as the new way here. Nature offers a helpful hand, too: that Atlantic-warmed air roaming inland along the wide Gironde entryway, well-drained gravelly soils that whisk Bordeaux’s rainfall away, and clay- and limestone-based plots where water sticks around a while—cool, moist land tailormade for fresh berry–noted merlot. The new vignerons’ philosophy of "How do I do my part?" can only bear more good news.

Vineyards in Bordeaux. [Image via Shutterstock/Martina I. Meyer]

In classically buttoned-up Bordeaux, these latest winemakers don’t wear suits and ties. "They’re much more focused on the vineyard, there’s a much more in-depth plot-by-plot understanding," says Gorman McAdams. Many of these winemakers’ vineyard holdings tend to be small, for the most part less than 10 hectares, with three hectares far from unheard of. "When grapes are harvested, you see more trucks now, but smaller ones," she points out. "The other thing is style: they’re not content to do it the way their parents and grandparents did." Once upon a time, smaller producers outside the classified system would compare themselves with their more famed compatriots, and judge themselves the worse for it. Now they’re proud of their areas, careful to cultivate those local tastes, proud of the wines that they grow and make. Bordeaux has a new, more immediate connection to the rest of the world, now, too: while 80 percent of its wine still makes its way through the negociant system, "Two years ago I went to Bordeaux and I was shocked how many small producers there are now. It’s another level of involvement, they know who their importers are now," says McAdams.

Winemaking

Slowly, quality dry white wine production is taking hold, a trend with roots in the 1990s when University of Bordeaux scientist and Bordelais winemaker Denis Dubourdieu first identified the exact grape molecules that translate to those fresh-fruit white-wine flavors, or, in technical speak, "flavor precursors." According to Dubourdieu's son Jean Jacques, "My father conducted research on the sauvignon aroma and the premox [or premature oxidation] phenomena in white wines," he explains. "The idea of skin-contact maceration is to extract more aroma contents from the skin, especially for the sauvignon blanc. Sauvignon is especially sensitive to oxidation so we never use too much new oak and we protect it as much as possible against oxidation during the entire process." Jean Jacques, along with his brother Fabrice, now head their family’s Château Cantegril on the Left Bank, and emphasize skin-contact white-winemaking. Their family was among the first to experiment with this process back in the 1980s.

As for reds, many of these vignerons are concentrating on the red fruit quality of their grapes. "The whole trend is less is more: extract less during the winemaking process but you’ll extract more in terms of fruit, thereby preserving the purity and integrity of the grapes and where they come from. It’s a confidence thing, in the quality of the fruit," states Gorman McAdams. These reds are meant to be enjoyed earlier, but they haven’t sacrificed the ability to age, a characteristic for which the region's wines are known. Some will evolve and mature in-bottle for ten years or more: "There’s something about these wines, even though they’re made fresher, brighter. There’s a spine there of earthiness and savoriness, something that’s anchoring them back and to me that’s Bordeaux. If you’re someone who wants to collect wine and not spend a lot, you can get great joy from these," she continues.

"Two years ago I went to Bordeaux and I was shocked how many small producers there are now."

While there’s a comradeship among winemakers, there is no one right way to make Bordeaux, as far as this new crop is concerned. "I think Bordeaux fell in the trap of the unique taste of Bordeaux, and Parker helped that very much," say Rachel and Guillaume Hubert, proprietors and winemakers of the biodynamically run Chateau Pey-Bonhomme Les-Tours on the Right Bank. "But we have many appellations which have their own terroir, and within these appellations, we have many plots which have their own terroirs." The Huberts have been fined by appellation-control officials for making wines that fall outside flavor guidelines: "We replied that the only control office we follow is our customers. So it's still hard when you want to make wine with your own personality ... We make 'terroirs wines' because we don't have just one Bordeaux terroir. In Bordeaux you have the grand crus and the 99 percent others, but now let's talk about the others, they will have more and more things to say."

The Future

Transparency, trust, and friendship are the rallying cry of the new Bordeaux, made manifest by organizations like Bordeaux Oxygene, or BO2, composed largely of the region’s heirs, whose sense of community extends to the ultimate winemaking gesture of faith and cooperation. "It is an association of young estate owners each of whom runs a family business and is deeply involved in the technical and distribution processes," explains BO2 member Jean Jacques Dubourdieu. "We all want, in every one of our appellations, the best quality possible for the most reasonable price, so we all try to make the wine we’re passionate about by respecting our people, environment, and consumer."

While China is still Bordeaux’s number one market, the region is also looking ardently toward the U.S., which is now its fourth largest consumer by volume and its fifth largest in terms of money spent. "I think as consumers in the U.S. right now, we’re very lucky, we have so much access to every corner of the world," says Cappiello. "There are wines that weren’t available ten years ago but are being imported now, a lot of these are under $20 in a retail situation ... We all have a budget for what to drink: the dream is to drink in your budget and have a wine that over-delivers and because these wines aren’t appreciated enough yet, they can do that."

Multiple expressions within one overarching profile, with room for varying terroirs, market tastes, winemaker preferences, a protected natural environment, and collaboration and reciprocity. From this mix, a dynamic new Bordeaux is emerging that serves as a link between its own past and future. From clairet, medieval Bordeaux’s quickly fermented, pale red wines (destined to become claret, darker and fuller-bodied wines from the Medoc and the Graves by the seventeenth century), to today’s richer, more diverse collection of Bordeaux styles, to a future that is almost now: disease-resistant Bordeaux-based hybrids developed to eliminate the need to spray will be part of the 2016 vintage. These will be Bordeaux’s first crosses since cabernet sauvignon and merlot spontaneously appeared centuries ago—this time at the hands of its people.

Bordeaux Wines to Try

All photos by Alex Ulreich.

Producer: Château Pey-Bonhomme Les-Tours Wine: Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux AOC, 2012
Retail: $17

Brother-and-sister team Guillaume and Rachel Hubert, the fifth generation of a Blaye Côtes vigneron family, run their estate biodynamically, with an outlook appropriate to their ilk. "We want to reveal the full potential of our terroir and protect it. A wine grower isn’t only a man who produces wine but also a guardian of the life and landscapes," they say, explaining that they also experiment with amphora-aged wines and planting new varieties. Their holistic approach results in a fresh chewy red with ripe plums and raspberries, chocolate, mint, and brambly notes, along with sticky tannins, all of which you’ll want to match to flaky meat pies.

Producer: Château la Grolet
Wine: Tête de Cuvée, Côtes de Bourg, 2012 Retail: $19

Like its sister winery, Château Pey-Bonhomme in Bordeaux’s Blaye appellation, Château la Grolet also keeps its vineyards—planted on slopes steep enough to at times call for terraced vine-planting—both biodynamic and organic. The blend changes from year to year, with proprietors Jean-Luc and Catherine Hubert landing on mostly merlot along with cabernet sauvignon and malbec in 2012. Boasting flavors of cherries, five spice, sage, cedar, and damp hay, plus grippy tannins and a mouthwatering acidity, the Tête de Cuvée can be opened now for a fresh red Bordeaux to match grilled steak or mushroom paté, or aged for 10 years for a more complex, intense version of itself.

Producer: Château Belles-Graves Wine: Lalande de Pomerol, 2010
Retail: $38

This Right Bank bottle, from an appellation just north of revered Pomerol, does away with cabernet sauvignon altogether: it’s an 88 percent merlot, 12 percent cabernet franc mix that’s bottled unfiltered for a deep and honest wine. This other side of Bordeaux is balanced by the chateau’s history. Its vineyards were first mapped in the 1500s and Xavier Piton, who helms it today, is a third generation cousin of adventurer Jacques Cousteau. As for flavors, there’s merlot’s characteristic plum, both fresh and stewed, along with blackberries, the green tang of rhubarb, and a minty earthiness, infused with softly gamy notes. One sip and you’ll want a serving of young, garlicky lamb alongside it.

Producer: Château de BellevueWine: Lussac Saint-Emilion, 2011
Retail: $26

From a satellite appellation of the Right Bank’s top-rate Saint-Émilion, which boasts its own classified growths system, Château de Bellevue’s red is cabernet sauvignon–free. Rather, it’s made with native yeasts from 95 percent merlot and 5 percent cabernet franc, and aged for two years before being bottled. Bright and fruity with subtle milky notes—think red plum and raspberry jam and wet leaves—it’s both lush and stone-y, with a creamy, velvety texture that’s an elegant addition to a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich or roasted red peppers.

Producer: Château du Champ des TreillesWine: Vin Passion, Bordeaux Blanc, 2012
Retail: $12

Champ des Treilles’s winemaker Corinne Comme relies on a biodynamic and organic vineyard, hand picked grapes, and natural yeasts for fermentation in this estate located at the eastern edge of the Entre-Deux-Mers area along the Dordogne River. Her Bordeaux Blanc is made of equal parts sauvignon blanc, sémillon and muscadelle, a three grape combo that’s considered the appellation’s traditional expression. Lemon, ginger, and jasmine flowers, along with a soft bitterness like lemon pith and a grassiness that touches on freshly cut make this light, refreshing wine more beguiling than it initially seems. Go with sautéed or steamed bitter greens like broccoli rabe, or the more simple route: oysters.

Producer: Château Recougne Wine: Bordeaux Blanc, 2014
Retail: $13

Chateau Recougne’s winemaker Marc Milhade heads this 400-year-old estate in Entre-Deux-Mers, making his clean, juicy white from mostly sauvignon blanc and some semillon, and leaving grape juice and skins together for a few hours before fermenting. The result is a smoky, bitter undercurrent and an extra bit of structure. Along with the citrus—lemon and grapefruit in this case—this area is known for, this Bordeaux Blanc has flavors of peach and a bold grassiness that sit well with roasted asparagus, sautéed mushrooms, or potatoes cooked in cream.

Producer: Château Cantegril Wine: Barsac A.O.C., Sauternes A.O.C., 2010
Retail: $27

Jean-Jacques and Fabrice Dubourdieu, sons of Denis Dubourdieu and members of Bordeaux Oxygene, carry on their family’s strong tradition of white Bordeaux production on the sweet side, too, at their family-owned Chateau Cantegril. Mostly semillon with a touch of sauvignon blanc, this dessert wine has the Barsac appellation’s characteristic honey and nectarine flavors, along with that savory Bordeaux tell. Expect refreshing notes of lemon and grapefruit zest, rosemary, with a clear-cut acidity that makes it a lighter version of the styles for which the Barsac and Sauternes regions are known . Pair it with sliced fresh peaches and apricots, and lavender shortbread.

Editor: Kat Odell

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