Bordeaux is typically defined by its complex appellation system, where wines are characterized by their specific districts of origin. But every wine connoisseur knows that the key to understanding Bordeaux is to focus on the best producers.
For example, the textbooks describe wines from the appellation of Margaux, in the Haut-Médoc area of Bordeaux's Left Bank region, as elegant, supple and complex—which is sometimes true, but often not, depending on the quality of the vintage and the skill of the producer. However, Château Margaux, the flagship producer of the Margaux appellation, reliably turns out one of the best wines of the vintage. Recognizing the difference between "a Margaux" and Château Margaux is fundamental to choosing Bordeaux wisely.
Traditionally in France, a château is a grand country house of an aristocratic family, but in Bordeaux it means a wine estate with its own winery and vineyards. Some châteaus, such as Margaux and Haut-Brion, actually have a great manor house, but most have just a small house or two for the owners or workers, besides the necessary extras for vine cultivation and winemaking.
The Bordeaux region, which takes its name from its central city, has thousands of wine estates. According to 2010 figures from the wine region's official trade organization, the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux, nearly 8,700 growers harvest grapes each year. However, it's the 100 or so superstar châteaus of the region that make the reputation of a vintage. It's the wines from these estates on which the world focuses its attention, especially in the spring, when the newest wines are available first for tasting and later for purchase as futures, or en primeur.
A number of classification systems have emerged to help consumers identify these top producers. The first and most famous was the 1855 Classification of the Médoc and Graves, which ranked some five dozen estates. It was originally based on prices paid by wine merchants at the time, and is still a surprisingly accurate measure of quality. Other official classifications also cover the regions of St.-Emilion and Graves. At the very top of the pyramid of quality are eight châteaus with the greatest demand and highest-priced wines: Margaux, Latour, Mouton-Rothschild, Lafite Rothschild, Haut-Brion, Pétrus, Cheval-Blanc and Ausone. These are the blue-chip stocks of the Bordeaux wine world.
In recent years, a number of small-production wines from St.-Emilion and Pomerol—the high-tech stocks of Bordeaux, if you will—have challenged the blue chips' market leadership, and they have become highly sought after by Bordeaux wine collectors. They often sell for higher prices than the eight traditional leaders. Among these newcomers are châteaus Le Pin, L'église Clinet, La Mondotte and Valandraud. Each year a surprising number of small new competitors—often called vins de garage, or "garage wines," since their production is so minute—comes to the forefront in hopes of catching the eye of the elite Bordeaux wine consumer.
This is not to say, however, that the most expensive wines are always the best. Particularly in a top vintage, "lesser" producers may make equally outstanding wines. For instance, one of the top wines made in the legendary vintage of 1990 was Sociando-Mallet, a low-ranked château (with an official rating of cru bourgeois) that consistently makes some of the best wines of the region.
Today, all the leading châteaus, whether they sell for $20 a bottle or $200, take the utmost care of their vineyards, which in most instances are planted to Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Red Bordeaux is nearly always a blended wine, and labels rarely indicate grape varieties, as they do in California or Australia. Instead, they indicate the producer's name and the origin of the wine, or its appellation.
Bordeaux comprises two large subregions: the Left Bank, located south of the Garonne and Gironde rivers, and the Right Bank, located north of the Dordogne and Gironde Rivers (with Entre-Deux-Mers occupying the less prestigious region between the Dordogne and the Garonne). The Left Bank includes regions such as Graves and Médoc (with its prestigious appellations of Margaux, St.-Julien, Pauillac and St.-Estèphe); vineyards here are dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, with varying percentages of Merlot and Cabernet Franc as well as a touch of Petit Verdot. The Right Bank includes St.-Emilion and Pomerol, along with lesser appellations; Merlot and Cabernet Franc predominate, with a small percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon and sometimes Malbec.
The leading châteaus all have well-equipped cellars as well as the best winemaking money can buy. Since the 1980s, investment in vineyards and cellars has been enormous, from high-tech wineries and A-list consulting enologists to the best in oak barrels and bottling lines. Wine production normally begins in late September or early October, during the harvest. The wines are fermented and macerated for anywhere from 10 to 30 days, depending on the quality of the grapes. The new wines are then aged in barrels for 12 to 24 months; the more tannic and richer the wines, the longer they usually spend in oak. The wines are released about six months after bottling.
Bordeaux producers have learned that they no longer rule the premium wine world unchallenged. Competition from New World areas, such as California and Australia, as well as from nearby Spain and Italy has forced them to improve. This has meant better Bordeaux for the consumer. "New wave" Bordeaux is now much easier to enjoy when young, yet the wines continue to improve with age, as anyone who drinks a bottle of a top-class 1989 or 1990 can understand. Though these wines are very enjoyable now, they have the structure to develop over time, which is a prerequisite of any great Bordeaux. A great bottle of Bordeaux only reveals its true quality after 10 or 15 years of bottle age. But no wine can be great at maturity without showing its qualities at an early age. That is the rationale for barrel tastings.