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Bordeaux is a major wine region in southwestern of France. A tiny bit of the region reaches the coast but it mostly follows the valleys formed by the Dordogne and Garonne rivers and the Gironde after they converge. The city of Bordeaux is on the Garonne, slightly upstream of the conlfuence, but most of the best vineyards are downstream along the Garonne and the Gironde. It is here one finds Margaux, Pauillac, St Estèphe, St Julien and Médoc and many of the chateaux immortalized in the Classification of 1855 which ranked them into First Growths (Premiers Crus), Second Growths (Seconds Crus), Third Growths (Troisièmes Crus), Fourth Growths (Quatrièmes Crus), and Fifth Growths (Cinquièmes Crus.

This area generally uses a preponderance of the tough-skinned Cabernet Sauvignon, vinifying for long aging. This is not a plus in the days of fast food, instant breakfasts, and the microwave. Nonetheless, the wines of the four original "first growths (Lafite-Rothschild, Margaux, Haut-Brion, and Latour) and the one recent addition (Mouton-Rothschild) frequently sell for over $500 per bottle despite their demand for long aging.

The wines of St Emilion and nearby Pomerol along the Dordogne were, like Mouton-Rothschild, neglected in the 1855 classification. Today Petrus in Pomerol and Cheval Blanc in St Emilion are recognized as the equals of the original first growths. As these regions use a perponderance of Merlot, the wines are softer, fruitier, and much more approachable at a young age, making them better choices on St Maarten, a place not known to have many cellars stocked with carefully aging wines.

The lesser growths in the famous villages and the wines from the lesser regions can be quite good especially in good years. Moreover, they are generally vinified for shorter aging. These also may be better choices than an expensive, but too young and tannic, classified growth. Bourg and Blaye across the Gironde from the better villages can make some very good wine, lacking only the high price tag.

Further south along the Garonne is Graves which produces crisp to medium sweet white wines for the most part, but is better known for its red wines from the area closest to Bordeaux, notably Haut-Brion. We have long liked Ch Louvière and Ch Olivier.


Bordeaux first growths

Still further south is Barsac and Sauternes. Yquem is recognized as the finest sweet white wine of the region, but we can afford Ch Doisy-Vedrines and Ch Lamothe. When we splurge, it's for Ch Rieussec and Ch Guiraud. We generally have these as half bottles and finish them with the dessert course (or foie gras). We frequently keep a 750 ml bottle of Barsac in the refrigerator and recork it to be used as a small sip with dessert. It's cost-effective, if not the best.

The 31 May 2011 Wine Spectator featured an article by James Molesworth on Bordeaux. The big news is that 2009 is being hyped as the best year of the decade with a 95-100 rating. 2000 was a close second and 2005 next. However, all years were good with 2002 and 2007 as the worst at a very good 85-87 rating. We'll probably see a lot of the 2007 vintage on the island this fall and possibly a few bottles from 2008. The top rated 2008s, coming in at 94, were three of the usual suspects (Ch Ausone, Ch Latour, and Ch Mouton-Rothschild) costing about $1200 per bottle. The surprise was Ch Leoville-Las-Cases ($170). That's still a bit steep for my taste, especially if you double or triple these prices to get restaurant prices. Molesworth did go on to find some wine that we might drink: Ch Feret-Lambert, Ch Lilian, Ch Puygueraud, Ch Reynaud, Ch Teyssier, Ch Le Thil, and a eight others. All the ones I mentioned were in the $11 to $20 per bottle range.

Bordeaux lesser known wines

Unfortunately, I've never tasted nor heard of these last wines. The ones I mentioned probably didn't exist in 1855 and are now selling on value rather than reputation. Most of them have some new owner/management that is making improvements. Most are not in the renowned downstream left bank area. They are small producers (by the local standards) and bottles will be hard to find in the US, especially now that they have been given this recognition.

Another approach is to buy wines made by a bulk negotiant. They sometimes get grapes or juice from a highly-rated chateau that didn't think the grapes or the resulting barrel was good enough to put into their bottle. Their loss is your gain. The great chateaux are very large estates covering hundreds of acres and have a second wine made from grapes that didn't make the first cut. This wine generally sells for as much as the second growths. Don't misunderstand, the grapes did not lose a beauty contest, they were rejected on taste, so the first wine will be better, but the second wine has essentially the same growing conditions, the same pruning, the same careful picking, and generally the same wine maker, although he may do things differently for different batches of grapes. this can lead to a very nice wine. Grapes or juice that doesn't make that cut may go to a bulk negotiant. Sometimes they make up a name and a label and a wine appears that is very good one year and doesn't exist the next.

The lesson is that the big names found in all listings of the great classified growths of 1855 will cost more than most of us spend on wine. If you want to drink decent Bordeaux at a reasonable price, read experts like Molesworth, although his recommendations may be hard to find. The alternative is to develop a relationship with a reliable wine shop. They can steer you toward the wine that you would like best in the price range you specify. On the island there are several. We tend toward Sylvain at Select Wine Cellar, although Vinissimo, Le Gout du Vin, and Bacchus have good wine and personnel.

Obviously, when you are back in the US, you should establish a relationship with a good local store. Lacking that, or in addition to that, check out Lot18. They offer short-lived sales on various wines.


There are several books to recommend. The first is probably the best overall guide to the wines of the entire world. The maps are spectacular and quite detailed in Bordeaux.

The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson ($31.50, $22 used) - The World Atlas of Wine is something of a dream-team production. The names Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson alone recommend any book on which they appear. The fifth edition (in 30 years) of this astonishingly successful book lives up to, and surpasses, its predecessors. In 350 densely packed but never clotted pages the authors manage the extraordinary feat of characterizing wine production throughout the world, from Vancouver Island to Japan--Buddhists first planted vines in that inhospitably precipitous, monsoon-lashed land over a 1,000 years ago. After a substantial introductory section dealing with the history of wine, its making, storage, and enjoyment, we're off. Starting with (where else?) France and Burgundy, each wine area is summarized in terms of its geography, climate, and preferred vines and the appellations, laws, and traditions that govern production. The discussion of Pomerol, for example, tells you a great deal in one short page. Even since 1994, when the fourth edition came out, vast changes have swept the wine world, and many parts of the atlas have been correspondingly completely reworked. South America, Canada, Southern France, Italy, Greece, Eastern Europe, and the Eastern Mediterranean are among the areas that have benefited. The regional maps that form the core of the book are a triumph of clarity. The whole production constitutes a brilliant achievement of organization and synthesis, forming an indispensable resource for any wine lover at all interested in where the wine they drink comes from and why it tastes the way it does.

There is an 2006 edition available for about $23 (new) and $2 (used) and a 2005 pocket edition for about $3 used.

The World Atlas of Wine

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