The mysteries of French Bordeaux wines are nowadays open secrets, as some 50 million years ago, the Aquitaine Basin was a huge tropical sea. Over the past million years, the surging waters drained vast quantities of sediment which gradually accumulated to form the soils and sub-soils of the Medoc region, as well as the left bank of the Bordeaux.
These soils consist of sand, gravel, clay, stones and pebbles, normally regarded as "gravel, clay and limestone terroirs", ideally if not perfectly suited to wine-making. This is why French wines are so unique and famous, as both the left bank and the right bank in Bordeaux produce wines of distinctive character and exceptional quality. In particular, the Medoc peninsula nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gironde estuary, benefits from a temperature climate favourable to wines. With the regular sunshine and soft breezes coupled with relatively warm and humid climate, the Medoc region is indeed a hidden treasure for crafting excellent vintages.
The great originality of Bordeaux wines lies in the fact that they are all produced from a blend of several grape varieties. For example, Cabernet-Sauvignon is the predominant variety in the Medoc region, but it gives wines of remarkable finesse and complexity with an incomparable cellaring potential. Merlot is fruity, fresh and mellow. Cabernet Franc brings the richness of its bouquet and its brilliant colour. Petit Verdot adds vivacity to Bordeaux wines. Mixing all these grapes together in the right proportion and after their delicate fragrance, these 4 kinds of grapes (i.e. Carbernet-Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot) help to enliven the violet colour of the final blend. As a result of meticulous blending, the best eight "First Growths Vineyards" (i.e. Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Haut-Brion, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Chateau Cheval Blanc, Chateau Ausone and Petrus) are recognized, as they should be, as the best wine-producers in the world.
The Art of Tasting Wines
It is not exactly right to think that good wines can only be properly appreciated if they are at least 10 or more years old. As a matter of fact, certain young French wines (3 to 4 years old) can reveal the full range of aromas and flavours of great wines. It is also a misconception to think that there is an ideal moment to enjoy a Medoc wine such as Ch. Lafite Rothschild. On every family gathering, social function or special occasion under friendly or festive atmosphere, one can enjoy and indeed treasure a glass of good French or Bordeaux wine from one of the eight prestigious appellations.
The Masters of Wine (Wine MBA holders) would normally adopt the following techniques for wine-tasting :Good French wines should not be served too warm. They are best at 16℃ to 18℃
- View or appreciate the colour of the wine on the glass. French Bordeaux wines offer a wide palate of red hues shot with violet or brown, and the colour may be darken if the wines are aged.
- Breathe in the aromas of flowers, fruit, bracken or spices which flatter the nose and blend harmoniously together, to encompass all the senses.
- Roll the wine on the palate to appreciate its body, the richness of the tannins, the harmony of the aromas and the balance of its texture. After the 1st sip, the flavours will blossom and linger on the taste buds in what is called the aromatic persistence.
- Early decanting or opening a bottle is always important. For young Bordeaux Wines, opening of the bottle 1 or 2 hours in advance, or some times a little longer, will help the wine express and develop all its aromas. The wines that have been laid down to await their full maturity after 10 years, can be decanted before serving (about 30 minutes in advance) so as to allow them to air or breathe. Do not shake the wine while decanting it so as to avoid pulling it out too suddenly from the many long or beneficial years during which it was left to rest in slumber.
- Bordeaux wines are suitable for many different cuisines or dishes, Chinese, European or Indian etc. You may also use red or white wine to make a good sauce for your food.
From the experience of the author, he has never known more than several viticultural areas of the World to have a great vintage in the same year, although wine advertisements do proclaim a particular year as a great vintage year. The reason why the chances of a uniformly great vintage are extremely remote is because of the significantly different microclimates, soils, rainfalls, sunlight and the temperature etc. in every wine-producing region or area.
The 1855 classification in wines was complied by the brokers of Bordeaux at the request of the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce as an aid to the presentation of the region’s best wines at the Paris Exposition of 1855 and was a powerful PR tool for Bordeaux wines as a whole. The “First Growths” referred originally to the 1855 classification and were Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Haut-Brion. It was not until the year 1973 that the French Government had permitted Chateau Mouton Rothschild to become the 5th “First Growths” Vineyard. Over the past 33 years from 1973 to 2006, 3 more vineyards in France were added to the best eight “First Growths” Vineyards. They are as follows:
- Chateau Lafite Rothschild
- Chateau Latour
- Chateau Haut-Brion
- Chateau Margaux
- Chateau Mouton Rothschild
- Chateau Cheval Blanc
- Chateau Ausone
From the map and photos shown below, you can see the locations of these eight great vineyards in France and the labels/bottles of their products.
How to Buy Wines
Unless you go to a reliable wine merchant to buy your wines, you must make sure that the wines are in healthy condition and are unspoiled.
Very briefly, you should look at the bottle of wine when you are about to buy, as wine abuse is usually revealed by the condition of the bottle in your hand. However, the following precautions should be taken whenever necessary :
- If the cork has popped above the rim of the bottle and is pushed out on the lead or plastic capsule which covers the top of the bottle, ask for another bottle to buy;
- A bottle of wine which has been frozen in transit or storage will likewise push the cork out and therefore, any cork that is protruding above the rim of the bottle is a bad sign;
- A small deposit of sediment at the bottom of the bottle is a healthy sign, which will indicate that the wine has been naturally made and has not been subjected to a traumatic flavor and character- eviscerating filtration;
- A small crystals called tartrate precipitates found at the bottom of the bottle, particularly on white wines, will not be harmful to the wine, as it means that the wine was exposed to temperatures below 40℉ in shipment but it has not been subjected by the winery to any treatment for cosmetic purposes.
How to Store Wines
Most of the wine enthusiasts would know that subterranean wine cellars which are vibration free, dark, damp and kept at a constant 55℉ (or 12.78℃) are considered perfect for the wines. However, many other wines will thrive and develop well under other circumstances.
In cellaring wine, the following rules should be kept in mind :
- If the wine is to be kept safely for 10 years or more, keep them around 65℉ (18.33℃ ), or at most around 68℉ (20℃), but no higher. If the temperature rises to 70℉ (21.11℃ ), the same should be consumed within 10 years;
- Do not store white wines more than 1 to 2 years at temperatures above 70℉ (22.11℃) ;
- Most wines kept at the temperatures above 65℉ (18.33℃) will age faster;
- If the temperature falls below 55℉ (12.78℃), the wines will grow very slowly and if you intend to sell or to drink such wines within 10 years, you should not set such temperature in your cellar, otherwise your sons and daughters will be enjoying them. The humidity level above 50% is important and the wines should be kept at 70% to 75% humidity level, if possible;
- A humidity level below 40% will keep the labels in great shape but will cause the corks to become very dry and will shorten the potential life expectancy of the wine.
The growers, out in their vineyards everyday, optimize the gifts of nature with hidden treasures under the ground, attentively heed their land and know how to glean the very best of what they have to offer and with the constant and infinite care, rigour and passion, they transform the bunches of purely organic grapes into a divine elixir, striving to reach excellent, if not perfect, tasting balance. Then, they leave their wines to mature slowly in oak barrels, knowing that the passage of time will bring out all the aromas with the most enticing flavours, as well as the most appreciated and needed French wines from all over the World.
©Dr. G.Y.C. Mok PhD, MBA, Hong Kong 2010