Some of the best value Bordeaux out there comes from the Cru Bourgeois – a family of superb wines that pass vigorous quality control checks to guarantee you a glass of something rather special . . .
The Cru Bourgeois are a great source of extremely good wine at a fraction of the price you would splash out on a Grand Cru Classe. Made to the same exacting standards as the Grand Cru Classe in many cases (and often at the same cost) the Cru Bourgeois have clear-cut pedigrees and a rigorous quality control system. Unlike the Grand Cru Classe, which were ranked back in 1855 and have not been reclassified since, the Cru Bourgeois are assessed on a yearly basis. This is the most dynamic ranking of wines in Bordeaux (even Saint Emilion can not match it, their Classification is updated around every 10 years or so).
You may ask why wines are classified at all. Simply put, Classification provides the consumer with an authentic product and a guarantee of its quality.
What are the Cru Bourgeois?
The Cru Bourgeois are a legacy that dates back to the Middle Ages. The ‘bourgeois’ refers to the wealthy middle class wine merchants and craftsmen of the ‘bourg’ of Bordeaux. By the 15th century the bourgeois of Bordeaux had begun to invest in fine vineyards, which became known as Cru Bourgeois (‘cru’ means ‘growth’ when referring to vineyards and denotes recognised quality). They played an important role in the development of the Medoc vineyards and by the early 1800s there were around 300 Crus Bourgeois estates.
Instigated by the Emperor Napoleon III, the 1855 Classification ranked the wines of the aristocracy. Many estates were left out and typically, the Cru Bourgeois were not included. However the Cru Bourgeois were too good not to be recognised in some way. They represented the better estates across the Medoc covering the appellations Medoc, Haut Medoc, Listrac Medoc, Moulis en Medoc, Pauillac, Saint Estephe, Margaux and Saint Julien.
1932 – The unofficial list
In 1932 the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce and Chamber of Agriculture drew up an unofficial list of 444 Cru Bourgeois chateaux and this remained unchanged until 2003. Things needed to change; the 1932 list badly needed revising and regulating as it was outdated and the range in quality was quite diverse.
2003 – The year of change . . . and court action
The 2003 classification was the first big step forward but, as you can imagine, it caused an uproar with only 247 chateaux included out of the 490 that were submitted. What’s more the chateaux were divided into 3 tiers: Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, Cru Bourgeois Supérieur and Cru Bourgeois (with Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel being the top wines). The idea was to assess the chateaux every 12 years but thanks to the ensuing fracas, bitter complaints and threats of legal action from unsuccessful chateaux owners the Cru Bourgeois was annulled in 2007. Thankfully, after much wrangling and mulling over the best way forward, a brand new system was introduced and 2010 saw the Cru Bourgeois reborn.
2010 – The year of rebirth
The new Cru Bourgeois quality control procedure is independent and uncompromising.
Vintage, not vineyard – The class of Cru Bourgeois is awarded to the vintage and not to the vineyard or to the chateau which means that each year a chateau can lose or gain Cru Bourgeois status depending on whether the wine of that vintage makes the grade or not.
Independent Judges – To ensure impartiality, an independent agency called Bureau Veritas, checks that all applicants are worthy, examining the state of their grounds, vineyards and wine making facilities.
Blind Tastings – Bureau Veritas is also in charge of supervising blind tastings of each vintage by a jury of trade professionals – who are not chateau owners.
The new system does not include tiers so the higher-ranking Cru Bourgeois Superieur and Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel categories that were used in the 2003 ranking are defunct. However there are movements to reinstate these, so I will keep you posted!
Any chateau can apply for Cru Bourgeois status but only their Grand Vin can be submitted ie no second wines or special cuvées.
Five years down the line and these exacting standards are bearing fruit. The Cru Bourgeois are well respected. Benchmark wines are being recognised and consumers are benefitting from Cru Bourgeois’ stable prices, consistent quality, provenance and rich history along with an ongoing commitment to offering genuine value.
A consistent performer as a Cru Bourgeois and the 2011 vintage has also bagged a gold medal in the long established Concours des Grand Vins de France. Chantemerle is a petit chateau that belongs to the Cruchon family who have been wine makers for several generations in the northern Medoc. Under the direction of Frederic Cruchon, the Medoc’s traditions are respected and the vineyard managed meticulously.
Meltingly smooth Cru Bourgeois Medoc with splendidly rounded tannins. Deliciously deep flavours of cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), juicy prunes and ripe black cherry with expressive notes of vanilla, cinnamon, cocoa and cedar. A lovely floral hint of peonies. Powerful yet balanced. Aromatic, opulent and silky.
Food and Wine Pairing:
Being rich and full bodied, Chantemerle pairs very well with the rich flavours of duck and lamb. It’s good with a juicy rib eye steak or hearty beef casseroles, rabbit in mustard sauce, sausages and salamis, feathered game such as pheasant or grouse, kidney and liver.
It’s not often a wine steals the show, especially when it started life as an accident . . .
If Chateau La Fleur Morange isn’t on your radar yet it ought to be. Jancis Robinson’s article in the Financial Times, ‘One Mighty Smallholder,’ followed up with ‘La Fleur Morange, the Carpenter’s Wine‘ on her website, hit the press at the weekend, putting La Fleur Morange firmly in the spotlights. Bravo, Jancis! Celebrity is a new thing for La Fleur Morange, this is a tiny chateau and a newcomer to boot. However it deserves to be centre stage and rightfully take its place on the red carpet.
La Fleur Morange’s rise to fame is a Cinderella story. It starts with Jean Francois Julien, the wine’s creator, in the village of Saint Pey d’Armens in Saint Emilion. Jean Francois’ fell into wine making by accident trying to save his land from development. His answer to the problem was to turn it into a vineyard. His prospects did not look good; for starters he wasn’t a wine maker. He was a cabinet maker who learnt how to make wine by reading from a book. It wasn’t any old book, it was a book by
Emile Peynaud, the revolutionary French oenologist and researcher, and it inspired Jean Francois. The odds were stacked against him but in typical fashion he hunkered down and persevered . . . and something magical happened:
His vines turned out to be a rareity (they are 100+ years old).
His soil turned out to be gold dust (it is unique in Saint Emilion and happens to be the same iron rich clay that produces Chateau Petrus in Pomerol – one of the best wines in the world).
He built his own little winery from scratch (his pioneering new techniques and innovations that he applied to his chai have been subsequently adopted by elite chateaux throughout Bordeaux).
He discovered that he had a new gift – he turned out to be a tremendously talented wine maker.
It’s one thing to make a great wine but it’s another to gain recognition for it. As a newcomer, a trailblazer and a garagiste (a ‘garage wine maker’ – a nick name for small scale entrepreneurial wine makers in Bordeaux) Jean Francois was considered to be small fry by his peers. He had an uphill battle on his hands to get
his wine the acceptance it deserved. Once again, something magical happened to enhance La Fleur Morange’s debut on the world stage. The rave reviews and awards started pouring in, and so did the sales:
Those who tasted his wines believed in them and sent samples left and right to the world’s best critics. Robert Parker, the American wine critic and world authority on wine, scored his 2000 vintage 93 out of 100. Jean Francois sold his entire crop in 20 minutes. More high scores were to follow for the next vintages – the 2010 got 96+. This made waves in the wine world; La Fleur Morange was beating the big boys with scores on a par to the First Growths and Grand Cru Classes.
Jancis Robinson was introduced to La Fleur Morange in anextensive blind tasting of right bank 2005s in 2008 and thought that this mystery wine was either First Growth Ausone or Pavie, two of the four estates now in therarefied rank two notches above Grand Cru.
In 2012 La Fleur Morange won its Oscar – it was awarded the rank of Grand Cru Classe. An amazing achievement, and practically unprecedented.
La Fleur Morange, once the critics choice, has now stepped out into the limelight. It’s a wine that, although dazzling, holds no bars. Sumptuous, opulent and multi dimensional, it’s approachable on every level – as its its maker. Jean Francois is unchanged by success, he remains a dedicated and hard working friend. Production is still tiny, the vineyard still small. Jean Francois has added to his repertoire with a Second Wine, Mathilde. Named after his little daughter, Mathilde is no understudy but a pure Merlot. It’s priced around £19 a bottle. La Fleur Morange averages from £30 – £40 depending on the vintage.
It’s a remarkable story, and one I’ve told many times before. I’ve backed Jean Francois from the beginning and I’ll give La Fleur Morange as many encores as I can. Jean Francois and his wine deserve a standing ovation for pure guts and brilliance.
If you’d like to try Jean Francois’ wines I have put together a specially priced case (with a discount of nearly £40) of Mathilde featuring the 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 vintages – some of my favourite years. The 2009 (92 points) and 2010 (93 points) vintages come from stellar years for Bordeaux and are deeply flavoured velvety wines. The 2008 (92 points) and the 2007 (87 points) have both been dubbed ‘hedonistic’ by Parker.
They key to Bordeaux’s successful white wines is in the blend. Carefully crafted combinations of grapes can take these white wines up to another level and here’s what to look out for when hunting through what’s on offer . . .
There’s a certain amount of winemaking wizardry that goes into Bordeaux’s white wines. Chateaux here have been perfecting their techniques for centuries and the art of blending is the critical component that lifts these wines above the rest. High flying top white Bordeaux, both Dry and Sweet, rub shoulders with white Burgundies and take their place amongst the world’s most sought after wines.
White wine production is a tradition in Bordeaux and these whites are made by chateaux in every price bracket, meaning you can pick up a high quality white at a sensible price.
Big or small, ALL Bordeaux chateaux blend. The Bordelaise have long understood that to rely on a single grape variety spells disaster. If your one crop of Sauvignon Blanc is decimated by the weather you either go bust or what wine is produced is poor. So, over several hundred years, Bordeaux has learnt to pair up grapes that complement each other; bringing out the best characteristics of each grape, creating a consistent house style for each chateau, capturing the essence of terroir and enhancing the final wine. The results are dazzling: delicious wines that shimmer with flavour.
You may not believe it but once upon a time Bordeaux produced more white wine than red!
Bordeaux produces Dry, Sweet (Liqoroux) and Semi Sweet (Moelleux) white wines and the permitted grape varieties that are allowed in the blends are set in stone; being carefully regulated by the INAO (the governing body of Bordeaux’s AOCs). Not every permitted grape is used in the white blends as chateaux can pick and choose between them. Grapes that are stellar players are selected for their quality, properties and performance in the vineyard. Each chateaux favours their own combination of grapes and blending has evolved into a fine art. Science plays a part too and some in cases blending has moved into the lab.
There are 9 permitted white grape varieties in Bordeaux white wines, the principal ones are Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle. These are the keystones of various styles that suit a whole range of wine lovers.
The other 6 grapes are used in smaller percentages (usually below 15%). They are Sauvignon Gris (which is becoming more popular for use in blends nowadays), the more rarely used Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Merlot Blanc . . . and Ondenc and Mauzac (which are no longer used, although some plantings may be hiding in the rural backwaters). These seldom used grapes are known as ‘accessory grapes’ and hail from Bordeaux’s past. Once widely grown they succumbed to the phylloxera epidemic (1875 – 1892) which destroyed Bordeaux’s vineyards. They were seldom replaced and now represent distant echoes from Bordeaux’s past.
The Main Players
Adds rich plush texture, depth, body and longevity to the blend.
Semillion is the primary grape in the blends of Bordeaux’s finest Sweet white wines. It is also used extensively in Dry white blends and is the most planted white grape across Bordeaux. Percentages of Semillion used can vary in the blends, with the highest amounts being used in the AOCs that produce sweet white wines.
Semillon is famous for being susceptible to Noble Rot which shrivels the grapes, concentrating the juices and sugars to create bright Sweet wines of extraordinary quality, complexity and density with the capacity to age for decades. Semillion is native to Bordeaux and has been grown there for over four centuries. Although it’s thought to have originated in Sauternes there is a theory that it actually comes from red wine producing Saint Emilion. The grape was known as Semillon de Saint Emillion in 1736 and ‘Semillion’ could be a corruption of the town’s name.
Characteristics – flavours and fragrance of lemon, acacia flower, fig, sweet hay, peach and green apple. When used in Sweet wines Semillon’s flavour profile deepens to complex flavours of hazelnut or almond, tropical and candied fruits. It is known for giving a rounded, beeswax tone to the wine.
AOCs – Semillon is grown across all the white wine producing regions of Bordeaux but it is king in Sauternes and Barsac, where it can account for 90% of the blend. One of the famous Sauternes First Growths, Chateau Climens, is 100% Semillon. However these AOCs are increasingly showing a shift to Dry white production and notably First Growth Chateau Sigalas Rabaud began to produce an unusual Dry white 100% Semillon in 2013 named ‘La Semillante’.
Adds juicy acidity, freshness and its unique flavour profile to the blend.
Sauvignon Blanc is the backbone of Bordeaux’s white blends, being found in almost all of them. It dominates the blends of Bordeaux’s Dry whites. Sauvignon Blanc’s birthplace is south west France with both Bordeaux and the Loire laying claim to its point of origin. Bordeaux’s claim is that the grape was mentioned in texts as early as 1710 in AOC Margaux. Sauvignon Blanc takes its name from ‘sauvage’ (‘wild’) and ‘blanc’ (‘white’) meaning ‘Wild White.’ Although it’s a white grape DNA analysis shows that it’s the parent of the famous red grape Cabernet Sauvignon. Sauvignon Blanc is Semillon’s perfect partner and you’ll often see blends of 50/50 but percentages used can vary widely with as much as 95% and as little as 10%.
Characteristics – hall mark flavours of gooseberry, cut grass and hints of bell pepper accompanied by lime, apple and white peach.When used in Sweet wines Sauvignon Blanc plays a supporting role to Semillon, adding freshness and zest.
AOCs – Sauvignon Blanc is grown throughout all the white wine producing areas of Bordeaux. Highest densities tend to be within the Entre Deux Mers, Pessac Leognan and Graves. Well known estates also produce flag ship Dry whites on the Left Bank (notably Margaux, St Julien, Pauillac and Saint Estephe) and a rare few are made on the Right Bank in Saint Emilion.
Adds rich aromas, fruitiness and complexity to the blend.
Muscadelle is named after the Muscat grape thanks to its distinctive grapy, floral aromas. It’s very fragrant and bears the hallmarks of the typical musky notes of Muscat but it is actually no relation. DNA analysis shows that one of its parents is the ancient grape Gouais Blanc, the other parent is still a mystery. Muscadelle is thought to have originated in Bergerac, Bordeaux’s easterly neighbour.
Characteristics – Flavours and fragrance of sweet musk, grape and acacia flowers with notes of angelica and passion fruit. When used in Sweet wines Muscadelle’s aromas deepens to vanilla, raisin and honeysuckle.
AOCs – Muscadelle is grown in pockets throughout all the white wine producing areas of Bordeaux. Highest densities tend to be within the Entre Deux Mers, Graves, Sauternes and Barsac.
The Accessory Grapes – The Up and Coming:
Adds fruitiness, aromas, subtle richness and acidity to the blend.
Sauvignon Gris (also known as Sauvignon Rose) is a mutation of Sauvignon Blanc and has a dusky rose/apricot hue to its grapes. It contains higher sugar levels than Sauvignon Blanc and produces fuller bodied, rounder wines. It’s difficult to pin point when (or where) Sauvignon Gris originated but it’s included in the French book on grape varieties by Viala and Vermorel in 1901 -1910. It’s also been difficult to find as thanks to its low yields it has become quite rare. However, this is changing rapidly as Sauvignon Gris is currently undergoing a revival in Bordeaux with chateaux planting more hectares of the grape and using greater quantities of it (up to 30%) in their white wine blends.
Characteristics – Flavours and fragrance of red gooseberry, pink grapefruit, honeydew melon and mango with similar herbaceous notes to those of Sauvignon Blanc (hay, cut grass and herbs).
AOCS – Sauvignon Gris is still quite unusual in Bordeaux (it only accounts for 2% of the white grape varities of Bordeaux, 332 hectares). It’s gaining popularity and the highest amounts grown can be found in Pessac Leognan where the Grand Crus Classe Chateaux use it in their Dry white blends; notably Chateaux Smith Haut Lafitte, Haut Brion and Pape Clement. A few wine wine producing chateaux in the Medoc use it, Chateau Palmer in Margaux in particular. Sauvignon Gris is also used in Saint Emilion on the Right Bank and can be found in some pioneering chateaux across Graves and the Entre Deux Mers. Sauvignon Gris is also used in Sweet white blends in Sainte Foy.
The Accessory Grapes – Rare Remnants
Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano)
Adds acidity, body and smoothness to the blend.
Ugni Blanc is widely grown across France and is famous for its use in producing Cognac and Armagnac. It’s low in alcohol but high in acidity and has long been used in Bordeaux white wines for its refreshing juiciness and capcity for enhancing other white grapes in the blend. It’s thought that Ugni Blanc was brought to France from Tuscany, Italy in the 1300s when successive Popes resided at Avignon rather than in Rome. Ugni Blanc’s name comes from the old French Occitan ‘Unia’ which is derived from the Latin name ‘Eugenia’ (meaning ‘noble’ or ‘well born’) but it has lots of synonyms in Bordeaux – ‘Saint Emilion’ being one of them.
Characteristics – Ugni Blanc produces a light wine on its own but used together with other grapes it adds finesse to the blends. Flavours and fragrance of lemon, apricot and orange with notes of watermelon and quince.
AOCs – Most Ugni Blanc can be found in the Cotes de Blaye and Cots de Bourg.
Adds fresh acidity and aroma to the blend.
Colombard takes its name from the word ‘dove’ in the Saintongeais dialect spoken in it’s native Charente and northern Bordeaux. Whether this refers to the grape’s soft colouring or it’s because Colombard ripens when the pigeons migrate no one knows. Widely planted across France, Colombard’s parents are Gouais Blanc and Chenin Blanc. Similar to Ugni Blanc, Colombard is mostly used in the production of Armagnac and Cognac but it is also used in Bordeaux in small quantities for its vibrancy and for the aromatic qualities it gives to the white wine blends.
Characteristics – Flavours and fragrance of lemon, tangerine and apple with broom blossom and acacia flowers.
AOCs – The highest percentages of Colombard can be found in the Cotes de Blaye and to a lesser extent in the Cotes de Bourg. It also plays a supporting role in blends from the Entre Deux Mers.
Adds body and smoothness to the blend.
Merlot Blanc (sometimes known as White Merlot) is a cross between the red Merlot grape and white Folle Blanche. It’s difficult to discover data on this grape as it’s rare and plantings in Bordeaux have been in steep decline. In the 1950s Merlot Blanc covered 5277 hectares but now it is down to only 176 ha. Old vines are no longer being replanted in Bordeaux, the reason being that the grape produces wines that are fairly neutral and low in alcohol. It is more widely used nowadays in Pineau de Charentes (Liqueur). It’s said that Merlot Blanc was discovered in 1891 by Guinaudie who planted it in the vineyards of his Chateau de Geneau in Virsac (Cotes de Blaye). There are champions of the grape in Bordeaux blends today – Chateau Palmer in Margaux used 5% of Merlot Blanc in their rare white wine created in 2007 and Chateau Taillefer in Saint Emilion use it in their unusual white ‘Le Blanc du Vieux Chateau Taillefer’. Both these wines are testimonies to the chateaux’s history and heritage.
Characteristics – Merlot Blanc lacks strong fruit flavours and fragrances, producing light, neutral wine with a faint hint of golden raspberry.
AOCs – Small amounts of Merlot Blanc are grown in Graves, Entre Deux Mers, Cotes de Bourg and Haut Benauge.
The Accessory Grapes – Extinct but not forgotten
Adds suppleness and body to the blend.
Ondenc is now very rare in France and is only really found in Gaillac, south west France, where it’s thought to have originated. It’s thought to take its name from the town of Ondes on the River Garonne between Toulouse and Fronton. In the 19th century Ondenc flourished in Bordeaux but was practically wiped out in the phlloxera epidemic. The decline has continued and although a permitted grape variety in white Bordeaux blends Ondenc has been abandoned in Bordeaux. Close to extinction, Ondenc has a few champions in its native Gaillac where fine, lightly aromatic dry whites and concentrated sweet wines are produced from the grape (Domaine Plageoles). It’s also used in the production of Armagnac and Cognac.
Characteristics – Delicate flavours and fragrance of apricot, honey and quince with honeysuckle and rose.
AOCs – Only a few hectares of Ondenc exist in France and these are rapidly decling. Ondenc seems to have disappeared on the ground in Bordeaux but I suspect there may be one or two Bordealise Petits Chateaux out there with a pocket of old vines somewhere.
Adds aroma and substance to the blend.
Mauzac is rare in France, surviving mostly in Gaillac (mainly in sweet white production) and Limoux (where it is a traditional component of the sparkling wine Blanquette de Limoux). The old name for Mauzac in Bordeaux was ‘Moissac,’ after its supposed place of origin: the town of Moissac located where the Rivers Garonne and the Tarn meet in the Midi-Pyrenees. Little Mauzac is left in Bordeaux but it was once widely grown – one of its synonyms is ‘Blanc Laffitte’ in the Entre Deux Mers, perhaps First Growth Chateau Lafite had Mauzac plantings many years ago?
Characteristics – Distinctive hallmark flavour and fragrance of baked apple with more subtle quince, honey, lemon, gingerbread and yellow plums.
AOCs – A tiny percentage of Mauzac is grown in Sainte Foy and the Entre Deux Mers.
Bordeaux whites have a loyal fan base and command much affection. Their quality and craftsmanship sing out from the glass once you’ve tasted one. Little wonder they remain the most popular wines at tastings at the Shows and Events I take them to!
Bordeaux wines are always blended and this is done to achieve the perfect combination of textures and flavours in their famous wines. It’s the secret of Bordeaux’s success . . .
Unlike most New World wines Bordeaux wines are blends of different grapes carefully assembled to create a flawless wine. Just like the ancient alchemist’s dream of turning base metal into gold, there is a kind of magic when a meticulously designed blend reveals a great wine.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts
Blending is known as ‘Assemblage’ in Bordeaux and wine makers here have had centuries of practice in putting together combinations of grapes for maximum effect. Each chateau has developed its own style, technique and formula to produce their signature wine. Every grape variety has its own flavour profile and characteristics that will bring specific qualities to the blend. So wine makers make their choices wisely, knowing the blend will be the blueprint for the finished wine.
From a medley of grapes a single elixir is born
Each vintage is different, having its own personality, as the blend changes with each year depending on the growing conditions for the grapes. In this way skilfull Bordealise wine makers can overcome drought and deluge by selecting a higher percentage for the blend of the grape varieties that are resistant to these conditions. It’s a complicated process; the different grapes must complement each other, the chateau’s style must be kept consistent and the blend must be representative of the region. As the blend is the birth of a wine the wine maker needs to be able to predict its evolution as it develops and matures in barrel. Unlike the alchemist there is no crystal ball gazing involved; the wine maker has to rely on experience and exceptional expertise.
A marriage made in heaven
For a blend to be successful the grapes have to be in harmony with each other and marry well. Bordeaux red blends can only be made from 6 permitted grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenere. The principal players are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. However Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenere are also used in much smaller quantities.
Each of these grape varieties has its own different requirements in order to grow well. Some flourish best on the Left Bank in the Medoc (AOCs Pauillac, Margaux, Saint Julien, Saint Estephe, Listrac and Moulis) whilst others are better suited to the Right Bank (AOCs Saint Emilion, Pomerol, Fronsac) or in Graves. This means that Bordeaux blends reflect the dominant grape varieties of the region in which they are created in and that wine lovers can choose between their favourite styles depending on their preference for Merlot or Cabernet.
Tip: The same grapes that are used in Bordeaux red blends are also used in Bordeaux Roses and Clairets.
Red Blend Guide
In most cases Cabernet Sauvignon is the classic backbone of the blend; being found in practically all of Bordeaux’s red blends. It adds structure, power, high tannins and full flavours. It also gives the wine wonderful aging ability. Cabernet Sauvignon’s affinity for oak means that during barrel aging the finished blend gains the complimentary flavours of vanilla or caramel.
Originating in Bordeaux at some point in the 17th century, Cabernet Sauvignon was introduced to the Medoc as it’s primary grape by the viticultural pioneers Baron de Brane (the then owner of First Growth Chateau Mouton) together with Armand d’Armailhacq (of Chateau d’Armailhac, both now in the hands of the Rothschilds). The grape is the offspring of red Cabernet Franc and white Sauvignon Blanc. From its beginnings in Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon’s popularity has grown to make it the most famous grape in the world today.
Characteristics – distinctive strong blackcurrant flavour and fragrance; as well as black pepper, plum, mint, blackberry, liquorice and vanilla.
AOCs – Cabernet Sauvignon flourishes in the well drained gravels of the Medoc and Graves as well as the Entre Deux Mers but it is grown the length and breadth of Bordeaux. Apart from its homeland in the Medoc, where it can make up as much as 75% of the blend, it’s planted on the Right Bank and makes up a smaller percentage of the blends.
Adds softness, lush texture, fruitiness and richness to the blend. It also gives a higher alcohol content.
One of the primary grapes used in red Bordeaux blends, Merlot is the most planted grape across Bordeaux. Despite the high amount of Merlot in the vineyards it is the second most used grape in the red blends with Cabernet Sauvignon coming top. Percentages of Merlot used can vary in the blends, from as little as 10% to as much as 90%! Merlot’s thought to have originated in Bordeaux and its parents are Cabernet Franc and the newly rediscovered Magdeleine Noire des Charentes. The earliest recorded mention of it dates to a Right Bank wine labelled ‘Merlau’ in 1784. Plantings in the Left Bank were introduced during the mid 1850s by Armand d’Armailhacq.
Characteristics – flavours and fragrance of blackberry, plum, black cherry, dark chocolate, anise, blueberry and cedar.
AOCs – Merlot is king in Pomerol where it accounts for up to 80% of the blend. One of the most famous Pomerol wines in the world, Chateau Petrus, is almost all Merlot. Saint Emilion wines also have high amounts of Merlot in their blends, using up to 60%. Chateau Bellevue has the highest amount of Merlot here with 98% of its vineyard planted to Merlot. Fronsac has also replaced Malbec with Merlot as its primary grape. Medoc AOCs on the Right Bank and Graves use less Merlot, with Saint Estephe having the highest plantings.
Adds structure, silkiness, fragrance and complexity to the blend. It also gives the wine great ageing ability.
Cabernet Franc is an ancient grape which takes on major importance in Saint Emilion in Bordeaux. Being such an ancient grape its forebears are lost in the mists of time. Cabernet Franc is the parent of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Caremenere. It’s origins are mysterious as the grape is so old and there are romantic notions that it could be the much sought after grape ‘Bidure’ mentioned by Pliny the Elder and Columella in Roman times. Some claim that it is native to Bordeaux itself but studies reveal that it probably originated in the Basque country. Either way by the 1700s Cabernet Franc was growing in Saint Emilion, Fronsac and Pomerol.
Characteristics – flavours and fragrance of pepper and dark spices, raspberry, herbs and cut grass, cherry and tobacco.
AOCs – Cabernet Franc is grown across Bordeaux but the Right Bank AOCs of Saint Emilion, Pomerol and Fronsac are still its heartland as the grape flourishes best there. Saint Emilion is the most renowned for blends with the highest percentage of Cabernet Franc; notably First Growth Chateaux Cheval Blanc vineyards are planted with 58% of the grape and Ausone and Angelus are a 50/50 split between Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
Adds dark colour, body, tannic power and intense fruit to the blend.
Due to Petit Verdot’s rarity (thanks to its late ripening in Bordeaux), powerful flavours and high tannins, only percentages of 5-6% or less are used in blending. Thought to be native to the Medoc in Bordeaux, Petit Verdot can be dated as being grown there in 1736 but recent thinking places its origins further south towards the Pyrenees. Once widely grown in what is now Pessac Leognan; Petit Verdot is the reserve of only certain chateaux nowadays although replanting is being revived across Bordeaux due, in part, to warmer weather conditions.
Characteristics – deep flavours and fragrance of violets, blueberry, mocha, aniseed, olives, mulberry, leather and smoke.
AOCs – Petit Verdot is still grown in the Medoc, notably at Chateau Palmer (Margaux), Pichon Lalande (Pauillac), Leoville Poyferre (Saint Julien) and La Lagune (Haut Medoc). It’s also grown across Bordeaux, with concentrations in Graves, Entre Deux Mers and the Cotes.
Adds dark rich colour, firm tannins, acidity and complexity to the blend.
In the 1850s documents show that Malbec was probably the most planted grape in Bordeaux with around 60% of the vineyards growing this grape. Clarets back then would have contained a large quantity in their blends; for example First Growth Chateau Lafite’s vineyards were dominated by Malbec at this time. Being a grape that likes sun and heat Malbec was practically wiped out in Bordeaux after the severe winter of 1956. Small amounts survived and Malbec has been making a quiet comeback thanks to the spice and colour it gives to blends. Today usage varies with some estates using 5-10% of Malbec in their blends. However some use a lot more (up to 45%!).
Characteristics – distinctive strong plum flavour and fragrance; as well as elderberry, damson, spice, black pepper, coffee and tobacco.
AOCs – Today the highest proportion of Malbec is in the Cotes de Bourg. It can also be found in the Cotes de Blaye and the Entre Deux Mers. However certain chateaux do have a small amount of Malbec in their vineyards, notably: Chateaux Haut Bailly (Pessac Leognan), Gruaud Larose (Saint Julien) and L’Enclos (Pomerol). In Saint Emilion, where Malbec was once widely grown, First Growth Chateau Cheval Blanc uses a tiny amount in its blend. In recent years, Malbec has been making a quiet comeback thanks to the spice and colour it gives to blends.
Adds dark colour, roundness, richness , fruitiness and body to the blend.
Carmenere is exceptionally rare in France as it was thought to have been wiped out in the Phylloxera plague in 1867. However little pockets of this long lost grape survive in Bordeaux. More recently it was ‘rediscovered’ in Chile during the 1990s where growers had been cultivating it mistakenly thinking it was Merlot. Being so rare, Carmenere is hardly found in Bordeaux blends though some estates are now replanting it.
Characteristics – Carmenere has been described as being somewhere between Merlot and the Cabernets as it displays virtues that both have. Flavours and fragrance of black cherry, dark chocolate, raspberry, redcurrant, pepper, cigar box and liquorice.
AOCs – Carmenere was once widely grown in Graves and today small pockets of it can be found in old vineyards. It is also being replanted by estates across Bordeaux. Carmenere can be found still in Graves and the Entre Deux Mers and notably in Pessac Leognan (Chateau Haut Bailly), Pauillac (Chateaux Clerc Milon and Mouton Rothschild), Margaux (Chateau Brane Cantenac replanted the grape in 2007) and Saint Emilion (Chateau Valandraud).
Many Bordeaux enthusiasts have a preference for one blend over another, I’d be interested to know what styles you enjoy!
Finding forgotten wine regions that have ancient claims to fame seems to be a popular pursuit at the moment. With good reason. These shadowy places from the past hide prized estates that once produced celebrated wines. Many still do – and thanks to their obscurity they don’t cost a bomb.
Long lost terrains that were once held in high esteem fall out of fashion but experts are quickly rediscovering why these regions were once great. Fronsac is a perfect example. This region, comprising of the AOCs Fronsac and Canon Fronsac, was once one of Bordeaux’s most respected wine producers. It has an incredible wine making pedigree dating back to Charlemagne (and beyond – there are some who claim that Fronsac was the very first vineyard in Bordeaux). It’s also claimed Fronsac was the first place to discover the concepts of ‘cru and chateau’.
Without doubt Fronsac held a privileged position in the past; the wines were the first ever Bordeaux to appear in a Christie’s catalogue in 1780 and were enjoyed by nobility and royalty alike across Europe. Even the infamous Cardinal de Richelieu owned a Fronsac chateau (which, by the way, still produces wine!).
However times change.
There are lots of reasons why wine regions become eclipsed and with a history of wine making stretching back centuries Fronsac suffered under the French Revolution, the Phylloxera epidemic, the World Wars and from economic decline. A once great entity, Fronsac lay forgotten.
Fronsac’s re-awakening began in 1964 and slowly snow balled over the next decades. Now the producers from this area are benefiting from much interest in their powerful, concentrated and complex, darkly coloured wines.
Finding Fantastic Fronsac
Good terroir (climate and soil) doesn’t change and wine makers began to revitalise Fronsac’s fortunes in the mid 1980s. This attracted the attention of the Bordelaise mainstream and chateau owners began to buy up vineyards in the area. The Moueix family for example own several properties in Canon Fronsac; they are also world famous for producing Chateau Petrus in Pomerol. Interest grew from further afield too – the Cardinal’s Chateau Richelieu was bought by Hong Kong A&A with an eye to providing for the Chinese market.
Unsurprisingly with all this attention Fronsac has started to attract British buyers and its wines have begun to make inroads on merchants shelves.
Bordeaux-Undiscovered began introducing Fronsac wines back in 2006 with Chateaux Toumalin and Les Tonnelles. Fronsac is still not well known and remains undervalued to the majority of the wine buying public which means that it is a good source of high quality yet affordable wine.
Fronsac and its little sub appellation of Canon Fronsac are strategically placed where the Dordogne and the Isle rivers meet, neighbouring Saint Emilion and Pomerol. The soils are clayey-limestone, with some sandstone, and like Saint Emilion the area is honeycombed with quarries and man-made caves.
Canon Fronsac sits on higher terrain and gained the name ‘Canon’ thanks to ships using the western flank of the hill (Tertre de Fronsac) as a landmark to fire salvoes into the marshes during the 1600s. The aim of these trials was to test the ballistics and power of the ships’ canons.
Thanks to its position on the river trade routes Fronsac was a rich and productive area. Its Gaulish market attracted the Romans who settled there and built a temple on the hill top of le Tertre. Charlemagne, King of the Francs, built a mighty fortress over the temple in 769. This fortress was the most powerful in Western France and Fronsac probably took its name from ‘Fronciacus’ meaning ‘Castle of the Francs’.
Fronsac’s golden age revolved around the charismatic Cardinal who purchased Chateau Richelieu in 1632. Under his influence the popularity of Fronsac’s wines soared – in 1783 the entire output of neighbouring Chateau Canon was reserved for the court of the Dauphin at Versailles. On the crest of this wave the wine makers turned their attention to quality control and the notion of ‘Cru’ (Growth) and subsequently that of ‘Chateau’ (Wine Estate) were born. In other words Fronsac wines had to be made from selected grapes grown in a single year by a specific Fronsac chateau. Before this wines could be made from a variety of vineyards and from different years’ harvests – which meant they were a very mixed bag!
Quality is still paramount in Fronsac today. Fronsac wine producers have to set a high standard in order to get their wines discovered. Therefore, wine lovers in the UK benefit from fantastic Fronsac wines at great value for money.
My most recent find from Fronsac is a prime example of a classic Fronsac petit chateau producing high quality wine bearing all the hall marks of this region’s superiority: Chateau Haut Gaussens
Chateau Haut Gaussens lies in the village of Verac which sits high on a limestone plateau at the edge of Fronsac. This was once the seat of the Lords of Fronsac, the Pommiers, who held court here from the 11th century right up until the French Revolution. Chateau de Pommiers still stands in Verac and beneath it lies a Roman villa belonging to Veracus, who gave his name to the village. Swords, javelins, vases and medals were discovered there in 1740 thought to date from the times of Emperor Antonius.
History & Awards:
Typical of Fronsac, Chateau Haut Gaussens is a tiny chateau that has been reborn, not once but twice. First restored in the 19th century, Haut Gaussens was saved by the Lhuillier family during the Second World War in 1941. Stephane Lhuillier, who represents the third generation of this wine making family, took over the reins in 2000. Having undertaken a substantial restructuring of the property, including the winery, wine tasting room and vines, Stephane is now seeing the rise in fortunes of the little chateau with a cluster of awards in France. Newly awarded the Macon Bronze Medal, Haut Gaussens is also a newcomer to the UK, having been recently introduced by Bordeaux-Undiscovered.
If you are a Claret lover and have yet to discover Fronsac, the 2012 vintage from Haut Gaussens is a great wine to try in order to get to know the appellation. Bordeaux-Undiscovered has it at the introductory price of £7.99.
Supple, sensuous, fuller bodied Claret with lovely balance. Aromatic and generous. Rich flavours of ripe blackberry, truffle, damson and dried fig melting into sweeter tones of liquorice, clove, roasted hazelnut and red currant jelly. Soft, mellow tannins and a good finish.
Haut Gaussens is a formidable match for beef and steak, roasted, barbecued or pan fried. It also pairs beautifully with game such as venison, duck, pigeon, pheasant and wild boar sausages. Being heavier than most Clarets it is great with richly flavoured dishes, garlicky pates and terrines, nutty or fruit infused cheese and hearty vegetarian fare (especially nut cutlets).
*Price correct at the time of writing.
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