I had never visited before and had tasted precious few wines from the region. For me this was terra incognita.
How is that possible, you may wonder, for a serious student of wine? Years ago, when I fell in love with wine, Pinot Noir was my courtesan. Living in California, I’d started out drinking mostly new world Pinots, but eventually fell in with a band of hardcore Burgundy aficionados who introduced me to the intricacies of Bourgogne terroirs, which takes years to understand and appreciate. Bordeaux rarely even came up in our conversations.
So why now, late in the game, am I visiting and studying Bordeaux? About a year ago a friend showed up for dinner one evening and uncorked a bottle of Cheval Blanc. It had a sensual power that rivaled peak experiences I’d had imbibing Bourgogne Grand Crus. After the first sip, I knew instantly I was falling down another rabbit hole…
Vine row at Château La Fleur Pétrus
And that explains why I was abord a bus in early October 2022 rumbling along country roads through Entre-Deux-Mers towards Pomerol and listening to Andrew Jefford, our instructor, teeing the day up by weaving stories and statistics into an enrapturing hour-long narrative. First, with an overview of the geography, soils and pecking order of Bordeaux châteaux, followed by an intro on the wines themselves, discussing texture, acidity, tannins, élevage and more. Finally, Andrew confessed that for him appraising Bordeaux wines is like buying perfume—both have strong sensual characteristics and, thus, emotional resonance. As we arrived at our first stop, Château La Fleur-Pétrus in Pomerol, he left us with a wonderful old adage: Pomerol is a wine that teaches you that you love wine.
Natalie, our La Fleur-Pétrus guide, welcomed us and ushered us into the vineyard to get a close look at the soil and the vines. What impressed me most was her explanation that their harvest decisions are made row by row, depending on ripeness. “Here we are not trying to make jam,” she deadpanned. “We want freshness.” The ultimate test, she told us, is "drinkability". How to measure that? Well, she explained, “A couple should be able to drink a bottle and go to bed and feel wonderful.” That’s a qualitative measurement I can relate to; especially since these wines were so soft, round and voluptuous that drinking a bottle would be so easy.
The best surprises are always those that are unexpected; and the next five days were full of them—about the landscape, the grapes, the soils, the viticulture, the technology, the history and, of course, the wines. What follows is my distilled Top 10 list of what surprised me most about Bordeaux.
Hillside view from Saint-Émilion
1. The winegrowing area is incredibly vast.
All of Napa has 46,000 acres of vineyards. That sounds like a lot until I learned that Bordeaux has 287,000 acres. Traveling through the vineyards, it feels like an endless, beautifully manicured garden.
2. It’s all about the haves and the have nots.
A tiny number of classified châteaux get most of the oxygen and have licenses to print money. But there are close to 10,000 châteaus in Bordeaux. Ten thousand—get your head around that stat. (By comparison, in all of California there are about 4,500 wineries.) Many Bordeaux châteaux are small, family-owned and struggle to make ends meets. But the good news is that there are bargains galore—so many wonderful wines it’s hard to keep track.
Neatly kept rows of vines, as far as the eye can see
3. Soil is destiny—the gravels, the clays, the limestone and the sand.
They are a huge part of making the wines taste the way they do—impacting drainage and ripening and ultimately fragrance and flavors. The Bordelaise have had a head start of a few thousand years to figure this all out.
4. What makes Bordeaux wines so wonderfully drinkable?
Plenty of acidity and balance—partly the result of soils, part climate but mostly viticulture. It’s what makes you want the next sip…whether red, white, sweet or dry.
Château Troplong Mondot
5. New technology has dramatically impacted quality—for the better.
The result is way gentler handling and extraction, and ultimately wines of remarkable purity and refinement.
6. Merlot stole my heart, but…
I absolutely loved the soft, silky Merlot-dominant blends on the Right bank with some spicy Petite Verdot and Cabernet Franc thrown in--and felt they were my thing. That is, until I tasted Château Margaux (from the Left bank), which is mostly crafted from much more structured Cabernet Sauvignon—with just a dollop of Merlot. It was flat out ethereal. This just doesn’t make sense, given that’s it’s around 90 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, but somehow it’s true. Now, if I could only afford to drink it.
7. Cabernet Franc keeps its cool.
This grape is going to be a big part of the future. If it gets too hot to plant Merlot in Bordeaux, Cabernet Franc will likely come to the rescue. It adds deep bass notes to red Bordeaux blends.
8. Old school is new school.
Back in the day, a few classic Bordeaux producers didn’t fall under the spell of wine critic Robert Parker. They stuck to elegance and refinement over extraction and power. For sure, that’s become the formula for success today.
9. Whites are the sleeper Bordeaux super-power.
There used to be more whites than red here. Typical Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blends are a marriage made in heaven—and virtually unknown to most Americans. That definitely won’t be the case for much longer.
Botrytized grapes at Château Suduiraut
10. Sauternes are a miracle.
Woefully under-appreciated since they are classified as dessert wines, which most Americans want no part of. But their magical creation (grapes that become botrytized thanks to morning mists and a fungus) and mystical combination of sweetness and acidity are a revelation.
At the end of my visit, I got one more surprise; it didn’t feel like I had visited a single region at all. Bordeaux felt more like a solar system—teaming with planets and moons—each with its own unique orbit, atmosphere and gravitational pull.
My parting wish is that my revelations don’t turn into judgements. I vow to try to keep my views as fresh and alive as the wines I’ve tasted in Bordeaux. That’s a lot to live up to.