Note from the author: A few weeks ago, I traveled to Bordeaux with a group of writers and trade folks, hosted by Union des Syndicats Saint-Emilion-Pomerol-Fronsac, a group dedicated to the promotion of the region and its wines. Here are a few snapshots and wine recommendations from my journey.
In order to understand what makes the Right Bank of Bordeaux special, it's best to explore the area one bottle at a time. In a region with this much diversity and innovation in the cellar—and on the vine—it's possible to taste a dozen different merlot blends, each aged in the same type of barrel, and find that they all taste radically different. It's an eye-opening experience that will help you get a handle on the term terroir, which is what the Right Bank is all about.
Living in the shadow of the super-famous châteaux of the Left Bank (whose wines garner the attention of mainstream critics and millionaires) may seem like a big disadvantage, but many on the Right Bank are using it as an opportunity to highlight the artisanal quality of their wines. By producing relatively small quantities of wines that appeal to many different tastes, that require less bottle aging, and offer great value for boutique production, Right Bank winemakers are poised to shatter the old stereotypes of Bordeaux and embrace a younger generation of drinkers.
In Pomerol, Fronsac, Saint-Emilion, the wines are almost exclusively merlot-based blends, which grow well in the clay soil that dominates the region. Plateaus of limestone and patches of sand scattered throughout the vineyards allow for modest growth of other grapes (cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, and/or malbec) which lend structure and personality to the merlot with which they are blended. Unlike Left Bank wines, which are dominated by tannic cabernet sauvignon that's built to age and meant to sit for years in a cellar, these merlot-based wines are lower in tannins and acid, which gives them incredible versatility. They can be light and bursting with barely-ripe red fruit or velvety and rich, with dark fruit and firm tannins.
Wine is an essential part of a French meal, and these wines are ideal to accompany the meat-centric cuisine of Bordeaux. The lighter wines complement dishes like duck and foie terrine or cheese and tomato tart, and the more full-bodied wines are the perfect foil for the beef, foie gras, seared duck breast, or lamb that's bound to be on your plate (vegetarians be warned, a visit to Bordeaux will likely end with your starvation).
Saint-Emilion is the only appellation on the Right Bank with an official evaluation and ranking procedure in place, and the only classification in Bordeaux that requires wines to be re-evaluted in an exhaustive blind tasting process every ten years (unlike the Left Bank classification, which has remained almost exactly the same since 1855). This system is designed to raise the bar and give winemakers something for which to strive.
My arrival in Bordeaux was well-timed with the release of the newest classification, which named 84 properties Premier Cru Classé A, Premier Cru Classé B, or Grand Cru Classé. The rankings were a hot topic of conversation during the festivities surrounding The Jurade, an annual festival that celebrates the beginning of harvest and honors members of the appellation's wine council, and everyone had strong opinions about whether classification is good or bad for the region. Whether the new classification helps consumers better understand Saint-Emilion wines or simply serves to drive up prices by attracting a pool of wealthier consumers remains to be seen. With so many great producers and new talent in Saint-Emilion, I'm confident that there will still be plenty of beautiful wines of great value to go around.
It's worth mentioning that many of the wines that I tasted on my trip are still unavailable in the United States, but an increasing number of producers are currently seeking importers. Below you'll find my favorite values from the Right Bank, all currently available for purchase.
Château la Fleur Saint-Paul, Montagne-Saint-Emilion 2009: This wine comes from a 3rd generation winemaker who has built his modest cellar from the ground up. The wine is made in stainless steel tanks and never sees the inside of a barrel. As a result, it's a pretty, light-bodied wine with delicate aromas of raspberry and roses, and bright, tart strawberry and red plum flavors made from 100% merlot. Watch for it soon on the US market. (around $17)
Château Moulin de Lagnet, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2009:This blend of 80% merlot, 10% cabernet franc, and 10% cabernet sauvignon has a scent that evokes black currants, mint, smoke, and leather to complement the taste of delicious, juicy black plums lightly spiced with clove and vanilla. The presence of smooth, round tannins and balanced acidity make this an elegant choice, especially for the price. (around $24)
Château de Pressac, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2006: A swirl of your glass will reveal the aroma of ripe red berries with subtle hints of coffee and cinnamon, and a sip reveals tart bing cherries, tarragon, and freshly turned soil. This medium-bodied and slightly acidic wine wine is especially delicious with mild cheeses and charcuterie. (around $42)
Château de Valandraud Virgine de Valandraud, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2009: A splurge-worthy wine worth more than its price. Lots of ripe and juicy plums, black pepper, and cedar. Decant it while it's young to soften the tannins a little. (around $64)
Château Mazeyres, Pomerol 2009: This blend of 80% merlot, 10% cabernet franc, and 10% cabernet sauvignon hints at fresh cranberries, savory herbs, and smoke as you give it a sniff. The presence of smooth tannins, fresh acidity, and a nice balance of red plums and stones make this elegant wine an excellent value. (around $30)
Château de Sales, Pomerol 2009: 72% merlot, 13% cabernet franc and 15% cabernet sauvignon. Only 5% of the merlot has aged in new oak, and the resulting wine is light and delicate, with beautiful floral aromas and tart bing cherry flavor that will have acid fans salivating. (around $30)
Château de La Rivière, Fronsac 2005: This wine comes from the largest estate in Pomerol, and thanks to a distribution arrangement with Trader Joe's, its probably the easiest of the bunch to find in the United States. It's rich and plush, with assertive flavors of juicy tart blackberries supported by mint, minerals, and round tannins. (around $16, and available at Trader Joes)
Château Puy Guilhem, Fronsac 2009: Winemaker Jean-Marc Enixon's goal is to make wines that will be ready to drink sooner for the modern market, but his operation is still charmingly old school (check out the photo of his basket press in the slideshow). His blend of 90% merlot and 10% malbec is subtle and restrained, with a good balance of acidity, soft tannins, some tart red berries and plenty of minerals. (around $30)
Chateau du Gaby, Canon-Fronsac 2009: The winemaker here went organic a few years back and does not use commercial yeast for fermentation. The resulting vintage is well-balanced, with delicate violet and berry scents and a touch of clove, and juicy red plums that pack an acidic punch that will make your mouth water. This is a wine that will get even better with age. (around $30)
Want to see what Bordeaux actually looks like? Check out my snapshots of cellars, vineyards, winemakers, and the food they eat in Bordeaux in the slideshow above.