Must-Know Bordeaux

Theme

Bordeaux is considered by many to be the most important fine wine region in the world.  This tasting is designed to introduce your guests to some of the great wines of Bordeaux: the “Super Seconds.” These wineries of the Left Bank of Bordeaux are known year-in and year-out as some of the best quality, most complex and age-worthy wines in the region, and whose super wines are perceived second only in relation to the five famous “First Growths” that are too expensive for most of us to enjoy regularly (if ever!).  We consider the Super Seconds to be the “must-know” wines of Bordeaux for any wine lover who wants to become seriously familiar with this great region.

Angle

The angle of this event is to introduce and familiarize your guests with each of these wines.  Prices for these wines vary enormously by vintage; your goal here is to find good lower-priced versions from years that were fine but not spectacular (and priced accordingly).  We would recommend you display the wines clearly as you serve them, but we would not hide the wines in a “blind” format.  You want your guests to see the labels as they taste each wine, so they can begin to associate each bottle with its unique character, and perhaps pick a personal favorite or two as the styles do differ from wine to wine.  There is, however, a price range here; we’d recommend withholding the prices of each until the end, and then seeing if the less expensive wines rate as highly among your group as the pricier chateaux!

The Lineup: Bordeaux’s “Super Seconds”

  1. Chateau Montrose 2004, St.-Estephe ($59)
  2. Chateau Leoville-Barton 2001, St.-Julien ($79)
  3. Chateau Pichon-Baron 1999, Pauillac ($89)
  4. Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou 1998, St.-Julien ($90)
  5. Chateau Pichon-Lalande 2001, Pauillac ($99)
  6. Chateau Cos d’Estournel 1999, St.-Estephe ($99)
  7. Chateau Palmer 2003, Margaux ($139)
  8. Chateau Leoville Las Cases 1991, St.-Julien ($159)

Note: the prices above were found on the web recently from one or more of the following retailers: K&L Wine Merchants (San Francisco Bay Area), Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits (New York City), Wally’s Wine & Spirits (Los Angeles).  We chose vintages/years deliberately to keep prices down.  These same wines from years like 1989, 1990, 1995, 1996, 2000 or 2005 are significantly more expensive.

The Wines

This is a spectacular wine tasting.  We first hosted this one for 30-40 friends in 2005 and a number of them still talk about it.  This event, for many of us, was the wine tasting party that opened our eyes to the world of Bordeaux and familiarized us with some wines that are now among our favorites.  They set a benchmark for quality; for those trying to understand what all the fuss is about, these are a good place to start.  These are also great wines for aging, so they make a very thoughtful wedding or first-child gift that you can open up years later.  With that said, it is also an ambitious tasting – finding the wines for this event will take a little legwork.  Trust us, it will be worth it.

 

Depending on where you live, you will likely need to shop online to replicate this event and find all the wines above (or similar vintages that are also good prices).  Check out our “Buying Guide” page for some helpful hints on finding good merchants and good deals on wine in your area.  For most of the tastings on this website, the theme is more important than finding the specific wines we recommend in our sample lineup.   For this tasting, the wines we are recommending are the theme.

In 1855, Napoleon III called upon the Bordeaux wine industry to rate the various wines from best to worst in preparation for the Paris Exhibition.  The Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce ultimately grouped the various chateaux into five categories (based on selling price!) led by the Premiers Crus, or “First Growths.”  There are today five “First Growths” in Bordeaux – Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Haut-Brion, and Chateau Mouton-Rothschild.  They occupy some of the best terroir in Bordeaux and every year make wines that are among the most sought-after in the world.  They are priced accordingly – First Growths rarely sell for less then $300/bottle.

The wines presented in this tasting are often collectively referred to as the “Super Seconds” – the wines from Bordeaux’s Left Bank that are perennial superstars of outstanding quality, but that do not command the lofty prices of the “First Growths.”  Many wine connoisseurs today agree that the 1855 classification is largely outdated, and in particular the quality level of some wines ranked lower then has improved significantly over the years.  On any given year, each of the wineries in this tasting has the potential to produce a wine considered perfect by the all-powerful wine critics.  They very rarely disappoint.

Though there is no formal definition of the exact list of wines that rate as “Super Seconds,” these wines are usually named:

  • Chateau Leoville-Las-Cases
  • Chateau Pichon-Lalande
  • Chateau Pichon-Baron
  • Chateau Cos d’Estournel
  • Chateau Palmer
  • Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou
  • Chateau Montrose
  • Chateau Leoville-Barton

Music

This is an epic, classy event featuring some of the world’s biggest, most renowned wines that are benchmarks for quality, tradition & power.  We’d play music that is suitably heightened, rich, powerful, and name-worthy: The Three Tenors.  Of course, you’re tasting French wines, so we’d choose to play the 1998 Paris concert that Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti sang to ring in the World Cup.  The big, lush, soaring operatic music should set the perfect backdrop for your tasting.  You can always choose something different if opera’s not your thing – classic jazz would work as well – but we’ll bet your guests get into your choice of the Three Tenors in Paris, and it matches your “Bordeaux Super Seconds” theme perfectly.

Pairings

The purpose of whatever food you serve at this event should be to blend in and stay out of the way!  When you’re serving serious wines like this and introducing your guests to the nuances of how Pichon Lalande differs from Pichon Baron, you don’t want hummus or ranch dip getting in the way of your palate.   We’d recommend serving a few cheeses with relatively mild but complex flavors, served with sliced baguette (preferably) or mild crackers like Carr’s water biscuits.   French Cantal cheese is a great pairing with Bordeaux that we’d highly recommend, if you can find it.  Havarti is easier to find and also pairs nicely with Bordeaux.  Manchego pairs well with Cabernet and Merlot (the dominant grapes in these blended wines) and is always a crowd-pleaser.  A selection of mixed olives is a nice accompaniment as well to any wine tasting, and goes particularly well with the Cabernet in these wines.

Tasting Notes

For those new to Bordeaux, the key concept to know about the wines is that red Bordeaux is almost always a blend of several different grapes.  The two major grapes used in the blends are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot; the Cabernet provides great structure and flavor, while Merlot provides a round, supple texture.   Cabernet Franc is the next most important and prevalent grape in these blends, typically used in smaller quantities to provide aromas of violet and spice to the wine.  The other two grapes found in red Bordeaux blends are Malbec and Petit Verdot, which tend to be used in smaller amounts, if at all.

Bordeaux is widely considered the most important wine region in the world.  As Karen MacNeil points out her excellent book The Wine Bible, “No other wine region is more powerful, more commercially clever, or more important as a source of profoundly complex, ageworthy wines.  The challenge is to comprehend it all, for Bordeaux is the largest fine wine vineyard on the globe.  This single region covers more territory than all of the vineyard areas of Germany put together and is ten times larger than the vineyard acreage of New Zealand…[Bordeaux wineries] produce a daunting 700 million bottles of wine every year, including many of the priciest wines in the world.”

We’d recommend printing out a map of Bordeaux for your guests so they can see the geography from which these famous wines hail.  Bordeaux lies alongside three rivers – the Gironde, the Dordogne and the Garonne – and all the “Super Seconds” are on the “Left Bank,” the term for the Haut-Medoc region that sits on the West (Left) Bank of the Girdone River.  This area includes villages that are home to some of the world’s most famous wines.  The town of  Pauillac is probably Bordeaux’s most famous village, where you’ll find 1st growths Lafite-Rothschild, Latour and Mouton-Rothschild as well as Super Seconds Pichon-Lalande and Pichon-Baron.  Its southern neighbor Saint Julien features several wineries classified as 2nd growths in 1855, including Gruaud Larose, Leoville Poyferre, and our “Super Seconds” Leoville-Las-Cases, Leoville-Barton and Ducru Beaucaillou.  To the north of Pauillac is Saint Estephe, home to Super Seconds Montrose and Cos d’Estournel, as well as many up-and-coming wineries known for offering excellent value given the quality.  The southernmost of the Haut-Medoc appellations is Margaux, where more of the “classified” wines from 1855 reside than any other.  These include first-growth Chateau Margaux, a number of second-growths, and Chateau Palmer which was originally ranked as a third-growth but is widely regarded as a “Super Second.”

This tasting is just an introduction to Bordeaux, one that focuses on some of the most famous villages of the region and on wines that have long been classified as some of France’s very best.  Bordeaux, however, doesn’t end with the 1855 classification.  Many of Bordeaux’s most celebrated wines were never classified in the first place, notably those on the “Right Bank” villages of Pomerol and St.-Emilion.

Whereas “Left Bank” wines like those in our tasting tend to include a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon, the “Right Bank” stars are often Merlot-dominated, or even 50/50 Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  St.-Emilion has two wines that received the highest ranking in its own 1954 classification: Chateau Cheval Blanc and Chateau Ausone.  These wines, too, command worldwide admiration and lofty price points.  Fans of the 2004 movie Sideways will note that the main character Miles was saving a 1961 Cheval Blanc for a special occasion.  Pomerol, meanwhile, never bothered to classify its wines, which include the most expensive Bordeaux wine in the world:  Chateau Petrus.   Made in small quantities to great acclaim, Chateau Petrus typically costs several thousand dollars a bottle!

Once you’ve introduced yourself and your guests to Bordeaux with this tasting, use the Super Second wines as a springboard to learn more.  If you found you liked wines from a specific village (for example, all the St.-Julien wines), head out to your local wine merchant and pick out some more affordable wines from that village that could become everyday favorites.  If you loved the wines and are anxious to explore Bordeaux further, put together a tasting of Right Bank wines – possibly comparing the bounty of St. Emilion and Pomerol to their Left Bank neighbors in a blind tasting format.  Also – a number of the “Super Seconds” above also produce a second wine from the chateau based on grapes not used in the “Grand Vin.”  These wines can be delicious in their own right, obviously come from great terroir, and are far more affordable. Examples include Clos du Marquis (from Leoville Las Cases), La Dame de Montrose, and Alter Ego de Palmer.  Finally, we think you’d have a blast putting together a blind tasting of red Bordeaux blends against Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from California.  See if your guests can tell the difference or have a clear favorite.

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