In a world where it seems who talks loudest is most heard, I wanted to explore “What makes Bordeaux wine so special?”
It was my old boss Peter Sichel’s father, Allan, a few years ago, who I think best summed up for me what is remarkable about the region’s wines (in a charming if somewhat old fashioned way). “Without being, by any means, the least alcoholic of wines it is possibly the least heady. If it is a feminine characteristic to whisper rather than to shout, to be subtle in expression rather than blatant, to reject with age the pleasant flamboyant characteristics of youth in flavour of more tranquil, deeper, more expressive qualities of maturity, then again claret is a feminine wine.” (Allan Sichel, The Penguin Book of Wines 1965).
I quoted this in the introduction of my recent book ‘Bordeaux Sip by Sip’ (Editions Sudouest) and despite the effect of global warming this still holds true of Bordeaux wines today. Today we have more consistent ripening but still a relatively long cool growing season that enables the development of the complex aromas and subtlety. Take a strawberry grown in England and compare it to one grown faster in a warmer climate such as Spain…
Due to the cooling effects of our maritime climate with the Atlantic Ocean helping to refreshes soaring mid summer temperatures, the Bordeaux wine in the glass tends to always have a freshness. This helps to make them great accompaniment to food as they don’t fill you up but stimulate your taste buds. This comes from the acidity that makes our taste buds tingle and salivate and helps to balance the ripe fruit and tannic structure.
I remember Denis Dubourdieu during the DUAD tasting Diploma course at the Faculty of Oenology some 10 years ago talking of the four ‘E’s of a great wine; Expression of a place or terroir, Emotion that it evoked, Equilibrium (Balance) of its different components and Elegance – probably my signature word for Bordeaux.
I also remember him explaining about ripeness and our latitude (45 degrees parallel) and it has stayed with me all of these years helping me to understand the uniqueness of this amazing source of wines. In Bordeaux we are able to achieve perfect ripeness at relatively low alcohol levels, both the sugar levels within the grape and ripeness of the grape skins themselves. These two factors are not linked and in some sunnier climates of California for example sugar levels (hence alcohol levels) soar as the skins slowly finish their ripening resulting in heavier more alcoholic wines.
The rising heat of recent summers has increased alcohol levels but long gone are the days of the sickly sweetness that comes from over-ripe grapes (that begin to all taste the same), over-extracted, over-oaked (and over priced!). Today this subtlety is the goal of wine producers big and small in Bordeaux – picking grapes when they are just ripe and still have that fresh crunchiness and a purity of fruit flavours and doing everything to preserve these during winemaking and ageing with less new oak (ageing in concrete vats or terracotta amphoras) and less use of sulphites.
Wines that talk, that don’t need to shout, wines that have secrets to tell in a whisper – we just need to take the time and have the peace of mind to be able to listen to what they are telling us.
Nicolle Croft ‘Bordeaux Sip by Sip’ Wine Book