May 14, 2006
Surprises from Bordeaux

I've a hunch my view of Bordeaux is shared by several other American wine enthusiasts: The wines of Bordeaux may be the greatest made, but they're complicated and expensive, inaccessible when young, nerve-wracking as they age because you never really know when they will be at their prime.

Thus, I jumped at the chance Friday to mingle with 14 winemakers from Bordeaux and to taste as many of the 100 wines they'd brought with them as I'd like (I called it a day after 44). Mostly, I wanted to see if there was any substance to the claims they were making before they landed in San Francisco. They'd been saying that Bordeaux has a story to tell beyond the 60 or so estates classified in 1855 as the region's top chateaux - Lafite-Rothschild, Haut-Brion, Latour and the like, the brands that command the dearest prices and generate the most headlines.

Those classified growths, however, account for only around five percent of Bordeaux's output, and beyond them is a vast sea of wine the French are desperate to sell as the rest of the winemaking world expands.

There were wines at Friday's tasting that came in screwcap bottles. There were wines whose labels included the names of the variety or varieties of the grapes in the bottle. Both of these developments are new for Bordeaux, suggesting its producers aren't as hidebound as they often seem.

The winemakers tended to be younger than older, and they were exploratory and hip. They'd spent the day before in the Napa Valley (coming away stung by the prices of the wines). Some were going to that night's Giants/Dodgers game, and a couple hoped to squeeze in a concert the next day before flying home. Estelle Roumage, who after five generations is the first woman winemaker at her family's Chateau Lestrille Capmartin, was to spend the weekend in Auburn visiting California relatives.

They even liked the food. "The food is more international here. In France we have French food and that's all," said Sylvie Courselle, third-generation winemaker at her family's Chateau Thieuley. "My father and grandfather didn't travel at all," she said of the winemakers she's succeeded.

But it's a new world for the French. They recognize they no longer can rely on tradition and prestige to sell their wines. "Basically, everybody," said Thibault Despagne of Chateau Tour de Mirambeau when asked who these Bordeaux producers see as their competition. "We're under challenge."

Down the road, I'll do a column that will take a look at this group of Bordeaux wines, but the bottom line at the end of the tasting was that the region does indeed offer wine enthusiasts a class of wines more affordable and more approachable than what Americans might customarily imagine when they hear that magic word "Bordeaux." As a group, the wines tend to be leaner and dryer than California wines, but with surprising aromatics up front and surprising length in the finish. The down side is that because California wines are so understandably dominant in the Sacramento market they won't be easy to find. Nonetheless, the next time you see a Bordeaux wine on shelf or wine list don't dismiss it out of hand; tap the expertise of merchant or steward to see if the style of the producer and the nature of the vintage might accommodate the food you expect to serve with it. And then expect to be pleasantly surprised.

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