The wines of Bordeaux are among the world’s finest, most popular and, in some cases, also the most expensive. It is the largest wine-producing area in France, and the city of Bordeaux is second only to Paris as the country’s most visited. Depending on the source, there are more than 700 million bottles (estimates of 60 million to 70 million cases) of red Bordeaux produced each year, plus roughly 85 million bottles (about 7 million cases) of white.
According to The Wine Cellar Insider, more than one-quarter of the production sells for less than $4 per bottle and only 3 percent at more than $16 per bottle. Given Bordeaux’s reputation for superior quality, high price and limited supply, some of these figures are hard to believe, which is why a further exploration of this esteemed region and its wines is an interesting exercise.
I was invited to attend last week’s Union des Grands Cru’s de Bordeaux annual tasting of the 2014 vintage in San Francisco where more than 80 Châteaux were represented and about 100 wines were poured. Naturally, the selection was heavily weighted toward reds but also included a limited representation of whites from Graves and Pessac-Léognan along with a respectable selection of sweet wines from Sauternes and Barsac.
All wines were arranged by appellation and included both Right and Left Bank producers. From the Right Bank, we tasted the wines of St. Emilion and Pomerol. On the Left Bank were the wines of Graves, Pessac-Léognan, Margaux, St. Julien, Paulliac, St. Estèphe, Sauternes and Barsac along with three of the less familiar appellations of Listrac-Médoc, Haut-Médoc and Moulis-En-Médoc.
In all, Bordeaux encompasses about 8,000 producers from more than 50 appellations. Therefore, it was a monumental task for the organizers of this tasting to focus on those representing the most significant appellations with a broad range of producers from each. I was interested in sampling wines from unfamiliar producers throughout Bordeaux and especially those of the lesser known appellations.
The 2014 vintage’s potential was a mystery to many during the growing season with a cool and damp spring/early summer with significant warming in late August through mid-September. Rains hit in mid-September and were followed by beautiful sunshine to help the vintage achieve its success in the end.
Noted journalist and critic Stephen Spurrier, who is consultant editor for Decanter Magazine, referred to the vintage early on as “one to watch” and later as a “joy to taste.”
Many others in the trade and press have expressed similar thoughts looking at 2014 as the best since 2010 and an initial step ahead toward the great character of 2015 and 2016 (perhaps the start of another trifecta as we saw with 1988, 1989 and 1990). I shared similar impressions as I progressed through the tasting and later when reviewing my notes. The terms “elegant,” “balanced,” “good acidity”, “structured tannin” and “attractive fruit” continued to reappear for the majority of the 50-plus wines I tasted with a good sampling of each appellation.
I was very impressed with the lesser-known “hyphenated” Médoc wines and found them on the whole quite accessible with good structure, fruit and tannin despite a somewhat simple character. These are not the flagship wines of Bordeaux but are worth a try for early consumption and are far more affordable than others from the more highly-acclaimed appellations.
On the Right Bank, the stellar character of merlot showed beautifully in both St. Emilion and Pomerol with a generous contribution of cabernet franc in the former and to a lesser extent in the latter, adding complexity, aromatics and breath. An outstanding showing overall.
The whites of Graves and Pessac-Léognan were, in general, quite remarkable with bright citrus notes of the sauvignon blanc and melon/white pitted fruit nuances from the semillion. The reds of Pessac-Léognan as expected were also outstanding displaying a richness on the palate accompanied by bright acidity and well-defined tannin.
The other Left Bank appellations were exceptional, and reminded me of what a classic Bordeaux should be. The varied climatic conditions of the vintage helped create an impression of structure, elegance and grace coupled with complexity and balance leading the way for most wines to excel. Perhaps Margaux was the finest example, followed closely by Paulliac, as both exemplified wines demonstrating breath across the mid-palate and extraordinary depth on the back-palate and finish. St. Julian (usually a favorite of mine) was a step behind in consistency and included a few of the best examples of the overall tasting but also others that were several notches below.
Sauternes and Barsac have received good press and very optimistic outlooks from the vintner community back home for this vintage. Here again, I encountered wines at both ends of the spectrum with several truly great examples of acid to sugar balance. Others seemed lacking in acidity, leaving a cloying impression on the finish.
I was pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of the 2014 wines tasted from throughout Bordeaux and by the organizers’ professional and passionate manner in arranging the tasting. When looking at Bordeaux (as many do) only though the eyes of the 61 Classified Growths of the 1855 Classification, along with a few highly recognized wines from appellations not included in the original classification, we miss many other great wines of the area and certainly many of the best values available in the market.