Updated: Mar 7, 2018
I had the opportunity to visit the south of France for the first time last month and thought I would share some of the things I learned about the Bordeaux region and how it compares to my home in Napa Valley. I stayed about 40 minutes from the city of Bordeaux in a small town called St. Emilion, located on the right bank. This region is comprised of many small family producers rather than the larger aristocratic Chateaus on the left bank.
The first thing I noticed about the local wine was that the Chateaus in France are not required to put the varietal or blend on the bottle. In Napa, we are required to detail out appellations and varietals on the label. The idea in Bordeaux, I learned, is that consumers of French wines understand what it is in the bottle by looking at the Chateau and what it has historically produced. There is no need for additional information if you are acquainted with a certain winery or producer.
It was interesting for me to understand how the basic components of terroir are so different in these two regions:
Napa is small (45,000 acres of vineyards), Bordeaux is large (152,000 acres of vineyards)
While Napa has over 100 soil types all packed into a small region, Bordeaux terroir is comprised of mostly gravel, limestone and clay
Napa’s weather is very consistent from year to year, which allows our wines to be relatively consistent vintage to vintage. Bordeaux has vast changes in weather each year, with much more rain, so vintages can vary greatly. Vintages that are coveted that came from a nice weather year with not too much rain and plenty of sun. Harvest can start as late as October in Bordeaux, compared to August or September some years in Napa. My home base in St. Emilion was predominantly Merlot country as it does not get the heat needed to ripen for Cabernet Sauvignon.
Because of the elements mentioned above, the wines drank very different from the typical fruit forward, ripe Cabernets I’m used to. The Chateaus I visted were pouring wines much older that what we have currently released in Napa. I enjoyed tasting and comparing: Bordeaux wines showed alcohol levels that are moderate and fully ripe at 12.5%. This compares to Napa Cabernets, which typically run around 14%, plus or minus. Acid levels were a bit sharp in the Bordeaux wines and the tannins more astringent during youth, but showed well with age. Bordeaux wines are known for their excellent cellaring potential and this is apparent in these hefty tannins.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and I would love to go back at some point – there is so much to see and drink!