Areas And Wine Styles
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The Idea Of The Wine Chateau
Vintages and Ageing

Bordeaux is responsible for setting the styles for several of the world's favourite kinds of wine. Such is the dominance of red bordeaux and sweet white bordeaux, and so widely are they imitated around the world, that it is easy to forget that these styles of wine evolved, and were not handed down as recipes.

The making of red bordeaux is not complex. It differs little from the straightforward. What the Bordeaux winemakers and merchants evolved were two key processes: the assem-blage and cask maturation. Assem-blage is the blending of the wines from different grape varieties, and different parcels in the vineyard, to achieve a harmonious whole. This has been refined since the 1970s to involve tasting and selection vat by vat, with those below standard demoted to the chateau's "second wine" or even to the commune appellation. Wine from young vines, or those in outlying parcels, may be routinely removed from the blend. This selection process allows the chateau to maintain a consistent standard vintage after vintage. In the top properties, a poor vintage may result in more than half of the wine produced being excluded from the main chateau wine, the "Grand Vin". Even a large but good vintage may see anything up to half the wine deselected to maintain the concentration and quality of the Grand Vin.

Ageing in oak casks developed in Bordeaux from being a utilitarian way of storing and transporting, to being a vital part of the recipe for the finished wine. Each chateau makes its own decisions about whether to use new oak barriques and, if so, in what proportion; what kind of oak to use; and for how long. New oak adds character and taste to the wine but not every wine can stand it: petits ch iteaux that use too much new oak can end up with claret that tastes of oak rather than grapes. A top chateau will use 100 % new oak casks each year.

While all red bordeaux is made according to the same methods and from the same grape varieties, and most examples will show a common character, the variations in style can be considerable. The balance of the grape varieties grown makes a big difference: Merlot-dominated wines taste fuller, fatter and softer, and mature earlier, than those based upon Cabernet Sauvignon. The yield of the vineyard will have its effect on the concentration and character of the wine. The location of the vineyard will show in the final taste, with the various areas having their own styles, which are described in the chapters that follow. Once the grapes are picked, the various steps in the winemaking process, especially assemblage and ageing, will affect the taste. Rigour in selection and care in winemaking do make a difference, as chateaux show when they outperform their neighbours - and the expectations set by their terroir when in talented hands. The reverse is also true: a badly run estate can make wine well below the standard that its classification, position and status suggest.

Over the centuries the best land in Bordeaux has been planted with grapes, the varieties that perform best have been selected, and investment in the vineyard maintained. So the top estates on the price (and classification) lists are at the top for good reasons. They make a distinct style of red bordeaux: more concentrated, longer-lived, more complex than their petits chateaux cousins. Occasionally, a small estate rises above its classification, and there are whole areas (like Pomerol until the 1960s) that have been unjustly neglected. But the chance of a new star emerging is far less than in, say, California, where all the options of site, variety and technique are still wide open.

The lesser red wines may not show the classic style, but they offer good value and a distinct bordeaux flavour: clean, slightly brisk and appetizing.

The making of white wine has altered more than red, in Bordeaux and elsewhere, as new methods have been developed since around 1970. The advent of stainless steel vats, modern presses and temperature control has made it possible for Bor-deaux winemakers to make better use of their Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes. With the old tech-niques, much white bordeaux was heavily sulphured and the wines gained a poor reputation. Even the top white Graves had problems differentiating themselves from this reputation. Today freshness, aroma and fruit have improved.

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