Exploring Bordeaux Wines, One Appellation at a Time

By Linnea Covington  |  October 30, 2013

Tackling a subject like French wine proves a daunting task, however tasty it might be. After all, there are 17 regions that produce wine, and in those provinces you have multiple appellations, each claiming a specific terroir. Because of that, we've decided to focus on the rich, tannin-filled red wines of Bordeaux, and from there, the famous wine-producing regions on the right bank, including Saint-Emilion, Pomerol and Fronsac. The majority of grapes grown in these areas are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, and many of the finished bottles rely heavily on the former of the three.

The result often comes out in the form of vinos with a lot of body, high tannins, and enough personality to stand up to rich, meaty French staples in the is area including roasted duck, fig-laden desserts and entrecôte marchand de vin, otherwise known as beef with wine sauce. With this mini guide, we delve into some of the chateaux in this country and the places you can go in the United States to sample them.

  • Credit: Linnea Covington

    In this appellation of Bordeaux, there are over 200 chateaux making wine. Some do it on a small scale and only produce a few thousand bottles a year, but others have a thriving production and sell thousands of cases across the world. A handful of premier grands crus wines are available in Saint-Emilion, which means these vinos have both old growth, cru, and were grown in a great year, hence the grand tag. These include Château Angélus, Château Valandraud, Château Figeac, Clos Fourtet, Château Pavie, and more. Château Haut Sarpe too touts this label, and if you are interested in learning more about the wine making process, they offers guests classes on tasting, appreciating, and blending wine, and in the end, you get to comprise your own bottle using their vinos.

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    Château L’Angélus
    Right now, this famous winery is undergoing a complete renovation and turning their visitor’s center and production facilities into a real work of art. On top of all that, literally, is a grand bell representing the region’s plethora of churches, which they have programmed to play anthems from all the countries that drink their wine. This is a big change given that the 84-acre winery established itself in Saint-Emilion in 1782. However, though the facade might change, the wine remains true and most are comprised of a unique blend of 50% merlot, 3-percent cabernet sauvignon, and a hefty 47-percent Cabernet Franc, which helps round out and soften the earthy tannins.

    In the states, splurge on a bottle of 1995 or 2000 Château L’Angélus at the four-star restaurant Tru in Chicago. Here, chef Anthony Martin offers an extensive caviar program that, when paired with a bottle of this vino, guarantees you are in for a lavish evening.

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    Château Saint-Georges
    Not only can you find great wine here, but one of the grandest houses rests on this property in the hamlet of Saint-Georges. Actually, it’s more of a castle than a house, and was constructed in 1772. Though they have made wine since then, it wasn’t until Petrus Desbois bought the property in 1891 that the area began to really thrive with grape production. Finally, in 1945, the vintages started to gain notoriety in under Desbois’ son, also named Petrus. Now the winery is run by Georges Desbois, and they produce two wines, Château Puy Saint-Georges, a 100-percent merlot, and Château Saint-Georges, a blend of 60-percent merlot, and 20-percent each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

    If you want to find Château Saint-Georges, head to Texas where they serve it in restaurants all over, from Austin to Dallas to Houston. For example, you can find it on lists at Artisan Bistro in Austin, Brennan’s of Houston and La Frite Belgian Bistro in San Antonio.

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    The Jurade
    One thing that makes Saint-Emilion stand out from other areas is there bi-annual Jurade Feast, a celebration of the harvest by an ancient order that dates back to 1199. Historically, the Jurats were in charge of the medieval town of Saint-Emilion and dealt with all its external affairs, including overseeing the production of wine. So basically, they got to try a lot of wine and decide if it was worthy of their stamp of approval, and while they might not try every barrel today, they still indulge in the art of tasting. Today the Jurade has several thousand members from all over the world who act as ambassadors for Saint-Emilion wines. This past fall French Olympic swimmer Fabien Gilot and film director Chris Renaud (the Despicable Me movies and The Lorax) made the cut and were sworn in. If you want to catch the next celebration, it commences June 18, 2014.

    Aside from the aforementioned vineyards, to experience a good sampling of Saint-Emilion wines, head to Daniel Boulud’s newly remodeled db bistro moderne in New York. Here you can find some lovely examples of red wines from this appellation by the bottle. Choose from Château Beausejour 2009 Montagne, Château Haut Segottes 2008 Grand Cru,and  Château Clarisse 2010 Puisseguin.

    At Les Nomades in Chicago they too offer a unique selection of wines from Saint-Emilion, as well as Pomerol, including a 2003 Château Cheval-Blanc, 2005 Château La Gaffelière, and 1 1995 Château Figeac.

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    On average, this small appellation in Bordeaux produces approximately 41 million bottles a year, all coming from 125 grape growers. The terroir in this area tend to have gravel topsoil, then clay and sand subsoil that proves rich in iron oxides. It's one of the most prized wine growing regions, and many of the vino that hale from here come with a high price tag. As far as history goes, this is where the Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem, aka the Knights Templar, established a command, and today you can still see stone posts sporting the Maltese cross.

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    One of the most prevalent, and expensive producers in Pomerol is Petrus, a château that has produced high quality and in demand wines since the mid-to-late 1800s. Today, Jean-Francois Moueix owns the 28-acre vineyard, and the wines that come from there are still touted as some of the best in the world. Often you get notes of spice, coffee, cinnamon, dark cherries, truffle, chocolate and wet earth in the rich wines, which are all 100-percent merlot. In case you can’t run away to France, you can order bottles of vintages from 1970 through 2000 at the 21 Club in New York. Or, head to Chicago’s Tru, where you can find a bottle from 1981 on the menu for a measly $3,500.

    A good place to sample Pomerol wines is at Josiah Citrin’s Mélisse in Santa Monica. Here they serve over a dozen bottles from this appellation including Château Certan de May, Château Lafleur, Château Trotanoy, and Château Gombaude-Guillot. You can also try La Fleur de Bourad, La Croix de Gay and La Clemence at The Hobbit Restaurant, a fine-dining establishment in Orange, CA.

  • Credit: Linnea Covington

    Located in the hills between the Dordogne and l'Isle rivers, the vineyards of Fronsac have a mild climate that helps give the grapes a subtle spice and bold earthiness. Of course, the clay and limestone soil also help give the grapes a unique flavor that make the wines from this region complex and perfect for aging. Currently about 385,000 cases of wine come out of the 116 chateaux here, and the average size of the individual vineyards are around 17 acres. Some producers to look out for include Château du Gaby, Château de la Riviére and Château Vielle Cure, which you can find a at La Folie in San Francisco. Guests of La Chaumière in Washington, DC, can also enjoy a bottle of Château Haut Ballet with their paté and magret de carnard, a traditional dish of marinated duck in black current sauce.