Wines from Bordeaux’s Medoc region are the result of a classic combination of terroir and tradition. For publication in week starting 4 December 2017
Bordeaux’s Medoc region has a distinct meso-climate that produces high quality fruit, which in turn is made into exceptional wines. It sits astride the 45th parallel of latitude to the north of the city of Bordeaux. The 45th parallel is exactly half way between the Equator and the North Pole.
Vines receive plenty of sunshine to ripen grapes. Winds from the Atlantic Ocean and the Gironde River regulate temperatures, keeping them relatively consistent throughout the ripening season. The winds also reduce the impact of summer humidity and the danger of vine diseases.
Think of the Medoc as being shaped like a cigar. It is about 80 km long and varies between 3-5 km in width. Medoc consists of two regional AoCs (Medoc and Haut-Medoc) and six communal AoCs. Moving south to north from the city of Bordeaux the communal AoCs are Margaux, Moulis, Listrac, Saint Julien, Pauillac and Saint Estephe, with Haut (higher) Medoc and Medoc at either end.
Five of France’s six First Growths, some of the world’s most prestigious and expensive wines, are located in the Medoc.
The region has about 16,500 hectares with average production of about 100 million bottles a year from about 1,500 chateaux and estates. Wine is an agricultural product and some vintages are small because of bad weather. Next year’s vintage, for example, is expected to be well below the average because of frosts that killed buds, especially in Listrac and Moulis.
The Haut Medoc and Medoc AoCs produce more than two thirds of total average production. The six communal AoCs only manage fewer than two in five bottles of the total output. This scarcity plus their high reputation around the world explains the high prices achieved for their wines.
Moulis is the smallest AoC (633 hectares) and produces only 4 per cent of the Medoc’s output. Listrac is only slightly bigger and makes 5 per cent of the total. These tend to offer the best value for money because they are not as well known as the prestigious communal AoCs like Margaux and Pauillac.
The 2014 Chateau Saransot Dupre from Listrac is a bargain, full of lashings of ripe fruit because of the long Indian summer of the 2014 vintage. So is the 2012 Chateau Pomeys from Moulis, a 50:50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the latter giving the wine opulence and richness.
All Medoc wines are red and a blend of classic Bordeaux grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Locals believe it is only possible to achieve great wines through blending. The cepage, or blend, in each AoC varies depending on the soils. Pauillac, for example, is heavily inclined towards Cabernet Sauvignon (62 per cent of plantings) against only 32 per cent for Merlot. Listrac is exactly the reverse, with 62 per cent Merlot.
When averaged out across all the Medoc AoCs, plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are evenly balanced at 47 per cent each, with 3 per cent each of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.
Soils vary from gravel to calcerous clays. The former allows water to drain quickly whereas the latter retains water. Merlot is much happier in deeper clay-type soils and shallow gravel, whereas Cabernet Sauvignon hates to get its feet wet and flourishes in deeper gravels.
New research has appeared suggesting that the quality of Medoc wines in Bordeaux can be linked to the height of the hills. The best wines appear to come from hills with the most topsoil before the vines reach the limestone below.
We are not talking huge heights here. Margaux, the lowest AoC, is only 15-20 metres above sea level while Listrac is the highest, at about 39-45 metres above sea level.
We can thank Dutch pioneers in the region for the quality of the land. They built canals to drain the original marshland in the seventeenth century. Water drains into the Gironde, the river that runs into the Atlantic Ocean, and which is itself a confluence of the Dordogne and Garonne rivers. Bordeaux wines are described as being left or right bank, as in relation to their position in relation to the Gironde. Medoc wines are left bank.
Nina Cerullo, a UK-based wine educator who specialises in Bordeaux, visits the region several times a year. She noted experiments with grapes other than the classic Bordeaux varieties, and the re-introduction of grapes that used to be grown in the region, such as Malbec, that went out of favour decades ago.
Cerullo also noted that Merlot is being picked earlier in the Medoc to ensure good acidity, along with a preference for ripe Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend. “Merlot can be excellent if we have a long ripening period in the autumn which allow the grapes to gain lots of flavour.”
Cerullo said locals were increasingly embracing technology. For example, drones were being used to measure variations in temperature to help determine which grapes should be planted where. And many estates were employing optical sorters – devices that detect under- or over-ripe grapes after berries have been separated from bunches. The sorters expel poor-quality grapes with a blast of hot air.
Consumers are tending to choose Bordeaux they can consume young. Traditionally classic Bordeaux from the great chateaux was made to be stored and only comes into its own after decades in the cellar.
Why are consumers choosing to drink younger Bordeaux and not cellar it? Changing cuisines that do not demand older wines are partly the explanation. Asian food does not require a red with tertiary flavours that come after time in the cellar.
Some people appreciate fruit-forward wines with less oak. And perhaps some consumers simply do not have the patience or space to cellar wines. Smart wine regions such as Rioja in Spain have learned the marketing power of storing wines until they are sufficiently mature to be consumed and consumers appreciate the removal of that responsibility.