Garage wines are a new movement in French wines. They involve very small production amounts, usually from the right bank area. The winemaker takes exquisite care in every step of the process, with almost no consideration for the cost involved. They are usually made with predominently Merlot in the blend, and are aged in new Oak barrels. These wines can be ordinary or exceptional, and some of them, when backed by the right marketing, have attracted large followings. Because the supply is so small, they can command price even higher than top classified wines of Bordeaux. If you want to sound fancy, you can call the people who make these wines Garagistes, but make sure you bust out your best french accent to achieve maximum pretentious effect.
The areas outside of Médoc and Sauternes have their own classification systems. This is part of what makes French wine so difficult to understand. The only way to get your head around it is basically to memorize everything, unfortunately. Here are how the other areas of Bordeaux classify themselves:
In 1959, Graves decided to classify its wines with separate lists for red and white wines. There is no ranking of wines here, but anything included in the list is allowed to call itself Cru Classé, Chateau Haut-Brion is on this list, although it also has the right to use its 1855 classification. It was the only wine to be included in 1855 that was outside of the Médoc and Sauternes.
This is probably the most confusing system in Bordeaux. The best wines are classified in a separate AC called Saint-Emilion Grand Cru. Inside this AC, the Château are grouped into three subdivisions: Gramd Cru, Grand Cru Classé, and Premier Grand Cru Classé. Premier Grand Cru is then divided into Grand Cru Classé A and B. Confused yet? This system, unike in the Médoc, is flexible. Wines are evaluated every 10 years to see if they deserve to be promoted or demoted within the system, and new wines may apply once a year for entry into the system.
Because the 1855 classification only included a small number of wineries, in 1939 the Cru Bourgeois system was introduced. It includes over 200 properties and is divided between 9 Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, 87 Cru Bourgeois Supérieur, and 151 Cru Bourgeois. The system was updated to include new wines in 1978, and again in 2003. The idea is that the list will updated once about every ten years or so.
In 1855, Paris was holding a universal exhibition, kind of a world's fair. They decided it would be a good idea to show off their finest wines to the world, so they realized they needed to decide on exactly which wines were the best. They decided to approach the bordeaux chamber of commerce and asked them which wines should be included. The chamber of commerce then delegated the task of classifying the best wines to several brokers. The brokers looked at unofficial classifications and the prices wines were fetching on the open market in the Médoc and Sauternes only, and as a result they listed 61 Chateaux into Cru Classés, which are arranged in a hierarchy of 5 ranks. The crazy thing about the hodgepodge classification, is that there have been very few changes in it since 1855, and the system is still practically universally accepted today. The 5 ranks are as follows:
Premier Crus (or first growth)
The Premier Crus include the chateaux of Haut-Brion, Latour, Lafite, Mouton-Rothschild, and Margaux. You've probably heard of some of these names, they're quite famous and their top wines are very expensive. Haut-Brion is the only chateau outside of the Médoc to be included, and Mouton-Rothschild was a second growth until 1973. This is the only time since 1855 that a château has ever been reclassified, due to the grit and determination of the Baron Philippe de Rothschild, a savvy and determined banking mogul who had to use all his power and influence to lobby for the change. The French are really attached to their wine laws!
Below the Premier Crus are the Deuxièmes Crus (second growth) including 14 châteaux, the Troisièmes Crus (third growth) including 14 châteaux, the Quatrièmes Crus (fourth growth) including 10 châteaux, and the Cinquièmes Crus (fifth growth) including 18 châteaux. If you'd like to see a list of all the Chateaux, I found a nice one here.
Sauternes also received 3 ranks, with Château d'Yquem by itself at the top as a Premier Grand Cru Classé with 11 Châteaux below it classified as first growth, and 14 Châteaux as second growth.
The way wine sales of high-end Bordeaux wines works can be a bit strange sometimes. It works a bit like a stock market, complete with speculating investors and plenty of penny stocks that never amount to anything as far as value. For a prestigious Bordeaux Chateau, cash flow can be a difficult issue, as much of the capital is tied up in the product. To reduce this exposure to risk, the winery will often engage in en primeur sales. To do this, they hold the bottled wine until after the critics have rated it, usually about 2 years after the harvest. They will then test the market with a what is called a tranche. The initial tranche price will be somewhat lower than those that follow, which gives the opportunity for a savvy investor to make a good investment. A lot of times there is so much demand for these wines that the opportunity to buy these wines is determined by a lottery system. You'd probably better think twice about getting involved in this market by yourself though. Just like the stock market, there are professionals that make a living brokering these wine deals and investments and it's definitely recommended to have their help.
As you can see in the map above, Bordeaux is divided into three main areas. Well, actually maybe it doesn't look like that at all when you look at that map, does it! This is where things start to get very complicated. The first thing you should notice is the main body of water coming into the landmass, called the Gironde estuary. In case you're like me and have no idea what an estuary is, it's the part of a river where the river and the sea mix, so it's a mix of salty and fresh water. Learn something new every day huh? It's even labled on the map. The Dordogne and Garonne rivers, which unfortunately are not labeled on that map, are the two forks splitting off of the Gironde to the south and southeast. These rivers help break up Bordeaux into the three areas I'm talking about:
The Left Bank
Everything west and south of the Garonne and the Gironde is what's called the left bank of Bordeaux. Starting at the north with the Médoc AC, the soil is mostly clay, with some outcroppings of gravel. The Médoc AC is generally of lower quality, with higher yields, than the areas immediately to the south. The most respected AC's in this part of the left bank are Sainte-Éstephe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Margaux, and finally the Haut-Médoc. These areas will have lower yields than the Médoc. The southern area of the left bank consists of Graves and Sauternes at the furthest southern point. Graves produces red wines in the north where the soil is mostly gravel and white wines further south where the soil is more sandy. Wines from Graves are a little bit lighter in body and more fragrant than from the Haut-Médoc. In the very top of Graves, Pessac-Léognan is the AC that houses all of the best vineyards of the area, where all the Cru Classé châteaux are located. Red wine from the left bank is almost always a blend consisting mainly of Cabernet Sauvignon, with some lesser amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Dry white wine is mostly Sauvignon Blanc, which is often blended with Sèmillon. Sweet wines, which come from Sauternes and Barsac in the south is a blend dominated by Sèmillon, with some Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle blended in. These grapes will always be botrityzed, which occurs as a result of the mists coming off the nearby Garonne river.
Between the Garonne and Dordogne
The area between the two forks splitting off the Gironde estuary is called Entre-Doux-Mers, which means between two seas. This area produces mostly dry white wines from a blend of Sèmillon and Sauvignon Blanc. In Saint-Croix-du-Mont, they make a sweet wine very similar to what is made in Sauternes. This sweet wine is usually less complex than Sauternes however, because their side of the Garonne river does not get as much botrytis as the Sauternes side. The Premières Côtes de Bordeaux area makes mostly simple dry red wines dominated by Merlot in the blend.
The Right Bank
The area to the east and North of the Dardogne is the right bank of Bordeaux. This areas produces red wine almost exclusively, and the blend here is dominated by Merlot, with some Cabernet Franc taking a role as well. The most important AC in this area is Saint-Emilion. Pomerol is another important AC, and produces some of the most expensive wines in all of Bordeaux. The other AC's on the right bank, including, Bourg, Blaye, Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac, produce wines that can represent an excellent value at much lower price points.
White wine vinification in Bordeaux is now carried out almost exclusively in stainless steel tanks, which offers the ability to control the temperature of the grape must during fermentation, which has increased the quality of white wines. In Graves, most of the white wine produced is now being ages in new oak barrels. Many other areas are following this trend. Bordeaux also produces some of the world's finest sweet white wines in Sauternes and Barsac. These wines are fermented very slowly over long periods of time to ensure that the yeast absorbs as much sugar as possible. They are then also fermented in new oak barrels.
As I've said before about France, its systems have been copied around the world. This is particularly true for red wine in Bordeaux. Not all red wine in Bordeaux is high quality, which is reflective of the different choices available to winemakers, many of which will affect the final price.
If you don't take into account the yearly changes in weather and its effect on different grape varieties, there are some standards of grape selection that Bordeaux wine makers deal with. The basic choice is between a wine that will mature early, and be ready to drink quickly, and one that will take much longer to become drinkable. If you're after the early maturing wine, more Merlot will be used, and if you want the longer maturing wine, you will use more Cabernet Sauvignon. Beyond that, the wine maker also has a choice of how to select the individual grapes at harvest time. One option is called a green harvest (vendange verte) in which grapes are picked before harvest, to lower yields and increase the sugar level in the final grapes. Additionally, grapes can be hand selected by people after the grapes are harvested. Each of these stages will of course add to the final cost of the wine.
Historically, if the wine were to be age-worthy, some of the stalks would be added to the fermentation vessel to increase the amount of tannins in the wine. This practice has become less common, and depends on the nature of the vintage. The traditional fermentation vessel was made of oak, but nowadays, stainless steel is used almost exclusively. Individual grape varieties to be used in blends are fermented seperately.
Aging and Blending
The highest quality red wine in Bordeaux is aged in new oak barrels, for as long as 24 months. Lower quality vineyards may use second-hand barrels, which do not impart as much flavor and body to the wine. Some vineyard may not use oak at all. At some point in the midst of the aging process, the different varietals will be blended together, according to what happened with the weather that year, and the type of wine being produced. Many Châteaux have a second or even third wine that they produce from wines that are rejected while tested during the aging process. Sometimes these wines are also sold in bulk to be sold by other producers.
Bordeaux vineyards are usually densely planted with vines trained low to the ground to benefit from reflected heat off the gravel soil below. The elite Chateaux keep their vines at a high age by carefully planning their planting cycles. Machine harvesting is widely used now in Bordeaux. The exception to this is the botrytized sweet wines, which must be hand-harvested to select the grapes most effected by the noble rot.
Almost every single red wine produced in Bordeaux is a blend of several grape varieties. This is in part because of the varying climate. Different grapes react differently to changes in weather: some may have thick skins that are more resistant to rot, while some others might ripen earlier or later in the season. The wine maker's job in Bordeaux is to mix these different varieties based on the weather in that given year, so as to produce the best wine possible. This method has been perfected over many generations of Bordeaux wine makers. While there are technically 14 grape varieties permitted under the AC regulations, in reality only 5 black grapes and 3 whites are ever used:
Cabernet is the classic black grape variety of Bordeaux. In the Médoc, it makes up 75% of the blend in wines. Throughout Bordeaux however, Cabernet Sauvignon makes up only 29% of the planting, because it produces relatively lower yields. The wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux are quality wines high in tannin. The classic aroma is of blackcurrants, but if the grapes do not ripen fully, it will have more of a vegetal quality, too tough to drink unless softened by blending with Merlot. It grows best on drained, warm, gravel soils.
This grape is grown mainly in Saint-Emilion, and somewhat in the Médoc and Graves. It has larger yields that Cabernet Sauvignon, but less body. The typical flavors are herbaceous and stalky, and the wine matures more rapidly than Cabernet Sauvignon. It prefers the same type of soil as Cabernet Sauvignon.
Merlot produces a medium yield of full-bodies, moderately tannic wine. It can add softness, richness, and body to Cabernet Sauvignon in blends. The most important areas for Merlot are Saint-Emilion and Pomerol, where it is grown on limestone soil. By itself, Merlot doesn't have enough character to make a successful wine, unless it is grow in very low yields. When a Merlot wine like this is produced, it is still always blended with Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc to add fruit aromas, color, and tannin.
Malbec in Bordeaux is mainly used for basic, easy to drink red wines, in areas like Bourg and Blaye. Its popularity is small and is on the decline.
This black grape is used only as a small additive in blends, to add tannin, color, and notes of spice to very fine Bordeaux wines.
Sémillon is the most planted white grape in Bordeaux. Because of its thin skin, it is very prone to rot. This makes it an excellent candidate for botrytized sweet wines. It produces full-bodied wines with a gold color.
Sauvignon Blanc is the exception to the rule that all Bordeaux wines are blends. In Bordeaux it does have the classic Vegetal and grassy aromas. It is sometimes blended, usually with Sémillon, where it provided high acidity to contrast with Sémillon's potential flabbiness.
Muscadelle has a distinctive grape flavor and is used as an important but minor element in sweet wines.