Saint-Émilion, Graves & Médoc - discovering Bordeaux Wine in 2 days
Let’s talk about this enormous wine producer. Its' winemaking areas, the famous Bordeaux classification, the very complex and diverse (to make it more complex) regulations of each wine region within Bordeaux.
It was my second time in Bordeaux, and seems like it’s not going to get less impressive regardless of how many times I visit this greatest winemaking area of planet Earth. Nowadays I’m planning my wine trips for the whole year. With every outstanding destination added to my list there is a bit of bitter regret about it not being Bordeaux, again and again.
My dearest, Ville du Vin, I’ll definitely see you again, soon, sooner than any of us would expect, as great encounters happen by chance, as a pure serendipity.
But now, let’s talk about this enormous wine producer. Its' winemaking areas, the famous Bordeaux classification, the very complex and diverse (to make it more complex) regulations of each wine region within Bordeaux. Let's talk about soils and rivers, Garonne, Dordogne, the Gironde and Atlantic ocean. And above all - history, because that's what we appreciate in French wine a lot. There is no estate without skeletons in their closet (or wine cellar?)
Saint- Émilion - Right Bank of Dordogne
My favourite one, so I’ll start with it. We are on the right bank of Dordogne, this area is known to be the kingdom of Merlot, while the Cabernet duo (Sauvignon & Franc) has the least part of the bottle. This means that wines have smoother tannins, black cherries, black plums, chocolate, licorice and flowers when young. But the fact that they’re based on Merlot doesn’t mean they don’t age well. With years, you’ll find more tobacco, truffle, dark chocolate, and, what I love above all, earthy character!
The earthy notes always remind me to think of the soil of the region. In Saint- Émilion it’s mainly limestone, with some clay and sand. The whole area used to be a limestone quarry and vineyards are just above kilometers long catacombs (ex-quarries, which now host the most precious wine cellars of the best estates).
So, drinking Saint- Émilion Bordeaux, feel how their limestone grown vine tastes. Outstanding!
Another interesting point is that here, unlike everywhere else, Cabernet Franc, not Sauvignon, takes the majority of Cabernet blend. And unlike the Left Bank, here on the Right side of Dordogne the estates are mainly small, family owned 5-10 ha. When we switch to Médoc below, you’ll see that there are producers with hundreds of hectares there. Here, we are talking about a medieval town surrounded by slopes of vineyards, very rustic, countryside style, horses and a lot of hospitality!
Saint- Émilion Classification 1955 and Roman history
Vines grow here since Roman times, and actually like most of France vines were planted by Romans. Today it's the world’s first UNESCO classified working vineyards. The town itself dates back to 4C, just as the vineyards represent the Roman viticulture of the 4th century.
Once there you will see the famous sight of the town - the monolithic church. The legend says that the town was found by a monk called Émilion. He sought refuge here and lived in a hermit performing miracles which earned his fame. The Benedictine monks, his successors, built the monolithic church in 11-12 centuries. It was built within the limestone plateau which also hosts the best vineyards of Saint- Émilion.
The St- Émilion classification doesn’t correspond to famous 1855 Bordeaux classification.
So the concept of Grand Cru titles here has a different meaning than in Médoc or Graves. It was established in 1955 and it has to be reviewed every 10 years. This means that estates can either retain, drop or raise in title. Only red wine is included in St- Émilion appellation, dry whites are labeled as Bordeaux Blanc.
The First Growths of the region are the Premier Grand Cru Classe A and B.
There are 4 Châteaus entitled to use the 1er Grand Cru Classe A and 15 for the 1er Grand Cru Classe B.
Then there is the Grand Cru Classe title – 63 estates after the last review in 2012. Although all of them having the same title, the quality differs a lot from Château to Château. Which makes us hope that either the top ones will join the 1er Grand Cru Classe estates, or the lowest quality ones will downgrade to Grand Cru.
As for the Grand Cru title to be entitled to use it on their label, Châteaus must be located on land classified of Grand Cru quality and obey all the regulations of St- Émilion appellation.
Right bank of Dordogne river
Limestone soils with clay and chalk
Cooler than the Left Bank (this influences the choice of grape varieties, as Cabernet Sauvignon needs higher temperatures to ripen than Merlot and Cabernet Franc).
The top vineyards are located on the limestone plateau on which the town is located as well. This makes it easily reachable from the town – from 1-30 min is all it takes to walk to a Château of your choice.
There are two exceptions where top estates are not located on the famous plateau – Cheval Blanc and Figeac. The two last Châteaus are located on top of an ancient (2 million years) alluvial terrace formed by glacial activity. The soil therefore is very similar to the draining gravels of Médoc and Graves. This terrace is called the Graves de Saint- Émilion and it goes on to the west, where other two great estates are located – Le Pin and Petrus (both in Pomerol).
My St- Émilion visits to wineries
Actually, all my wine obsession started here in St- Émilion one year ago, in Château Franc Mayne. Or better to say in this medieval town itself, as there is no more picturesque walk in the world than walking out of its’ ancient walls to slopes covered with 800 vineyards.
Beautiful hills, no fences, small estates and regardless of the time of year, there is always someone working on the estate, the doors are never closed.
Château Franc Mayne
I had a very eye-opening tour in Franc Mayne, where from knowing nothing about wine I switched to an enthusiast, and now to a deeply vine-researching bookworm with a glass of wine in hand.
Franc Mayne is not a usual estate which belongs to the same family for the last dozen of generations. It was resold many times, either because owners had no descendants, or for businesses owning it didn’t know what to do with a wine estate. From 2005 it’s owned by Griet & Hervé Laviale (hopefully it will stay like that for a while). The estate is a beautiful typical ‘Maison Girondine’ and now as everything is renovated, including the wine making facilities, it also is modern. A gem of the estate is the 2 hectares of underground quarries (remember the limestone I told you about?)
The production is very traditional, with hand-harvest and sorting, and Malolactic fermentation happening in new oak. They are Grand Cru Classe holders since 1955 and as I was told the estate doesn’t want to risk and apply for 1er Grand Cru Classe, so they keep tight their title for the last 64 years!
Franc Mayne also has a second wine – Les Cédres de Franc Mayne. You won’t see the Château word on the label because it is produced from their younger wines, although from the same terroir.
I bought a magnum of Château Franc Mayne 2000 and was worried that it will be too much for two people to consume at a time. In fact, what did I know than about how smooth is an 18 years old Right Bank Bordeaux? It didn’t take us an effort but brought a lot of enjoyment.
That time, in Saint- Émilion I also bought another wine from a wine merchant. That bottle brought me back to Bordeaux this year, now to Médoc.
But before going to Médoc, I definitely had to take a look at Saint- Émilion again. After getting my first WSET level, after reading so much about winemaking and dreaming about an own estate, I wanted to see if the impression will stay as strong as it first was. Actually, it got even more impressive!
- Chateau Franc Mayne Grand Cru Classe 2008 - it has velvet, well softened tannins, you can feel the toast of French oak and lots of black fruits here. What is significant for me is the abundance of mineral aromas on the nose, I love feeling that Saint-Emilion limestone plateau in y glass
- Les Cedres de Franc Mayne 2014 - the second wine of the Chateau, great quality for an inexpensive Bordeaux (must be around 20 EUR). The wine is still young, and the year wasn't the best (go for 2010 or 2015 & 2016). It has a medium + acidity and strong tannins, perfect to match with meat and game meals.
Château Beau-Séjour Bécot
Château Beau-Séjour Bécot is where destiny brought us this year. It’s known that this specific estate is planted with wines since Roman times, so for more than 2000 years.
A bit later it was managed together with Chanteau Canon by St. Martin Abbey monks (which by the way belongs now to Chanel fashion house).
The first time the Beau-Séjour Bécot name is used in 1787.
Some 100 years later the owner split the property between his two children. The daughter got married, took her husband’s name and became Duffau-Lagarosse. So since then that part of Château is called Château Beauséjour-Duffau-Lagarosse. The other half, visited by me, is the Château Beau-Séjour Bécot of modern times.
But it was renamed a couple of times more. In 1924 it was renamed to Beau-Séjour Fagouet. But than a gentleman called Michel Bécot, whose family lived in St- Émilion since 1760 and knew the diverse history of the estate well, purchased the 9 hectares of Beau-Séjour Fagouet. He merged it with his own 4,5 ha Château La Carte and thus the new Château Beau-Séjour Bécot was reborn.
Today it has the 1er Grand Cru Classe title.
The estate been through a few difficulties meanwhile. The Bécot family merged all their lands surrounding the original Château without the approval of INAO and lost their 1er Grand Cru Classe title for 10 years.
Today the grandchildren of Michel Bécot run the estate – Gerard, Dominique and Juliette. They all work together on the main brand – the 1er Grand Cru Classe wine, but each of them develops their own wine blends on other estates within St- Émilion.
Beau-Séjour Bécot benefits from the best angles of the famous St-Emilion limestone plateau, they have 20 ha of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.
I was lucky enough to acquire a bottle of one of their best vintages lately, and it came directly from the cellar, as it wasn’t on sale yet. My 2016 magnum will wait for some 25 years to be enjoyed somewhere in 2041.
And if you ever visit them, get a tour to their underground cellars – that’s where the bottle ageing takes place as well as the wine collection of the family with the oldest and best vintages.
- Chateau Joanin Becot 2014 (the brand developed by Juliete Becot) - ideal for carefree drinking, well-paired with food if decanted enough, soft tannins and light body. An inexpensive Bordeaux from Castillon.
- Chateau Bernon Becot 2016 - spicy, with strong tannins, requires a few more years of ageing to fully enjoy. It's a 95% Merlot & 5% Cabernec Franc, from newly acquired plot by Becot family.
- Chateau Beau-Sejour Becot 2014 - a strong flavoured, over-extracted wine, at the same time showing ripeness of berries and tannins, and sweetness of oak. Although it still has to age and will be best enjoyed in 2025-2035, we'll see how it develops in bottle away from France, as I have their 2016's jewel!
- Chateau La Gomerie - the two brothers are developing this brand, and, well, it tastes very masculine with lots of dark fruits, floral, spices, cocoa, coffee, leather notes.
The most famous of all Bordeaux’s, isn’t it? Médoc is aligned with 1855 Classification, in fact 4 out 5 First Growths are from Médoc and only Château Haut Brion is an exception (it’s in Pessac-Leognan).
Médoc is known for more ‘industrial’ wine cultivation. Meaning that from 18th century they took it really seriously and tried to plant as much vines on their soils as possible. Being close to the Atlantic ocean and laying on the used to be main mean of transportation of the region – the Garonne river, it made trade with England easier. Therefore, England and the whole world knew the Left Bank wines for much longer time than the Right’s.
History and The Bordeaux Appellation
Bordeaux First Growths, Second Growths, Third Growths, Fourth Grows and Fifth Growths – that’s the original structure.
So in 1855 on a wine expo of those times (Exposition Universelle de Paris), Napoleon III decided that he wants a classification for the best Bordeaux wines. Some people say that the wines were classified by wine brokers tasting them, so based on quality, but it wasn’t exactly like that. They actually made a system judging reputation and trading price. Although, it’s known that those good old days these two factors always originated from wine quality.
All the wines from First to Fifth Growth are Crus. There were only two occasions that the lists of classified wines were reviewed. Soon after the classification appeared, in 1856 when they added Cantemerle to the Fifth Growth list. And in 1973, when Château Mouton Rothschild was elevated to First Growth from Second Growth (Philippe de Rotschild fought for it for decades)
The wines which weren’t included in here, are entitled for the Cru Bourgeois title. Well, it doesn’t say they are of lower quality (not always), as if your winery wasn’t existent back then in 1855, there is no way for you to get into the Bordeaux Classification (unless you have Rotschild lobbying for you). Very strict and sometimes unfair to the dedicated producers from younger estates.
The word ‘Médoc’ comes from ‘med’ (in between) and ‘oc’ (ocean or water). And it’s true, as this wine region has a peninsula shape and its’ lands are stuck between the Gironde estuary (formed from the meeting of the rivers Dordogne and Garonne) and Atlantic ocean.
The soils come from Garonne gravel (which we’ll further see in Graves), Pyrenees gravel and marlstone (a lime-rich mud which contains large amounts of clay).
Half of the region is planted with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the rest goes to Petit Verdot and Malbec, and just a bit of Cabernet Franc and Carmenere.
Château Haut Breton Larigaudière
What brought me here? Barrel tasting! There is a first time for everything in life and it was the moment for me to start drinking from barrel 😊
But let’s talk about the Château itself. Located in Margaux, classified as Cru Bourgeois. Quite recently the estate was bought by Belgian wine merchants. They used to export French wines and now they decided to produce their own brand. The family is a great fan of Cabernet Sauvignon, and unusually for Margaux, their main wine is made of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon. As the estate consists of plots from different parts of Margaux, some vines are grown on sandy-gravel and some on clay-gravel.
There was something else I’ve seen for the first time in my life (besides experiencing barrel tasting). This château produces Kosher wine. It means that after the grapes are harvested the whole process is led by a raven, who’s the only one who can touch the wine from now on. Obviously, a raven is not a winemaker, so it’s supervised by the technical director of the château. The barrels of the wine are sealed and covered with folia, so the workers can touch them for moving around in the cellar. After the wine is bottled it can be freely touched by anyone. But as soon as the cork is out, only Sabbath-observant Jews can be in contact with it.
Such an unexpected encounter with Kosher wine! The De Schepper family estate is the most business oriented among the ones I've seen. They own several other properties throughout the Bordeaux region. They are the only resellers of their wine (in case of majority of châteaus the wine is bought in advance by negociants, who then resell it through their distribution points). And, after all, they came up with this Kosher wine idea. Very very entrepreneurial!
- Château Haut Breton Larigaudière Margaux 2011 & 2013 - an easy to drink wine with soft tannins and very fruity notes. Oak ageing created nice vanilla and licorice aromas. Keep in mind that the family is a fan of Cabernet Sauvignon, that's why it's esually 85-90% Cabernet Sauvignion, and the rest is shared by Merlot and Petit Verdot.
Graves and Pessac Léognan
In March 2018 I bought a bottle of wine labeled HB from a wine merchant in St- Émilion. I searched for this wine and bought it intentionally… I mean I took a note of the estate’s name before heading for my first Bordeaux trip. But, obviously, as those times I was little interested in wine, I didn’t know much about HB, besides the fact that I liked the initials.
This HB turned out to be a precious Haut-Bailly from 2010 which is still a baby today and must be drunk not before 2025, better even later… In fact, my bottle has a sticker to drink between ‘2020-2070’. Today it's considered one of the best vintages of Château Haut-Bailly.
So, it was a must to visit Château Haut-Bailly during this year’s trip, already being a conscious wine researcher, connoisseur, and a hope-to-be-winemaker.
History and Graves Classification
Only one château from Graves was included in the famous 1855 Bordeaux Classification – Château Haut-Brion. So, in 1959 the vine-growers of Graves came up with their own system.
In many ways, they followed the way the Médoc (or Bordeaux) Classification was made. For example, there is no way to modify the châteaus classified for Graves Cru Classe. It’s very unlikely that a new château can get in there, regardless of how great wine you make.
The criteria were quite the same – the selling price over the whole history of an estate and terroir and soils belonging to the château. Only 16 châteaus classified and 22 wines, with 5 châteaus classified for red wines only, and the rest – for white and reds. Remember, Pessac Leognan is where the famous Sauternes come from.
Interesting to know, that Château Haut Brion already lucky to be the 1er Grand Cru Classe according to 1855 Classification, was again classified under the Pessac-Leognan system. So the only chateau to be classified twice! Therefore, Haut Brion keeps the Grand Cru Classe on it's label, and the rest of successfully classified estates of Pessac-Leognan could now add Cru Classe to their labels.
But returning to Haut Brion. They didn’t want to participate in the classification for their white wine. Their production was always very small, so it wouldn’t matter. In fact, even though they don’t have the Grand Cru Classe label on their whites, Haut Brion Blanc is one of the most expensive whites in the world.
Graves will greet you with endless vineyards. There are no ancient villages or towns here, only estates and more estates, vines and lots of wine.
It lays on the Left Bank of Bordeaux, on the Garonne river bank. The dominant soil type is obviously gravel, that’s where the name come from. Gravel has a very important winemaking quality – drainage, and it’s quite important for producing high class Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.
The sandier soils of the appellation are dedicated to sweet wines made of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillion. Unlike other sweet whites in the world, these have a long ageing potential, aged in oak and developed in bottle for over a decade.
A known member of Bordeaux elite, producing one of the highest quality wines in Pessac-Léognan (this specific part of the Graves region lays between villages of Pessac and Leognan). It’s known that vines were growing at this estate from at least 1461. In late 1600’s their wine was so known and appreciated, that they were one of the first estates in Bordeaux to sell wine according to vintages.
Haut-Bailly has an interesting part in the Phylloxera drama. As most of the vintners discovered that rafting on American rootstock solves the problem, but here they were sure that it would affect the wine quality and didn’t follow the crowd. They developed a blend of sulfate and copper (called ‘Bordeaux Soup’) to wash each vine. In fact, once the market settled back to normal functioning, Haut-Bailly was known to have exceptional quality and between 1800’s and 1920’s sold their wine as highly priced as the First Growths.
The estate seen worse and better times now and then. There were years when only 10 hectares where planted with vines, the cellars were in bad condition, the facilities were outdated. Today it looks and feels like a 5-star château, full of modernization all of which still takes place under the 19th century estate building.
Part of their vineyard is the remaining grapes of the old times – some of them are 120 years old, they yield very little, but as it happens with vine, quality only gets more and more exceptional once the quantity is decreased. These centenary vines occupy 15% of the whole vineyard.
Although this is not a typical small family run estate, the visit to this château was exceptional, just like their wine. Owned by an American-French family since the 90’s, it’s run by a professional team of wine technologists, and since 2005 the quality can’t stop ascending. Now I proudly own two of their best vintages – 2010 and 2016.
- Chateau Haut Bailly Grand Cru Classe 2008 and 2015 - incredibly balanced wines (with both, especially 2015 need more ageing). Earthy, tobacco and dark fruits on the nose, ripe velvet tannins, herbaceous and floral
- Chateau Le Pape 2016 - cassis, red and black fruits, bell pepper and a silky palate. But still too young to drink.
- La Parde 2015 - second wine of Haut-Bailly with strong licorice, spicy, earthy nose. Well structured tannins and perfect acidity. It definitely wants to age a bit more.
So how about a trip to Bordeaux?
I’m always ready to take off. Drop me a note if you are a group of wine-obsessed travelers, and we’ll set up a date somewhere between Garonne and Gironde.
... If you're too far away to visit - start with watching the not only educational but also emotional movie about Bordeaux on Wine Masters!