Once, at a small party, I was handed a glass of red wine. “Taste it,” my friend said. It was like being hit by a bolt of lightning. Subtle, complex and so lively it was almost laughing. Yet underneath, it had an immense steely strength. It was a Château Margaux from 1982, one of the greatest vintages in history, part of a collection my friend inherited from his father. I offered an intelligent critique along the lines of, “Oh, my God!” and took my glass to a quiet corner so I could be alone with the wine.
Bordeaux wines set the bar for the rest of the wine world. And by Bordeaux, I mean heavy red wines made mainly of cabernet sauvignon from the top châteaux of France’s Médoc region. There are many hundreds of Bordeaux producers making good wine, including fantastic whites, but the best eclipse the rest in price, fame and history.
First, the basics: Bordeaux are a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and sometimes malbec and petit verdot. On the Right Bank of the Gironde River, the main grape is merlot, and the wines are bright and softer. On the Left Bank, in the Médoc, the heavy, tannic cabernet sauvignon dominates. Mouth-watering descriptors like leather, smoke, tobacco, plum, blackberry, steel, stone and tar come into play.
The Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855 ranked the wine-producing estates on quality. The first growths, or premiers crus, are the châteaux Lafite-Rothschild, Margaux, Haut-Brion, Mouton Rothschild and Latour. There are 15 second growths, deuxièmes crus, and 42 in the 3rd, 4th and 5th growths. All wines in the 1855 classification are in the Médoc, except Haut-Brion in Graves.
It’s easy to find lesser growths and non-classified Bordeaux in any decent wine shop, priced around $20 to $50. The 2010 Château Larose Trintaudon from the Haut-Médoc ($25) is a great example; it’s got nice raspberry and chocolate flavors. And I have a soft spot for the wines of Saint Emilion. The 2004 Château Simard ($30) is nicely aged and drinking well, with the characteristic blackberry notes of merlot.
Second growths, from around $75 to a few hundred dollars, are a great way to enjoy fine Bordeaux. I recently had a Château Lascombes ($80) from the decent 2004 vintage. It was lovely, with cedar, plum and still quite firm tannins. The 2000 ($100) is better, however. And the 2005 Château Ducru-Beaucaillou ($270) is a treat.
As for the first growths, they’re best sourced from reputable wine shops and range from around $750 to $1,500, depending on the vintage. But like anywhere, if the weather doesn’t cooperate, the wines can disappoint.
Check a guide for specifics, because price and maturity varies considerably. For example, hold or drink the excellent 2005s, 2009s and 2010s, but drink the 2011s and 2012s. The 2015s and 2016s are apparently going to be incredible, but obviously not drinking yet. And yes, people buy futures, an investment that can pay off in enjoyment, but don’t expect to resell unless you have a temperature and humidity-controlled cellar to protect the investment.
Of course, the best way to enjoy Bordeaux is to well, go to Bordeaux. On one trip, my husband and I explored ancient, dusty wine caves underneath Château Roc de Ségur and dined in a leafy courtyard under the stars. The wine was touched with cedar and cassis, the food was excellent, and all was magical. While we were there, we bought a few cases of interesting wines from around the region to continue the experience back home.
Recently, I was checking the cellar, making sure the corks were sound. I decided to open a prized 1978 Château Lafite Rothschild. It occurred to me that while it’s sad to die before you drink your best wines, like my friend’s father, it’s a tragedy to let your best wines die first. It was perhaps a bit past its best, but so incredibly complex, it seemed like it was whispering old secrets. I sat alone in the cellar, communing with the wine, as I did with that long-ago Margaux. That experience went beyond luxury. It was a rare privilege I’ll remember for the rest of my life.