Making sense of Bordeaux

It’s hard to explain why Medoc produces a fermented grape juice that is different from, say, Pauillac or St Julien, when they all use three grapes in different combinations.

Sourish Bhattacharyya
Sourish Bhattacharyya

Most people assume wine dinners are stuffy events that attract bores without any hope in life. It’s not always like that. I have never come back from a wine dinner without making an interesting acquaintance or gathering a delicious fact or two.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at one at The Aman, New Delhi, where the wine being served was the venerable Château Lagrange from Bordeaux, owned by the Japanese whisky giant Suntory (it is the whisky that keeps appearing in Sophia Coppola’s brilliant debut film, Lost in Translation). That was the night I learnt about how serious swans, unlike humans, are about monogamy.

The château has a large lake in and it is populated by a single white swan. This beautiful bird lost his mate some time ago, so the château owners decided to play cupid. They zeroed in on another single swan— a ravishing dark female—in another major Bordeaux château, Smith Haut Lafitte. But humans, conditioned by the notion of serial monogamy, can be so wrong. Château Lagrange’s swan refused to be the male with the roving eye and insisted on remaining a widower.

Every corner of Bordeaux has a story to tell but that doesn’t make the life of a wine lover easier. This iconic wine region has 13,000 grape growers, more than 10,000 wine labels and produces, on average, 700million litres (900 million in a good year) of the liquid gold the world loves to treasure. When the ancient Romans planted the earliest vines in the now-famous St Emilion region around the middle of the first century after Christ, they couldn’t have even dreamt of eventually spawning a multi-billion-dollar industry. All that makes for great copy, but the rest is a mine of information only the adventurous or the very patient would like to trawl. For starters, Bordeaux has 56 appellations and each produces both good and bad wine (more of the latter), but for the wine lover, it’s hard to understand why Medoc produces a fermented grape juice that is dramatically different from what’s on offer from Pauillac, or St Julien, or St Emilion, or Margaux, when they use three grapes—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc—in different combinations.

It’s harder to explain why Bordeaux’s great wines (grand vin) are ranked according to a quality classification prepared in 1855, which is why Château Lagrange, being a Third Growth, fares much lower and commands lower prices than, say, a Cos d’Estournel (a Second Growth) or a Lafite-Rothschild (a First Growth), even though they all seem to taste alike to the untutored palate.

Not surprisingly, wine lovers find it useful to follow the ratings of Robert Parker, who has had Rottweilers set upon him by unhappy producers. Many aficionados swear by the wines that weren’t considered for the 1855 classification and have now been given their due under the important-sounding cru bourgeois label.

The wine trade, meanwhile, is gravitating towards the most recent classification—by the London International Vintners Exchange (Liv-Ex)—based on the average price commanded by the top Bordeaux wines between 2003 and 2008. Personally, I like the wines down the pecking order (and better still, the “second” or “third” wines of the big labels)—I find them more accessible, much cheaper. I can’t wait for a Lafite to become fit for drinking in 2015; I’d instead have Château Lagrange’s second wine, Le Fiefs de Lagrange, served at The Aman’s dinner.

(Sourish Bhattacharyya is Executive Editor, Mail Today)