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“California vineyards have it too easy. To make good wine, the grapes need to struggle.”
This was a message shared by a French winemaker speaking at a wine education conference I attended decades ago, and his words still bug me to this day.
At the time, California wineries were starting to make global inroads, and maybe this winemaker was feeling the pressure. If I remember correctly, he was also trying to support a less-than-promising vintage in Bordeaux, a world-class region known for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and high prices.
While it is true that France deals with more weather challenges than most California regions, vineyard management and winemaking technology in France and other European countries have greatly improved quality in difficult vintages, resulting in at least modest wines rather than none at all.
Then, perhaps there is a bit of a greed factor. For decades, American wine wholesalers and distributors could buy “futures” of particularly good Bordeaux wines at a bit of a savings. This is the practice of ordering and pre paying for wines while they were still in the barrel. The region experienced a number of successful vintages in the years from 2000 to 2010 and, coupled with the new wealth in China and other global markets that considered certain Bordeaux wines as trophy pieces, prices skyrocketed for these later vintages. This was especially true of the 2010s, which was declared one of the best vintages in decades.
Then their bubble burst. A global recession hit. The Chinese discovered the neighboring French region of Burgundy had more collectable and prestigious wines. And Bordeaux had less than favorable vintages in 2011, 2012 and 2013. The futures buying market fell apart and is now almost nonexistent, or at least on the West Coast.
Don’t get me wrong. I find the Bordeaux region is one of my favorites and is most interesting. They show very good aging ability in good years, and there are decent values to be found. This brings me to the 2014 vintage, which is just starting to hit the shelves.
For the past 15 years, an event called The Grand Crus de Bordeaux Tasting visits the U.S., and a number of its winemakers share the new vintage with people in the trade. Several weeks ago, the organization, which brought together over 80 prominent regional producers, made San Francisco one of their four city stops and showcased their 2014 vintage. It had been several years since our Sonora group of Sonora Bordeaux enthusiasts connected with their wines. With over 100 wines featured, we orchestrated a tasting plan that included about half of the wines. Most chateaus only produce and feature one wine, and the majority of wines are red with just a handful pouring dry whites. The last stop of the afternoon was to a table of about a dozen sweet dessert wine producers from the Sauternes and Barsac regions. This is a trade tasting, so spitting is a must.
Bordeaux is broken primarily into two regions, which are divided by the Gironde River. The west side, called the Left Bank, is composed of sub regions such as Margaux, St. Julien, Pauillac, St. Estephe, Graves, Sauternes, Barsac, and the encompassing larger appellation, Haute Medoc. They are homes to many of the famous and overpriced Chateaus such as Lafite, Latour, Marguax, Haut Brion, Mouton Rothschild and Yquem. Cabernet Sauvignon is the primary grape found in the Left Bank, and can have a dose of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot for good measure.
The Right Bank to the east of the river consists of two small premier regions, St. Emilion and Pomerol, along with a fairly expansive outer region. Merlot is the big player here, with Cabernet Franc close behind, and Cabernet Sauvignon a distant third. Chateau Petrus, Ausone, and Cheval Blanc are the expensive stars. With their excessive prices exceeding a $1,500 to $3,000 per bottle for the 2010 vintage, none of the above chateaus from either bank were part of this tasting event. Although I did see that prices for these top wineries for their 2014s have fallen back to the $400 to $500 range.
The 2014 Bordeauxs we tasted were sound examples of the various regions, showed nice fruit flavors, soft tannins and good structure. Tannin is the chalky sensation that gives red wine its dry finish while aiding in its longevity.
Having done the tasting for a number of years we have come to understand stylistic patterns, and our group was generally in agreement on our favorites. Despite language challenges, we quizzed winemakers on their blends and use of new oak. While these wines cannot be considered bargains, they are definitely more affordable when considering their quality. Especially in light of escalating prices for prestigious Napa Valley wines. Not to mention the expensive first-ever drought stricken 2016 vintage in Bordeaux, which has also been touted as being the best in decades.
Drought? Now they know how easy our grapes don’t have it.
Sonora-area resident Tom Bender has taught classes on wine in Columbia College’s Culinary Arts program since 1979. He managed the Columbia City Hotel, and its award-winning wine cellar, for many years and now manages a wine bar at a Modesto specialty market. He is also a wine maker. Contact him at email@example.com.
Some of our favorite 2014s
Retail prices will range from $45 to $75
Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte
From the Pessac-Leognan region in the south, this chateau produced an excellent white and red in 2014. Medium-bodied with silky tannins and a long finish, it is 62 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 30 percent Merlot and 8 percent Cabernet Franc.
A Margaux that’s 90 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 10 percent Merlot; nice touch of berry and spice in its aromas; well-balanced with medium tannins.
Chateau Canon La-Gaffeliere
One of our favorites that is getting some much deserved attention. Chocolate, spice and blackberry aromas give way to lush flavors; well-balanced with full tannins; from the St. Emilion region on the Right Bank; could use some cellaring; 55 percent Merlot, 40 percent Cabernet Franc and 5 percent Cabernet Sauvignon.
Chateau Leoville Poyferre
Blend of 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 35 percent Merlot, 4 percent Cabernet Franc and 2 percent Petite Verdot from the St. Jullien region; herbal nose, nice blend of oak and fruit; softer style and drinkable now.
Chateau Clerc Milon
From the Paulliac region and one of our consistent favorites; starts with a black cherry nose and a touch of oak; good fruit, well balanced, and a very long finish; mostly Cabernet Sauvignon.
Chateau Guiraud Sauternes
Golden color, sweet and rich with good weight and more honey like botrytis than the others.
Chateau Suduiraut Sauternes
Very lush and rich with a lemon cream character and a very long finish; 95 percent Semillon grape.