Bordeaux and the Wine Country Feature

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Red Gold: The Wines of Bordeaux

Everyone in Bordeaux celebrated the 2000 vintage as the "crop of the century," a wine that comes along once in a lifetime. But bringing everything down to earth are some new sour grapes: the increasingly loud whispers that Bordeaux may be "over."

In this world of nouvelle cuisine and uncellared wines, some critics feel the world has moved away from pricey, rich, red wines and more people are opting for lighter choices from other lands. Be that as it may, if you have any aspirations to being a wine connoisseur, Bordeaux will always remain the bedrock of French viticulture.

It has been considered so ever since the credentials of Bordeaux wines were traditionally established in 1787. That year, Thomas Jefferson went down to the region from Paris and splurged on bottles of 1784 Château d'Yquem and Château Margaux, for prices that were, he reported, "indeed dear." Jefferson knew his wines: in 1855, both Yquem and Margaux were officially classified among Bordeaux's top five. And two centuries later, some of his very bottles (the authenticity of their provenance has since been disputed, as well documented in the controversial book The Billionaire's Vinegar), fetched upward of $50,000 when offered in a high-flying auction in New York City.

As it turns out, Bordeaux's reputation dates from the Middle Ages. From 1152 to 1453, along with much of what is now western France, Bordeaux belonged to England. The light red wine then produced was known as clairet, the origin of our word "claret." Today no other part of France has such a concentrated wealth of top-class vineyards.

The versatile Bordeaux region yields sweet and dry whites and fruity or full-bodied reds from a huge domain extending on either side of the Gironde (Blaye and Bourg to the north, Médoc and Graves to the south) and inland along the Garonne (Sauternes) and Dordogne (St-Émilion, Fronsac, Pomerol) or in between these two rivers (Entre-Deux-Mers).

At the top of the government-supervised scale—which ranks, from highest to lowest, as Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (often abbreviated AOC); Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieur (VDQS); Vins de Pays, and Vin de Table—are the fabled vintages of Bordeaux, leading off with Margaux. Sadly, the vineyards of Margaux are among the ugliest in France, lost amid the flat, dusty plains of Médoc.

Bordeaux is better represented at historic St-Émilion, with its cascading cobbled streets, or at Sauternes. Nothing in that grubby village would suggest that mind-boggling wealth lurks amid the picturesque vine-laden slopes and hollows. The village has a wineshop where bottles gather dust on rickety shelves, next to handwritten price tags demanding small fortunes.

Making Sauternes is a tricky business. Autumn mists steal up the valleys to promote Botrytis cinerea, a fungus known as pourriture noble or noble rot, which sucks moisture out of the grapes, leaving a high proportion of sugar. Sauternes's liquid gold is harvested in vendanges beginning in September and lasting to December. Santé!

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