Some things are worth the wait.
Château Haut Pommarede, 2010
$12.99, ABC Liquor
A few weeks ago, after I published the first post in this series, one of my coworkers responded, “Okay, now find me a delicious, affordable bottle of Bordeaux.” I told her I could find her something that matched two of those three criteria.
But then, I was perusing the shelves at ABC when I went in to buy my Beaujolais and — lo and behold! — this bottle of left bank caught my eye. Although I’m trying to keep below $10 in this series, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
Big French Reds
Although most of us know that Bordeaux translates to fancy French wine I probably can’t afford, not everyone knows that not all Bordeaux is created equal — in fact, there’s some pretty terrible Bordeaux out there. (Pro tip: if it just says Bordeaux, with no other regional appellation, you stand a good chance of being underwhelmed.)
But let’s start with the basics.
What is Bordeaux?
First of all, it’s important to understand that the American obsession with varietal labelling is not universal. The idea of having “a glass of cabernet” is a uniquely U.S. thing — and is perhaps connected with the way we brand products for sale.
Most American winemakers — most brands — want to be able to fulfill many customers’ needs. That means they want to have lots of options! Think about your favorite frozen yogurt place — you know, the one with the nine soft-serve handles and umpteen toppings to choose from.
By labelling the wines according to what kind of grapes they’re made of, winemakers create a branded product, just like any other. You know you need dish soap, but are you loyal to Joy or Dawn? You know chardonnay is the wine you like, but whose label catches your eye? Whose products have you had the most success with?
In most other markets, the idea of asking for a glass of cabernet is completely backwards. You ask for a glass of Bordeaux (a specific region) with the understanding that the wine will be made up of whatever grape grows best in that region — which, in this case, happen to be cabernet sauvignon (amongst others).
This is the idea of terrior — that the wine should express something intrinsic about a given region, which includes which varietals thrive there. The grape’s specific type is completely secondary; it’s about experiencing some actual, physical part of the planet via its produce.
This is maybe why American wine labels — particularly low-end American wine labels — are so visually interesting, I think. Premium wines often have pretty boring labels since their reputations speak for themselves — they just need to denote the specific vineyard or château, which is, in itself, the selling point. But if you’re looking to build a brand with a recognizable name, whether it’s on a bottle of riesling or chardonnay, visual intrigue and playful brand naming is key. Your potential consumers are probably just looking for whichever varietal they’ve decided is their favorite and then picking the coolest-looking bottle.
In any case, Bordeaux is a region in the west of France that runs along the Gironde river. It’s kind of the OG of wine regions, too — one of the oldest and most prestigious in the world. Its red grapes are cabernet sauvignon and merlot, with smaller yields of cabernet franc, petit verdot, and malbec; although it’s known primarily for reds, its white grapes are sauvignon blanc, semillon and muscadelle.
Reds created on the left bank of the river, like this bottle of Graves, tend to be primarily cabernet with merlot mixed in to soften them up, whereas reds off the right bank are the opposite — lush merlots, with cabernet blended in for backbone.
Enough about maps — how’s the wine?
If you want to experience the unique palate of a Bordeaux cabernet — a bit more demanding and refined than a big, round, cassis-bomb Napa bottle — this is a nice entry-level wine.
You may notice the bottle says “Grand Vin,” which doesn’t actually mean anything (well, other than “great wine” in French). It’s an unregulated term that might make the buyer think it’s labelled “Grand Cru,” which does mean something… and is most assuredly not available at this price point. So don’t get me wrong: this is not the best Bordeaux on the market by any stretch of the imagination.
But I enjoyed it! It has lots of cabernet character with black cherry and plum on the nose, and the palate gave way to blackberry, vanilla, and wood. There was a decent amount of chocolate on this guy — a hallmark of the merlot that’s blended in to soften the aggression of the sauvignon.
It’s smooth, too, with a well-integrated structure of tannin and acid, though it could probably age a few more years. And while there was a certain mineral quality that shimmered over the whole thing, it opened up and became crystal clear after sitting on the counter overnight, recorked, sans one Tuesday-afternoon glass.
Oh, and: it goes really, really well with dark chocolate.
There’s not much more I need in a wine, myself.