The wines of Bordeaux are highly regarded around the world. For those of us a bit more into these wines, we start to learn about the Left vs Right bank, and the grapes, and the soil in the vineyards. These factors all impact the quality of the grapes, and then you add the skills of the winemakers. The Médoc covers the Left Bank of Bordeaux as the Gironde Estuary flows to the Atlantic Ocean. But did you know that there are eight Médoc appellations? Each has distinct physical characteristics that impacts the grapes grown there.
I was privileged to attend an online seminar on the Wines of the Médoc and its eight appellations. The tasting of 8 Médoc wines and discussion of the appellations was covered by top Sommelier Veronique Rivest via Zoom. In case you didn’t know, the eight appellations from west to east are:
- Saint Estephe
- Saint Julien
- Haut Médoc
The region is approximately 80 km long by 2-5 km wide.
A Few Bordeaux Production Stats
Veronique first introduced us to the key production and financial figures of the Médoc. The Médoc covers 15% of Bordeaux’s vineyards and has 1,500 chateaux and brands. There are both big and small chateau mixed together. 20% of the Chateaux are larger than 30ha while 15% are medium-sized at 5-15ha in size. 100 million bottles are sold each year and they export 60% of their wines outside of the EU.
Soil is very important in the Médoc. We hear about Cabernet Sauvignon being the king of grapes on the gravelly soils in the Médoc, and it is true, but there are two different kinds of gravel, plus there is sand and clay-limestone soils. On the western end of the Médoc you have Pyrenees gravel (older) and along the estuary the Garonnaise gravel (younger). Why is there gravel here? The Médoc before it was suitable for grape growing was a marsh. At the end of the 16th Century the French asked the Netherlands to assist them in a large project to drain swamp areas in France, one notably being the Médoc. As the Dordogne and Garonne Rivers flowed out toward the Gironde and to the sea, they would carry soils and gravels into the Gironde. The dyking of the marshy Médoc revealed six terraces of varying ages and types of gravel and clay-limestone soil. The eight appellations are built on these terraces, which vary between 10 and 44m above sea level.
Weather and climate is also important. This area is close to the cool Atlantic ocean to the west and to the north there is the Gironde estuary which moderates temperatures. The closer a vineyard is to the estuary the more moderate the climate for example. The whole region gets about 1000mm of rain per year. So the vines do not suffer as badly from drought.
Seeing the topography as it defines the appellations is quite useful, and this Vins du Médoc video provides you with the aerial view.
Vineyards and Grape Varieties
As I mentioned earlier, Cabernet Sauvignon has it’s best expression on gravel soils. But Merlot, which is the other major grape variety in Bordeaux, prefers clay-limestone soils. You then have lesser amounts of primarily Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. What is particularly interesting in the presentation was this graphic that showed the percentage distribution of grape variety by appellation, so you can get an idea of which appellations are more heavily gravel oriented.
From the above figure you can see that Pauillac and St. Julien have the highest percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon planted, while Listrac has the largest percentage of Merlot. Listrac has limestone sub-soil surrounded by mostly Garonnaise gravel and is situated at the higher 44m asl. St. Julien is located on two fine, homogeneous gravel outcrops that face toward the river where Cabernet Sauvignon are grown. 11 great Classed Growths are represented by St. Julien. Pauillac has also gravel soils that are very well drained and contains 18 Classed Growths. The Official 1855 Classification grades the wineries/vineyards of the Médoc into 5 crus, from Premières Crus to Cinquièmes Crus (Premier to Fifth-Growths). Approximately half of the Crus are located just in Pauillac and St. Julien. The marriage of gravels and Cabernet Sauvignon is very important.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a more tannic grape than Merlot, which offers more structure to a wine, while Merlot, although being less tannic, offers more fruit flavours and acidity to round out a Bordeaux blend. Typical flavours from Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon are black currant, cedar, sweet baking spices, and pencil leads, while the typical flavours for Bordeaux Merlot are black cherries, raspberries, and plums, along with cedar, sweet baking spices, and pencil leads. Petite Verdot is the third most common grape variety and it offers tannins, deep colour, dark fruits and floral to a wine.
Tasting Notes for Eight Médoc Wines
The eight wines we tasted through the seminar were from the eight different appellations. The percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon to Merlot varied (I will list the percentages) as well as the vintages, which ranged from 2010 till 2017. So besides have grape variety differences due to terraces, there is also differences in the weather conditions for each year, and the amount of bottle ageing.
I tasted these wines during the seminar, which had 60-90 minutes of decant time in the glass. I then tasted these wines the following day, giving them 24 hrs of decant time.
CHÂTEAU LA GORCE, MÉDOC, CRU BOURGEOIS, 2016 ($26.99)
55% Cabernet Sauvignon and 45% Merlot
- 2016 was a vintage that offers ripeness and freshness to the Médoc wines. This winery is on the far western side of the Médoc where the soil is clay and limestone. This wine is a translucent (50%) medium intensity garnet colour. Medium minus intensity aromas of ripe cherries, sweet spices, candied cherries, cassis, and with some swirling you get tea leaves. With the longer decant you get a tart red cherry aroma and no tea leaves. It has a medium minus intensity body, smooth with lesser acidity, very light tannins and overall lighter mouthfeel. Red fruit and red cherry flavours primarily but also a touch of pepperiness, cassis and cedar. With a bit of swirling you get floral and tea leaves on the palate, but with the longer decant, the floral and tea leaves flavours disappear. The wine does have a softer mouthfeel with a longer decant. This wine is delicate and fresh and you can enjoy it every day. The price is very reasonable.
CHÂTEAU CAP LÉON VEYRIN, LISTRAC-MÉDOC, CRU BOURGEOIS, 2016 ($40)
58% Merlot, 39% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% Petit Verdot
- The vines for this wine are grown primarily in clay limestone soil. This wine is an opaque ruby in colour. It has a light intensity nose that starts off with some capsicum that quickly burns off and does not come back with later decanting. You get aromas of candied cherries, red fruit and touches of sweet spices and vanilla. With decanting you can add darker fruit aromas. This wine is smooth and round upon first sip followed by some astringency mid palate. It has medium intensity drying tannins. Red apples and red cherry flavours primarily with light vanilla and oak. Very tart and dry red fruit and cherry flavours on the finish. With decanting you can add other red fruit flavours to the palate. This wine is a good example of having power, but also velvet smoothness. It does not make a huge difference to decant this wine.
CHÂTEAU PEYRABON, HAUT-MÉDOC, 2010 ($53.99)
60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 6.4% Cabernet Franc and 3.6% Petit Verdot
- The vineyards for this wine are located on a gravel outcrop, but there is some sand and clay in the mix. This was our oldest wine 2010, which was a warm vintage in the Médoc, giving you more acidity and freshness in general. This wine is opaque garnet coloured in the glass. You can see legs/teardrops on the sides of the glass with swirling. It has pleasant aromas of cedar, red cherries, dark fruit, and a touch of capsicum and earthiness. The cedar and earthy component do not last long with decanting. This wine is fuller bodied, smooth, round, and dry with medium intensity tannins. Dark fruit, black cherries, and cassis flavours, with lighter amounts of cedar, coffee and leather. This wine is quite silky, but with decanting, it loses some of the silkiness. It is a well structured wine. Veronique called it firm, dark and brooding. It has a dry oak finish with firm tannins. I think that this wine was quite delicious with the short decant. The longer decant allowed the tannins to be much stronger, which some of you may not like. Just 60-90 minutes is all you need of air before enjoying this wine. –
CHÂTEAU DU GLANA, SAINT-JULIEN, 2017 ($55)
53% Cabernet Sauvignon and 47% Merlot
- 2017 was a cool vintage and also had late frosts at the end of April. There was 40-50% of fruit loss in isolated area, but I was told that this is a solid, good quality vintage. Cabernet Sauvignon prefers warmer weather to properly ripen, while Merlot can ripen in a cooler year. So you see nearly equal proportions of Cabernet and Merlot in this blend. This wine has a deep garnet plus ruby colour mixed together. A lighter, medium minus, intensity nose. A mix of red and black fruit, red cherries, coffee, and a touch of oak on the nose. With decanting the aromas were lighter intensity giving you sweet red cherries, a touch of sweet spices and coffee. This wine has a medium body, dry, with a more astringent angular mouthfeel. Medium plus acidity and fine tannins. As I swirled this wine in my glass during the tasting the wine did become rounder. It has flavours of red fruits up front with coffee, vanilla and oak mid palate to the finish. It has a light oak feel, and more acidity. Very fresh flavours. With a longer decant the wine has a bigger, medium plus) mouthfeel, the astringency is reduced and feels rounder. The coffee flavour disappears and you get some vanilla and cedar flavours. A medium length. This wine is more mellow with a longer decant, and the version I prefer.
CHÂTEAU BRILLETTE, MOULIS-EN-MÉDOC, CRU BOURGEOIS, 2009 ($53.99)
54% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc and 4% Petit Verdot
- The Moulis region is the smallest of the appellations; only 7 km long. 2009 was a year that produced ripe, rich wines in the Médoc. This wine has a deep garnet colour with a brown tinge. It has a fairly closed nose, but I was still able to detect some leather, cherries and black fruit. A longer decant helped a bit. The aromas were still quite light, but it was easier to identify the aromas. I did pick up light cherries, candied cherries, sweet spices and vanilla. This wine is dry and soft with a bigger and thicker mouthfeel. Soft tannins leading to a silkiness on the palate. Lots of ripe black fruits a touch of cocoa, sweet spices, oak, and red fruits on the finish. The tannins were a bit stronger and drying on the finish. I really enjoyed this wine. It is well structured with lots of enjoyable flavours, but wished the aromas had opened up more.
CHÂTEAU PETIT BOCQ, SAINT-ESTÈPHE, 2017 ($50)
50% Merlot, 48% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Petit Verdot
- This is one of the newer estates founded in 1993. The soil is richer, with more clay and less gravel (Garonnaise) as well as some limestone and sand. Quite a mix of soil components. This wine has a deep ruby colour. A very pretty nose showing floral, sweet fruit, candied red fruits and vanilla. It is fuller bodied, medium plus, with medium intensity firm tannins (which Veronique says comes from the clays from this vineyard), fresh acidity and a touch of minerality. Flavours of red fruits, red cherries, vanilla and floral. It is nicely structured. You get a good balance of fruit, tannins and acidity. It is a very approachable wine. It has medium intensity drying tannins on the finish, but not overly drying. Light pepperiness and sweet ripe red fruit on the finish. With decanting you get sweet red fruits on the palate and the wine becomes less round and has a more tannic edge. I prefer the shorter decant, but the longer decanted version is also good. –
CHÂTEAU SIRAN, MARGAUX, 2017 ($70)
46% Merlot, 45% Cabernet Sauvignon and 9% Petit Verdot
- This wine has a deeper garnet plus ruby colour, but is a bit translucent in the glass, compared to the other wines. It has a very light intensity nose with aromas of red fruit, red cherries, and touches of oak, pencil leads, floral and olives. With a longer decant the aroma trended to more black fruits and no floral. This wine has a medium minus body, silky and round, with fine tannins and medium acidity. Red fruit flavours with a touch of floral. Finishing with black fruit and black pepper. It is more on the acidic/astringent side than on the tannin side, but it still has good structure. With decanting the body moves up to medium plus, the tannins become firmer, it is less silky, black fruits come to the fore and red fruits decrease. I prefer the shorter 60-90 minute decant than the longer decant. –
CHÂTEAU LYNCH MOUSSAS, PAUILLAC, GRAND CRU CLASSÉ EN 1855, 2017 ($90)
78 % Cabernet Sauvignon and 22 % Merlot
- this wine has a garnet with brickish brown tint, medium translucent colour in the glass. It is interesting but with the longer decant the colour was simply garnet. I’m not sure if the lighting in my office made me note the brickish colour initially. This wine has a very nice nose, medium plus intensity, showing Old World oak, red cherries, some noble vegetal, olives, and coffee with swirling. With a longer decant the vegetal note disappeared and you get wonderful coffee cake with cinnamon, vanilla and nutmeg aromas to add to the red cherries. This wine is round and soft and has a light mouth feel. A mix of red and black fruit, cherries, and touches of nutmeg, black olives and coffee flavours. Medium intensity fine grained tannins. With decanting the mouthfeel felt bigger and the coffee flavour disappeared, but there was now some pepperiness and oak flavour. There was some bitter dark fruit on the finish. I like the shorter decant better, but the coffee cake aroma with the longer decant is very enticing. –
Where Can I Buy These Wines?
The wines all have prices beside them in their headings. These are the prices from the BC Government Liquor Stores. I checked and all the wines are currently available. I have not checked private wine shops and their pricing.