There's no doubt that the single most pivotal word for wine-drinkers is 'Bordeaux'. Its eminence rests on centuries of producing high-quality wines and in large quantities. The whole wine-making area, which takes up a tenth of the department of the Gironde, regularly produces between 4 and 5 billion hectolitres a year - a lot of wine by any measure.
There's no doubt that the single most pivotal word for wine-drinkers is 'Bordeaux'. Its eminence rests on centuries of producing high-quality wines and in large quantities. The whole wine-making area, which takes up a tenth of the department of the Gironde, regularly produces between 4 and 5 billion hectolitres a year - a lot of wine by any measure. The vast majority of this production is red wines, among them the fine wines also known as 'clarets' that have made the name Bordeaux synonymous with excellence.
From the estuary of the Gironde the vineyards run along the western side of the Garonne river, right past the town of Bordeaux and on southwards for another fifty kilometres or so. It's divided into three main regions from north to south; the Medoc, the Haut Medoc and the Graves. Within the middle appellation of Haut Medoc are the most famous parishes: Margaux, Pauillac, St. Estephe, St. Julien and St. Laurent. Back in 1855 the merchants of Bordeaux classified the fine wines that they traded into five categories, based on market prices over the previous hundred years. This classification of the classed growths of the Garonne is the one we still use, with only one major change - the elevation of Mouton-Rothschild from a second growth to a first in 1973. The proof of its general accuracy is that these classed chateaux are still, with few exceptions, the best chateaux in Bordeaux - largely because they occupy the best sites.
Apart from the first growths - Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Mouton-Rothschild and Haut- Brion - which command significantly more money, the other rankings don't need to be learned by heart. There are fifth growths as good as some second growths; only tasting or recommendation will help. But take heart, there are no bad wines on the list. Apart from Haut-Brion, which comes from the Graves, all the 62 wines covered by the 1855 classification were from the Haut Medoc. St. Emilion for example, on the eastern bank of the Dordogne, has its own classification, as does Sauternes, Pomerol and the Graves.
In truth these will always be wines for special occasions as their cost has soared on the international markets, but perhaps more importantly, these are wine for laying down, coming into their peak only with bottle age. This is especially true of the first growths. Perhaps of more day-to-day interest are the Crus Bourgeois, a classification that comes in rank immediately below the great growths. In 1978 these were divided in Grand Bourgeois, which includes 18 'crus exceptionnels' and Bourgeois. As a guide to quality in the lower price range of Bordeaux, it's immensely helpful. Some of them can be found in Ireland, Chateau Beau-Site springs to mind. Below the Crus Bourgeois are the less specific appellations, such as Bordeaux, Bordeaux Superieur, Haut Medoc and Medoc.
Because Bordeaux has such a strong reputation, the wines command a premium. It's not possible to buy a good Claret cheaply any more, but well made wines can still be found without having to break the bank.
Chateau Beau Rivage 1997 Bordeaux Superieur