How many times have you been to a restaurant and been handed a wine list full of wines that you are totally unfamiliar with? Or splashed out on expensive wine, only to be left disappointed by the taste? A couple of years ago, I visited Bordeaux, a region renowned for producing some of the world’s best wines. Whilst there, I went on a wine tour of one of Bordeaux’s 6,000 chateaux. Here I learnt a lot about the wine production process and what makes a good red wine.
Thinking of Bordeaux red in particular, to find high quality, affordable red wine, you should look at less well-known chateaux that share a terroir profile similar to that of the greats. Pick a good vintage (2016, 2016, 2010 amongst the best in the last decade) and consider buying the chateau’s second label. One example of this would be this Blason d’Issan 2016 at just £33 per bottle. This is Chateau Issan’s second label. This chateau is just 1km from the famous Chateau Margaux!
Why wine labels can be confusing
I wanted to start by clearing up something I found confusing for many years: what dictates what a wine is called? Varietal wines, that is wines produced from a single type of grape, typically display the name of the grape variety on the label. Examples of this include Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. Wines, where blends of different grape varieties have been used, will typically brandish the name of the region or appellation, e.g. Rioja in Spain or Burgundy in France.
Factors that influence the quality of wine
Two of the main factors that bear on the production of quality wine are the land (known in French as “le terroir”), and the weather. The makeup of the land varies from chateau to chateau and includes things like the composition of the soil, whether the vineyard is on a slope, close to a river, etc. The weather is typically the main variable that dictates the quality of any given year’s grape harvest. The year a wine was produced is known as the “vintage”. So now you understand what is meant when wine lovers tend to talk about good vintage wines. Put simply, therefore, the key to discovering a good Bordeaux wine is to identify both a good chateau and a good vintage. Some of the vineyards with reputations for producing consistently high-quality wine are given the AOC classification of “Grand Cru”. One such chateau that you may have heard of is Chateau Margaux.
Whether to lay down wine or not?
Certain vintages of wine are recommended for laying down. These wines will get better with age and the recommended laying down period for most vintages is between 20-30 years. It is not usually advisable to lay down wine in your own home because the wine must be kept at a specific temperature and humidity. If purchasing a bottle or case of wine to be laid down it is best to purchase from a supplier who can also store the wine in the right conditions for you until you are ready to drink it.
How does wine change with age?
Most young wines taste quite strongly of tannin which can feel fury in the mouth and taste quite dry. As the wine ages, the tannin will soften, the fruit will sweeten and the flavours and aromas will develop and will become more complex.
How much does a quality Bordeaux wine cost?
Do not underestimate the influence that good branding and reputation can have in over-inflating the cost of certain Bordeaux wines. The most expensive bottle of wine ever sold was a bottle of Cheval Blanc, 1947, that went for $304,375 (£192,000) at auction.
One good tactic to find good value Bordeaux wines is to locate chateaux that are close to some of the famous brands (such as Chateau Petrus) since the likelihood is that they will benefit from the same profile of terroir.
Many people choose to invest in certain good vintages of wine. As time goes by, the number of bottles of any given vintage invariably dwindles as more the wine gets drunk. This reduction in supply and natural increase in demand as the wine gets closer to its peak drinking window is what can make wine a good investment.
What is second label wine?
Typically a Chateau will produce two batches of wine per season. The first batch will make use of the best grapes from the most mature vines. This wine will brandish the name of the chateau on the label and will be the wine that, if deemed a good vintage, can be laid down. The second batch of wine, known as the second label, is not permitted to brandish the chateau’s name. It will be branded something else. The second label will make use of grapes from less mature vines and will produce a less punchy taste. As such, secondary wines can be picked up for a lot less than the first label “grand vin”.