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October 13, 2011

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From Bordeaux with love

SITTING on the steps of Chateau Meyney, an old-time favorite of mine and top Cru Bourgeois wine in Saint Estephe, I'm reminded of the intricacies and challenges of making wines in what is arguably the most famous wine region in the world.

It's harvest in Bordeaux and I've just embarked on a fortnight journey of wine tasting and filming for an educational TV and video series to be aired in China.

Over the next two weeks, I'll travel along with a Chinese film crew to some of Europe's most famous wine regions, starting in Bordeaux then moving to Burgundy, onward to Penedes in northwestern Spain and finally to beautiful Tuscany in central Italy.


Commencing our filming in Bordeaux is only natural as this is the largest producer of premium wines in the world. With an annual production of between 700 and 900 million bottles, Bordeaux dwarfs most other regions in terms of production quantity and the sheer number of high-quality wines produced.

Traveling from Haut Medoc in the north of the Left Bank to Grave in the south and Sauternes even further south takes hours as you pass countless vineyards and chateaux.

Other prominent wine regions like Ribera del Duero in northern Spain and the Napa Valley in California are many times smaller. However, despite its huge production, Bordeaux is not without problems as the rich and famous chateaux get richer and their wines command unprecedented prices, while lesser known chateaux struggle to survive the increased competition from Spain, Italy and the New World.

Rich history

The earliest documented proof of wine making in Bordeaux was soon after the birth of Jesus, or right about the beginning of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), or when Buddhism was first introduced to China. Many scientists and archeologists now believe wine making by native Gallic tribes pre-dated the arrival of the Romans.

The Romans, however, were the first to bring concepts of terroir and varietal differentiation to Bordeaux and the first to market the wines of Bordeaux throughout Europe.

In the 12th century, the future of Bordeaux was shaped by the arrival of the English. When Eleanor of Aquitaine married Louis VII, the land where Bordeaux is situated was ceded to England as part of her dowry.

This period of English control had a profound influence on the style and commercial success of Bordeaux wines. The English fondly referred to red wines from Bordeaux as Claret, and still do so to this day, and they popularized Bordeaux not only at home but also abroad with many of their European and other trading partners.

The French regained control of Bordeaux at the end of the Hundred Years' War in 1453, but the wines of Bordeaux continued to be popular in England and other markets the English helped develop.


Another factor that makes Bordeaux both fun and interesting is the personality of the different chateaux and their wine makers.

Two days after arriving in France, I had the good fortune to have a private wine tasting with Michel Rolland, who is probably the world's most famous wine maker. Two other renowned wine makers, Sandrine Bosc and Mikael Laizet from the lovely Saint-Emilion winery Chateau Haut-Brisson, joined us for the tasting.

Despite his fame, Rolland is quite affable and approachable, a great person with whom to drink and discuss wines. Since all three wine makers are involved with Chateau Haut-Brisson, we conducted and filmed our tasting there.

I'll definitely have to write more about this up-and-coming Chinese-owned chateau in a future column. With Rolland as consultant-wine maker and a talented wine-making team, this may be the finest Chinese-owned winery in the world.

Rolland and I tasted several of the great wines he's helped to make as we discussed the significance of Bordeaux around the world and especially in China. Rolland clearly understands how important the great wines of Bordeaux have become in the Chinese market, especially the first growth wines like Chateaux Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Latour and my favorite, Chateau Haut-Brion.

He expressed a wish that some of the other great wines of Bordeaux, while not quite as famous, will gain greater recognition in the China market. He pointed out that one of the great things about Bordeaux is the numerous hidden treasures.

I replied that I believe greater awareness of lesser-known but good Bordeaux wines in China is bound to happen as Chinese consumers gain more knowledge and look for excellent quality at more attractive prices.

In the coming two weeks our film crew will trek through several of the great wine regions of Europe and I'll have the good fortune to savor some of the best wines of France, Spain and Europe and will happily share these experiences with our readers.

A mere three days into this trip and my deadline imminent, here are some of the more interesting wines that I've tasted so far. Best of all, this quartet of delicious Bordeaux wines are all readily available in Shanghai.

Segla, 2004

Region: Margaux, Bordeaux, France

Variety: 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc & Petit Verdot

Aging method/potential: 12-15 months in French oak

Importer/price: ASC/591 yuan



Pairing tips: Allow 45+ minutes breathing and serve at 18°C; good with all types of meat, especially lamb; try with roasted lamb and stir-fried mutton.

the second wine of the historic second-growth Chateau Rauzan-Segla, it has a garnet-ruby red color and attractive aromas of red and black fruit, and flavors of supple plum and dark berries with hints of spices and a nice, palate-coating tannic finish.

Clarence Dillon, Clarendelle Red, 2004

Region: Bordeaux, France

Variety: 80% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Cabernet Franc

Aging method/potential: 12 months in French oak

Importer/price: ASC/348 yuan



Pairing tips: Allow 45+ minutes for breathing and serve at 16-18°C; best with strongly flavored meat dishes, including Hunan-style red pepper-cured beef and Thai-style red curry duck.

in the ordinary 2004 vintage, the Chateau Haut-Brion wine makers made a very stylish wine with deep purple-red color, expressive nose of black currants, coffee and touches of chocolate and classic Bordeaux flavors of dark berries, with a long finely textured, slightly spicy tannic finish.

Maison Louis Beaugency Chateau Pasquet, 2009

Region: Bordeaux, France

Petit Verdot, Malbec

Aging method/potential: Enjoy now or over the next 4-5 years

Importer/price: Altavis/198 yuan



Serving & Food Pairing: Allow 15 minutes breathing time and serve at 16-18°C.

the contribution of Petit Verdot and Malbec is a positive distinguishing factor in this wine featuring a dark ruby red-black color, dark berries and plum aromas, and weighty ripe red and black fruit flavors

L'As de Roudier, 2001

Region: Montagne Saint-Emilion, Bordeaux, France

Variety: 65% Merlot, 25% Cabernet franc, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon

Aging method/potential: 12 months in 1/3rd new French oak; at its peak now but will still be lovely over the next 5-7 years

Importer/price: Fortune Tree/380 yuan



Serving & Food Pairing: Allow 20-30 minutes breathing time and serve at 18°C.

this prestige wine of Chateau Roudier from the hot 2001 vintage is at its lovely peak with a deep ruby, brick-red color, dark cherry and chocolate aromas, bountiful plum, black berry and spicy chocolate flavors and a soft tannic finish.


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