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Wines of the Crus Bourgeois

Bonjour! And welcome to this week's edition of the Wine Old Owl. We are well into our summer season, and around the world there are many great sporting events taking place.

One of the most prestigious annual events that takes place in July is the Tour de France. And so, I like to take this opportunity every year to hold an all-French wine tasting.

This year, I decided to concentrate solely on Bordeaux, specifically the Left Bank appellations of the Médoc and the Haut- Médoc, and their Crus Bourgeois wines.

If you're wondering what the term "Left Bank" is referring to, let me explain. The Bordeaux wine region is divided into three main geographical areas defined by the Gironde Estuary and its tributaries, the Dordogne River in the north, and the Garonne River in the south.

Left Bank and Right Bank refer to wines grown on either side of the Gironde Estuary. The region between the two rivers is known as Entre-Deux-Mers or "Between Two Seas." The Left Bank vineyards grow primarily Cabernet, whereas the Right Bank typically grows Merlot. Le Entre-Deux-Mers grows primarily Chardonnay and to a lesser extent, spicy Merlots.

Bordeaux is the world's most important wine region. Without Bordeaux, we would not have the global wine industry that we have today. Bordeaux, which means: "By the Waterside," became an important seaport in the 1700s. International trade helped expand the popularity of Bordeaux's wines, and they remain the best known wines in the world to this day.

The term "Crus Bourgeois" goes back the 15th Century, and was better known as a classification called "The Crus Artisan." The Crus Artisan was a collection of winemakers who banded together to produce the best wines in Bordeaux. They did so by sharing their knowledge and experience with each other. Despite this, the Crus Artisan (Bourgeois) were excluded from the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux for two main reasons, they were not members of the aristocracy (the noble families of France), and their wines were priced to be affordable, not exclusive.

So what does that mean for us today? It means that we can find exceptional bottles of Bordeaux wine for around $30/bottle! And when I say "exceptional," I mean exceptional. Recently, several of the Crus Bourgeois wines have gone head-to-head with the Gran Crus houses in blind tastings, and have come out on top!

So, you can spend a month's pay on one bottle of Chateau Margaux or Lafite Rothschild, or you can spend an hour's or less pay on a Crus Bourgeois and get a wine that is every bit as complex, tasty and age-worthy.

One last thing before we get into this week's tasting: The left bank Bordeaux is primarily reclaimed marshland. In the North, the soils are sandy clay mud. This means they retain water and remain damp, conditions which Merlot vines prefer.

As we travel south, the geography and soils begin to change. In areas such as Moulis, Listrac, St. Estephe, Margaux, the soils become less clay and more gravel, with fine polished white stones. This soil provides better drainage and is more suited to growing Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Merlot still grows well here, but is less prominent.

A little farther to the south, the land begins to rise in elevation, (hence Haut Médoc - high Médoc). The soils here change to more chunky earth and rocks. It drains much better and therefore is better suited to growing Cabernet Sauvignon, the main grape of Left Bank Bordeaux wines.


Ok, enough talk, let's get to tasting some great examples of wines from three areas of the Left Bank Bordeaux.

*Note: All three of these wines are in the Crus Bourgeois Classification for their respective years, and can be purchased for under $30/bottle.

It should also be mentioned that these are all unfiltered wines, so they will appear cloudy and dark in your glass.

Lastly, all of these wines should be decanted for several hours before drinking, and then chilled slightly, (55°F-60°F) in order to get the full bouquet and palate.

We'll start in the North and work our way South. Up first is a Merlot-heavy Médoc blend (59% Merlot; 39% Cabernet; 2% Cab Franc) from Chateau Les Grands Chênes.

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On the nose there is a deep, brooding fruit note of black plum, accompanied by anise spice, cedar wood, and vanilla. On the palate, this wine comes across as a bit young and a little more tannic than most people would enjoy. Since these are ageable wines, you can let it sit for a few more years to help smooth out the tannins if you prefer. The fruity palate of plums and blueberries combined with the notes of anise and vanilla would pair nicely with many dishes, from grilled pork chops basted with a spicy glaze, to roast beef with all the fixings.

Our second wine from Chateau Fonréaud is from the area of Listrac-Médoc. It is an evenly blended wine of 45% Cabernet Sauvignon; 45% Merlot; and 10% Petit Verdot.

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On the nose, one can detect fruit notes of blackberry and plum, violets, aged oak barrel, and vanilla. On the palate the wine is smooth and velvety, with flavors of blackberry, black plum, black currant and black licorice. The finish is long and smooth. This is a beautifully balanced wine that can pair nicely with Duck a l'orange, grilled pheasant, grilled steak or veggie kabobs, and several other grilled or roasted meat dishes.

Our last wine comes from Chateau Peyrabon in the Haut-Médoc area and is a Cabernet-dominant blend of: 63% Cabernet Sauvignon; 32% Merlot; 3% Cabernet Franc; and 2% Petit Verdot.

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On the nose there is a very port-like aroma that includes raspberry, cherry, red plums and red currant, with just a hint of vanilla. The palate is big and fruity (once properly decanted and chilled), and shows off big notes of cherry sauce, plum jam and baking spice from aging in old, traditional barriques. It is a nicely balanced and smooth wine, with a medium finish.

Pair this with barbecued red meats, heavier grilled fish such as salmon or ahi tuna, or hearty salads with kale.

I hope you will try some of these fine wines from Bordeaux. I know for many of my clients, French wines are intimidating because they are not familiar with them. If you give them a chance, I promise, they will reward you nicely.

Remember these three things the next time you go to your local wine store:

1) Look for wines that say: "Crus Bourgeois" on the label.

On the back there is a security code with a multifaceted anti-theft hologram that reads: "CB" for Crus Bourgeois.

If you have a QR reader app on your smartphone, you can scan the QR Code on these bottles and it will take you directly to the website for that particular winery. There, it will give you all info about the winery, the bottle of wine you scanned, and provide a link to the Crus Bourgeois website for further information.

2) Decant the wine for several hours before chilling to a cool temp between 55°F-60°F (about 20-25 minutes in a standard refrigerator).

3) Do not mentally compare these wines to California Cabernets. These are much more complex, and therefore not as big, bold or fruity. However, they do have wonderful layers of fruit, earth and spice.

Enjoy! I look forward to our next tasting.