The most ridiculed or ignored wine region among American wine consumers may just be the most esteemed: Bordeaux. Who drinks Bordeaux anymore?
Not the geeks, who mistakenly conflate “classic” with “fusty.” Not the average evening supermarket buyers, put off by opaque labels and the disappointingly minimalist fruit in lower-priced wines. Not even the older and wealthier connoisseurs, who aren’t blind to the immediate and spectacular rewards to be found in $25-$35 wines from emerging regions (or age-old regions with less prestige than Bordeaux).
For the most part, much of the continued interest in Bordeaux has migrated to other countries. There are still Britons (or Anglophiles) seeking a correct bottle of “claret,” and of course nouveau-riche billionaires from Hong Kong and Russia who read somewhere that Bordeaux is the greatest wine in the world and so that’s what you buy. And there are still steakhouses.
The Hong Kong/Russia connection is the reason for the past decade’s absurdly inflated prices (literally in the thousands of dollars per bottle) for first-growth Bordeaux. But Bordeaux itself shares the blame, with its rigid 150-year-old classification, its annual “en primeur” (from barrel) tasting circuses, its corporate distribution clampdown. Every business school ought to require study of Bordeaux’s marketing and sales channels to teach the fine art of alienating every mustachioed, indie-rock-loving potential new wine customer in the West.
It doesn’t help that great Left Bank, cabernet-based Bordeaux need many years in the bottle before their expression gets past the suggestive. We used to have more time, we used to be patient, we used to pass things on. These days almost everyone drinks a wine he bought earlier the same day, in which case a $10 California cab or Washington merlot will truly taste better than a $100 Bordeaux.
Enter Michele D’Aprix. She’s not the only younger wine importer looking to rekindle a new generation’s love for the wines of classic regions, but she is the only American, female, Bordeaux-focused importer who also makes wine there, at Chateau Beausejour in Saint-Emilion.
“There’s an impression out there that Bordeaux is either $7.99 or $9,000,” she told me. “My portfolio is trying to bring attention to the whole fascinating middle ground.”
D’Aprix also favors drinkability, which is why the wines she sells and makes are primarily from merlot rather than cabernet sauvignon, and from the Right Bank of the Dordogne and Garonne rivers, where properties are smaller and the growers make the wine rather than selling their fruit. Most of the wines see no new oak during fermentation or elevage.
And despite a degree from UC Davis’ viticulture and enology school, and the scientific intensity of its focus “via the molecule, from the bottom up,” the tag line on her Christopher Imports bottles reads, “Redefining Bordeaux, and the other places where soil still matters.” D’Aprix merges the knowledge of a scientist, the intuition of a farmer and the enophile’s commitment to place.
For the latter two qualities, she credits utterly her mentor, Stephane Derenoncourt, a respected Bordeaux-based consultant she met in 2004.
“Stephane’s approach is rooted in common sense,” D’Aprix said. “He takes care of the soils and the environment, while respecting and making use of the surrounding ecosystems. He doesn’t force anything; he plays to the strengths of each situation by letting the land and property produce the best fruit it can without monkeying with it.… We don’t add anything: tannin, stabilizer, commercial yeast … use sulfur sparingly and when it’s needed.”
In Bordeaux, as in the classrooms of UC Davis, where a many-hands-on approach rules, this isn’t the majority strategy. D’Aprix’s attitude toward indigenous yeast is illustrative: “If faced with a stuck fermentation (I would add) a commercial yeast strain. On the other hand, my preference is to leave it alone, because I like the way the wine tastes, smells and ages when the indigenous yeast is allowed to do its thing. The yeast that lives on the fruit knows how to do its job.”
As does D’Aprix herself. She writes excellent, informative information on her back labels (itself a welcome departure from Bordeaux tradition), and her four-part blog post at Club W (juice.clubw.com/story/barrel-buzz-bordeaux-part-1) is a model of engaging, boots-on-the-ground education in what it actually takes to make a good, true bottle of wine (in a challenging vintage, 2013).
All of which pales in comparison to the wines themselves, distributed in Maine by Wicked Wines.
• Start with Chateau La Croix Lartique 2011 ($15), “Stephane (Derenoncourt)’s pet project,” according to D’Aprix, with just 300 cases per year produced on rented property just down the road from his house. “This is what they do after work,” she added. A 70/30 blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon that ferments for six months in used barrels, it’s a tremendously good food wine, dusty and granulated, with warming elements of milk chocolate, some baking spices, vanilla. It’s not super intense, but for me has the soothing, approachable spirit of an Argentine Malbec (!), with much more per-dollar character.
• On to a more Bordeaux-y Bordeaux, Le Ringue 2011 ($15), from 90 percent merlot, unoaked. The four-hectare (10-acre) limestone plot is so compressed that Christophe Quebec, a fourth-generation grower whose family in D’Aprix’s words “has never been part of the Bordeaux machine,” needs to plant wheat in order to break up the soil. “It’s just fruit, hung on soil.”
The arduous conditions for the vines yield pure pleasure in the glass. The fruit is vivid and clear, but never boring. The wine is just so balanced, so persistently on-point, you just take in the whole picture immediately. It’s an everyday wine to please newbies and nerds equally.
• If Le Ringue is the pleasure chest, Pentimento 2010 ($23) is the lifelong love affair, a cornucopia of lasting gifts. It expresses the textbook traits of well-aged Bordeaux – cedar and smoke flavors, supple tannins and long finish, marriage of sinew and flesh – without intimidating or going off message. A blend of 75 percent merlot and 25 percent cabernet franc, D’Aprix’s proudest project, the wine she filters all her experience and passion through, touches for me so many aspects of the elemental delights of wine, those of that sacred realm to which Bordeaux can rightly claim it remains relevant.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog is soulofwine.com, and he can be reached at: