Wine Culture and Information - Volume 17
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  ABC Wine Issue 38, February 2006   
MédocMédoc  Contents 
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Médoc

Heart of the famous wine growing region of Bordeaux, Médoc is the place where the famous enological model, imitated all over the world, is from, a success made not only of magic grapes

 Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot: how many wines are produced with these three grape varieties in the world? It is difficult to say, but they certainly are a lot. The famous recipe of Bordeaux wines - typical of Médoc - has become, in a short period, renowned all over the world, frequently giving the illusion that making a great wine takes three grape varieties only. The greatness of Médoc wines is in fact the result of special environmental conditions, viticultural and enological techniques, and, of course, the three famous grape varieties as well. Moreover, there is the barrique - the famous barrel of 225 liters which was born here - an element which marks Bordeaux and its wines. Médoc is also the result of commercial success, thanks to the Gironde - the important estuary on the Atlantic ocean - which has favored the export of wines in other countries, therefore promoting their spreading. Because its large area, Gironde influences climate in Médoc, contributing to the formation of those environmental conditions which make this area unique.

 The origin of wine production in Médoc is rather uncertain, the area was in any case associated to wine since the times of ancient Romans conquests, as it was from the Gironde the ships loaded with wine - produced in the internal areas - were heading for other countries. The name Médoc - already known before ancient Roman times - means territory in the half or pagus medulorum. The area was inhabited by Celtic tribes, then the the place was occupied by Gauls. The first evidence about wine production in Bordeaux area is attributed to the Latin poet Ausonio (310-394 AD), who - in one of his poems dated back to 379 AD - mentioned he cultivated grapes in a land of his property. In his written works, Pliny the Elder did not give clear information about the production of wine in Bordeaux region during his times, anyway he mentioned biturica grape. It is very likely, viticulture and production of wine began in Bordeaux region after the times it began in Rhone Valley.


The Médoc
The Médoc

 Information about the period following the fall of the Roman Empire are few, and they rarely are about wine. Anyway, it is proved that in Medieval times, wine production was made in Bordeaux, although the results were very far from those known today. Viticulture in Médoc area was practically absent until the end of the seventeenth century, as the area was marshy and mainly used for the cultivation of corn. At those time, there are information about some vineyards cultivated in the northern part of Médoc, better known as Bas-Médoc. Anyway, the seventeenth century was a fundamental period for the development of viticulture in Médoc, as the first researches about the terroir of the region are dated back to this period. In 1677, the English John Locke wrote about the results of researches done in Médoc, underlining the important influence of the soil on the organoleptic qualities of wine.

 In this period, English people were already used to call Bordeaux wines with the term claret - initially introduced for commercial purposes - a custom being still popular in England. The studies about terroir became fundamental, so that at the end of the eighteenth century, enologists and vineyard owners considered this factor of primary importance in wine production. Moreover, the importance of the right application of enological techniques - largely improved in this period - was realized, which, together with terroir, allowed the making of excellent products, wines which would then become famous all over the world for their quality. The first results of this change were already tangible at the beginning of 1700's, so that Englishmen began to call Médoc wines the New French Claret. Because of the growing commercial success, producers began to scrupulously select their own wines, so that around the half of the eighteenth aroused the need for a quality system for the classification of wines.


 

 The commercial success increased and - with that - also the necessity to protect quality wines from the ones considered to be of lesser value. In 1855 - in occasion of the Universal Exposition in Paris - Emperor Napoleon III asked for the constitution of a quality system, in the aim of protecting Bordeaux wines. Wine merchants of that time were called to judge and to evaluate the best wines, according to the prestige of the Château and the price to which they were sold, a factor strongly associated to quality at those times. The result led to the creation of the famous Classification of 1885, which subdivided wines in five categories and that still today represents a reference point for Médoc wines. The fame and the success of Médoc wines were still increasing when in vineyards appeared Phylloxera, Oidium and Mildew. It was the beginning of a long crises, not only commercial, and the area destined to vineyard was drastically reduced. Because of the rigid frosts in 1956, the area covered with vineyard was just 6,000 hectares (about 14,820 acres) in 1960, as opposed to 25,000 in 1880 (about 61,770 acres).

 During this period, timid signs of rally were registered only in the occasion of the four exceptional vintages of 1921, 1924, 1928 and 1929. Although the area destined to the cultivation of vineyards doubled during the last 30 years, Médoc has not yet reached the same area before the devastation of phylloxera. The efforts of producers were concentrated, in the last decades, on the technological development and on the improvement of the quality of Médoc wines. In fact, many investments were done for the modernization of cellars as well as for the introduction of advanced enological technology, with the declared intent of keeping high the quality and fame of Médoc wines. After centuries, Médoc continues to amaze the world with its renowned wines, a success made of terroir, commitment for quality and of that absolutely unique factor, represented by environmental conditions of the region. And certainly, of grapes, too.

 

Classification of Médoc

 Médoc wines are classified according to the most famous classification in the world. As a consequence of Napoleon III will, in 1855 the famous classification of Médoc was created, in which the quality of wines was determined according to the prestige of their producers - the famous Château - and the price of selling. The classification was made by the members of the Chamber of Commerce, which divided the Château in five distinct categories, from Premier Cru to Cinquièmes Crus. The original classification of 1855 provided for four Château belonging to Premier Cru: Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Latour, Château Margaux and Château Haut-Brion, this latter one belonging to the area of Graves. In 1973 - in occasion of the revision of the classification - Château Mouton-Rothschild was added to the category Premier Cru as well, before that date classified as Deuxième Cru. The classification is known as Crus Classés and groups 61 Château.

 Although Médoc producers insist on the concept of terroir, paradoxically, the classification of their best wines is not based on this principle. The classification of Crus Classés is based on the estates and not on the territory, this means that, in the case a Château of high quality acquires another one belonging to a lower category, it can be promoted to the superior category. Moreover, in case a Château improves the quality of its wines - as to be compared to the ones of superior classes - the system does not provide for a promotion. The same rule is valid in case quality gets worse. Most of Médoc Château were excluded from the classification of 1855. In 1932, a new classification was especially made for the Château excluded from the one of 1855 and was named as Crus Bourgeois.

 The classification of 1932 provided for three categories: Bourgeois Supérieurs Exceptionnels, Crus Bourgeois Supérieurs and Crus Bourgeois. In 1979, European laws allowed the use of Cru Bourgeois denomination only while eliminating the other two established in 1932. The decree of French Republic of June 17th, 2003 has reintroduced these appellations again, according to the categories established in 1932. Cru Bourgeois wines are generally considered for daily consumption, however also in this classification can be found excellent wines, whose quality can be frequently compared to the ones belonging to Quatriemes Crus and Cinquièmes Crus categories. Another consideration about Cru Bourgeois is price, usually lower than the wines belonging to Crus Classés classification. With more than 150 years of existence, the denomination Cru Artisan groups small wine producers with vineyards of few hectares, most of the times less than five. As the same name suggests, the producers which belong to this category are artisans of wine, frequently small companies run by the families which take care for everything, from cultivation to production, as well as marketing.

 

Production Areas

 The Médoc wine area is located in the west part of Bordeaux region and goes from the northern neighboring of Bordeaux - exactly from Blanquefort village - to Pointe de Grave, in the left bank of Gironde, for a length of about 80 kilometers (50 miles). According to French quality system, Médoc is divided in two areas, Médoc - or Bas-Médoc - in the northern part of the region, and Haut-Médoc, located in the southern part and which occupies a larger area. Of the two area, the most interesting one certainly is Haut-Médoc, in fact all the most famous wines of the region come from here. And here are found the famous communes of Margaux, Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Saint-Estèphe. According to French quality system, in this region are defined eight wine areas, two of which being regional - Médoc (Bas-Médoc) and Haut-Médoc - and six being communal denominations: Margaux, Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Saint-Estèphe, Listrac-Médoc and Moulis en Médoc. The best areas are all located in gravelly soils along the Gironde, while the internal areas - characterized by less drained soils - produce wines of lower quality.

 Most of Médoc wines are red and the grape mainly used is Cabernet Sauvignon - usually present in wine for about 60-70% - followed by Merlot. Cabernet Sauvignon is responsible for the full body of Médoc wines, whereas Merlot gives smoothness. Moreover, in Médoc are used - although in a lower percentage - Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenère grapes as well. Margaux area is characterized by gravelly soils, allowing the production of wines having extraordinary elegance and aromatic richness, as well as a full body. For this reason, wines from Margaux are usually defined as an iron fist in a velvet glove. The most renowned Médoc area certainly is Pauillac: here are in fact found three of the five Premier Cru. The characteristics of Pauillac wines are many and complex: some have a full body and extraordinary elegance, others are instead characterized by a sublime finesse of aromas and tastes. In any case, Pauillac wines always offer intense aromas of black berried fruits - black-currants and blueberries - and a remarkable complexity of tastes.

 Wines produced in the Saint-Julien area are known - just like the ones of Margaux - for their elegance and smoothness. Saint-Julien wines are characterized by an extraordinary bouquet - very balanced and velvety - supported by a full body, richness and intensity of flavors. The wine area located in the most northern part of Haut-Médoc is Saint-Estèphe. Because of the composition of the soil - here being more clayey than in other communes - the wines of this denomination are famous for their robust tannic structure and intense color. However, Saint-Estèphe wines have a very elegant aromatic smoothness - and in particular - are capable of long periods of aging. Located in Médoc's internal areas - far from the coasts of Gironde - Listrac-Médoc and Moulis en Médoc wines, also because of a more clayey and less drained soil, are less refined of the ones from the famous four communes. However, even in these areas can be found many surprises. The wines of the northern part - called Bas-Médoc or simply Médoc - because of the composition of soil - less suited for a high quality viticulture - do not have the elegance and smoothness of Haut-Médoc wines and they are frequently commercialized with the generic Médoc AC denomination.

 




 Editorial  Share this article     Summary of ABC Wine column Wine Tasting 
  ABC Wine Issue 38, February 2006   
MédocMédoc  Contents 
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