Once Upon a Time in Bordeaux

I think the book was one of those Europe-on-five-dollars-a-day books that were so popular when I was a lad of seventeen. Mine was a used copy from a garage sale and my makeshift bookmark, a torn page from my high school yearbook, was stuck in the section on Bordeaux. The torn yearbook page had Musette’s picture on it; the French exchange student from my school two years prior, the most exotic girl I had ever met up to that time, the girl who kept those fancy French cigarettes and a flask of vodka in her purse. And here I was, with her photo in my ratty travel guide standing on the banks of the Gironde River in some little place called Pauillac.

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I did what any seventeen year old boy with French girl fantasies would have done. Wishing I had paid more attention in French class, I started asking around town and showing her photo to people, inquiring if they knew where she lived. Looking back, I can still recall the raised eyebrows and shaking of heads that told me my French was pathetic and, in the opinions of the villagers, so was I.

Except Jacques didn’t think I was pathetic. Jacques, who appeared to be at least 93, looked at me with kind eyes and in broken English, invited me to join him for lunch. Inexperienced as I was in the art of drinking in a French bistro at two in the afternoon, I didn’t hesitate to accept his offer. I was about to have my first lesson in the wines of Bordeaux.

Jacques spoke glowingly of this little place, Pauillac (POY-yack is how he said it), and how it was the epicenter of the Bordeaux wine world. Turns out that besides Paulliac, the nearby villages of Margaux, St.-Julien, and St.-Estephe were pretty famous places for wine within this region of Bordeaux called the Medoc. I was at ground zero for wine.

He ordered a lamb dish and a bottle of Chateau something or other Rothschild. I knew a Chateau was a really big house and I recalled the Rothschild’s were some rich family full of barons and baronesses. The lamb was because in France, as in most of Europe, one does not drink wine without partaking of food. Lamb and red Bordeaux, as I later learned, are one of the classic food and wine pairings. I was just hungry and thirsty and hoping Jacques would lead me to Musette.

Why is it, I asked Jacques in my resplendent ignorance, that the wine label doesn’t say what kind of grapes are used in the wine? Jacques, in his resplendent wisdom, explained it like this. The lives of all the world’s great lovers do not consist of only one woman. Great lovers enjoy different women, treasuring their unique qualities, finding something in each one that is memorable. And so it is with wine. The wine is a blend, a marriage of several kinds of grapes, creating a sum greater than the parts. It made perfect sense to me.

Of course, the Cabernet Sauvignon is the king of grapes in Bordeaux reds. Merlot is not far behind and in some cases is the major grape used in some blends. A Bordelais winemaker often uses the Merlot fruit as an “insurance” grape, if the quality of Cabernet is not quite up to snuff that year.

A minor grape, but used in nearly every red Bordeaux blend, is the Cabernet Franc. Cab Franc (as wine cognoscenti call it) adds a nice violet hue to the blend and some spiciness in the aroma. Very occasionally, two other grapes are used in blending but only in small amounts; Malbec and Petit Verdot.

Which grapes are used, how much of each one, and the specific terroir of the vineyards (we’ll learn about terroir in another column) all are considered by the vigneron as he or she blends a wine. Most all Bordeaux wines, reds and whites, are blends and that blending is what creates complexity and layering, making a wine that can be aged for ten, twenty years or more.

And what of Musette? Jacques knew her, knew her family, they lived nearby. But, alas, Jacques related, she had gone off to Monte Carlo with some rich baron’s kid and would not likely be back for weeks. My crestfallen face said it all. My fantasies would remain just fantasies. Remember the wine, said Jacques, remember the blending of many grapes, one kind alone will not do. I’ve endeavored to follow his advice ever since.

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.