Médoc: Reassuringly expensive

A quick intro to the wines of the Médoc…

It not just the owners of Tarmac who have made a fortune out of gravel. Rather than excavating it, the residents of Bordeaux have found an altogether more elegant way of making it pay – by growing vines on it.

Not all grape varieties are created equal. You’d be lucky to coax anything better than average plonk out of a jester like Couderc Noir. But Cabernet Sauvignon can be capable of creating the most regal reds when grown in the right conditions: a warm, dry climate with plenty of sun and well drained, gravelly soils. Exactly like the left bank of the Gironde river in Bordeaux, where it flows into the Atlantic – otherwise known as the Médoc.

Cabernet Sauvignon has an extraordinary ability to age, and with age comes complexity of flavour. When young, it tastes of blackcurrants and green peppers, but as it ages it develops notes of cigar tobacco, pencil shavings, chestnut and spice. Here it is blended with Merlot, which adds body and a soft plummy succulence. The result is a well balanced and uniquely cerebral wine that has a rare blend of both power and elegance. The small production of dry white wine, made from Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon grapes, can also be superb.

These wines have been coveted for centuries, and have made the land owners extremely wealthy. The drive north along the D2 through Margaux, St Julien, Pauillac and St Estèphe is unforgettable. The natural countryside is nothing special, but the route is dotted with an embarrassment of elaborate châteaux, imposing status symbols built on the profits of wine. The current market price for a bottle of Château Lafite 2009 is £850. It costs closer to £10 to produce. The top labels are no longer really wines: they are luxury brands, flipped for profit by fine wine traders, rarely drunk by mere mortals.

But don’t let that put you off. There are many excellent wines being made by less famous estates. The trick is to pick a reliable producer in a good vintage: look out Châteaux Cissac, Cantemerle, Chasse-Spleen, Tour de By, Beaumont and Meyney in vintages such as 1989, 1990, 1995, 1996, 2000 and 2005. They will still set you back £25 – £35 a bottle, but they should give you an evening of luxurious pleasure and an insight into why so many people become captivated by the Médoc. After all, they’re expensive for a reason.

First published in Living France magazine.