The history of the wines of Graves, Bordeaux, is a tasty tale you'll enjoy
Of the 6,000 wine grapes, you've probably heard of cabernet sauvignon, "the King of Grapes," ranging from gulp-able examples stocked on lower retail shelves to wines of stature commanding auction bids of $100's per bottle and up. Way up.
You've probably heard of sauvignon blanc, with herbal flavors making it the go-to pairing for herb-centric cuisines, including Asian, Latino and Mediterranean.
You may have heard of merlot, once America's wildly popular red, brought low by over-planting and an unfortunate "Sideways" rant. Semillon may be unknown, but it joins these grapes as crucial profit components of wine regions everywhere. And just one region brought them and their wines to the world.
Cabernet Sauvignon, merlot and sauvignon blanc and Semillon hail from France's Bordeaux region, so named because of its au bord de l'eau (by the side of the water) location. It's been an important port since the first century CE, falling to British sway in the 12th century. Soon, the sun never set on the British Empire or Bordeaux wines carried in the holds of Britain's Navy throughout the world. By the 20th-century wine boom, international winegrowers favored these grapes for their sturdiness in the vineyard, familiar flavors, and distinguished lineage.
Now imagine that Bordeaux is your family business, once dominating the market, with sales pinched by newer brands (California, Chile, Australia), plummeting consumption in Asian markets and an unfortunate 2003 U.S. boycott of French wines. What do you do, quit? Alter your product? Hardly.
These Bordeaux families -- specifically from subregions Graves, Pessac-Leognan and Sauternes -- carry their mantle high, adapting to changes in the vineyard and the market to bring the world their living legacy of classic, memorable wines as Bordeaux has done for centuries.
Chateau Carbonnieux, 2019 (Pessac-Leognan, Graves): This is stylish and restrained, with mineral and herb flavors that enrich the palate, with no overt citrus of New World sauvignon blanc. Carbonnieux is one of Bordeaux's largest estates, planted to vines for eight centuries. It now represents about 200 acres subdivided into 119 plots to maximize the expression of its unique soils of clay, massive gravel, limestone and sand.
Since 1956, Carbonnieux has been owned and operated by the Perrin family, proprietors of the great Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape and extra-value La Vielle Ferme. A blend of 65% Sauvignon Blanc with Semillon. Classically, white Bordeaux is served with local seafood (including oysters and mussels), white asparagus, and goat's or sheep's milk cheeses (such as Ossau-Iraty from the nearby French Basque country). In Chicagoland, add sushi, asparagus risotto and fine, herb-based dishes. Locally available, about $40.
Chateau Lusseau, 2018 (Graves): Deep, just-ripe berry aromas flow from the glass with classic "forest floor" accents of damp earth and alluring vegetation. A silky entrance on the palate evolves to pleasing tannin with savory, umami flavors that are not unlike your favorite steak sauce. A blend of 55% merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon. First owned by the Quellien family in 1870, vineyards and winery have followed organic principles since 2007. Wine-searcher.com reports online availability at Yianni's Wine Shop, $36.99, plus shipping.
Chateau Olivier, 2019 (Pessac-Leognan, Graves): A young athlete, lean and sinewy, with great energy and brooding complexity, destined for an MVP trophy. Opaque in appearance, with firm tannin to be assuaged over a few years by deep, juicy red berries. In 2021, building on its 136-year history of family ownership, Eleonore de Bethmann began Olivier's organic conversion. Wine-searcher.com reports online availability at Yianni's Wine Shop, $56.99, plus shipping.
Chateau Rieussec, 2018 (Sauternes, Graves): Sauternes (not to be confused with knock-off Sauterne "cooking" wine) is the classic dessert wine, produced from extra-ripe, concentrated grapes, only possible with the cooperation of Mother Nature -- which Chicagolanders recognize is at best iffy -- at best yielding only about one glass per vine. Founded initially by Carmelites, Rieussec is now owned by Rothschild, arguably history's most acclaimed wine family.
Based on the Semillon grape, 2018's cold climate required an unusually hefty 25% dose of sauvignon blanc. Honey, dried fruits, and spice notes make a heavenly match with desserts, including crème caramel. Unctuous texture pairs with unctuous mousse, both sweet and savory. For a classic sugar and salt match, pair blue cheese, especially Roquefort, produced not far from Sauternes. Serve cool, in two-ish-ounce portions. Locally available in 375ml, about $30.
Union Grands Crus Bordeaux showcases the 2020 vintage from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 25, at The Drake Hotel, 140 East Walton Place, Chicago, offering tastings from 90 estates and meet and greets with châteaux owners and representatives, including Olivier and Carbonnieux. Attendance is limited, and advanced registration is required. For tickets that traditionally sell out, visit UGC Bordeaux Tasting -- Presented by Binny's (binnys.com).
• Mary Ross is an Advanced Sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers), a Certified Wine Educator (Society of Wine Educators) and recipient of the Wine Spectator's "Grand Award of Excellence." Write to her at food@daily herald.com.