Bordeaux Wine Guide: Labels
Wine labels are made to inform us. You pick a bottle up from the shelf, read the label, and in an ideal world within a few seconds you would know where the wine came from, who made it, in which year those grapes were grown, the alcoholic strength of the wine and perhaps one or two other potentially useful facts. Despite this, labels still have the power to confuse and intimidate us with unfamiliar words, occasionally written in a near-illegible antiquated script. A little bit of label know-how can go a long way in this situation; forewarned is forearmed, as they say.
Having said that, I did consider quite carefully whether or not I should include a ‘Labels’ section in this guide to the wines of Bordeaux. After all, Bordeaux labels aren’t really that difficult, are they? They certainly don’t have the level of complexity that can be found in the labels of wines from the Mosel, or the Rheingau, or indeed anywhere else in Germany. Here typically Teutonic language (erzeugerabfüllung, anyone?) does its best to confuse, along with a host of different village and vineyard names appearing together or occasionally in isolation on the label. It is the same in Burgundy; if you are one of the initiated that already knows the wines of Echézeaux, then you will be well within your comfort zone when confronted with a bottle. But if you’re new to wine, then there isn’t really much to differentiate it from the Bourgogne Rouge you were drinking last night. Other than the price, of course.
Secondly, I found myself wondering whether an understanding of what a label says is really important for Bordeaux any more. Sadly, the region has become one where wines are traded, bought and sold for profit for many years after release. As a result, the top wines are often bought by the case and deposited in bonded warehouses or huge subterranean storage facilities until they have increased in value sufficiently to make selling worthwhile. The owner of the wine never even claps eyes on the bottles, and the label never sees the light of day. Does anybody really wander into their local wine merchant, pluck a bottle of Château Latour or Château Léoville-Las-Cases from the shelves, peruse the label, and then decide whether or not to make a purchase? Something to drink with tonight’s foie gras sliders and pan-fried ortolan, perhaps? I doubt it very much.
Nevertheless, labels are still important to Bordeaux. For those of us who buy a few bottles at a time (and this certainly includes me), rather than ordering by the case from a merchant’s online list, it is by the labels we recognise the bottles. They are part of Bordeaux’s heritage, the labels changing and evolving with time. They are also important for provenance, the value of Bordeaux – both old and recently released – being determined greatly by the condition of the label, which not only indicates to some extent how the wine has been stored, but may also be used to make a judgement on the authenticity of the wine. And Bordeaux has its label foibles too; not as many as Burgundy or Germany perhaps, but they do exist. Below are eight examples of Bordeaux labels intended to illustrate some of what they communicate. I will start with Pessac-Léognan, before taking a look at the left bank and right bank in that order, before finishing up with Sauternes.
Above is the red wine from Domaine de Chevalier, one of the leading estates in the Pessac-Léognan appellation, which is essentially a sub-zone of the larger Graves appellation. The appellation was created in 1987, and is home to all of the châteaux that were ranked as classified growths in the pre-existing Graves classification, which was ratified in 1959. Hence although the classed growths no longer use the Graves appellation, most still reference the Graves classification on the label. Unclassified châteaux, such as Château Brown, may use similarly grand terms such as Grand Vin de Graves, but such descriptions have no real meaning with regard to the quality of the wine. Nevertheless they are regulated to a degree; the term Grand Vin is always followed by the name of an appellation or region.