Mon Histoire d’Amour with Bordeaux by Raphael Knapp

Raphael Knapp is a French Wine Importer based in the SF Bay Area. He and his partner, Bernard Bouchet, created International Vineyards four years ago. Their intention was to find small, authentic producers, and bring them to the test of the California palate. You can check out Raphael’s wine blog, which focuses mostly on French wines, “bien sur…!”

In my numerous encounters in the wine business, I am often asked the question: “What is your favorite wine region?” Although this question seems a bit simplistic, I have to say that I enjoy answering it, as it awakens all of this passion. And the answer is… Bordeaux!

Bordeaux is huge (7,000 chateaux), and can sometimes be intimidating. But it can easily be simplified. In fact, you can divide it by two: the Left Bank (mostly cabernet on gravel), and the Right Bank (mostly merlot on clay and limestone soil). The river separating these two banks is the Gironde.

Simply put, cabernet adds more structure and tannins to wine, and merlot produces rounder and fruitier wines. Finally, all Bordeaux are blends, and each producer can use any of the six “Bordeaux” grapes: cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc (adds finesse and peppery perfume), merlot, malbec (deep-color, plum-like flavor), and petit verdot (purple color and tannic). That’s it! Isn’t it easy?

The general idea is that no grape is perfect, and that blending is the key to get the best results. Much like a painter, the winemaker blends different colors to reach the balance and contrast that he’s looking for.

Bordeaux’s multi-faceted personality is what makes it so intriguing, so inimitable. Bordeaux is about soil (lighter or heavier soils directly influence the richness or minerality of the wine), climate (mostly temperate), centuries-old history (most Chateaux have had dozens of owners, each contributing their share), and the innumerable fervent young winemakers that you can meet in Bordeaux today. All of this creates homogeneity (only a few grapes can be used), but also, a seemingly limitless diversity. That’s what is exciting about Bordeaux. It’s like a huge mural, encompassing hundreds of minuscule scenes. If you are passionate about wine, it’s a paradise!

Now don’t get me wrong, everything isn’t perfect in paradise. I’ve certainly been disappointed by Bordeaux. But those tantalizing tasting experiences, which mesmerize your senses and almost bring you to another dimension—more often than not—have been gifts of Bordeaux.

I had one such hypnotizing experience in Pessac-Leognan (a appellation located ten miles south of Bordeaux City), while enjoying a glass of Chateau Haut-Bailly 1997. The wine was spectacular. With aromas of cedar, tobacco, and earl grey. A dusty, gravelly mouthfeel, with flavors of truffle, cedar, and leather. A finish of velvety, dusty tannins. Could a more highly evolved, more multidimensional wine exist? It was the archetype of an aged Bordeaux. It represented well what I find remarkable about Bordeaux (which I have not yet found to be true in any other region, to such an extent): a mix of density, complexity, and refinement. I fell in love at first sight. This moment, and others like it, is what brings me back to Bordeaux, and inspires me to experience more.

In recent vintages, Chateau Cap Leon Veyrin, Listrac-Medoc 2003 (currently, the wine I am most proud of importing), made by my friend Julien Meyre, is another exciting wine. With scents of redcurrants and cherries, it has a great fruit concentration. I also love the Chateau Saint-Valery, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2002, made by my other friend Frederic Moquet, for its structure and elegance.

Finally, the diversity of Bordeaux allows everybody to find one’s personal style. I prefer the Left Bank structure and minerality, especially from Pauillac, Margaux and the Graves. And you, what is your favorite? More than any other region, Bordeaux is about finding your soul. K&L, The Wine Club and PlumpJack are great retailers in San Francisco to start your quest.