While it is no longer as famous as the Médoc, Graves is one of the two mainstay wine areas of the Left Bank. The region was reinvented when the area home to all the greatest reds, Pessac-Léognan, broke off from Graves AOC in 1987. Now the region of Graves is best known as a container to both Pessac-Léognan and Sauternes.
The wines of Graves are full-bodied, use approximately even percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and are highly influenced by the gravel banks that give Graves its name. The wines generally have more feminine flavors than their Médoc neighbors, but are significantly structured and take a very long time to mature. Then there is Sauternes, widely regarded as the best place in the world for sweet wine.
As compared to the Médoc, where any white wine produced is disaffectedly labeled under the Bordeaux or Bordeaux Superieur AOCs, Graves and Pessac-Léognan are allowed to produce white wine under their appellations. A style of Bordeaux often overshadowed by the reds and Sauternes, Graves whites can have good dry fruit and impressively full body, generally thanks to the grape Sauvignon Blanc.
In short, powerful, concentrated, and lusciously flavorful wines of three different styles can be found in Graves. Even under the Graves AOC itself, as opposed to higher-end Pessac-Léognan, a number of outstanding reds exist. Pessac-Léognan and Sauternes are two extremely important regions for collectors looking for expensive, ageable wines of the highest sophistication.
Nowadays, wine on the Left Bank is mainly associated with the Médoc, especially the communes of Pauillac, Margaux, St-Julien, and St-Estèphe. These villages are home to the most famous châteaux, such as Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Cos d’Estournel, and Ducru-Beaucaillou, and they are by far the biggest status symbols nowadays. Although Haut-Brion is famous, and Graves is respected in the wine world, its wine (red at least) does not compare to the Médoc in the amount produced, its popularity, or its price.
Yet only a few hundred years ago, in the 17th century and earlier, Graves was enjoying a period of prosperity in which their wines were considered not only the best in Bordeaux, but the only wines of that style in France and perhaps the world. It is easy to forget that Graves was so famous, and it helps to put the Médoc’s current popularity into a historical context.
In the year 1152, a historical marriage between Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, the English duke, took place. The marriage had many commercial facets to it, and Henry saw potential in Bordeaux’s land, which was uncultivated for wine production. By the Middle Ages, Graves was renowned for its intense, powerful style of wine, which at the time had few rivals in Bordeaux or anywhere else. By the early 1700s, a few small plantings had popped up on the right bank, in a town called St-Émilion and another called Pomerol. Even in the Médoc, a village called St-Estèphe had started cultivating the Cabernet grape. Graves, however, still went unquestioned as the #1 area to find wine of its style.
Over the next hundred years, enterprising foreigners drained the Médoc, turning it from wild swampland into prime wine territory. The plantings from the Right Bank began rapidly increasing. Médoc’s takeover was slow but sure, and by the 1855 classification of the Médoc it was that region which was considered to dominate the Left Bank. All Graves had in the classification was Haut-Brion and Sauternes.
Graves has remained popular, and still commands high prices for its best bottles of wine. It was granted AOC status a year after the Médoc and its villages: 1937. The top châteaux, though, were dissatisfied with the large size of the appellation and the number of mediocre houses that qualified for the regulations. During the 1950s, a classification of Graves wine was organized in order to place a qualitative distinction on the best châteaux.
Dramatically, Graves’ best producers were still not satisfied, and in 1987 the most westerly of them split off to form Pessac-Léognan AOC. As a result, Graves AOC itself no longer contains any of the top houses, and collectors now shop Pessac-Léognan instead. As a result, Graves has become an excellent place to find reasonably priced Bordeaux blends that exceed their reputation.
Climate and Viticulture
The general climate of Graves is given away by the name. Graves in French means gravelly land, and a number of gravel banks exist in Graves. The intensity of the wines, including Sauternes, comes from this characteristic. There are also small quartz deposits in the soil which play a part in the taste of the wine.
In Sauternes, another factor altogether may be responsible for the outstanding nature of the wines. Read about it on the Sauternes page.
Both red and white grape varieties are used in Graves. The reds are the most planted, but in terms of proportion to the fame of the wines, the white varieties are probably equal or superior.
- Cabernet Sauvignon: Cabernet Sauvignon is used to a high degree in Graves. This is mostly due to the very high level of gravel in the soil of Graves, since gravel is known to optimize the full-bodied nature of Cabernet Sauvignon and give it amazing complexity and intensity. In spite of this, Cabernet is not nearly as esteemed here as it is in the Médoc; as a result, the grape’s hold on plantings is not quite as expansive, and in some cases (Couhins-Lurton), even less of it than Merlot is planted.
- Merlot: Despite the gravel deposits, Merlot here does much better than in the Médoc, and in certain estates can take on a more powerful character. Though in general Merlot is a softener, here it acts more to break up the monotony of the overwhelmingly powerful gravel-influenced Cabernet, and to introduce separate flavors. A few châteaux use a majority of Merlot, but on average they use slightly less than half.
- Cabernet Franc: Graves is nowhere near the Right Bank in terms of the amount of Cabernet Franc used, and yet Cabernet Franc can provide character all its own to these blends. Haut-Brion, the main château, has about 10% of their vineyards planted with Cabernet Franc. La Tour Haut-Brion has the most plantings, over a third, to make their red wine more rounded.
- Petit Verdot: An obscure grape to begin with, Petit Verdot isn’t quite as necessary for the structure of the wine as it is in the Médoc, and many producers prefer to simply go without it. Nevertheless, often the vineyards are planted with 2% or less of it.
- Malbec: Malbec is extremely unpopular in Graves, perhaps even more so than Médoc. Of the classified wines of Pessac, Bouscaut is the only one to use it in any significant degree–5% planted.
Only three grapes are regularly used in Graves’ white blends.
- Sémillon: Although dry white wines all over France and even in some other places make good use of this grape, inarguably its primary use is in the luscious sweet wines of Sauternes, where it takes on a tropical-fruity character that balances refreshing acidity with amazing full-bodiedness. It makes up 70% on average of Château d’Yquem, the quintessential Sauternes, and at least half the majority of Sauternes.
- Sauvignon Blanc: Sauvignon Blanc, in dramatic contrast to Sémillon, is planted all over the world and made into both dry and sweet wine. It is not as highly specialized for Sauternes as Sémillon is. But without its zesty acidity that cuts through the tropical fruit flavors of Sémillon, Sauternes might seem just a little bit flabby.
- Muscadelle: Some châteaux use Muscadelle to throw in a few more flavors, but it does not play such an important part in Sauternes anymore. It is unrelated to Muscat, but shares its ability to make sweeter wines more versatile.
After the landmark 1855 Médoc classification, which also included a sweet white Sauternes listing, Graves reds had to wait until 1953 for their classification, and the dry whites until 1959. The 16 châteaux on the list are now all located in Pessac-Léognan. Don’t forget Graves itself for bargains: Clos Floridène, Crabitey, and Magneau are among the estates with highly reputable wine within the old AOC. Here is the list of the classified Pessac-Léognan estates; much more info about each is available on the Pessac-Léognan page.
- Château Bouscaut: Bouscaut, with its unconventional red grape variety proportions, makes an interesting red. But they are better known for their sharply flavored, intriguing white wine.
- Château Carbonnieux: An extremely solid château probably better known for their white than their red, although both are usually well-received by critics. The white is more expensive, but also more powerfully made.
- Domaine de Chevalier: It’s not a château! But this excellent Graves estate is at least as good as many of its château competitors. They use a traditional Médoc blend for their red wine and Sauternes-like percentages for their white. Both are ageable, but the red is considered more full-bodied.
- Château Couhins: Not as well-known as neighboring Couhins-Lurton, this wine is nonetheless a good producer of the appellation. They use mostly Sauvignon Blanc in their white and half Merlot in their red.
- Château Couhins-Lurton: This estate is highly remarkable due to their usage of 100% Sauvignon Blanc in the white, and a majority of Merlot in the red. The better-known white has significant gravel-derived mineral character and is affordable.
- Château de Fieuzal: They do make some white, but this château is better known for its Médoc-styled red. Although expensive considering its pedigree, it showcases distinctive aromas.
- Château Haut-Bailly: Soft on tannins and light in body, this unusual wine perhaps owes its distinctive nature to the château’s 10% Cabernet Franc plantings. The 2005 is more intense and also more expensive, costing well over $100 at most places of purchase. But usually Haut-Bailly is easy on the wallet and very reliable.
- Château Haut-Brion: This estate has a complex history as the prominent château of Graves, going back almost as far as Graves wine has been produced and exported. Although numerous competitors have sprung up, Haut-Brion is the only 1er cru outside the Médoc and deserves this special treatment. Its flavors are unique and brilliant, and also not predictable: they can be marvelously rich in tannins and complexity or soft and silky. Needless to say, the wine’s pedigree is humongous and with only a few bad spots. Prices are normally about $500 on average, but ranged up to a stunning $1,400 for the 2005 vintage. A number of second wines are produced, including a stellar white.
- Château Latour-Martillac: Don’t confuse it with First Growth Château Latour! Subtle and medium- to full-bodied, this wine is reasonably priced with distinctive, Graves-like flavors. A tiny bit of white is produced, also a good value.
- Château Laville-Haut Brion: This château makes one of the few white wines that still actually uses Muscadelle. Starting with the 2010 vintage, it will be labeled La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc. Prices of over $100 or even more are common; depending on which wine critic is talking, this is much too high or well worth it for the finest white wine in Graves.
- Château Malartic-Lagravière: Up until perhaps 2003 or so, this château made a relatively undistinguished red wine that was nevertheless classic and elegant, able to last a decade or more. Starting with the 2003 vintage, a rapid and remarkable return to form took place; this is now considered one of the best wines of the region.
- Château La Mission Haut-Brion: If any Graves wine can compete with the stellar offerings of Château Haut-Brion, it is probably this one. Its white, until 2010 sold as Laville-Haut-Brion, was generally hailed as the best white in Pessac-Léognan, and will now be labeled as La Mission Haut Brion Blanc. For the red, similar percentages to Haut-Brion are used, but the wines are much more intense, rich, and layered. Though some critics think La Mission’s flavors are not yet refined or elegant enough to challenge Haut-Brion, a growing minority seems to hold that the more powerful flavors are more interesting.
- Château Olivier: A relatively affordable classified Graves, Olivier has plantings of about 10% Cabernet Franc and the rest split between Cabernet and Merlot. Although not greatly sophisticated, it offers medium-bodied elegance with a number of flavors. At the price ($30 is about the usual) this is an excellent find. A good amount of white is also produced.
- Château Pape Clément: This is the oldest château in Bordeaux, proven to have been harvesting and vinifying grapes as early as the year 1306. It was first owned by an archbishop, and attained an excellent reputation, but periods of decline and instability always prevented the wine from reaching the top in the Pessac-Léognan appellation. In recent years, the wines have become very consistently rich and flavorful. The red wine is usually around $100 but is higher in 2005; the white wine is interesting but not well-known.
- Château Smith Haut Lafitte: This stunning château, distinctive with its coverage in bright green vines, did not always make such consistently good full-bodied wine. Its history of turbulence has brought prices to a competitive level, with “bad” vintages often selling for very good prices.
- Château La Tour Haut Brion: While neither as famous nor as interesting as the other “Haut-Brions”, La Tour Haut Brion makes a highly competitive, affordable wine that is usually at the forefront of Graves winemaking. It attempts to rival more upmarket Graves estates with its elegance and complexity, and can often succeed. When it does, the $50-odd price is well worth it.
A classification of Sauternes was also done, with three classes. Yquem was alone in the first, the second contained the top Sauternes estates, and the third contained several runner-ups that also produce luscious sweet wine.
There is only one Superior 1er Cru:
- Château d’Yquem: This château has more 100-point ratings in its pedigree than any other wine in history. The estate, which has existed since the 1500s, has by far the best land in Sauternes, but it was only in the 1780s that it started to take winemaking seriously. Although the botrytization of wine did not yet exist, these wines were immediately noted for their remarkable flavors. The Lur Saluces family owned the château for more than 200 years, until 55% of it was bought out by LVMH Group for about $100 million. The pedigree of the wine since the sale has only increased. Yquem is, with the possible exception of Lafite-Rothschild and a few other such estates, the greatest status symbol in Bordeaux, and nearly every vintage lives up to this reputation. The wines are reported to be marvelously luscious, with high acidity, zesty sweetness, and full-bodied flavors of tropical fruit. Yquem will always, however, be a rich man’s luxury: prices bottom out at about $250 and can easily rise into a four-digit range.
It’s hard to beat Yquem for quality, but their prices can be easily bested by the other 1ers crus of Sauternes:
- Château Climens: This Barsac (sometimes labeled Sauternes) is made up of 100% Sémillon and is very different from other Sauternes. Although not commonly available, it is often a phenomenal wine, offering flavors of pineapple and other tropical fruits in a lighter-bodied, more mild wine that sometimes equals the sophistication of Yquem. Look out for the 100-point 2001. Expect to pay $100 or more in good vintages.
- Château Clos Haut-Peyraguey: Rather affordable Sauternes is intense with a long finish. At its prices of $50-$70, these wines are usually a reasonable value for the area.
- Château Coutet: This estate, located in Barsac, generally produces very fruit-forward, less serious, but nonetheless excellent wines at prices that are consistently well below $100.
- Château Guiraud: The 2005 vintage of this complex, exotically beautiful, well-priced Sauternes hit #4 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 of 2008 list. Intense and ageable but rarely overdone, these wines are well-priced at between $50-$70. But with all the recent attention and high ratings this wine has been getting lately, they are likely to soon increase.
- Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey: Made up of mostly Sémillon, this wine starts slowly, but with age can show intense but at best very approachable full-bodied elegance. This is another one that always costs less than $70.
- Château La Tour Blanche: This was originally owned by a treasurer, and ended up in the hands of the French government. Well balanced, concentrated wine, it has been rated in the very high 90s. Prices are usually in the 70s.
- Château Rabaud-Promis: One example of a Sauternes that has become somewhat obscure, this château is nowhere near as prominent as it was in 1855. If you can find it, wine of this estate can be capable of luscious but unusual fruit deviating from the norm somewhat. Prices are less than $50.
- Château de Rayne-Vigneau: Another somewhat obscure Sauternes estate, this wine also makes the occasional very successful wine. The 2003 looks to be their best vintage in recent years. Prices range from $20-$40.
- Château Rieussec: In its best years, this estate can rival Yquem. The 2001 vintage made #1 on Wine Spectator’s 2004 Top 100 List, gaining an 100-point rating from Wine Spectator and an only slightly inferior 99 from Parker. Capable of enormous layered complexity and minutes-long finishes even when young, as it ages it becomes even more luscious. In order to create these powerful flavors, the château uses over 90% Sémillon most of the time.
- Château Sigalas-Rabaud: The result of a split with Rabaud-Promis, this wine is also no longer as popular as it once was. But it has improved in recent years and at under $40 is one of the few slightly affordable Sauternes.
- Château Suduiraut: Although it is right next to Château d’Yquem, this estate is nowhere near as popular or exclusive. And yet it can often rival Yquem with the complexity of its fruit character, and the power and versatility of its tropical aromas. Prices are in the $70 range.
In the second tier of Sauternes wineries, a number of several equally good houses exist:
- Château d’Arche: Overpriced but sometimes remarkable wine.
- Château Broustet: Although occasionally available, this wine has become extraordinarily obscure. Even expert ratings are hard to locate.
- Château Caillou: One of the least expensive wines in Sauternes is capable of excellence, but in bad vintages it is somewhat mediocre. Expect to pay $30 or less, except for the remarkable 2005 ($40).
- Château Doisy Daëne: This château produces wine that is definitely of a first cru status, one example being the “L’Extravagant” of 2001. Complex but beautiful, this one garnered a 100 and a 98 from two wine critics that judged it. At $300, it was far more than other Doisy Daënes, most of which are reasonably priced wines that nevertheless have long finishes and much full-bodied elegance. Prices for these are generally $45 or less.
- Château Doisy-Dubroca: Extremely obscure estate.
- Château Doisy-Védrines: While not exactly bargains, the wines from this estate are extremely intense, full-bodied, and powerful, rivaling their much more expensive competitors at least in flavor, even if they lack the same lusciousness and power. Prices are good considering the appellation and rating pedigree, often between $40 and $50.
- Château Filhot: This historically significant château existed as early as the 1600s. Fruit-forward but still sweet and luscious, this simplistic wine is good at $40-$50.
- Château Lamothe: Not as well-known as Lamothe-Guignard. It’s gotten obscure since the classification.
- Château Lamothe-Guignard: While not every vintage is remarkable, this wine is a good entry-level example of Sauternes. It is not at all as complex as more expensive châteaux’ offerings, but offers an essence of the area’s flavors for less than $40.
- Château de Malle: A long history and remarkable gardens characterize this château to people uninterested in its wines. But the wine offered is also outstanding, providing affordable prices for full-bodiedness and great aging potential in the majority of vintages.
- Château Myrat: For a long time this château was obscure, but seems to be coming back into popularity.
- Château Nairac: Despite having a long history, this château has gotten obscure.
- Château Romer: This one has drifted into obscurity since 1855.
- Château Romer du Hayot: More available than obscure Romer, but not by much. It lacks complexity, but extremely good prices (sometimes $20 or less) make it a good wine for Sauternes-lovers on a budget.
- Château Suau: The wines of this château are hard to find at any price, but can be complex with flavors somewhat atypical of the appellation.
No less than six AOCs are contained within Graves AOC, including Graves AOC itself. Some of them are more obscure than others, but all provide excellent wines both red and white.
- Graves AOC is an increasingly unpopular AOC. This is unfortunate, since some of the best reasonably priced Left Bank wines are located right here. Regulations are kept so that almost all these wines are of a decent quality.
- Graves Supérieures AOC is a place to find the best “poor man’s Sauternes’s.” Unfortunately, not many of them are very well-known; nor are they widely available in countries other than France.
- Cérons AOC: An increasingly obscure substitute for Sauternes, this botrytized sweet wine was unfortunately not allowed to be one of the five areas that are allowed to label their wine under the Sauternes appellation. Although more complex than Graves Supérieures, they rarely attain that magnificent fruit characteristic found in the best Sauternes.
- Sauternes AOC: For many centuries, the best sweet wines have been located in the five villages of Sauternes: Sauternes itself, Barsac (this can label its wine under Barsac AOC), Bommes, Fargues, and Preignac. Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, as well as the occasional cluster of Muscadelle, are first exposed to a powerful fungus known as botrytis. Then, they undergo a complex winemaking process and come out on the other end as potently sweet, luscious, full-bodied white wines. An infinitum of tropical fruit flavors underscore the wine’s refreshing acidity and distinctive power. Producing these wines is outrageously expensive, so this appellation is among the first to be crossed off the bargain hunter’s list. For as long as Sauternes has been produced, people of class and fame have treasured it as one of the great exclusive wines of Bordeaux, and definitive Château d’Yquem has among the most outstanding rating pedigrees of any winemaking house anywhere.
- Pessac-Léognan AOC: While it lacks the distinguishing nature of Sauternes, Pessac-Léognan is still one of the epicenters for intense Bordeaux blends on the Left Bank. In 1987, it was born out of a break between the exclusive western Graves AOC producers and the lower-level eastern producers. The appellation is defined by first growth Château Haut-Brion, whose wines were placed on the same level as Latour and Lafite-Rothschild in the 1855 classification of the Médoc. While the wines lack the exclusivity and completely unique style and flavor of Sauternes, Pessac-Léognan occupies a similarly lofty place in the red wine world.