French Bordeaux and America’s Constitution

Since there have not been any recent posts, you may be wondering what we have been doing. We have been drinking and we have been reading.

Sometimes, I do read things other than The Economist. We are daily subscribers to the Chicago Tribune. We get the Sunday New York Times delivered to our door. I read Playboy for the articles, jokes, and – let’s be honest – the lovely pictures. Until recently, I had not been traveling as much as usual. Airplane time is generally personal time for me, so the more I travel the more time I have to read.

constitutionWhen is the last time you read the Constitution of the United States? While it only takes about 25 minutes to read the Constitution, it took me quite a bit longer to complete Akhil Reed Amar’s America’s Constitution: A Biography. The 477 page biography PLUS 150 pages of notes proved a bit more challenging than expected, but the first few chapters aside, this was an enjoyable book. There was interesting and thoughtful analysis of the impact slavery had on the development of our country. It is equally remarkable how little the document has changed over more than 200 years. Recommended. I have always enjoyed history, and completed an excellent biography of John Adams in 2005. I feel more knowledgeable having read America’s Constitution.

Reading a 600 page biography of the US constitution, however, is not something you do over a beer. It requires more sophisticated refreshments. My bourbon addiction is well chronicled and was well matched to the book, though unfortunately sourced from a former slave state – I’ve never seen a Land of Lincoln bourbon. A less obvious match is French Bordeaux. Remember that is was the French who both sponsored the Revolution and sold us large chunks of land as we expanded westward.

Bordeaux Primer

Time has expanded my knowledge of wine, though French wine has proven a challenge over the years. The real reason for the recent Bordeaux binge is that 2005 had great weather in many of France’s wine growing regions – cool and wet at the beginning so the grapes grow fat, hot and dry at the end so the grapes shrivel up and concentrate the fruit. In anticipation of this great vintage, I resumed effort on deciphering French wine. Purists will not be impressed with my analysis. To educate myself, I buy a lot of wine and use The Oxford Companion to Wine as a reference.

Common to pretty much all wine is the vintner (who makes the wine) and the vintage (the year the grapes were harvested). Technically, vintner means wine merchant – who sells the wine – which isn’t necessarily the same as who makes the wine. Just like a single factory can make a VCR sold by both Sony and Toshiba, a single wine producer can sell their wine via different brands. We will ignore this – it is the same VCR regardless of the label. Vintage is important because the weather plays a large role in the quality of the wine – this is no surprise if you think about it – wine is basically an agriculture product. Some years are better than other years, as any farmer will tell you.

Two other important pieces of information are the type of grape used to make the wine and where these grapes are grown. While this is standard information, the main difference between US and French wine is how this information is communicated.

In many areas of the world, including the United States, wine is often named by the primary grape – Merlot, Cabernet, and Shiraz are all types of grapes frequently used to make wine. Just like at the supermarket, some grapes are red and some grapes are white. The type of grape reveals a lot about the wine. Drink enough wine made from different types of grapes, and you can develop an understanding of what types of wine you enjoy based on the grape. A common question at a wine store is ‘What type of wine are you looking for – Merlot, Cabernet, Chardonnay?’

Drink even more wine and you develop an appreciation not only for what types of grapes you like, but where your favorite type of grape is grown. Syrah grapes are grown all over the world (called Shiraz in Australia) – drink enough Syrah / Shiraz and you can taste the common differences. Just like at the supermarket, you can get a Florida red grapefruit or one of those wonderful Ruby Red grapefruit from Texas – both red grapefruit but I know which one I buy. Geographic information is almost always found on the wine’s label.

As an example, last night we had a bottle of 2003 (Vintage) L’Ecole No. 41 (Vintner) Cabernet Savignon (type of grape) from the Walla Walla Valley (where the grapes were grown). The Walla Walla Valley is a popular wine growing region in Washington State.

The basic challenge with French wine is that the type of grape is generally not provided explicitly on the label. The reason is that in France, where the wine is from almost always communicates the type of grape as well. An elaborate history of Government-controlled categorization supports this classification system. Champagne, for example, is actually a region in France that produces a lot of – surprise – champagne. Other regions that may sound familiar are Bordeaux, Languedoc, Beaujolais, and Cotes du Rhone. Because I haven’t memorized the types of grapes grown in each of France’s wine growing regions, I carry a cheat-sheet.

Bordeaux is one, important wine growing region and home to approximately 13,000 vintners across 247,000 acres (about 400 square miles). The region is further subdivided into appellations. Most Bordeaux wines are blends of Cabernet and Merlot grapes, with a few additional varieties of various types. Bordeaux is basically separated by the Gironde River. Knowing if one of the 37 appellations is on the ‘left bank’ or the ‘right bank’ of the river is suggestive of the predominate grape. Appellations Saint Emilion and Pomerol generally produce predominately Merlot-based wines, while Appellations Margaux and Pauillac generally produce Cabernet-based wines. Just like knowing I live in Chicago is useful information, knowing I live in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood is even more useful.

As an example, I am planning to drink a 2003 Chateau Vray Croix de Gay Pomerol Bordeaux. Chateau Vray Croix de Gay made the wine from predominantly Merlot grapes grown in 2003 in the Pomerol area of the Bordeaux region. Piece of cake once you have a cheat sheet.


bonesAs this post suggests, I’ve probably been doing more wine drinking than book reading, though I did finish another excellent book, Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler. This is more of a beer book – ‘wo yao yi bing ping Tsing Tao pi jio’ (I want 1 cold bottle Tsing Tao beer). Prior to moving to China, I read several books on Chinese business etiquette and what I could expect living in China. None of these books prepared me in any way for living and working in China. I like to think that had Oracle Bones been published in 2004, this would have been a superior read in preparation for an assignment in China. Certainly after the fact, the book is full of ‘yes, that is exactly what it is like’ moments that only an American in China would fully appreciate, but that even a novice should be able to comprehend. If you’ve been to China or are planning a trip to China, read this book.