Rivers meander through many great wine regions, often overlooked for their starring role in leaving an indelible mark on the soils, the climate and, more significantly, the personality of the place. To name a few, Europe has the Rhine, Loire, Rhône, Danube and Douro, and closer to home, we have the Russian, Napa and Columbia rivers. Just outside the city of Bordeaux, the four appellations of Graves, Pessac-Léognan, Sauternes and Barsac form one region, collectively known as Graves-Sauternes, that has traced a historic lineage along the left bank of the Garonne River for thousands of years. To many, this is the original Bordeaux, endowed with a range of stylish red, white and sweet wines.
Graves and Pessac-Léognan are the closest appellations to the city of Bordeaux, known primarily for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot-based reds, and Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc for the whites. The name “graves” refers to the special mix of gravels, shingles and pebble soils caused by the constant motion of the Garonne River. Graves is the larger of the two appellations, with 200 winegrowers, while Pessac-Léognan splintered off in 1987 to form a communal appellation within Graves, spanning 10 villages and 72 estates. In both growing areas, ancient gravel soils at varying depths allow for excellent drainage and very fine wines. Just 20 minutes away from the port of Bordeaux with ready access to global trade, the producers of Pessac-Léognan have taken full advantage of their exceptional soils, exposure and climate. Pessac-Léognan is home to 16 Crus Classés de Graves, including world-famous Château Haut-Brion.
On a recent tasting tour of Graves and Pessac-Léognan, what stood out most was the finesse of the wines. Graves encompasses many smaller, family-owned vineyards with strong personalities that add to the considerable charm of the wines. Graves’ red wines are highly aromatic and refined with slightly rustic, spicy notes. The white wines burst with fresh citrus, green apple and honeysuckle, especially pronounced when the aromatic Sémillon grape leads. Both red and white wines from Graves offer lively and refreshing choices, with many options under $20 that are ready to drink upon release. The distinctive hillside vineyards and elevation of the vines in Pessac-Léognan support more full-bodied wines with ripe, silky tannins in the reds. The long-ageing potential of wines like Château Pape-Clément, Haut-Bailly and Haut-Brion is legendary, reason alone to look for Pessac-Léognan to stock your cellar with both reds and whites.
If you set a direct course south from downtown Bordeaux along the banks of the Garonne, you’ll arrive at a small slipway known as the Port of Barsac. At first glance unremarkable and fitted only with a picnic table and boat dock, the site is the place of wine miracles each year. This is where the cool waters of the Ciron River meet the warmer Garonne to create misty mornings and the perfect conditions for Sauternes and Barsac (a communal appellation within greater Sauternes), the world’s most treasured sweet wines. The morning mists that rise from the confluence of the two rivers allow botrytis, or the “noble rot,” to develop on the grapes, concentrating the sugar content that gives Sauternes wines their complex character.
Once the rivers lend their part, the rest is up to the growers. The evolution of botrytis on the grapes is not uniform, requiring a long, difficult harvest. Entirely by hand, expert vineyard workers often pass three to four times to inspect and pick only the ripened grapes on each bunch. Small production by nature, a single vine will yield only one glass of sweet wine. The white Sémillon grape represents up to 80% of plantings in Sauternes and Barsac, blended with Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle to release complex aromas like honey, pear, peaches, white acacia flower, mango and candied apricot. A true food lover’s wine, Sauternes delivers beautiful sweetness and depth balanced by acidity and freshness. For heavenly food pairings, try it with oysters, cheese, spicy Asian dishes, roast chicken and sushi, or pour a glass to sip from aperitif to dessert.
CHÂTEAU HAUT-BAILLY II 2019, GRAND VIN DE BORDEAUX, PESSAC-LÉOGNAN
65% MERLOT, 35% CABERNET SAUVIGNON, THIS IS THE SECOND LABEL
FROM AN ACCLAIMED PRODUCER. RICH AND POWERFUL, WITH SPICY NOTES, CRUSHED BERRIES AND VELVETY TEXTURE, IT IS READY TO DRINK NOW.
THE AMERICAN OWNERS HAVE JUST COMPLETED A GLORIOUS RENOVATION OF THE CELLAR, OPEN BY APPOINTMENT. IF YOU’RE STOCKING YOUR CELLAR, THE ELEGANT FIRST LABEL, SPRING FOR CHÂTEAU HAUT-BAILLY 2020, WHICH EARNED NEAR-PERFECT SCORES.
CLOS FLORIDÈNE 2019, GRAVES
75% CABERNET SAUVIGNON, 25% MERLOT. BRIGHT AND INTENSE COLOR SHOWS BLACKCURRANT AND WILD BERRY AROMAS WITH TRACES OF MINT AND SMOKE. SILKY, FRESH AND PRICED RIGHT, JUST WHAT YOU WANT FROM BORDEAUX.
CHÂTEAU DE RAYNE VIGNEAU 2020, PREMIER CRU CLASSÉ, SAUTERNES
76% SÉMILLON, 24% SAUVIGNON BLANC AND A HINT OF MUSCADELLE.
THE HILLTOP ESTATE NEIGHBORS CHÂTEAU D’YQUEM, A PRIME LOCATION THAT SHOWS IN THE WINE. GOLDEN COLOR WITH COMPLEX AROMAS OF FRESH APPLE, NECTARINE AND WHITE FLOWERS OFFSET WITH MINERALITY AND A LUSH MOUTHFEEL. DELICIOUS.
Graves-Sauternes is a wine lover’s paradise, with many hidden gems to explore. The luxury boutique hotel Les Sources de Caudalie, owned by Château Smith Haut-Lafitte, sets a high standard for the region. In between wine tastings, guests can enjoy vinotherapy spa treatments fueled by natural hot springs, book a meal at the hotel’s farm-to-table, 2-star Michelin restaurant, then work it all off with a bike ride through the estate.
Located in the riverfront town of Langon, Maison Claude Darroze is a family-run boutique hotel with a modern vibe and a 1-star Michelin restaurant that specializes in southwestern French cuisine. To experience the tranquility of village life, book a night at Hôtel Le 23 in Sauternes, and keep the windows open to awaken to church bells in the morning. The family caretakers run an excellent bistro and will greet you with coffee and croissants on the sun porch. Just up the hill, the Relais du Silence Château d’Arche is another peaceful haven situated in a 17th-century manor house, where you can take in the views and enjoy a glass of their delicious wines. If you’re feeling adventurous, the owners can organize horse riding, vineyard tours or kayaking on the Garonne, a fitting way to get out on the riverways to see the original Graves-Sauternes.
Helen Gregory is the founder and president of Gregory + Vine. She has worked in strategic brand management and communications for beverage industry leaders such as Moët Hennessy USA, Rémy Cointreau and STOLI, and has led award-winning hospitality, beverage and lifestyle campaigns for prestige clients from the European Union to Argentina, Australia, Chile, Israel, South Africa and across the United States.