A lunchtime claret. I can’t think of another wine that is associated with a meal in quite the same way. It says something both about the wine, the meal and the diner, who is almost certainly of a certain age and lifestyle – a habitué of gentlemen’s clubs, most probably.
It refers to a modest red Bordeaux rather than a classified growth, although ironically the ideal food for both may not be that different. I remember having a 1970 Château Latour at The Connaught Hotel with a magnificent game pie, but took equal pleasure from a meal at Rules where I drank a then three-year old 2010 claret with a venison cottage pie, served with an appropriately retro pie frill. Maybe the Brits like Bordeaux so much because it goes with gravy and pastry?
Does Bordeaux have any place in restaurants and with the type of food we eat now, though? The old-school dining establishments I’ve mentioned are hardly typical. Most restaurants today serve lighter, more plant-based food with which white Bordeaux, or even rosé might be said to pair better than red. Asian food is popular but the Chinese fondness for Bordeaux almost certainly doesn’t translate into a desire to drink it with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. They’re more likely to pair it with Sichuan beef – the combination of tannin and spice being regarded as a bonus to ramp up the intensity of the taste experience rather than a problem.
The wines themselves have also changed, in becoming fleshier, higher in alcohol and more fruit forward. Merlot, a more forgiving grape variety than Cabernet – or young Cabernet at least – predominates on the Right Bank, and these days shows more prominently on the Left. Unlike Cabernet it can handle tomato, which makes it suitable for drinking with Italian food, though I still hold to the theory – tested out for a feature I once wrote for Decanter – that Bordeaux goes better with butter-based dishes than those cooked in olive oil. And because of that tomato tolerance – and even tomato ketchup-tolerance – modern, young Bordeaux is as good with a high-class burger as a steak.
But the natural register for the wines – as in so many other wine-producing areas – is the food of the region, which is basically that of southwest France and, contrary to it’s high-flying image, is quite rustic. Or as Marc and Kim Millon so nicely put it in their 1982 book, The Wine and Food of Europe: ‘Bordeaux does its job of satisfying the appetites of hungry men and women without unnecessary embellishment.’
Epitomized by the iconic La Tupina (on the riverbank in Bordeaux’ vibrant Capucins district, specializing in authentically traditional Bordelais cooking), it’s a robustly carnivorous cuisine of roast and grilled meats and game birds, fine lamb from Pauillac, the humbler cuts braised with beans, everything copiously spiked with wine-friendly garlic.
The southwest of course is the land of duck and duck fat – foie gras at the top end, humble salads of gesiers (gizzards) at the bottom. There are game birds in season, served bloodily rare; snails (more garlic) and saucisson (more fat). It’s the perfect cuisine to tame tannic wines – not, as I say, that Bordeaux is so tannic these days.
Bordeaux is used to cook with too – well, why wouldn’t you when it’s so plentiful? The description ‘Bordelaise’ indicates a rich sauce made with shallots, bone marrow and red wine, or there is the marchand du vin (wine merchant’s) sauce which includes demi-glace: both are fabulous with steak.
Fish, too, gets the red wine treatment. The famous lamproie a la Bordelaise, which is made from the ugly fish found in the Gironde, is traditionally cooked in claret, while zander is served at La Tupina with red-wine-friendly shallots, which join garlic and onions as the key ingredients in so many Bordelais dishes. And even oysters work with red wine if you serve them with crépinettes – the little sausage patties covered in caul fat that are traditionally served by the oyster beds of the Bassin d’Arcachon.
Less controversially, on the face of it, there is also – and always on a French table – cheese, but that can be a bit of a minefield, not least because in France, as elsewhere, the most prestigious wines are saved for the cheese course. I remember a dinner in the private dining room at Berry Bros & Rudd when an exemplary cheeseboard of beautifully kept British cheeses was served with a fragile 1945 Clos Fourtet Saint-Emilion and a 1990 Château Margaux to the detriment of both.
Sheep cheeses such as Ossau-Iraty and Berkswell, and harder British territorial cheeses such as Cheddar and Red Leicester, are more forgiving of a fine red than pokey (strong, sharply-flavoured) blues or the ‘stinky’ washed-rind cheeses that are popular on the eastern side of France, though the northern French cheese Mimolette goes particularly well with Bordeaux. As does Roquefort, of course, but with Sauternes rather than a highly rated red.
Ah, the sweet wines of Bordeaux: always the adventurous frontier of food and wine pairing. That other classic, Sauternes and foie gras, may be old school but it does work (along with duck or chicken parfait for those who feel uncomfortable eating foie gras). More daringly you can pair it with savoury dishes with a touch of sweetness such as lacquered pork, quail or duck or chilli-spiked Thai food.
Such pairings belong more in the world of Michelin-starred fine dining admittedly, as do the more cutting edge pairings for the underestimated Bordeaux rosé. The sommelier at Hélène Darroze once memorably paired lobster with morels and vin jaune for me, not with a sweet Bordeaux as I’d expected but with Château Le Puy’s Rose-Marie rosé, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. The problem remains that somms would rather serve something edgier.
Maybe the answer, going forward, is to think of Bordeaux as it always has been: a wine to drink at home – the case for this being stronger than ever given the prices it fetches in most restaurants these days. And the time to drink it? Well, how about for breakfast like a media mogul my husband once worked with who habitually drank Château Palmer with his bacon and eggs?
Beats a lunchtime claret hands down.
Fiona Beckett – Bordeaux for Lunch first published in On Bordeaux – Tales of the Unexpected from the World’s Greatest Wine Region by Académie du Vin Library (2020).