Think of somewhere long, thin, and famous for its white Cadillacs, and Sunset Strip might spring to mind. But in the world of Bordeaux wine, Premières Côtes de Bordeaux fits the bill.

Think of somewhere long, thin, and famous for its white Cadillacs, and Sunset Strip might spring to mind. But in the world of Bordeaux wine, Premières Côtes de Bordeaux fits the bill.

The Premières Côtes de Bordeaux appellation is long, narrow and set in the south-west corner of the Entre-Deux-Mers. Running from the suburbs of Bordeaux south along the right bank of the Garonne to the village of Saint-Maixant, the area is 60km in length but only 5km wide at its widest point.

Its topography is initially defined by a limestone scarp which follows the meandering course of the Garonne; it then rises into a picturesque hinterland of tumbling hills and valleys. The soils are mainly limestone-clay on the hillslopes and clay-gravel on the plateaux, with the best-sited vineyards profiting from a south-easterly exposure. Climatically, the main variant is rainfall, the pattern changing from north to south.

The Romans were the first to cultivate vines in these soils. Later, in the Middle Ages, the region became a source of wines for the cross-Channel trade. In the 18th and 19th centuries the wealthy Bordelais, looking for country retreats within easy reach of the city, developed a number of small estates complete with châteaux or maisons bourgeoises. The combination of property, agreeable countryside and accessibility has continued to lure a steady stream of investors, often foreign, in recent years.

The Premières Côtes de Bordeaux used to be better known for its sweet white wines, of which there is still a limited production, including the superior Cadillac in the south of the appellation. Red wine, though, is the staple today. The dominant variety is Merlot, but this is very much a blended wine and Cabernet has an important role. The hallmark style of the area is medium bodied, crisp, fresh and fruity. Wines are usually suitable for drinking in three to five years, except some special cuvées which need longer.

In terms of quality there’s a definite feeling of two speeds, demonstrated by the level of investment and work undertaken. Those moving in the slower lane have yet to pull themselves up to the appellation’s ideal of 4,500 vines/ha, are on the higher limits of the yield per hectare and need to get to grips with the finer points of better vineyard management. For those in the fast lane, the proof is in their impressive wines.

Notable names in the area include Monique Bonnet of Château Suau, who planted 20 of her 60ha at a density of 5,000 vines/ha 10 years ago and has now gone to 7,000 vines/ha. She has also invested extensively in cellars and equipment. Down the road her British neighbour, Philip Iles, has taken a similar path. Since purchasing Château Lezongars in 1998, he’s improved his system of pruning and trellising, replanted at a higher density, increased the number of new oak barrels and introduced a system of selection via a number of cuvées including L’Enclos du Château Lezongars and Lezongars Special Cuvée. All of these producers are successful examples of the heights this region can achieve.

Written by JAMES LAWTHER MW