When you are starting your journey through the wonders of wine, Bordeaux is one of the first names you come across. This iconic region in southwest France is famous for being home to some of the most expensive wines in the world (Château Lafite Rothschild mean anything to you?). Its reds also inspire winemakers across the Old and New Worlds.
A Little Geography and Weather
The Bordeaux wine region is gathered slightly inland around the Garonne, Dordogne, and Gironde rivers. It has a moderate maritime climate which allows for extended growing seasons and it is protected from Atlantic storms by the large coastal Landes Forest.
Vintages vary greatly because of unpredictable rainfall that can interfere with different stages of the vineyard life cycle. This is one of the reasons Bordeaux has a range of blends which includes grapes that ripen at different times. Relying on one varietal has been and remains too risky. Thankfully for us, this means we get the Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends that have been the foundation stone for similar styles the world over.
What is called the Left Bank to the west of the Gironde River is where we find top châteaux in Margaux, Saint-Estèphe, Saint-Julien, and Pauillac. Red blends from these communes are led by Cabernet Sauvignon. The Right Bank to the east is the location of Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, also leading wine areas. Merlot tends to dominate red blends in this area.
Main Black Grapes
Reds lead in Bordeaux with more than 90% made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Merlot is an early ripener and the most-widely cultivated grape in Bordeaux, playing an important role in the premium wines from Saint-Émilion and Pomerol where it thrives in the cool, clay soils of these spots.
Cabernet Sauvignon, a late ripener, dominates in the Haut Médoc, Bas-Médoc (often simply referred to as Médoc), and Graves where it ripens with the help of heat from the stony soil of the vineyards.
Cabernet Franc is grown throughout Bordeaux but shines in Saint-Émilion, Graves, and Médoc where it enjoys well-drained soil. Petit Verdot is not as widely planted as the other black grapes and only does well in very hot years. It is sometimes added in very small quantities to red blends to add tannins, color, and spice.
Malbec and Petit Verdot are also grown in Bordeaux.
Bordeaux encompasses 57 AOCs (appellation d’origine contrôlée) that broadly come under seven headings. Médoc, Graves and Pessac-Léognan, Saint -Émilion, Pomerol and Fronsac, reds from the Côtes, Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur, dry whites, and sweet whites (we will go into white Bordeaux in more depth in a separate piece).
Reds from the Médoc proper are Merlot dominated and are early drinkers. Haut- Médoc reds are Cab Sauv dominated and hail from some of the finest châteaux in the world. These wines have a core of blackcurrant, cedar notes, grippy tannins, and long aging potential.
Graves has Merlot-led wines that are concentrated and complex while Pessac-Léognan boasts Cabernet Sauvignon heavy blends that are light and fragrant.
Additionally, the Médoc appellation encompasses a wine classification system that goes back to 1855 when the top producers of that time were ranked from 1 to 5. Known as the 1855 Classification, this system has barely changed since then although there are many producers not included that make excellent wines. You just have to know your Bordeaux to find fine wines outside this system – and it is worth it! Châteaux within this classification are called crus classés, and it is a good place to begin in the exploration of wines from this region.
St. Émilion red blends are dominated by Merlot and plummy with red berries, rich textures, and tobacco notes as they evolve while Pomerol wines are rich with blackberry and spice. Fronsac wines are also Merlot led and often paired with Cabernet Franc leading to a rounded palate of red berries, spice, and pepper.
The generic Bordeaux AOC indicates a red wine that is early-drinking and red-fruit forward with a touch of oak while Bordeaux Supérieur AOC means a red wine that has slightly stricter appellation rules and a higher ABV. This class of wine has red and black fruit notes, a medium body, and is best drunk early
Guide to Bordeaux Wine Region Part 2: White Wines
When you are starting your journey through the wonders of wine, Bordeaux is one of the first names you come across. This iconic region in southwest France is famous for being home to some of the most expensive wines in the world. Its reds also inspire winemakers across the Old and New Worlds. This piece focuses on this region’s whites which deserve some airtime of their own.
Main White Grapes
Thin-skinned and prone to noble rot (botrytis), Sémillon is the leading grape for the sweet wines in Bordeaux. It also adds texture and body to blends with Sauvignon Blanc in the top-end dry whites of Graves and Pessac-Léognan.
Upturning the view that all wines from this iconic region are blends, Sauvignon Blanc is increasingly appearing in varietal wines where it expresses green fruit and citrus flavors.
Floral, grapey Muscadelle adds delicacy to white sweet and dry blends, appearing in small but fragrant quantities.
White Wine Styles
As with their red counterparts, whites are made in a range of styles in Bordeaux. Lower-end wines labeled generically as “Bordeaux” tend to be crisp and fruity and made in inert vessels to allow pure varietal notes to shine through.
The classic whites from Pessac-Léognan are fermented and matured in new oak and display rich, nutty notes over layers of fruit.
The best of the iconic sweet wines of Bordeaux is a masterful balance of sweetness and acidity, fermented and matured in new oak for up to three years.
Bordeaux encompasses 57 AOCs (appellation d’origine contrôlée) that broadly come under seven headings. Médoc, Graves and Pessac-Léognan, Saint -Émilion, Pomerol and Fronsac, reds from the Côtes, Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur, dry whites, and sweet whites.
Entre-Deux-Mers is situated between the Dordogne and Garonne Rivers and produces white wines under this appellation. Made from Sauvignon Blanc, these wines are clean and unoaked, a style also seen in Graves.
Pessac-Léognan turns out some of the best whites in Bordeaux with many entitled to a cru classé status. Blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, are usually fermented and aged in new oak and display toasty notes in a medium to full body.
It is also possible to find superior dry whites in Médoc and Sauternes, but they have to bear the generic Bordeaux appellation.
The sweet whites of Bordeaux are known the world over with the very best produced on the banks of the Garonne and its tributary the Ciron. These rivers are ideal for the misty fall conditions necessary for the development of the noble rot essential to sweet Bordeaux whites.
Sauternes on the west bank of the Garonne is renowned for its honeyed, floral, citrus, acidic wines made under the namesake appellation. Barsac, is a village within Sauternes. It can use its own appellation or that of Sauternes for its sweets whites wines. In both of these appellations, Sémillon dominates because of its susceptibility to botrytis while Sauvignon Blanc adds balancing acidity and Muscadelle contributes exotic blossomy hints.
Bordeaux is famous for its reds – and rightly so. However, it is worth exploring the wonderful white varietals and blends that this region has to offer. They are worth every sip!
Are you still with us? At first glance, Bordeaux looks very complex and indeed it does take time to figure out what you can expect from the different grades of wine. It is worth the effort thigh because the fine red blends of Bordeaux are the template for similar wines in other regions so something good is going on here.
Plus, if you ever visit Bordeaux in person, you can take advantage of countless tours to the areas detailed here and the city itself has a fantastic modern wine museum which is well worth a visit!