Bordeaux is arguably the most famous wine region of all and Bordeaux wine is the Platonic form of wine for many. It is in many respects the most revered, expensive, successful and prolific place for wine in the world. This means anyone trying to dive in and give you an overview of it will be up against it, but we are going to give it a go!
Bordeaux’s proficiency is clear, as it produces over 661 million bottles a year. 90% of this is red wine, perfect for all you claret drinking machines! While Bordeaux wine conjures up images of aged Château Pétrus’ worth several thousand pounds, it also produces a huge amount of everyday table wine and indeed, everything in between.
From the grapes, to the terroir, the classifications, famous houses, regions and local cuisines – this article can be your crash course for all things Bordeaux wine.
Bordeaux Wine – The Terroir
Perhaps the most crucial factor, in terms of terroir, that has led Bordeaux wine to it’s global status are the various sources of water present in the region. From the Atlantic ocean to the Gironde, Dordogne and Garonne rivers and the various streams going throughout the vineyards – all are key for so many reasons.
In terms of exporting, the well-connected waterways precipitated growth of the region. It meant that the wine from the area could be collected and distributed, all the way back in the 13th century, at a time when most French wine was unknown beyond their borders, (MacNeil 114).
The benefits of these water sources are not just commercial. There’s a reason that they say the best vineyards in Bordeaux can ‘see the water’. The Atlantic ocean provides warming winds from the gulf stream, but any extreme winds are mitigated by the 2.5 million acres of Pine Forests. Beyond this the streams and rivers help trap heat from the sun and distribute it slowly throughout the colder parts of the day.
The fact that water is such a ubiquitous feature of Bordeaux means that the soil must be the yin to it’s yang, to allow Bordeaux wine to thrive. For the vines to thrive in this aquatic environment, the soil needs to be well-draining. This means stone, gravel and limestone bases are the most desirable. Clay is also a key soil type throughout the Bordeaux wine region. While it doesn’t drain as well as stone-type soils, it still gets the job done. However, winemakers tend to favour the more forgiving Merlot grape, for clay soils.
Bordeaux Wine – The Grapes
As we’ve mentioned, claret is king. Claret being a generic term, for describing red wine from the Bordeaux wine region, (Harding and Robinson 179).
Six red varieties can stake a claim for Bordeaux turf, they are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec (often referred to as its original French name Côt), Carmenere and Petit Verdot. However, amongst these six varieties, two reign supreme.
Merlot is the shining star of Bordeaux wine, as it constitutes 60% of all planted acres. It’s clear partner in crime is certainly Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon accounting for 80% of all Bordeaux.
Merlot gives Bordeaux wine it’s supple, ripe and fruity flavours. Cabernet Sauvignon is deeply tannic and gives great structure, body, depth and density, (which explains Bordeaux wines’ great ageing potential). The duo’s relationship is one which has stood the test of time, in that Merlot is the “flesh on Cabernet Sauvignon’s bones”, (MacNeil 145).
We mustn’t forget that Bordeaux wine is so much more than the big bold reds we know. Bordeaux white wine is also some of the best in the world. In practice, the wines and wine-making is similar to the reds. There are some grapes which rule the roost, while some add complexity and depth as blending partners. The leaders of the pack are Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle. Yet, Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Merlot Blanc and Sauvignon Gris all appear in Bordeaux wine.
The fact there is such a broad range of grape varieties available to Bordeaux winemakers indicate that blending is a huge part of Bordeaux wine. The bit part grape players will add complexity and structure to wines dominated by these four red and three white varieties. Blending has always been key to Bordeaux wine, but Bordeaux winemakers have actually refined their selections a lot. While winemakers use thirteen grape varieties today, in 1780 there were sixty-three varieties still found in parts of St.Émilion and Pomerol.
Bordeaux Wine – The Regions
Bordeaux is a vast and expansive region, with appellations, sub-appellations and classifications that keep coming. We’ll look at some of the most prestigious and some of the outliers. While, the quality of the top regions in the area is evident. It is wrong to dismiss wine from outside these areas. You can find delicious Bordeaux wine in all corners of the region.
The most famous and revered regions tend to be in close proximity to the Gironde estuary, (again, giving credence to the best vineyards seeing the water). The Gironde runs up from Bordeaux to the North-West and out to the Atlantic ocean. Bordeaux wine regions are then primarily split into two categories – the Left and Right Bank. The Left Bank meaning those to the West of the Gironde. The Right Bank meaning those to the East of the Girdone.
Then, there are a number of satellite regions which produce a huge proportion of Bordeaux wine. Let’s start with the big hitters though.
The Left Bank of Bordeaux
The Médoc is the largest of the great Bordeaux wine regions. It is includes the Médoc and Haut-Médoc, (the latter meaning ‘Upper-Medoc’). These two regions encompass the prestigious communes of Margaux and Pauillac. These two communes alone contain four of the original five first-growth Châteaus! More on that later.
Like the rest of the Left Bank, Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the Médoc. This grape forms up to 70% of all red blends. The largely stone soil, with small amounts of clay, makes this possible. The Médoc, as iconic as it is for the French, would not have been the success it was today without the intervention of Dutch engineers. The region was, for want of a better word, swampland. Advanced large draining systems were introduced throughout this Bordeaux region in the 17th century, which allowed the vines to flourish and produce the great Bordeaux wine we have today, (MacNeil 153).
The name of this region is rather on the nose, as the southernly region takes its name from the gravel soil found throughout. However, Graves is a unique region. It is the only Bordeaux wine region to produce large quantities of red and white wine, although red is still the dominant variety, with Cabernet Sauvignon taking up the most real estate on the vineyards.
It was also the first to garner real international acclaim. Casks from Graves were regularly arriving in England from the 12th century and by the 17th century a number of important estates were already producing great wine. This includes the famous Château Haut-Brion, who had some famous admirers. Thomas Jefferson, (third president of the USA), wrote about how delicious the wines of what he referred to as, ‘Obrion’ were, purchasing six cases to be sent to his home in Virginia, (MacNeil 156).
Sauternes is to the South of Graves and is a region famous for producing the decadent dessert wine of the same name. This sweet wine is made from Sémillon grapes which have been affected by Noble Rot. Noble Rot essentially being a fungus which attacks the grapes skin allowing moisture to escape and sugar to concentrate. Read here for our dive into dessert wines, for a perfect pud pairing for a Sauternes sweet wine.
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The Right Bank Of Bordeaux
Now we leap across the Gironde to the Right Bank regions of Bordeaux. St.Émilion, much like the other Right Bank Regions, is far smaller than the Left Bank. They tend to be family vineyards and operations, producing smaller quantities of wine.
The town of St.Émilion itself is a small medieval town, with a 12th century church carved into an underground cave. This is one of the only underground churches in Europe and is on the site of a hermitage of an 8th century saint.
Indeed, this religious history behind the region is intertwined with the wine. The governing power of this community, at that time, fell into the hands of the ‘Jurade’. The Jurade were a group of Alderman who had the power to rule over the area for King John. Part of their responsibilities involved ensuring the quality of the wine. The Jurade de St.Émilion are actually still in operation today, after a brief period of absence following the French revolution.
In terms of the wine, St.Émilion is typical for the Right Bank. It produces solely red wines, which are primarily Merlot. The region’s gently rolling hills of limestone, clay, chalk and sand make a perfect base for delightfully fruity and rich wines. Cabernet Franc also has a key role in St.Émilion taken an almost equal percentage of the blend in a number of notable examples of St.Émilion Bordeaux wine.
Pomerol is one of the smallest prestigious Bordeaux wine regions. In fact, until the post-war period it was relatively unknown. However, it is home to one of the kings of not only Bordeaux wine, but wine full stop! This is the fabled Château Petrus. Unattainable for below several thousand pounds, this exclusive and hard to attain wine had a meteoric rise in the second half of the 20th century and it took the Pomerol region with it.
Vineyards in Pomerol are generally very small operations, making up less than 10 acres in area. Like the neighbouring St.Émilion it produces exclusively red wine, with 80% of the gravel and clay soil being dedicated to Merlot grapes.
The Other Names in Bordeaux Wine
As we’ve touched upon, there are a number of satellite regions which produce a huge proportion of Bordeaux wine. Let’s take a look at some of the notable names.
First, Entre-Deux-Mers, quite literally meaning ‘between the seas’. This area encompasses the area between the city of Bordeaux and the tributaries of the Dordogne and Garonne, (which form the Gironde). Entre-Deux Mers produces exclusively dry white wines, which are primarily made up of Sauvignon Blanc.
On the Left of the Girodne, worth noting are Listrac and Moulis. These are Cabernet Sauvignon led blends, in the inland communes of the Médoc region. However, they’re on far heavier soil, with less stone. This means less drainage is possible. The end result is often powerful and punchy wines, which are deeply tannic.
Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac are also regions on the rise. Found just to the North-West of the elite Pomerol and St.Émilion regions, they can often share a lot of the terroir. Clays and sand soils, with limestone. These red wines, (usually Merlot led), can often exhibit a tasty, yet rustic offering.
Finally, is the Côtes. These are smaller regions around the outside of the communes of St.Émilion, Pomerol, Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac. They do feature some of the oldest vineyards in the region, which can be dates back to Roman times, when passing legions brought viticulture to the area. Fertile soil and amiable conditions lead to a large amount of high yield wines being produced here.
Now that you’ve got a handle on the regions, there’s one final thing to learn, if you’re to decipher a dusty bottle of a fancy Bordeaux red. These are the classifications. If ever there is a rabbit hole to go down and confuse yourself, it’s here. The classifications can vary from region to region within Bordeaux. Even the terms themself can vary – Grand Cru may mean one thing in one region, another in another, then nothing at all in another!
The classifications are based on the estate that owns the land, rather than somewhere like Bourguignons where it’s based on the land itself. This means it’s a politically charged and financially costly event when classifications change. In 2012 a property jumped from Grand Cru, to Premier Grand Cru Classé B and overnight, the value of the property was ten times the amount it was previously (MacNeil 149).
The whole idea of classification of the region didn’t even come from the winemakers. Napoleon III asked the winemakers to classify all their wines by quality in 1855, due to an upcoming event called the ‘Exposition Universelle in Paris’, (Harding and Robinson 181).
This is not a task winemakers relished and were initially hesitant. Eventually, the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce stepped in and decided to determine the rankings by how much the wines were being sold for. The most expensive became the Premier Cru, (which translates to First Growth). The second most expensive were second growths and this went down to the fifth growths, with anything below that not being classified.
While the history is interesting, classifications are a transient thing. Don’t let a price tag determine your enjoyment! If the Bordeaux wine in your glass tantalises your tastebuds, what else really matters?
Bordeaux Food – A Taste of… Britain?
The final stop on our tour of Bordeaux wine concerns the gastronomy of the region. Many say that the food is lacklustre in Bordeaux, compared to the rest of France. One proposed suggestion of this is the long-standing ties between Bordeaux and Britain.
Bordeaux was in many respects culturally British when Bordeaux native Eleanor of Aquitaine married the Plantagenet King Henry II in 1152, and remained this way for several hundred years, (MacNeil 168). However, this may be at best reductive and at worst silly take on the matter. Bordeaux food is not lacklustre. It may not reflect the ornate and ostentatious French cuisine of other cities, but it is delicious and simply reflective of the culture of the region. Simple home-cooking is more than sufficient and actually pairs perfectly with the wines of the region.
Let’s look at a great three course menu of Bordeaux delicacies and a Bordeaux wine for each one. Bordeaux is famous for its Atlantic oysters. Delicious, fresh and perfect with an ice cold Bordeaux white.
They also specialise in lamb. In fact, the Bordeaux lamb is said to have a unique flavour as they’re allowed to graze in the vineyards during the off-season. So, a roast lamb and Bordeaux red for a main, sounds good to me!
Then, a course to typify the sweeter side of Bordeaux. Unsurprisingly, Sauternes is the way to go. However, Bordeaux is perhaps most famous, (in terms of cuisine), for two sweet treats. These are Macarons and Caneles. The former the classic French biscuits. The latter is a wonderfully caramelised cork-shaped pastry.
Final Thoughts on Bordeaux Wine
There you have it! A look at all things Bordeaux wine. Next time you’re looking at a shelf of French wines in your bottle shop the labels might mean more to you than they previously did. See if you can pick out a Pauillac or a Pomerol for a good price. If you do then share it with us at Savage Vines!
Bordeaux is a must-visit for any wine lover, without a doubt – if you’re looking to take a trip, we recommend reading our look into Bordeaux producers, (and Savage Vines affiliates), ‘Château Picoron’. It’ll have some travel tips and maybe even provide you with the perfect place to stay! Read it here.
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Harding, Julia, and Jancis Robinson, editors. The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford University Press, 2015.
MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. Workman Publishing Company, 2015.
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