Bordeaux Wine Guide: The World's Most Famous Wine Region

Bordeaux Wine Guide

Bordeaux is a region of such tremendous diversity in geography, soil, weather, and winemaking tradition that it produces a myriad of wines, each with a unique character. The range of Bordeaux wines is reflected in its 57 appellations, 61 grand cru classés, more than 9,000 wine-producing châteaux, and 13,000 wine growers. Bordeaux is the largest fine-wine producing region on earth and its production, about 6 million hl (158 million US gallons) a year, dwarfs that of all other French wine growing regions, except for the Languedoc.

The Bordeaux wine region was initially admired for its sweet white wines from the sub-region of Sauternes. The wine had prestigious clientele, including Thomas Jefferson, during an era when sweet white wines were more popular than dry reds. Rosé was also popular in the 18th century, particularly with the English, who called it “claret” due to the wines translucent red colour. The English still refer to a red Bordeaux as claret, although today it must originate from the Côtes de Bordeaux and therefore one of 37 listed villages.

South of France Wine Map

It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that red Bordeaux wines became well-known. The dramatic moment of this transformation was an official decree that classified the top producers of the day. The edict, now deemed the ‘1855 Classification’, identified the best producers in the region and ranked them from 5th to first. The classifications are commonly known as “classed growths” and have not changed to this day.

The great red wine areas are the Médoc, north of the city of Bordeaux, and in the south the best of the Graves, Pessac-Léognan, on the west bank of the Garonne. These are the so-called “left-bank” wines. The “right bank” consists of St-Émilion and Pomerol and their immediate neighbours along the north bank of the Dordogne. One could make a rough designation that, red wines are made north of the city of Bordeaux and white wines to the south.

Médoc and Graves, on the left bank, are where both red and white grapes are grown, frequently in the same vineyard. The area is known for its gravelly soils and graphite-driven red wines with a dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend. The most prestigious sub-regions in the Médoc include Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Saint-Estephe, Margaux and Pessac-Leognan. The wines from the Médoc are some of the boldest and most tannic of Bordeaux wines, perfect for aging or pairing with red meats. The dominant grape used in the blends from Graves and Médoc is Cabernet Sauvignon.

Libournais, on the right bank, is known for its red-clay soils that produce bold plummy red wines with a dominance of Merlot. The most well-known and sought after of the sub-regions include Pomerol and Saint-Émilion. The wines from around Libourne are still bold, but generally have softer, more refined tannins. For this reason, right bank wines are a great introduction to the region.

Bordeaux Wine Guide - Bordeaux Vineyards
The vineyards of Bordeaux are the largest fine-wine vineyards in the world

The area between the two major rivers of Bordeaux, the Garonne and Dordogne, is called Entre Deux Mers (Between Two Seas). The area produces both red (predominantly Merlot) and white wines. It is perhaps better known for its white wines, which are a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle.

Bordeaux also produces a sweet wine, called Sauternes, made in the town of the same name, as well as the surrounding regions of Barsac and Cadillac along the Garonne River. Morning fog causes the white grapes to develop a fungus called Botrytis, causes the grapes to shrivel and sweeten, creating one of the sweetest wines on the market.

Only a tiny portion of Bordeaux’s wine production is dedicated to white wines. These wines are made with Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon and range from the fresh crisp wines from Entre Deux Mers to the creamy consistencies of Pessac-Leognan.

The prestigious St-Èmilion and Pomerol wine-producing districts are situated where the soil is particularly suited for growing Merlot grapes whereas Graves and Médoc where some of the best and most age-worthy wines in the world are produced, have Cabernet Sauvignon as their dominant grape. These areas are renowned for the most prestigious châteaux.

Bordeaux Wine - Saint-Emilion
Saint-Emilion is a charming medieval village located in the heart of the famous Bordeaux wine area

It’s important to remember, however, that Bordeaux wines are a blend of grape varieties.

A full-bodied wine with bold aromas of blackcurrants, plums and cedar, to name a few, the red blend is one of the most copied around the world. Depending on the region, quality and vintage, these fruity flavours range from tart to riper fruits. Red wines must be made from varieties of Cabernet – Sauvignon and Franc – which supplies tannin and good keeping qualities, plus Merlot, which brings softness and suppleness. Other varieties of grape which can be included in the blend include Malbec and Petit Verdot.

Red Bordeaux wines have a characteristic softness and subtlety that comes only with age. In general, the wines merit long ageing to enhance their rich and complex flavours, with tannins often high enough that wines will age for several decades. In fact, Bordeaux wines are characterized by their longevity: some of the greatest Médocs will live for a century in the bottle. Speaking of aging, one of the secrets to finding a great Bordeaux wine has a lot to do with seeking out great vintages from the region (great vintages seem to come along 1–2 times every 5 years) and then stocking up. Even affordable wines are great on a good vintage in Bordeaux.

The white Bordeaux wines, on the other hand, fall into two styles: light and fruity or rich and creamy. The grapes of used include Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle. While there are a few lesser-known varieties used in white Bordeaux wine (such as Colombard and Ugni Blanc, the grape used in Cognac), most are made of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc.

Dry whites are perfect as an apéritif and pair well with seafood and chicken. Sauternes and Barsac, famous for their golden sweetness, are among the best dessert wines in the world.

Wines that receive only the most generic appellation, those labelled Bordeaux, account for one-quarter of all AOC wines in France. Bordeaux wines are balanced and bracing but light, with a delicate nose, and are meant to be drunk young.

Bordeaux Wine Guide - Sauternes
The Spiritual Home of Sweet Wine, Sauternes is well-known for its complex, elegant wines

Graves, which gets its name from gravelly soil, is the only area in Bordeaux to produce both good red and dry white wines. Traditionally, two-thirds of Graves wines have been fresh, fruity and dry whites, but recently that split has reversed, and Graves now produces more red than white. A Graves red wine is recognizable by its garnet-red colour. Rich and attractive, earthy and tobacco-scented, they are more robust than the other Médoc wines.

Médoc wines are delicate and medium coloured. They generally have a lot of body, tannin and acid when they are young. They have a bouquet with aromas of blackcurrant and cedar when they age. The wines labelled with the generic Médoc AOC are generally from the northern half of the district.

Haut-Médoc, in the southern half of the district, is a great tongue of flat or barely undulating land isolated from the body of Aquitaine by the broad, brown estuary of the Gironde. It is the homeland of the most famous vineyards in the world and in common usage, its name is given to more fine wine that any other name in the world: Margaux, St-Julien, Pauillac, St-Estèphe, and their surrounding villages are all “Médoc” in location and style. Its wines are richly coloured, earthy, firm, robust and tannic. They reach their maturity more slowly than other Médoc wines.

Bordeaux Wine Guide Grapes
Image result for bordeaux red wine grapes A red Bordeaux blend is primarily composed of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, with smaller portions of Malbec and Petit Verdot

Margaux and Cantenac, the most delicate of Médoc wines, are considered to produce the Médoc’s most polished and fragrant wines. Although the soil of Margaux is thin and gravelly, this allows the vines’ roots to penetrate the ground as deep as 23ft (7m) for their steady but meagre supply of water. The result is a wine that is often considered as the greatest and most exquisite claret of all.

If one had to single-out one Bordeaux commune to head the list, there would be no argument. It would have to be Pauillac. Châteaux Lafitte, Latour and Mouton Rothschild, three of its five superstar first growths, are its obvious claim. But many red Bordeaux wine enthusiasts would tell you that the wines of Pauillac have the quintessential flavour they look for – a combination of soft red fruit, oak, dryness, subtlety combined with substance, a touch of cigar box, a suggestion of sweetness and, above all, vigour and longevity. One-half of all cru classes in Médoc can be found in Pauillac. Wines tend to be quite individual, though they share full bodied characteristics. Some are supple with layers of fruit, whilst some have an intense blackcurrant, cigar-box flavour.

Although Pomerol is a new player in the firmament of Bordeaux wine, its most sought-after wines can fetch a high price. For the smallest wine producing area in the Bordeaux region, in all it is no bigger than St-Julien, it is generally agreed to be among the best in the whole of Bordeaux. Robust and hardy, Pomerol wines have an exclusive velvety quality. They are deep coloured and full-bodied, with a rich flavour, soft tannins and a hint of minerals.

The ancient and beautiful town of St-Emilion, sometimes referred to as “the Burgundy of Bordeaux,” is at the epicentre of what has recently been Bordeaux’s most seismic wine region and is amongst the most prestigious AOCs in the world. Behind the town, on the sandy and gravelly plateau, vines flow steadily on into Pomerol. Beside it, along the ridge, they sweep down steep limestone slopes (the Côtes) onto the plain. St-Emilion wines, considered the most robust of the Bordeaux vintages, are richly coloured and reach their maturity more quickly than other red Bordeaux wines. The grapes of St- Emilion are the plump Merlot and Cabernet Franc, and as such are softer and fruitier than the Médoc and Graves wines where Cabernet Sauvignon is King. St-Émilion is the oldest viticultural area of the region, having first been planted during the Roman occupation of Gaul.

The gravel banks that give the Haut-Médoc and its wines their character and quality begin to peter out at St-Estèphe. It is the northernmost of the four famous communes that are at the heart of the Médoc. A small stream divides it from Pauillac, draining on one hand the vineyards of Château Lafitte and on the other, three of the five classed growths of St-Estèphe: Château Cos d’Estournel, Cos Labory and Lafon-Rochet. Characteristically full and with a big nose, St-Estèphe wines vary within the region. At the opposite end of the scale from the delicate wines of Margaux, St-Estèphe wines are likened to the heavier St-Émilion wines. They are tannic and slow maturing, tough, deeply coloured and acidic.

St-Julien accounts for the highest proportion of classed growths in Bordeaux, with 80% of its vineyards classed as such despite having the smallest production of the famous four communes of the Médoc. Its wines are lighter than the others and very aromatic. If Pauillac makes the most striking and brilliant wine of the Médoc, and Margaux the most refined and exquisite, St-Julien forms the transition between the two. The wines are harmonious and well-balanced, rich and full-bodied with flavours of blackcurrant, cedar, and cigar boxes.

Whereas all the other districts of Bordeaux in this chapter can be compared with and preferred to one another, Sauterne is different. Often underappreciated and certainly incomparable, Sauterne is a speciality that finds few real rivals and is potentially one of the world’s longest-lasting wines. An elegant, sweet dessert wine Sauterne depends a lot on local conditions and on a very unusual fungus and winemaking technique.

Vineyards, home to Bordeaux Wines
The vineyards of Bordeaux are the largest fine-wine vineyards in the world

Stretching along the convergence of the Lot and Garonne Rivers, its vineyards are often subject to a thick morning fog which encourages a fungus called Botrytis Cinerea, otherwise known as noble rot. It is essential to production of these sweet wines and manual successive pickings of the affected grapes are required to get just the right degree of ripeness. In great vintages, the results can be sublime: a very sweet, rich-textured, flower-scented, glittering golden liquid, whereas in other years it can fail to be even designated as Sauterne.

The benign fungus causes the grapes to shrivel and accounts for a high sugar level, meaning the wine sometimes reaches an alcohol content of 16% to 17%. Sauternes are mainly made from Sémillon and Sauvignon grapes, with the addition of Muscadelle in very small amounts and are luscious wines worthy of ageing to bring out their intense flavour. Barsac is a well-known commune in the Sauterne AOC whose wines are slightly lighter in style.

Château d’Yquem is heralded as the greatest of the Sauternes producers and makes fewer than a thousand bottles per year. Yquem is distinguished from other Sauternes by a full richness, luscious depth, and a beautiful gold colour.

Our cruise aboard hotel barge Rosa takes us through the orchards of Gascony en route to Bordeaux and then through the Graves vineyards to visit the medieval town of Saint Emilion. Here, we can learn more about the complex science of viticulture, including of course a tasting of some fine wines.

For more information on our Bordeaux itineraries and the rest of our collection of luxury hotel barge cruises, why not order a free copy of our brochure today or speak to a member of our team directly using our handy Contact Form

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