Bordeaux can be found on a curve of the Garonne River in south west France close to the Atlantic Coast. The Garonne joins another river, the Dordogne as they feed into the Gironde Estuary. With easy access to the sea Bordeaux has been major port since Roman times. The two sides of the estuary share something. A climate, landscape and soils that are essential to the production of the highest quality wines. This natural division of the region into right bank and left banks leads to the distinctive differences between wines produced from specific parts of this region. It’s what helped Bordeaux become pre-eminent in the development of world class wines and why the wines still enjoy an enviable reputation amongst wine buffs.
Bordeaux is only 2hrs from Paris by TGV, France’s high speed rail network. Flights are also available from a range of airports in France and other parts of Europe. A 2 hr trip on a TGV train makes for a tempting day trip but I don’t know about you – I’d want to stay longer. Be sure to check out our post on the French rail network if you’re interested in getting to Bordeaux quickly.
A Short history lesson
We can thank the Romans for introducing wine growing to the region and it’s been a major wine producer ever since. One interesting fact – during the 12th century the region was under the jurisdiction of the English Plantagenet kings who ruled parts of what is modern day France. This lead to the strong trade in wine between Bordeaux and England. One of the most popular wines exported was a dark colored, rosé style wine called clairet. Which is where you get the term Claret for a Bordeaux wine. Over the centuries the type of wines produced has changed as the dominant grape varietals have changed
All wine producers would say the soil, the terroir, determines how grapes grow and how a wine will taste. In Bordeaux the soil and landscape has a large part to play in which wines are produced in the region. To begin with the region is ideal for growing grapes with a soil rich in calcium and an Atlantic climate with generally warm summers but milder winters. The proximity to the coast and the confluence of the Gironde and Dordogne rivers ensure plentiful water for irrigation. Finally from a commerical perspective, proximity to a major port ensured good access to both French and foreign markets.
The Pont de Pierre bridge over the Garonne in Bordeaux
The Wines of Bordeaux
Although there are a variety of grapes grown in the region the Bordeaux style of red wine is usually a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Different appellations will normally have very specific ways of blending these and other grapes to make wines specific to both appellation and region. There is a wide choice of red wine available, some suitable for drinking every day and some you might want to lay down for that special occasion. Not surprisingly there are also wines to suit all pockets too ! White wines is produced in much smaller quantities in the region but are still very popular and some very well known. Dry whites such as Graves and Bordeaux Blanc are typically made with a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. The region also offers a choice of sweet dessert wines such as Sauternes which is typically made from a blend of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle.
Bordeaux Wine Classification
Wine classification is a way to standardise the description of wine so that a customer has an indication of the quality of the wine. In Bordeaux it’s really important because of the impact on prices. As this is an introduction to the wines of Bordeaux we won’t be going deep but it will help to know some of the terms. In 1855 Emperor Napoleon III asked for a classification for Bordeaux wines for an international exhibition taking place in Paris.
A group of buyers ranked wines according to the wine producers reputation and trading price which was presumed to be an indicator of quality. The top red wines were ranked by importance from first to fifth growths or cru with Premier Cru being the very best red wine.
All the wines on the list with with one exception came from the Médoc region of Bordeaux. The one exception was a wine from the Graves region – Château Haut-Brion. Other Premier Cru examples include Château Lafite and Château Margaux.
White wines were not so popular then and only had three grades – Premier Cru Supérieur, Premier Cru and Deuxième Crus. The only Premier Cru Supérieur was Yquem (now Château d’Yquem) Other regions in Bordeaux have other classifications such as St Emilion which has Premiers Grands Crus classés A or classés B and even a Grands crus classés
Bordeaux Regional Classifications
There are seven regional Appellations d’origine controllée (AOC) that can be used throughout the Gironde departement. These include Bordeaux Rouge, Bordeaux Clairet, Bordeaux Rosé, Bordeaux Blanc and a Crémant de Bordeaux which is a sparkling wine.
Bordeaux Supérieur Rouge AOC has more strict requirements in terms of the vineyards that can produce it – planting is denser resulting in stronger vines with slightly higher sugar and resulting alcohol content. Bordeaux Supérieur Blanc are sweet wines
Bordeaux is home to some of the most famous wines in the world
The Main Wine Producing Regions
The geography of the area means there are four important wine producing regions.
Libournais and the Right Bank
The right bank of the Dordogne centered on the town of Libourne is home to some of the most famous wines in the world.
The Left Bank
The left bank of the Garonne centered around Bordeaux extending north along the Gironde Estuary to the tip of the Peninsula and the Medoc region and then south to Graves
Located where the Dordogne and Garonne join to form the Gironde Estuary, home to this famous wine, the region extends south of Bordeaux
On the left bank of the Garonne River south of Bordeaux this area is the main regional source of white wine as well as sweet dessert wines and more typical Bordeaux reds.
The Bordeaux region includes the key wine production regions of Medoc, Graves, Entre-Deux-Mers and Libourne
Saint-Émilion was the first region in Bordeaux to export wine. It was shipped to England as at the time Libourne was under English rule. Since then the wine trade has developed and the area is one of the biggest wine producers in the Bordeaux region. Wines vary according to the specific area but are generally very different to the left bank wines. Some wines are richer and heavier in tannins and long lasting. Others are lighter and fruitier so there is something for every taste. The grapes used are a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc with some Cabernet Sauvignon.
Pomerol is a small region that definitely punches above it’s weight being roughly five square miles but is one of the most prestigious in the area. Originally part of Saint-Émilion it was awarded AOC status in 1936 but remained a minor player until the second half of the 20th century. The wines vary according to location but many consider them to be half way between the more fruity wines of Saint-Émilion and the heavier reds of Medoc. There is a no official classification of wines in the Pomerol AOC but the some of the wines are very highly valued and Château Pétrus is considered to be the equivalent of a Premier Cru with prices at auction to match !
This AOC and the Fronsac AOC which surrounds it like a horse-shoe are the smaller but more affordable Libournais wines from the region. Grown close to the northern, right bank of the Dordogne these wines are made from blends of Merlot paired with Cabernet Franc. Other grapes may include Malbec and occasionally Cabernet Sauvignon.
Cotes de Bordeaux AOC
This AOC is an umbrella AOC for a number of previously distinct appellations spread across the Libournais region and south of Bordeaux. Spread over five areas they share a hillside location and mostly clay-limestone soils – a common terroir. The reds of the Côtes de Bordeaux are made from the Merlot, blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc or Malbec. There are also white wines, the major grape variety being Sauvignon, blended with Sémillon and Muscadelle.
Left Bank Wines
The left bank of the Gironde Estuary is home to some of the world’s most famous red wines and certainly some of the most expensive. At the same time the sheer range of wines produced in this region means there is something for every taste and every pocket.
The Médoc AOC could in theory apply to any wine from the peninsula that runs up the left side of the Gironde Estuary from Bordeaux. In practice it is only used for wines from the northern area known as Bas-Médoc and is only used for red wines. The Médoc AOC has a number of sub-appellations which because of their heritage and their historical prestige use their own AOC title in preference. The wines produced in this region tend more affordable than their southern neighbors. Some are full bodied with a rich red color and benefit from ageing in the bottle. Others are a bit more fruity and are ready for drinking earlier. So plenty to choose from.
Extending south as far as the left bank of the Garonne this AOC dates from 1935 when it was split from Médoc. This is a huge AOC. Some numbers to consider – 400 châteaux grow vines or produce wine, nearly 3m bottles produced per year and over 4000 hectares planted with vines. It’s worth remembering that with the wide range of soils and landscapes in this large region, the type of wines will vary from the heavy and long keeping to the lighter tasting wines designed to be drunk sooner.
The area of the Haut-Medoc AOC notably includes a number of distinct and very well known AOC appellations. Moulis-en-Médoc and Listrac-Médoc are in the middle of the peninsula where the land starts to rise from the estuary plain. Wines grown in these appellation benefit from the slower ripening which favors the better wines. The blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon produces a deep red wine rich in tannins which ensures a long life in bottle as flavors and color develop. The appellations bordering the Gironde Estuary – Margaux, Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Saint-Estèphe are home to some of the most famous and most expensive wines you might wish to buy or perhaps drink. The reason for this is the sheer number of Cru rated vineyards in these areas. When the classification of wines was established in 1855 Pauillac for example got three of the five Premiers Crus awarded. Margaux, St-Julien and Saint-Estèphe have thirteen Deuxièmes Crus between them. The inevitable variations in the terroir and landscape will reveal subtle difference between the wines of these appellations but generally the wines are full bodied, fruity with a good tannin level leading to a long life in the bottle. If I had one of these I’d be saving it for a good meal and celebration !
“Wine improves with age the older I get the more I like it.”
The Graves region stretches from the very streets of Bordeaux forty miles south to the open countryside of Sauternes. The well drained soils and variety of landscapes has made it ideal for growing a range of grapes from Cabernet Sauvignon to Merlot to Sauvignon Blanc to Muscadelle. This has lead to the production of a wide range of red, white and sweet dessert wines.
The Graves AOC has been called a catchall for a variety of red, white and sweet dessert wines varying in price and quality from the so-so to the very select and rather pricey. The area extends from suburban Bordeaux to 40 miles south and the home of Sauternes. It is the only region where you can get red and white Grand Cru wines, notably Chateaux Haut-Brion and the sweet white d’Yquem. Although not as famous now as some in Médoc, Graves is actually where Bordeaux’s reputation for red wines began back in the 14th century. The area was ideal for grape growing especially Cabernet Sauvignon and the trade flourished until the draining of the marshes of Médoc allowed the cultivation of vines there. The reputation of the Graves AOC was weakened in 1987 when the Pessac-Leognan AOC was created which included many of most prestigious producers based around the southern Bordeaux area. Producers to the south have since focussed on the types of wine more favored by modern wine consumers. Crisp whites and fruitier wines have usurped the heavier and sweeter wines of old.
Located within Bordeaux this appellation includes red and white wine. The most famous being Chateau Haut-Brion which is the only Premier Cru status wine in the area. It is also supposedly the first wine ever reviewed in print as it gets a mention in Samuel Pepys Diary in 1663 (he quite liked it). The red wines are available in a range of styles, some meant to be enjoyed in their youth, others more fully bodied with deep color and flavors can be kept for much longer, certainly for decades occasionally longer. The whites show a similar choice. Some fresh and fruity and meant to be drunk young, some like the best from Haut Brion can age and develop for many decades.
Sauternes, Barsac, Cerons AOC
Sauternes, Barsac and Cerons are 40 miles south of Bordeaux and all share a reputation for producing sweet white dessert wines. Although there are dry white wines produced in the area it is best known for dessert wines. The dominant grape is Semillon with smaller amounts of Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle and Sauvignon Gris. These grapes are susceptible to a fungus known as Noble Rot. This does not kill the vine but encourages the grapes to dry out on the vine which concentrates the sugar content and taste. One downside is a lower yield as a result of the very specific cropping and production process which increases the cost of these wines considerably. A good Sauternes will have a golden color which will darken as it ages in the bottle. The taste – sweet of course but with hints of blossom, tropical fruits and even elements of custard and vanilla. Although called dessert wines, eating with a very sweet dessert may just be too much so they’re also drunk with seafood and meats which might have a hint of sweetness in their seasoning. Barsac and Cerons do not have quite the same reputation as Sauternes as their location generally means the sugar content of the grapes is lower.
This is a large region between the Dordogne and Garonne which reaches as far north as the Gironde Estuary and south the river banks opposite Sauternes in the south. To the east it reaches almost to Bergerac. Whilst not as highly thought of as it’s near neighbours Medoc and the Libournais, it has a good reputation for crisp whites and sweet dessert wines.
Cadillac, Loupiac and Sainte-Croix-Du-Mont AOC
These three appellation are neighbors to Barsac and Sauternes. In fact they are on the opposite bank of the Garonne and thus share a very similar terroir and landscape. Cadillac produces sweet white wines which are well regarded but never quite as popular (or expensive) as the wines of Sauternes. The area also produces some red wine under the Cotes de Bordeaux AOC. Loupiac next door produces a similar sweet white wine. Sainte-Croix-du-Mont is considered to have the best quality sweet wine of the three providing a more affordable choice for those wanting a “sticky” wine like Château d’Yquem
Right on the border with Bergerac this area shares many qualities with the wines of Bergerac while still being bound by the requirements of the appellation. These determine the grapes used, planting density and blend percentages. It was once better known for it’s white wines although now it produces a mixture of red and white of reasonable but not outstanding quality.
Graves de Vayres AOC
A small district in the Entre-Deux-Mers region this AOC covers a range of red and white wines. Reds are usually a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon while whites tend to me Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. Although close to Saint Emilion the wines are very different with a focus on using Merlot rather than Cabernet Sauvignon.
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