A simple guide to Bordeaux wine
Bordeaux wine is quite possibly the best in the world and includes some of the finest red wines imaginable. But it is also one of the most difficult wine areas to understand! Amid the blizzards of different names – premier grand cru, the different appellations or AOCs (Bordeaux has 60!) left bank wines, right bank wines, Bordeaux supérieur, Entredeux-Mers to name just a few – plus the various grape varieties used, it’s very easy to lose one’s way.
The aim therefore of this brief guide is to offer a simple introduction to Bordeaux wine, highlighting the most important wines and where to find them. It is of course a vast subject and for the time being we cannot cover every detail. But hopefully it will whet your appetite for more …
Bordeaux wine – the basics
Bordeaux wine is made, and can only be made, in the Gironde département or county of which Bordeaux is the dominant city. It’s the biggest AOC wine producing region in France with 120,000 hectares (nearly 300,000 acres) of vineyards. Most Bordeaux wine is red – around 80 percent of it. It also produces some rosé (quite popular in supermarkets up and down the French Atlantic coast), some dry white wines and sweet or dessert white wines, of which the most famous are those from Sauternes.
Bordeaux wine – the grapes
There are two main red grapes used to produce the red wine in the region; Merlot (about 62 percent) and Cabernet Sauvignon (around 25 percent). The third widely used red grape is Cabernet Franc (around 12 percent). A key point is that most Bordeaux reds are blended, in other words made with more than one grape variety. In some of the most prestigious wine such as in the Médoc and Graves areas (see below) the dominant grape in the blend is Cabernet Sauvignon. Elsewhere it is Merlot that predominates.
For white wine – both dry and sweet – the main grape varieties used are Sémillon, Sauvignon blanc and Muscadelle. Again, white wines are generally blended, with Sémillion the most dominant grape in making sweet wines.
Bordeaux wine areas
This is where it gets tricky! Note that when we talk about the different Bordeaux wine areas or regions we are not talking about the appellations or the ‘cru’ classifications which are very specific and indeed legally defined areas. Instead we are talking about a useful way of breaking down the large Bordeaux vineyard into more manageable and understandable areas.
Unfortunately not everyone uses the same names to label them or even the same areas! The simplest way to look at it is to describe the wine areas as either the ‘left bank, ‘right bank’ or ‘Entre-deux-Mers’. So any wine grown on the left bank of the River Garonne and the Gironde Estuary is called a left bank wine, anything grown on the north/right side of the River Dordogne is a right bank wine, and anything in between is described as ‘Entre-deux-Mers’ (Literally ‘between two seas’ but then, they are quite big rivers!)
But the left and right banks can also be broken down into other areas:
Left bank: Médoc (runs north from the city of Bordeaux up the edge of the estuary) and Graves (runs south of Bordeaux along the left bank of the Garonne)
Right bank: Blaye (the area furthest north on the right bank of the River Dordogne) and Saint Émilion (further south, around Libourne).
Some people also break the Graves area down even further, into Graves and Sauternes (home of the famous dessert wines).
Bordeaux wine appellations
An appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) is an official, legal geographically-based label that controls the way wines (and other products) can be labelled. An AOC specifies where and how a particular wine from an area must be made. So for example wine can only describe itself as a ‘Médoc’ wine if it is a) made in the Médoc and b) made according to set criteria, for example on the types of grapes used and the proportion of those types used in the blending.
In the entire Bordeaux wine area there are 60 appellations (well that’s the official figure on their website) although it’s 63 if you believe the Sud-Ouest newspaper and our quick count seems to confirm they’re right!).
Most of these appellations cover relatively small areas, for example the famous Paulliac, Margaux and Saint Estèphe appellations in the Médoc area or the Pomerol appellation near Saint Émilion.
But the Médoc appellation (confusingly you have the generic area of the Médoc which contains a number of different appellations, including one called Médoc, and another called HautMédoc), for example, covers quite a large area. While the generic Entre-deux-Mers area also includes an AOC Entre-deux-Mers which with 7,000 hectares ( 17,000 acres) of vineyards is the largest individual AOC wine area in France. Meanwhile some of the AOCs cover the entire Bordeaux wine region; in other words any winemaker within the region could use the AOC Bordeaux, AOC Bordeaux Claret, AOC Bordeaux Supérieur, AOC Bordeaux Rosé or AOC Crémant de Bordeaux (a sparking wine) label if they wanted to (but if you’re in the Margaux appellation, why would you want to?).
Of course in all appellation areas there are many different winemakers, all allowed to use their appellation name on their wine label – provided they follow the set criteria. Nearly all Bordeaux wine is AOC.
Grand Cru and classifications
Ok, so as if the various different Bordeaux wine areas and the 60 (or 63) appellations weren’t enough, there are also what are known as ‘classifications’. By the far the best known of these were drawn up in 1855. These classify the best quality wines in the Médoc and the Grave areas. Those who are awarded the different classifications are the wine estates/producers (‘châteaux’) themselves. The 1855 classification selected the ‘grands crus’ – the areas with the best wines – and then put them into five categories: Premier cru, deuxième cru, troisième cru, quatrième cru and cinquième cru. Naturally enough the ‘premier cru’ are the top wines and these are:
Château Lafite Rothschild, Pauillac
Château Latour, Pauillac
Château Margaux, Margaux
Château Haut Brion, Pessac, Graves
Château Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac
What does ‘cru’ mean? That’s a very good question for there is no real English equivalent to the word ‘cru’ in the context of wine. It’s sometimes translated as ‘growth’, but that doesn’t tell you much, and can be used to mean ‘vintage’; so a ‘vin de cru’ would mean a vintage wine. However when ‘cru’ is used in wine classification (for example Château Margaux 1er Cru) the word really refers to the land on which the grapes are grown to produce a wine, as much as to the wine itself.
The Lafite Rothschild, Latour and Mouton Rothschild are from the Pauillac appellation, Margaux is, unsurprisingly, from the Margaux appellation while Haut Brion is the only one of the five from the Graves appellation. These are, if you like, the cream of Bordeaux wine and among the most expensive in the world (in 2007 a Jeroboam of 1945 Château Mouton Rothschild fetched $310,700). The 1855 classification also classified sweet wines from the Sauternes and Barsac appellations. The only ‘premier cru supérieur’ sweet wines are those from the famous Château d’Yquem in the Sauternes appellation.
But there other classifications too, for red and white wines from Graves and reds from Saint Émilion, and also for what are called Cru Bourgeois and Cru Artisan, both these two concerning wines from the Médoc.
Going on wine tours
Now of course anyone on holiday along the French Atlantic Coast can go to a restaurant and order a bottle of local wine (even if few of us can afford a vintage Pauillac or Margaux). But one of the joys of being in the region is to be able to go around the local wine shops and above all the estates and if possible taste the wine at first hand. If you’re a wine fan just being able to drive past the signpost to the commune of, say, Pauillac will give you a certain thrill! There are a number of operators who arrange such tours or if you’re feeling adventurous take a drive around yourself and simply soak up the atmosphere and admire the beautifully neat vineyards and impressive châteaux.
For a more immersive experience, there is a plethora of tours to chose from arranged by TourRadar.
France : Discover the great Bordeaux wines (6 day Ocean Cruise); Bordeaux Vineyard Walk; Bordeaux Vineyard Cycle; Cycling with Bacchus (7 day bicycle tour through Bordeaux, Pauillac, Margaux, Bourg, Libourne in France); Bordeaux Bike and Barge (8 day combo tour through Castets-en-Dorthe, Cadillac, Bordeaux and 4 other destinations in France); Food & Wine, Chateau and Bordeaux (7 day wine tasting tour through Bordeaux, St Emilion, Arcachon in France).
Learn about lesser know French Atlantic Wines at our sister-site: www.undiscovered-french-wines.com
Photos by popelix.com