Bordeaux

Bordeaux’s long history has led to a high reputation. Aristocrats and people of leisure have favored the wines of Bordeaux since royal years, but mere commoners across the world that can afford their high prices also appreciate their inimitable flavors. Although perhaps not as exclusive as some of the red wines of Burgundy, the best Bordeaux wines can cost upwards of $1,000 new, and untold thousands more when of a classic vintage. Nonetheless, of the millions of bottles that are made, some of them are affordable or midrange.

Bordeaux wine typifies a certain style: heavy, full-bodied, high in tannins, high in alcohol, and low to medium in acidity. These wines are not often easy to drink, and are often considered an acquired taste. The most mouthbittering wines consist mostly of Cabernet Sauvignon and come from the Left Bank of Bordeaux, while the more approachable ones are largely made up of Merlot planted on the Right Bank.

Although many of the region’s traditions have changed little since its inception, Bordeaux has also been swept up in the recent trend towards red wine, especially full-bodied red wine. White wine plantings have plummeted and they now make up only about 10% of production, most of which is the sweet wines of the Sauternes region. These wines, made from Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, rival the red wines of Bordeaux in both elegance and price. Legendary Sauternes producer Château d’Yquem is considered one of the best wine producers in the world.

While wine buyers looking for bargains will undoubtedly have to renounce the preponderance of wines from Bordeaux, those seeking the maximum in refinement will look to Bordeaux as well as Burgundy. Unlike many appellations, the quality of Bordeaux wines has generally not suffered despite the hype that surrounds these wines. Most of the highly classified châteaux (see more about classification in the producers section) have stuck to the same methods that they have used for hundreds of years.

The red wines of Napa Valley were mostly modeled on Bordeaux. The idea was to use the same grapes, but use less complicated and expensive processes, to provide a much lower price to the consumer. The problem is, once the possibility emerged that the modern Napa wines were as good as or better than Bordeaux, they also rose in price. And Bordeaux has risen off its laurels to again become the best producer of the Bordeaux style of wine.

History

The history of Bordeaux is interesting, as it is the single greatest factor that determined Bordeaux’s domination of the wine world. In the early ADs, while France was ruled by Romans, wine production in Bordeaux began. Just like with the rest of the French wine regions we now know today, the Romans saw the potential to profit from Bordeaux’s climate and geography. The best way to do so was to harvest and vinify grapes.

Although the technology of wine production was still in its infancy, wine from Bordeaux gained popularity. According to some historians, Romans were actively trading their wine with Britain by the 2nd century A.D. As Roman trade increased, so did the magnitude of the wine industry in Bordeaux. But the inevitable fall occurred, and the rulers that took the place of the Romans lacked their economic expertise. The wine industry collapsed, and it would not recover for centuries.

The Frankish empire failed to utilize the capabilities of Bordeaux in all the 500 years that they reigned there. The world quickly forgot about these excellent wines as stability and peace in France became the nation’s main goals. But when Henry II, a British ruler, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, an important Frenchwoman, married, Henry saw the potential in French wine, and exports began to increase again.

During the Middle Ages, French wine saw a dramatic return to form, mostly thanks to the British influence. The entire family started by Henry was in support of Bordeaux wine exports, and trading began to bustle. But the Hundred Years’ War between France and England curtailed wine exports there, and another dark period of war began.

A comeback was required, and its inception lay in the discovery of the Médoc’s wine-growing potential in the 1700s. Back then, few growers dared to plant their plantings in the area, as it basically consisted of swampy marshes. Instead, only Graves had any plantings. But the Médoc’s potential was eventually realized, and the area was cultivated. At that point relations between France and England were still tense, but the wines produced were so good that a number of wealthy Englishmen found ways to purchase and ship them.

When the people involved in Bordeaux wine realized that well-off people were extremely interested in their wines, a market was readymade. Bordeaux growers raised prices, and the area became much higher-quality. A number of châteaux, such as Pichon Longueville, that still exist today, were started during this resurgence.

Bordeaux had finally found its market – the rich. In 1855, a detailed classification system was set up that ranked the best wines. Officially called the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855, the classification established separate ranking systems for the sweet wines of Sauternes and the dry red wines of the Médoc. Although the classification’s only criterion was price, its accuracy is evident considering the fact that the five “first growths” (what they considered the best Bordeaux producers) still are today. Detailed breakdowns of the classifications can be found on the Médoc page and Sauternes page respectively.

Bordeaux’s long history in wine was further solidified by extensive government regulation in the mid-1930s when the AOC system went into place. However, the regulations and the view that Bordeaux wine was cemented in as the best in the world led to laziness and stagnation in the area. The 1976 Judgement of Paris, where Napa wines swept away Bordeaux wines in a blind tasting, was an abrupt wake-up call. The ensuing competition between the two regions has, for the most part, led to higher quality in both.

Climate and Viticulture

Bordeaux is located in the Aquitaine region, which just so happens to have a perfect climate for wine. The region is divided by two rivers, the Dordogne and Garonne. Wines on either side are distinct from each other due to subtle differences in climate. The comparatively small area between the two of them has an less substantial wine industry; this area is called Entre-Deux-Mers, and is the source of many less expensive Bordeaux wines.

Bordeaux’s climate is relatively warm, regularly reaching 80F in the summer months and not often dipping into the 30s, even in the coldest parts of the year. Rain levels are high, as necessary for good wine growth, and the region is kept from excessive drying by its closeness to the ocean. The soil is made up largely of limestone, but the wines are kept from austerity by their proximity to the river.

Grape Varieties

Stiff regulations almost everywhere in Bordeaux keep the grapes planted there down to a bare minimum. Rosé is rarely made, and grapes from other regions, such as Pinot Noir, do poorly in Bordeaux. Even in the case of white grapes, only a few thrive with the given climate. But those that do can produce some of the best wines in the world.

For red wine, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the two most planted grapes, in their respective domains. On the Left Bank, especially in the Médoc, Cabernet makes up most of the wine, with some Merlot blended in, while Merlot is more prevalent on the Right Bank. But Right Bank houses such as Ausone and Cheval Blanc are legendary for their usage of Cabernet Franc, a lighter derivative of Cabernet Sauvignon that can provide completely unique flavors. Some houses still use blending grape Petit Verdot. Malbec, mainly known for its South American usage nowadays, sometimes makes up a few percent of the blend.

These five grapes–Cab, Cab Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec–make up a common term, the Bordeaux blend. Wine from Bordeaux became so famous that producers tried to replicate the style by using the same grapes, having surprising success in many countries. In order to identify the grapes, producers will call their wines Bordeaux blends rather than listing out the exact makeup of the wine. Other terms for these wines include meritage and claret.

Regulations are less strict in white wine production. Even low-level Trebbiano is allowed to be used. However, in the prominent white wine area of Bordeaux–Sauternes–Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc are the main grapes. The former is normally around 50-70% of the blend. Blending grape Muscadelle is used in small portions.

Major Producers

There are thousands of producers in Bordeaux; although there are not that many AOCs, within each AOC there are many producers. More than almost anywhere else in France, Bordeaux quality is producer-based, meaning it is not possible to simply rely on the name of one of its regions to guarantee quality. (In this respect, it is the opposite of the far more region-based Burgundy). Although many people think that the 1855 classification is outdated, it at least provides a reasonable way of determining what the biggest and most famous players are. These wines are not necessarily the best, but always the most expensive! Buyers looking for top-pedigree wines will want to look at the top wines of this classification.

Here is a list of the top five Médoc wines; go to the Médoc and its individual pages for more information.

The 1er Crus (this essentially means top of the top) producers from Médoc number five:

  • Château Haut-Brion: Confusingly, this Château is actually located outside the Médoc, in Pessac-Léognan! Originally a favorite of Thomas Jefferson’s, it was good enough in 1855 to be included in the Médoc classification, despite the fact that no other wines from outside the Médoc were.
  • Château Latour: From the Médoc’s Pauillac village, this especially powerful, heavily Cabernet-based wine is usually the most expensive red wine on the Left Bank.
  • Château Lafite-Rothschild: Also located in Pauillac, the Lafite-Rothschild château is considered on a par with Latour, and has only slightly lower prices. Flavors are similarly powerful and ageworthy. The château is owned by the eponymous banking family.
  • Château Mouton-Rothschild: Located near Lafite-Rothschild in Pauillac, the Rothschild family’s other holding has grown in prestige and, in 1973, was elevated from 2er cru to 1er cru. Known for their fine-art labels and powerful but softer wine, the château is a designer label that also has quality.
  • Château Margaux: The iconic Château Margaux, located in the village of the same name, was another favorite of Jefferson’s and has a great pedigree. Margaux tends to make silky-smooth wines that nevertheless have as much complexity as the more tannic Pauillac competitors.

The 2er Crus are one step behind the 1ers. Some, such as Cos d’Estournel, Ducru-Beaucaillou, Léoville-Las-Cases, and Montrose, can rival the 1ers in some years, although they generally lack the same consistency. These wines are not quite as ostentatious in expense or reputation, but to the average drinker can often be equally magical. The same is true of the 3ers Crus4ers Crus, and 5ers Crus, some of which have become obscure but most of which still make great wine 150 years later. For more in-depth discussion of each wine, see the Médoc page, where all these wines are covered.

The region of Graves has a few good wines on its own, but the only classifications are for Pessac-Léognan and Sauternes. Here are five good wines from Pessac; see the page for the entire classification and in much more detail.

  • Château Couhins-Lurton: This château does an excellent job at producing only white wine in a red wine-biased area, and produces some outstanding examples of Graves white.
  • Château Haut-Bailly: A reliable Graves red (some white is also produced) that can excel in the best vintages.
  • Château Haut-Brion: A red wine so good that Médoc tasters included it as a 1er cru in 1855. Layered, complex, and powerful, this wine also has a great elegance.
  • Château La Mission Haut-Brion: An exorbitantly powerful wine that is generally considered Haut-Brion’s runner-up.
  • Château Pape-Clément: Red and white wine is produced by this relatively young winery; the red is significantly more powerful than many of its competitors, and the white is also quite full-bodied.

Sauternes is the best white wine in Bordeaux, and generally considered the best sweet wine in the entire world.

  • Château d’Yquem is the most expensive and almost inarguably the best Sauternes, probably the best sweet wine in the world. A Superieur designation was created for it in the classification to elevate it above its competitors, and this hierarchy still exists.

For those who cannot afford the greatness of Yquem, the classification also includes 1er Crus and 2er Crus. See the Sauternes page for more details.

Right Bank wines were slower to be classified. Fans of Merlot–and the luscious, lighter red wines it produces–had to wait a century after the 1855 Médoc ranking for St-Émilion to be classified. The 1955 lineup singled out two wineries as the overall victors, but gave plenty of runner-ups. The top two are listed here with details; the full list is available on the St-Émilion page.

  • Château Ausone has over the past few decades been the best St-Émilion wine, accumulating a near-perfect pedigree through its blending of a velvety texture with rich, complex flavors. Many of these are derived from Cabernet Franc.
  • Château Cheval Blanc, the other of the top two, is a completely unique wine that mixes richness with Cabernet Franc’s light lusciousness. It follows closely behind Ausone and can sometimes supersede it, flavors being generally a bit lighter.

As for Pomerol, they simply do not have a classification. The famed Château Petrus, often selling for $5,000 per bottle or more, is the best, but runner-ups like Clinet, La Conseillante, l’Eglise Clinet, Lafleur, Le Pin, and Vieux-Château-Certan are also near legendary status. Check out the Pomerol page for our unofficial classification of the best producers.

Subregions

An AOC for the general region of Bordeaux does exist, logically called Bordeaux AOC. Usually, this wine is nothing special, as almost any wine made within the physical region of Bordeaux can use this name. Most Bordeaux AOCs are produced in the less desirable areas, but there are exceptions. For example, second wines produced in highly regulated areas by expensive châteaux, such as Yquem, do not meet the regulations and have to be put under Bordeaux AOC proper. Generally, these wines, called second wines sell out rapidly and can range radically from excellent to rather dull. A few châteaux even produce “third wines”, which seldom compare in quality to the top cuvées.

Not all winemakers, however, have the name recognition as the large châteaux. As a result, most of the ambitious ones that are not lucky enough to be located in the prime, classified areas, call their wine Bordeaux Supérieur AOC. Put into place in 1943, 7 years after Bordeaux AOC, this AOC has marginally more complicated rules. Several good wines exist, but there are also many poor wines.

Other AOCs, such as Bordeaux Sec, Bordeaux Moelleux, Crémant de Bordeaux, Bordeaux Rosé, and Bordeaux Clairet (a darker, fuller rosé) have existed since the AOC system was first created in 1936. Generally, these wines exemplify a totally different style from what people normally associate with Bordeaux. These appellations are very obscure but can be interesting for a flight of fancy.

Bordeaux can be divided up into three very distinct subregions: the Left Bank, Entre-Deux-Mers, and the Right Bank. The Gironde river, which flows in from the Atlantic Ocean in the northwest of Bordeaux, divides up into two further rivers: the Dordogne and the Garonne. The Garonne continues a southeast direction, and the Dordogne goes east. To the west and south of the Garonne lies the Left Bank. To the east and north of the Dordogne is the Right Bank. The area in between the Dordogne and Garonne is called Entre-Deux-Mers (in English, between two waters). Click on any of the bolded regions below to go the page for that region.

  • Left Bank: For powerful, Cabernet-based wines, there are still few places in the world that can compete with the Left Bank. Although extremely expensive, these wines can be terrifically rich, complex, and worth decades of aging. In addition, the Left Bank has Sauternes.
    • Médoc: The Médoc contains the most full-bodied wines in France, and possibly in the world. Tannins are kept high by a high percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines are often bitter at first but open up with age. One of their main assets is the fact that they are extremely long-lasting. Médoc contains several regions, the most well-known of which are the four small villages that make some of the world’s greatest Cab.
      • Pauillac: The dense, deep wines of Pauillac are the best and most expensive of the Médoc. In fact, three of the top five 1ers Crus are Pauillacs, a considerable achievement for such a small village in area. With few exceptions, these wines are a tad above the other villages in power, and can often last 20-40 years or more.
      • Margaux: The château that carries Margaux’s name is the most famous of the wineries here, and is one of the 1ers crus. Margaux offers a lighter, more silky alternative to Pauillac. Margaux has many 2ers crus that also deliver the magic, unlike the more exclusive Pauillac.
      • St-Estèphe: Differentiating itself with higher percentages of Merlot than the other villages, St-Estèphe has special, intriguing flavors epitomized by the only 2er cru, Château Cos d’Estournel.
      • St-Julien: Although they do not have any 1ers crus, St-Julien is very famous for its distinctive “cedar” flavor and the amazing ageability of their wine. All three Léoville houses are located here.
      • Haut-Médoc: Haut-Médoc is a receptacle for less expensive wines that are located in the Médoc, but not in any of the four highly desirable villages listed above. Sociando-Mallet is one producer transcending the appellation.
    • Graves: Wine from Château Haut-Brion from Graves was so good that it was included as a 1er cru in Médoc despite the fact that it was not even located there. Since 1855, however, Pessac-Léognan has broken off from Graves and only less expensive and desirable wines now fall under the Graves region.
      • Pessac-Léognan: Highly priced wines such as Château Haut-Brion (the 1er cru from Graves) broke off from Graves to form this more exclusive westerly AOC in 1987. Using a higher percentage of Merlot than the Médoc, the wines are structured and concentrated but less closed-off in their youth than Médoc wines.
      • Sauternes: Sauternes is among the few wine regions in the world that needs no introduction. Their luscious, tropical fruit-flavored sweet wines, according to a vast preponderance of tasters and critics, are the best of their kind. Produced from botrytized grapes that require a laborious, exacting vinification process, Sauternes is also at least as expensive as Left Bank reds. Château d’Yquem is considered the best purveyor of these flavors.
  • Right Bank: The Right Bank wines use more Merlot than wines on the Left Bank, in order to create a softer, more velvety wine. In general these wines are more exclusive than the Left Bank; though the best wines can cost the same, fewer lower-priced wines exist.
    • St-Émilion: In addition to châteaux Ausone and Cheval Blanc, both of which blend Cabernet Franc and Merlot in roughly equal proportions, a number of less recognized estates populate St-Émilion. The wines here, although lighter than Left Bank derivatives, have a unique intensity that differentiates them. St-Émilion has a classification system that is regularly updated, unlike the Médoc classification.
        • Pomerol: Although it is an unclassified region, Pomerol has wines as famous as any of the other areas of Bordeaux. The legendary Château Pétrus, which uses about 97% Merlot in its soft yet ageworthy and terrifically flavored elixir, is on the top of the heap here. This wine is usually the most expensive in Bordeaux, and has as spotless a pedigree as any. But many other very good Pomerols also exist.
      • Entre-deux-Mers: Located between the two rivers that define Bordeaux, Entre-deux-Mers makes wine that is only a fraction as popular and expensive as wines from the Left Bank or Right Bank. Wines falling under the Entre-deux-Mers appellation system are usually either solid, structured reds or sweet whites. This poor man’s Bordeaux produces many reasonably priced wines.

Further regions are discussed within the subpages, and of course, more detailed explanations of most of the factors at work in these places are available there.