The Médoc has had a long history of making very full-bodied red wines with high tannins, low acidity, and medium to high alcohol levels: in other words, the classic Bordeaux blend. While red Bordeaux can be thought of as wine from St-Émilion, Pomerol, or Graves, the Médoc is still considered the quintessential Bordeaux.
Located directly to the west and southwest of the Gironde river, the Médoc has optimal climate and soil for the planting and growing of the dean of red grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon. Although machine harvesting has its place, Médoc wineries usually opt to keep quality high and pick manually. Yields are kept low by government limits. Some white wine is produced, but it is considered second wine and registered under Bordeaux AOC or some other generic appellation–as opposed to Graves, where white wine is a significant part of production.
These and other rigorous standards, slightly different for each village in which wine is produced, keep quality high. Médoc AOC itself, although this appellation is not often used, has various rules of its own. Although yields are kept low, vine density is generally high, and quite a bit of wine is produced here. The best châteaux, although they undoubtedly put extraordinary effort into their wines, make excellent profits.
A great deal of flavors can be found in the Médoc, and even among the small villages subtle differences abound. In later years, when they are peaking, many of these wines have notes of chocolate and violet, as well as the flavors spurred by the oak aging. Villages such as Margaux, make wines that are less overpoweringly strong than, say, the famously tannic Pauillac. St-Julien is famous for its woody flavor, which is often compared to cedar.
Up until the 1700s the primary place for Bordeaux red wine was Graves. Graves made full-bodied red wines, and wealthy people all over the world constituted the market. Anything outside of this style was produced in, for example, St-Émilion, and those wines were nowhere near as prestigious as they are now.
A changing wine world meant more demand for French wine, and at some point various growers had the bright idea of reconstituting the Médoc land for wine growing. At this point, Médoc was little more than swampy marshland, but authorities saw the potential, and the land was excavated.
At the end of a long process, the wines of Médoc became famous and, in time for the classification of 1855, were well-known and well-respected in the wine world, even more than Graves. Only a wine region as suitable for production as the Médoc could have undertaken such a speedy coup d’etat. A century and a half later, the Médoc has changed little, and it remains the top place in Bordeaux, if not in the world, for the style it produces.
Climate and Viticulture
The climate of the Médoc, like all Bordeaux regions’, is oceanic. Médoc’s, though, is more so than other regions, and sometimes this can make the wine unpleasant. In fact, disturbances from the ocean such as excessive rain are the main problem for Bordeaux growers.
Despite Médoc’s relatively small size, there is great variation in soil. The best regions have gravel and sand in the soil, making Cabernet Sauvignon the top grape. Certain large deposits of clay, however, do exist. In those places, Cabernet Sauvignon is better off as a small part of the blend, or not being planted at all. All four prestigious villages, and the better areas of the Haut-Médoc, have a more gravelly type of soil. The gravel banks that lead down to the Gironde river are particularly good places to grow the grapes.
Any white wine produced in the Médoc has to be grouped under a generic appellation such as Bordeaux AOC, and no wines bearing the Médoc classification are white. As a result, only highly established châteaux whose names will be recognized can afford to produce white wine in these areas. Probably well over 99% percent of produced wines are red.
Regulations vary, but generally the same six grapes are allowed to be used. Click on any of these grape varieties to be taken to a page describing them.
- Cabernet Sauvignon: The big Cabernet is completely dominant on the Left Bank and even more so in the Médoc in particular. Except for the occasional second wine, almost all wines produced there contain Cabernet Sauvignon in some proportion, and the vast majority have it in over 50% quantities. The usual proportion is about 70% of the total blend. Cabernet thrives in the gravelly, chalky soils of the Médoc, and is easy to harvest and grow, making it producers’ favorite grape.
- Merlot: Although Cabernet Sauvignon in Médoc is excellent in good years, the soil and harvesting techniques of the vintners can often make it just a bit too harsh for most tastes. Merlot’s part in the Médoc is much smaller than it is on the Right Bank or even in Graves, but it nevertheless is an important and necessary grape. Merlot on its own is usually bland, so producers generally keep the percentages below 25% or so.
- Cabernet Franc: Little Cabernet sinks a long way from its stately position as one of the top two grapes in St-Émilion, as the soil across the river is a different scenario entirely. In fact, use of Cabernet Franc in large proportions is almost unheard of in the Médoc, and they are usually kept in the single digits. For example, Château Lafite-Rothschild generally keeps about 3% Cabernet Franc plantings.
- Petit Verdot: Despite declining plantings, Petit Verdot is still quite popular in the Médoc. More than a few percent of a blend is rare even there, as the main purpose of the grape is just to give the wine a bit more structure and power. An exception is Château Palmer in Margaux, which has about 6% of their land planted with Petit.
- Malbec: Now completely overshadowed by Argentinian plantings, French Malbec is neither good nor common. Only under technical rules are the growers allowed to incorporate it. Very few do, as they have no reason to, and Malbec is on the verge of extinction in Bordeaux.
- Carménère: Like Malbec, Carménère has declined in popularity in Bordeaux until it has become nearly extinct. Château Brane-Cantenac’s vineyards consist of about 0.5% Carmenere.
We provide the full Médoc classification below; it includes 1ers crus all the way through 5ers crus, their locations, and a brief summary of the wine produced there. Not all these châteaux’ wines are regularly available outside of France, but in most cases their distribution is wide enough to guarantee availability in most competitive wine stores or online.
The five 1ers crus are as follows:
- Château Haut-Brion, Graves: This wine, despite its location in…Graves, was included in the 1855 classification anyway. Apparently, tasters were so impressed by this wine’s unmistakable flavors that they decided to include it in the Médoc list. The wine is extraordinarily solid, with few bad vintages, and usually has about half Cabernet Sauvignon with 40% or so Merlot, and the rest a mix.
- Château Latour, Pauillac: Although wine fans bitterly dispute whether the primary expression of Pauillac’s dense, heavy flavors are found in this wine or in one of the Rothschild châteaux, there is no doubt that Latour is one of the most established wineries in Bordeaux, and rarely does anything less than typify the flavors often associated with the best Pauillac. In the best years, Latours have extremely strong currant and blackberry flavors, and promise 30+ years of in-bottle development.
- Château Lafite-Rothschild, Pauillac: The multibillionaire Rothschilds have definitely made more profitable investments than Lafite-Rothschild, but their entry into the wine world no doubt helped sculpt their future empire. Although Lafite-Rothschild was always a solid wine, it has apparently improved further in recent years, to perhaps slide past Latour as the defining Pauillac. Even for wealthy drinkers, obtaining a Lafite is a big buy. The 2005 vintage costs about $1,200, even the average vintage is over $500, and as Lafite-Rothschild’s stellar record improves even more, the price will only continue to go up.
- Château Mouton-Rothschild, Pauillac: Considered less serious than Lafite and Latour, the other Rothschild house is nonetheless close in reputation. The winemaking aptitude and exactitude put into Lafite is doled out in equal measure in Mouton. Mouton’s labels are remarkably playful for a wine with its intensity and expense; every year a famous artist is hired to do a drawing for the label front.
- Château Margaux, Margaux: The village of Margaux is traditionally not as exclusive as Pauillac, with slightly different flavors. Château Margaux, however, provides an entry into the ultraluxury wine market in the Margaux appellation as well. Slightly lighter than the Pauillacs, the Margauxs can be more enjoyable to people less used to monstrous tannins. Prices are generally around $250, which is actually below average compared to other world-class French wines, especially considering the château’s consistency.
There are 14 2ers crus, listed here:
- Château Brane-Cantenac, Margaux: This winery declined since its peak in the 1850s, around the time of the classification. Most wine critics concur that only recently has it begun to return to form. Unusual, reasonably inexpensive for a 2er cru, and with good land, this château is poised to become a popular buy.
- Château Cos d’Estournel, St-Estèphe: One of the top second growths, Cos d’Estournel wines display all the characteristics required to satisfy most critics: they are heavy and elegant with strong aging potential and only the occasional weak vintage. Cos d’Estournel’s prices, though, will always be too high for the average buyer, and too close to 1er prices to make them a good value.
- Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, St-Julien: This wine is as tannin-intense as all Médocs but offers up slightly more approachable flavors. It is one of the top houses of St-Julien and in the best years embodies everything that village is known for. Prices and quality are a bit volatile, but as a result values are not hard to find.
- Château Durfort-Vivens, Margaux: While it may not be as solid as the best Margaux estates, Durfort-Vivens is owned by the owners of Brane-Cantenac. Considering the latter’s recent upswing in quality, Durfort should increase in quality too.
- Château Gruaud-Larose, St-Julien: Although less regularly cited as a top St-Julien house than Ducru or the Léoville estates, Gruaud-Larose is one of the solid châteaux of that appellation. Heavy but elegant, these well-acclaimed wines are also reasonably priced.
- Château Lascombes, Margaux: Another wine whose reputation suffered in the 1980s and 1990s, but recovered in the new millennium with a change of ownership and winemaking processes. Strong, purplish, Parker-style wines.
- Château Léoville-Barton, St-Julien: Especially intense wine, even for St-Julien, that has a strong pedigree in the Médoc and shows few bad years. A 2006 Léoville-Barton made Wine Spectator’s Top 100 of 2009. Prices are low considering Léoville’s reputation, often ranging down to $60 or below.
- Château Léoville-Las Cases, St-Julien: Much more expensive than the other Léovilles, this wine is often similar in style, with such deep flavors that aging of 20 or more years is often necessary to even appreciate the wine. Prices are a bit overblown, though. The consumer must decide for themselves whether the definite superiority of this château is worth a significantly higher price.
- Château Léoville-Poyferré, St-Julien: The third Léoville is significantly less expensive and less competitive, but captures the essence of St-Julien quite convincingly.
- Château Montrose, St-Estèphe: Although Cos d’Estournel is often considered the top wine of St-Estèphe, Montrose’s extra-strong wines are certainly in the running. Although full of flavor when young, these wines are better with 10 or more years of age. The tannins should be allowed to fade, so that flavors of berries and slight flower notes may come through. These heavy wines are usually around $100, but they can vary significantly depending on the vintage.
- Château Pichon-Longueville, Pauillac: According to some wine critics, changes in this château’s winemaking techniques have now led it to optimize its excellent land in Pauillac. Recent vintages are perhaps bargains for what they are, even at $100-$150, considering the usually bloated prices of Pauillac. The wine is rich and dark, like all the competitive Pauillacs.
- Château Pichon-Longueville-Lalande, Pauillac: This strong wine has few bad years, despite some instability in its management history. Robert Parker seems to have a particular affinity for this wine, but the pedigree is high from almost all critics. Prices can vary, but the style is usually classic with a modern tinge.
- Château Rauzan-Gassies, Margaux: Rauzan-Gassies is one example of a château that has faded since the classification, though in good vintages it can provide good values.
- Château Rauzan-Ségla, Margaux: In contrast to the other Rauzan, Rauzan-Ségla is considered to be worth its classification and one of the top Margaux. Rauzan-Ségla is not anywhere near as full-bodied as its Pauillac rivals, displaying a less tannic flavor and stronger perfume. These wines, if conditions coincide, can be elegant in a way rarely seen on the Left Bank. Prices are usually under $100 but are rising.
There are 14 3ers crus as well, listed here. Less information is available for the lower crus, so less is provided. For some odd reason, most of these 14 are Margaux.
- Château Boyd-Cantenac, Margaux: This wine has become obscure since its prowess in the 1800s.
- Château Calon-Ségur, St-Estèphe: This less intense, soft but rich St-Estèphe has more than made up for its relatively low classification. Standards are probably more like that of a 2er cru, as are the prices. This wine is especially romantic as the bottle has a large heart on it.
- Château Cantenac-Brown, Margaux: Extremely reasonable full-bodied wine, considering its prestigious appellation, with a distinctive brown label. Prices are usually under $50.
- Château Desmirail, Margaux: Strong wine that provides bargains considering the appellation.
- Château Ferrière, Margaux: According to some critics, this wine’s $50-odd price tag provides a great bargain for one of the top Margaux houses. Flavors are typical of the appellation.
- Château Giscours, Margaux: Long-lasting Margaux costing about $100 in good vintages. Apparently it is one of the more full-bodied wines of the appellation.
- Château d’Issan, Margaux: One of the obscure 3ers, though it can be a good value if you can find it.
- Château Kirwan, Margaux: An obscure Margaux that may be improving due to modernization.
- Château Lagrange, St-Julien: This inconsistent but undervalued wine is one of the few that costs little, but improves with many decades of cellaring.
- Château La Lagune, Haut-Médoc: The top-classified wine of the Haut-Médoc, La Lagune has prices on par or higher than 3ers crus from the more prestigious villages. Allegedly, the wines can be elegant and are often well worth the price.
- Château Langoa Barton, St-Julien: Less sophisticated than the other top St-Juliens, this wine probably deserves a place in the 2ers crus nonetheless. Prices are usually around $70, and can easily range into the hundreds.
- Château Malescot St-Exupery, Margaux: One of the fuller wines of Margaux, this wine also has extremely high levels of powerful fruit. A 2005 Malescot earned #18 on Wine Spectator’s 2008 Top 100 list, an impressive achievement for a 3er cru.
- Château Marquis d’Alesme Becker, Margaux: One of the most historical estates in the Médoc, this château was established back in the 16th century, but a number of unfortunate events have caused it to remain obscure.
- Château Palmer, Margaux: Outrageously powerful Margaux full with just about every conceivable flavor. Quality has been strong for decades, but only recently has the wine become outstanding enough to rival Château Margaux. Prices are the only real caveat with this wine: they are always at least $130 and were over $350 in the 2005 vintage. Almost indisputably the best 3er cru, this château really ought to be at least a 2er cru.
No less than 10 more wines have the distinction of 4er cru, all but one of which comes from the villages.
- Château Beychevelle, St-Julien: Underrated wine that was experiencing one of its quality downturns when rated in 1855. Nowadays these wines deserve at least 3er cru.
- Château Branaire-Ducru, St-Julien: Another underrated St-Julien, which can be challenging for its full-bodiedness but rewarding due to unusual flavors.
- Château Duhart-Milon-Rothschild, Pauillac: Another Rothschild Pauillac? This one, alas, has not been used to the full extent of its land potential, but is nonetheless good and a good value.
- Château Lafon-Rochet, St-Estèphe: Good solid St-Estèphe that can be considered one of the top low-cost providers.
- Château Latour Carnet, Haut-Médoc: This wine is the only 4er cru from Haut-Médoc, and besides La Lagune, the top from this appellation. Prices reflect Haut-Médoc and critics’ ratings are almost always over 90.
- Château Marquis de Terme, Margaux: This wine used to be part of the Rauzan estate, and has become obscure since that estate fragmented.
- Château Pouget, Margaux: This one has sunk into complete obscurity since the classification.
- Château Prieuré-Lichine, Margaux: One of the longest histories in Margaux gave this wine a part in classification in 1855. But since then the wines have faded. Changes in this winery’s management may indicate a coming upturn.
- Château St-Pierre, St-Julien: This classic winery has existed for at least 300 years, but wines are now a bit pricey.
- Château Talbot, St-Julien: A solid buy from St-Julien, this wine generally has respectable prices and great distribution.
A number of the 18 5ers crus, for example Lynch-Bages, are highly underrated. Most of the 18 are in Pauillac.
- Château d’Armailhac, Pauillac: This Pauillac has been around since the 1700s and experienced volatility since then. Of late, prospects seem to be improving, with the 2009 vintage earning 95 points from the Wine Enthusiast.
- Château Batailley, Pauillac: A solid though not outstanding value option.
- Château Belgrave, Haut-Médoc: This wine can be hard to find, but when it occasionally pops up, it can be a good value.
- Château Camensac, Haut-Médoc: A rather obscure, hard-to-find wine that, once again, can provide a good value.
- Château Cantemerle, Haut-Médoc: This wine was added to the classification in 1856 after protests by the growers, but is by no means an “add-on.” Indeed, the wines can be among the best values in the Haut-Médoc.
- Château Clerc-Milon, Pauillac: Expensive for a 5er cru, this wine is often extremely powerful and, in the best of vintages, is reminiscent of the top Pauillacs.
- Château Cos Labory, St-Estèphe: Modern, decently priced wines that are less full-bodied than most competitors.
- Château Croizet Bages, Pauillac: Extremely affordable Pauillac.
- Château Dauzac, Margaux: High in Merlot, this somewhat pricey wine is nonetheless a singular interpretation of Margaux.
- Château Grand-Puy Ducasse, Pauillac: The lesser-known of the “Grand-Puys” can often provide excellent values for its highly regarded appellation.
- Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Pauillac: Complex Pauillac that is highly flavorful even when young, and can be dazzling at an older age. One of the more underrated 5ers crus for sure; although the 2007-2009 vintages are a tad off form, normally this is at least 3er-worthy.
- Château Haut-Bages-Libéral, Pauillac: This wine is not hugely popular, making it a good value. Modern, lighter flavors and less brutal tannins make it one of the few approachable wines from this appellation.
- Château Haut-Batailley, Pauillac: Good values for the appellation.
- Château Lynch-Bages, Pauillac: Easily the best 5er cru, this wine is more like a high 2er cru in its best years. This wine experiences swings in quality, and the 1855 classification happened to occur during a significant downtime. Although often intense and full-bodied, it can also provide different flavors with a touch of softness. Prices are staying commensurate with the quality, and they were over $100 for the year 2005.
- Château Lynch-Moussas, Pauillac: Rather obscure Pauillac that can be pricey considering the pedigree.
- Château Pédesclaux, Pauillac: Extremely obscure, hard-to-find wine.
- Château Pontet-Canet, Pauillac: High-production wine that is a good example of Pauillac flavors. The $80 2008 vintage is highly acclaimed.
- Château du Tertre, Margaux: With around 20% Cabernet Franc, this wine is very unconventional and has its detractors, but in the right vintage can be a terrific bargain.
A number of AOCs are contained within the Médoc, including Médoc AOC itself. Here is a list of the significant ones.
- Médoc AOC is an AOC becoming more and more obscure. The soil, which is high in clay, is preferable for making Merlot-based wine rather than Cabernet Sauvignon. Other climatic influences, though, indicate Cabernet. As a result, the wines can often be undistinguished and at worst simply bland. There is the occasional bargain here, but in general Bordeaux Supérieur is a better and more diverse appellation.
- Haut-Médoc AOC is a very important AOC which includes the four villages as well as two other little-known regions called Listrac and Moulis. Listrac is very obscure but Château Clarke is a good example; Moulis is significantly more popular, with Chasse-Spleen, Maucaillou, and Poujeaux three good châteaux there. In addition, Haut-Médoc covers many small communes that often can include promising wine. This AOC does more than just provide a “poor man’s Bordeaux”; in addition, it fills the gap between lowly AOCs such as Médoc or Bordeaux and the more exclusive village AOCs.
- Pauillac AOC is a small village, about nine square miles in area, and visually undistinguished. Not only does Pauillac include three of the five wines classified as the best in the Médoc, but it contains a number of secondary and tertiary estates that fill in the lower end of the market. This makes it one of the best and smallest places in the world for red wine. Pauillac’s taste is deep and intense at first, heavy with tannins and dark berry and currant flavors. But the high percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon in these wines allows them to age for years, eventually revealing an entirely different character. The prices of Pauillac wine reflect the demand for it: rarely do any sell for less than $50, and the top houses can demand well over $1,000 for new wines.
- Margaux AOC is the smallest of the four Médoc villages, with less than three square miles of area. The small village is packed with vineyards and wineries, some of which are the most popular in the world. Margaux claims not only Château Margaux, one of the 1ers crus, but also most of the 2ers crus. Lighter and more approachable than that of the other villages, Margaux wine has more open flavors at first but also rewards decades of aging. Prices, while nowhere near the lofty heights of Pauillac, are low only for the inferior estates and range up to $350 or so for the top vintages. In years like 2005 they can sometimes be over $1,000 as well.
- St-Julien AOC is about six square miles, and is full of wineries. Although the appellation claims none of the 1ers crus, a number of less reputable, often equally good, châteaux are located in St-Julien, such as all three Léoville houses and Château Ducru-Beaucaillou. St-Julien’s wines are intense, sometimes just as heavy as Pauillac, and require years of aging to open up. Once they do, though, they can reveal a unique cedar flavor. The prices of these wines are, of course, high, but more reasonable wines can be found within this appellation than in the others.
- St-Estèphe AOC is the largest of the four villages, over nine square miles. No 1er cru is located here, but second-tier Château Cos d’Estournel has been said to produce wines deserving of that status. Wines are often monstrously heavy at first, although elegant flavors are transparent even from the beginning. It cannot be doubted that these wines become most stately when cellared for 20 years or more. Often, these wines can be reasonably priced, but the greatest ones are just as expensive as those of St-Julien.
Which of the villages a person likes is up to them and them alone, but it cannot be doubted that these Big Four dominate wine production in the Médoc and create most of the business in that region. While the best ones are a luxury only available to the wealthy, they provide fabulous expressions of red wine that has been honed as close to perfection as it may ever come.