The region of Bordeaux has nearly 300,000 acres of vines covering 54 different appellations. In an average year, the region produces seven hundred million bottles of wine at every quality level. Much of the wine of Bordeaux, red and white, is completely ordinary. Some of the wines of Bordeaux are among the most prized and expensive in the world.
Bordeaux sits on layers of limestone and has soils generally high in calcium. In Bordeaux, two rivers, the Garonne and the Dordogne, merge to form the estuary called the Gironde, which flows out to the Atlantic. These bodies of water divide Bordeaux into several areas that produce different types of wine. The “Left Bank” refers to the land to the west of the Garonne and the Gironde. Major sections of the Left Bank include the Médoc and Graves. The “Right Bank” refers to the land east of the Dordogne and the Gironde. The term “Entre Deux Mers,” literally “between two seas,” refers to the area between the two rivers.
Bordeaux has what is known as an oceanic climate, with warm summers and not-so-cold winters. Because it is nearer to the ocean, the Left Bank is somewhat warmer than the right Bank.
Most Bordeaux wines, either red or white, are blends. The red “Bordeaux varieties,” a term used internationally to refer to these grapes, are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and, infrequently, Carménère The white Bordeaux varieties are Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle.
Left bank Bordeaux red wines will typically lead with Cabernet Sauvignon and smooth out the blend primarily with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Right bank Bordeaux red wines will typically lead with Merlot and add tannins and oomph with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. In either case, a 70:15:15 ratio is about average, though individual winemakers differ.
Why are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blended with each other?
- Cabernet Sauvignon provides structure, tannins and acids, dark-fruit flavors of blackcurrant and bell pepper.
- Merlot is juicer, a “fatter” variety; has less structure, but good palate weight and fruit flavors.
- Cabernet’s robust structure is fattened out with Merlot’s juicy fruit – a marriage with excellent long-term potential when assembled with care.
Note here that in warm-climate regions like Napa in California, Cabernet Sauvignon ripens longer than in Bordeaux, leading to riper tannins, decreasing the need to blend Merlot in with the Cabernet Sauvignon as a means to tame Cabernet’s tannins.
In the United States we are used to consuming Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot as single varietal wines, but American “Meritage” wines seek to blend the two to create what is commonly called a “Bordeaux Blend.”
Wines labeled “Entre Deux Mers” are usually dry white wines from Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Muscadelle or Ugni Blanc. Most wine produced in the Entre Deux Mers region is sold as generic Bordeaux. Red wine production is on the rise in Entre Deux Mers.
Img011 (map of left bank Bordeaux)
Red wine labeled Médoc or Haut Médoc can be quite ordinary, wine labeled with one of the villages of the Haut Médoc (St. Estèphe, Pauillac, St. Julien, Margaux) might be of a better quality (and hence more expensive), but a select grouping of vineyards in the region produce some of the finest wines in the world. In 1855 wine brokers ranked the left bank wines and created a system of grands crus, or great growths. The lowest level of distinction is “Fifth Growth,” the highest “First Growth.” The system continues in place. There are eighteen fifth growths, ten fourth growths, fifteen third growths, and fourteen second growths. The five first growths are all famous names:
- Château Lafite Rothschild
- Château Latour
- Château Mouton Rothschild
- Château Margaux
- Château Haut-Brion
All of these first growths are in the Médoc except Château Haut-Brion, which is in Graves.
Img179 (Samuel Pepys)
On Friday 10 April 1663 Samuel Pepys writes in his famous diary “…to the Royall Oak Tavern, in Lumbard Street…and here drank a sort of French wine, called Ho Bryan, that hath a good and most particular taste that I never met with.” This is considered the first wine review, and Château Haut-Brion is still going strong.
Wine producers in Bordeaux refer to their establishments as Châteaux. This is true even if the winery is in modest building, or even a garage, although some of the great Bordeaux wine houses are indeed architecturally significant.
For perspective, a 2016 web search of representatives of the five different classed growths of the same vintage comes up with the following prices, in US dollars:
Fifth Growth: Château Lynch-Bages, Pauillac, 2010, $169
Fourth Growth: Château Duhart-Milon, Pauillac, 2010, $190
Third Growth: Château Palmer, Margaux, 2010, $260
Second Growth: Château Léoville-Las Cases, St.-Julien, 2010, $305
First Growth: Château Haut-Brion, Pessac, Graves, 2010, $975
Many of these famous Châteaux produce second wines from grapes not selected for the main wine (first label). These wines usually refer to the name of the Château on the label, with some variation. For example, Fifth Growth Château Lynch-Bages produces Echo de Lynch-Bages. You can get the 2010 vintage for $49.
South of the Médoc and the city of Bordeaux, on the same side of the river, Graves includes the sub-regions of Pessac-Léognan, Sauternes and Barsac. True to its name, Graves is known for its gravely soil. Pessac-Léognan is home to Château Haut-Brion. Further to the south, Sauternes and its sub-region Barsac are known for intensely sweet dessert wine that have been made from grapes infected with “noble rot,” the favorable branch of the fungus botrytis cinerea which shrivels the grapes on the vine and so concentrates their flavors, adding its own botrytis elements. Sauternes has a system of first and second growths. One Château stands out among all the rest and is classified Superior First Growth (Premier Cru Supérieur), Château d’Yquem. You can get the 2010 for about $700. A 1959 will run you about $2300—for a half bottle.
Img015 (map of right bank Bordeaux)
The Right Bank is also called the Libournais, after its main town Libourne. Two renowned appellations are Pomerol and St. Émilion. Each has less expensive satellite appellations. Wines here in this cooler climate center around Merlot, which likes the clay soil, and Cabernet Franc. Red wines here are softer and plumier than Cabernet Sauvignon-led left bank wines. Pomerol has no systems of class growths, and yet its flagship wine, Château Pétrus, is just as highly regarded (and expensive). The 2010 Château Pétrus is offered on one website for $4100, discounted from $5400. St. Émilion has its own system of grands crus, with a special upper notch for two producers, Château Ausone ($1245 for the 2010) and Château Cheval Blanc (a steal at $985). In the north of the Right Bank sits Bourg and Blaye, large producers of Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc for sparkling wines, and Ugni Blanc for brandy.