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Getting Acquainted with Bordeaux

Bordeaux vineyard overlooking the village of Saint-Émilion.

Named for the beautiful port city on the Garonne River, the Bordeaux wine region is the pinnacle of prestige, producing the most celebrated and desired wines in the world.  The region has a long and rich history of vine growing and winemaking, with written record dating back as far as the first century!  From the Atlantic Ocean, the region spreads southeast along the banks of the Gironde Estuary, eventually branching off into the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers with vineyards sprawling from their vital shores.

Situated at 45° latitude, Bordeaux has a temperate, maritime climate, due to the influence of the Gironde Estuary and the region’s close proximity to the Atlantic.  On the coast, giant sand dunes and evergreen forests aid in the moderate climate and protect the vineyards from powerful ocean winds.   All of these environmental factors combine and result in mild weather year-round.  The springs are usually pleasant with plenty of rain, ensuring water supply for the growing season, and summers are generally sunny, hot and humid.  The temperature typically remains warm with nice coastal humidity well into the fall.  This temperate climate, strongly influenced by the ocean and rivers, has the potential to vary greatly from one year to another, which is why knowledge of each vintage is so important when considering the wines of Bordeaux.

The red and white wines of Bordeaux are almost always made from a blend of different grape varietals.  The reason for this is directly related to the variant weather patterns and climatic differences between years.  The various grapes each have a different reaction to the weather, so by planting different grapes and blending their wines, winemakers can make good wine even if the weather was bad during the growing season.  The main grapes used for Bordeaux’s red wines are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot, and for the white wines of the region, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle.

For any wine lover, it is a worthy investment to spend some time getting acquainted with Bordeaux, its various areas and wine styles.  Not only does it produce some of the most exquisite and age-worthy wines, Bordeaux has also had an enormous influence on winemaking styles and techniques throughout the world, most notably in the “New World” regions of California, Chile, Australia and South Africa.

Areas and Appellations

Bordeaux is divided into three main areas: the Left Bank, the Right Bank, and the area between the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers, called Entre-Deux-Mers (meaning ‘between two seas’).  There are three levels of Appellation Contrôlée (AC) status in Bordeaux.  The Generic AC status is at the base of the pyramid and can be given to wines produced anywhere in Bordeaux.  Generic appellations include Bordeaux AC and Bordeaux Supérieur AC.  District AC is the next step up and can sometimes be the highest status possible for certain areas, such as Entre-Deux-Mers.  A District AC can encompass multiple Commune ACs.  For example, the Haut-Médoc is a District ACs, which covers a handful of the most prestigious communes.  Commune AC status is at the top of the pyramid and is the highest designation in Bordeaux.  The only exception is Saint-Émilion Grand Cru AC, which is superior to the commune status of Saint-Émilion AC.

The Left Bank

The Left Bank of Bordeaux hugs the western shores of the Gironde Estuary and the Garonne River.  This area is divided into three main district appellations, from north to south: Médoc, Haut-Médoc and Graves.  The Médoc AC and the Haut-Médoc AC lie west of the Gironde, and the Graves AC is south of the city of Bordeaux and lies west of the Garonne.

The Left Bank is renowned for long-lived, red wine blends in which Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant grape varietal, and Merlot and Cabernet Franc make up a lesser proportion.  Cabernet Sauvignon thrives in the gravel and clay soils of the Left Bank, which support water drainage, and the very best wines come from the vineyards with more gravel content.  Five commune appellations are famous for producing some of the finest Cabernet blends in the world:  Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Margaux within Haut-Médoc, and Pessac-Léognan in Graves.

The Left Bank is also home to the infamous white wine appellations, Sauternes and Barsac, known for their sublime botrytis-affected dessert wines.  These luscious, sweet wines are made from a blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc.  The Sémillon grape is thin-skinned and therefore highly susceptible to botrytis mold under the right conditions – misty and humid autumn weather.  These grapes are carefully hand-harvested and produce luxuriant, sweet wines that are high in refreshing acidity.

The Right Bank

The Right Bank of Bordeaux lies east of the Gironde Estuary and the Dordogne River. Here, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are the main grape varieties, with small amounts of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon grown as well.   This area is home to the important commune appellations of Saint-Émilion, Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, Pomerol, Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac.

Saint-Émilion, the namesake of the charming, picturesque town is the most significant of these appellations.  Within Saint-Émilion, the vineyards cover a range of soils and produce a variety of wine styles.  The appellation can be divided into three different areas, each with a special soil type.  To the northwest, the gravel and limestone soils are more conducive to Cabernet Franc vines.  To the southeast, the elevated plateau has high limestone content and produces the finest Merlot dominated blends. Many of the wines classified as prestigious Saint-Émilion Grand Cru come from the limestone rich vineyards of these two areas.  These wines are marked by complex red berry qualities, opulent tannins and cedar notes that develop with age. The third growing area is located at the base of the elevated plateau and is composed of sandy soils.  The wines from this area are lighter-bodied with relatively lower price tags.

The Pomerol appellation lies in close proximity to Saint- Émilion and boasts intriguing, rare wines that come at a higher cost.  These wines offer rich notes of blackberry and a unique spiciness.  The prestigious vineyards of Pomerol include the legendary Pétrus and Le Pin.

Finally, the Right Bank’s greatest value wines come from the appellations of Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac, which are to the west of Pomerol.

Between the Rivers

The Entre-Deux-Mers appellation lies in between the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers and produces Bordeaux’s dry white wines from Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc.  The important commune appellation of Saint-Croix-du-Mont is located here, making divine sweet wines that are similar to Sauternes.

Bordeaux’s Classification System

Bordeaux’s well-known 1855 Classification has remained intact to this day, despite many changes to the individual estates (châteaux) and their properties.  It all came about in the event of the 1855 Exposition Universelle de Paris when Napoleon III requested an official classification of Bordeaux’s best wines.  The wine brokers got together and devised a system, based on their own judgment as well as market values, which organized 61 châteaux into five classes according to importance, first through fifth growths.  Bordeaux’s Chamber of Commerce then presented the 1855 Classification at the exposition and it has been in place ever since.

Under the 1855 Classification, all of the red wines are from the Médoc appellation, with the exception of Château Haut-Brion, from Graves. It is an undertaking to memorize all of the château and their classifications, but the five First Growths (Premiers Crus) are relatively easy to remember:

Château Lafite
Château Latour
Château Margaux
Château Mouton-Rothschild (classified as Second Growth until 1973)
Château Haut-Brion (Graves AC)

The classified white wines were all from the Sauternes appellation, with Château d’Yquem given Premier Grand Cru Classé status, followed by 11 First Growth châteaux and 14 Second Growth châteaux.

Later Classifications

In 1932, the Cru Bourgeois classification was introduced, which includes 200 plus estates and is essentially the status just below Fifth Growth.  The three Cru Bourgeois classes: Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, Cru Bourgeois Supérieur and Cru Bourgeois, are meant to be updated every ten years or so.  The wines of Graves were classified in 1959, and, unlike the 1855 Classification, each listed wine is simply awarded Cru Classé status.

Saint-Émilion has a unique procedure in which classifications are built into the appellation system.  The Saint-Emilion Grand Cru appellation is divided into the following:  Premier Grand Cru Classé, Grand Cru Classé and Grand Cru.  Every 10 years, the châteaux in the region can submit their wine to be considered for initial Grand Cru classification or for reclassification.

Consumer Tips

As consumers setting out to explore Bordeaux, there is a wealth of knowledge to wrap our heads around.  It is important to have a general understanding of the various areas and wine styles of the region because this will help in choosing bottles that are to your taste.  For those of us who fall in love with Bordeaux, it may be worthwhile to delve a bit deeper into more specific knowledge of the great vintages, the châteaux and the classification system.

If you’re just getting acquainted, start out with a selection of red wines from both the Left Bank and Right Bank.  There are many reasonably priced Bordeaux wines out there that are perfect for exploring and comparing Cabernet Sauvignon-based Left Bank blends and Merlot-based Right Bank blends.  Pop a bottle open with your next meal, or set up a side-by-side tasting comparison of wines from the two areas.  And don’t forget to try the delicious, refreshing, dry white wines from the Entre-Deux-Mers.

CLICK HERE to browse our entire selection of wines from Bordeaux.

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