Once admired for its sweet white wines, especially those from the sub-region of Sauternes, today Bordeaux – the largest wine-growing region in France – is home to one of the most highly coveted red wine blends. Or should I say "the best ones''?
Bordeaux wine production is immense in every dimension. Statistically, the region boasts 125,000 ha (almost 309,000 acres) under grapevines, and there are about 13,000 growers and 7000 Châteaux in the area that create more than 10,000 different wines.
And if you're wondering what "Châteaux" is – in Bordeaux, this term describes a wine estate with its vineyards and winery.
All these wine-producing estates altogether come up with 800+ million bottles of wine annually, and in some years, this amount goes up to 900 million bottles.
Bordeaux encompasses 60 different appellations, thanks to its exceptional diversity of top-quality terroirs. The French term "Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC)" specifies a determined geographic area within which winegrowers and winemakers must follow stringent production criteria.
Natural terroir factors like micro-climate, soil composition, microorganisms that live in the soil and on the vines, closeness to the bodies of water, winegrowing techniques (or in other words geological, geographic, biological, climatic, and human factors) define the six families of the region's wines:
- Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superior
- Graves and Sauternes
- The Libournais
- Blaye and Bourg
- The Medoc
In total, there are thirteen varieties allowed for cultivation in the region.
More than 90 percent of Bordeaux wines are red, and the main red grape varieties are:
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Cabernet Franc
Besides them, there are three complementary varieties, called 'auxiliary'. These varieties help bring out a wine's particular personality during assemblage (winemaking technique that involves the fusion of various lots before bottling) or during blending (a process of combining wines made from different varietals into one wine).
Bordeaux's red auxiliary varieties are:
- Petit Verdot
About seventy years ago the region produced more white wines than red ones but in 1956, a disastrous frost destroyed an immense number of Bordeaux vineyards.
The majority of Châteaux owners decided to replace white grape varieties with red varieties considering them to be more suitable for the climate and territorial conditions.
One of the main reasons for the massive switch toward red grapes became the fact that their vines bud later than white ones. That could help with combating the impact of dangerous spring frosts. Those frosts don't often happen in Bordeaux due to the maritime climate but it always makes sense to be ready for unfortunate situations.
Today, only 9 percent of all the wine made in Bordeaux is white. The dominant varieties include:
- Sauvignon Blanc
The complementary white varieties are:
- Merlot Blanc
- Sauvignon Gris
- Ugni Blanc
If you look at the map, you will see that Bordeaux broadens around its central city along with two rivers – Garonne and Dordogne, and the estuary known as the Gironde.
With its robust strength, tannic and acidic, Cabernet Sauvignon is presented more heavily in blends created on the Left Bank (the sub-region located south and west of the Garonne and Gironde rivers).
The wines from Right Bank (north and east of the Dordogne and Gironde rivers) tend to feature smooth and fruity Merlot as well as beautifully perfumed Cabernet Franc.
Merlot is the dominant varietal in Bordeaux, accounting for about 60 percent of all varieties grown in the region. Known as the most widespread grape around the world preferred by winegrowers for its varietal characteristics, here, on the Right Bank, Merlot shows the fantastic quality which cannot be achieved anywhere else.
An example of that is Petrus - 100% Merlot wine from an 11.4 ha (28 acres) vineyard found in the eastern part of the Pomerol appellation. Earlier vintages are hard to find (especially those before 1975), but the 2018 vintage, for example, has been already realized, and prices for a bottle currently vary from 3,000 to 4,500 Euros.
Of course, it takes a valiant wine aficionado to spend up to $5,550 on a bottle and then preserve it in a cellar for 15 years or more. But luckily for us, a great Bordeaux wine doesn't have to break the bank, and apart from the wines with significant price tags, it is possible to find affordable yet delicious wines as well.
Developing a better understanding of the region, its appellations, and its grapes will help you choose better wine, so I have put together a few facts to set you on the right track.
Bordeaux Wine Region: Geography & Climate
As mentioned above, the region got this beautiful name after its central city, the eighth-largest urban area in France and the second most visited place after Paris.
Bordeaux is not just an attractive tourist destination known for its spirit of grace and elegance; it is also the world's wine capital cherished by wine lovers from every country out there.
What makes Bordeaux wines so great? To answer that, we should look at the primary factors contributing to the region's outstanding winemaking success, including geography and climate. The geographic and climatic factors enormously affect vine physiology and yield. Besides, we should also consider the earth's physical structure and substance and the processes that act on them.
In areas with a deep layer of dirt, geological influence on grapes will not be that significant. However, if the dirt level is thin, geology will affect the soil composition and water-retention properties and, therefore – the quality of the grapes.
Gravel and sand encourage rapid drainage and promote deep root penetration, and consequently, provide a favorable physical environment for viticulture. Deep-rooted vines are less prone to damage from heavy rain or drought than shallow-rooted vines.
Large scale geological events that took place millions and millions of years ago resulted in the Bordeaux region's geomorphology and its calcium-rich soils generally composed of gravel, sandy stone, limestone, and clay. Limestone found in Bordeaux originated during the Jurassic period when for millions and millions of years, the region was covered by the tropical sea rich in corals and seashell lifeforms. About 65 million years ago, the sea retreated, leaving behind vast limestone deposits.
The most refined type of limestone found in Bordeaux is chalk, and the most rigid type is known as Asteries. For centuries, Asteries, with its fine qualities and rustic beauty, was used as a construction material for many wine estates. If you ever travel to Bordeaux, you will be able to see it for yourself.
The high levels of calcium in the soil mean that the grapes will get more elevated amounts of such essential minerals like calcium itself, along with sodium, potassium, and magnesium. With time, limestone deteriorates chemically and develops into clay, which explains why we often see limestone and clay on the same site. Interestingly, clay contains a high CEC (Cation Exchange Capacity), which helps deliver more critical nutrients into the grapevines.
Extensive research of the soils in France's most prominent wine-producing regions demonstrated that the best wines come from those vineyards, where soil exactly contains limestone, pebbles, clay, and sand.
While fragmented rock improves drainage, the presence of clay enhances water retention and makes grapes more prolific.
Take another look at the map. You will see that geographically, Bordeaux lies right at the center of the convergence of two large bodies of water - the Dordogne and Garonne Rivers, which flow towards the Atlantic Ocean and form the Gironde – a navigable estuary (though often referred to as a river) on the Bay of Biscay.
Closeness to the ocean allows classifying Bordeaux's climate as oceanic. However, the winters in this region are not that severe, and summers are a bit warmer than in typical areas of the same classification.
Simultaneously, we cannot classify Bordeaux's climate as the Mediterranean because of ample summer rainfalls. This maritime climate plays a significant role in protecting the grapes from harsh winters. On the negative side, it also causes humidity and rains which creates problems for winegrowers such as fungal diseases or weakened grape berries.
Bordeaux's summers are warm, sometimes even hot, with the average maximum temperature of July being 26.9°C (80.4°F). Falls and springs in the region seem to be very lovely, with warm temperatures during the daytime and chilly evenings.
Winters are cool and windy, with temperatures averaging 7°C (44.6°F). Snowfalls are relatively rare, but frosts often happen during the season. As we already know, they also occur in springs jeopardizing vineyards and causing a necessity to protect grapes from frost damage.
Complex Bordeaux soils and their unique microclimate induced by the Dordogne and Garonne rivers, the Gironde estuary, and the Atlantic ocean, allow the creation of extraordinary wines. To keep learning about them, let's take a closer look at Bordeaux's sub-regions and discover more about its famous terroirs.
Bordeaux Right Bank (Libournais)
As you already know, Bordeaux is divided in half by the Gironde estuary formed by the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers. The territory to the north and right of the estuary is called the "Right Bank".
The soils of the Right Bank are composed of clay, gravel, sand, and limestone, and besides that, the areas with the best terroirs have some iron deposits.
Two principal appellations of the Right bank are St. Emilion and Pomerol belong to the Libournais district where you can find a whole range of legendary wineries.
The best Saint Emilion estates are located on its famed limestone plateau though, the thickness and density of the limestone layer change from vineyard to vineyard. Merlot handles clay-rich soils better than Cabernet Sauvignon, and it determines where both grapes get planted. Therefore, Merlot dominates in Saint Emilion, accounting for about 70 percent of all varietals grown in the appellation's vineyards, followed by Cabernet Franc that plays a supporting role in appellation's blends.
Most Pomerol vineyards have more gravel than the rest of the Right Bank AOS, allowing for considerable concentrations of Cabernet Franc compared to other appellations. All prominent estates in Pomerol sit on Pomerol Plateau – a complex blend of clay, gravel, and sand-gravel soil with in-between layers of clay and an underlayer of iron ore stone.
The most famous terroir in Pomerol is known as Petrus – the only terroir in the world where the grapes flourish on a large concentration of incredibly dense 40-million-year-old blue clay. The important thing is that the density of the clay affects the finished product.
The lightest wines come from soils with a high amount of sand; gravel gives wines freshness and brightness, while clay makes wine silky and round. Most rich, velvety, concentrated wines come from the soils with the densest clay, like the stunning Merlot from Petrus, which I've already mentioned above.
Entre-Deux-Mers is the sub-region that gave its name to the largest appellation in Bordeaux, and this appellation entirely concentrates on white wine production.
It includes nine separate AOC designated areas that make up the entire appellation with 2,400 ha (approximately 5931 acres) under the vine and almost 10,000 ha (24710.54 acres) of land in total.
Most of this land is just the forests, making it unsuitable for winemaking – but great for tourism. Many of the Chateaus located in Entre Deux Mers are incredibly beautiful and have a long history behind them, like Pessac-Leognan, for example.
The soils of the appellation are composed of clay and limestone, with integrated clusters of sand. They are quite far away from being gravel-based, and only some terroirs in the northern part of the region have noticeable amounts of small stones.
The main grape varieties in Entre-Deux-Mers are Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle but you will also find Sauvignon Gris, Merlot Blanc, Ugni Blanc, and Colombard. Dry white wines from Entre-Deux-Mer vineyards tend to be fruity, crisp, and acidic, but the appellation also produces red Bordeaux wine and world-renowned sweet dessert wine known as Sauternes and Barsac.
It's important to mention that only white wines from the appellation can have labels saying "Entre Deux Mers".
Bordeaux Left Bank
Compared to the Right Bank, where the soils are for the most part composed of clay and limestone with some sand and rock fragments – the soils of the Left Bank are based on gravel.
The type of gravel and its disposition plays a crucial role in soil quality in every Bordeaux region.
Gravel's traits differ from the appellation to the appellation. Even in the soil within the same estate, the differences in its characteristics affect the wine's taste and aroma.
The other factors that influence the grapes and subsequently - the final product - are:
- Vineyard location
- Aspect (direction of the slope where the vines grow toward the south, southeast, etc.)
- Weather patterns
- Climatic conditions
- Winemaking techniques
In other words, everything that we include in the term "terroir" when we say that the quality of wine depends on its terroir.
If you ever wondered why vineyards are grown on the slopes, the answer is here – the slopes help with better drainage during the wet periods and better sun exposure when it's not rainy or cloudy during the day.
Low-angle slopes of the Medoc – one of the Left Bank's main subregions, are the home for some of the uttermost region's terroirs. Medoc looks like a massive triangle with the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Gironde to the east.
Geographically, the name Medoc is used for the whole peninsula, but there's also the AOC under the same name.
The second important sub-region of the Left Bank is Haut-Medoc, and the Haut-Médoc appellation encloses land farther south, as you can see on the map. Haut-Médoc is a sub-appellation of the Médoc AOC and the large southern section of the greater Médoc district of Bordeaux. Technically, we may call Haut-Medoc a sub-sub-region.
Margaux – the Medoc's appellation (and one of the winemaking communes of Haut-Médoc) located on the south is known for its gravel-based soils and exceptional wines, which you should probably give a try one day.
Upon visiting France in 1787, Thomas Jefferson – an American statesman and Founding Father, made a note of Château Margaux as one of the "four vineyards of first quality." I believe that it's one of such recommendations you would trust without a blink.
There is another outstanding appellation at the northern end of Medoc – Saint Estephe (and technically - another winemaking commune of Haut-Médoc) where soils have much more clay in them.
Château Phélan Ségur – the most renowned in the appellation, dedicated half of its vineyards to clay-loving Merlot. If you consider yourself a Merlot advocate, you probably should put Château Phélan Ségur Saint-Estèphe on your list. I don't know what Thomas Jefferson's reaction to the wine from this estate was, but I would like to mention that in the last scene of the thriller Hannibal, Dr. Lecter drinks a glass of 1996 Château Phélan Ségur Saint-Estèphe. I am sure Sir Philip Anthony Hopkins, who brilliantly played evil Hannibal, did enjoy the producer's choice of wine.
Red Bordeaux Wines
We already know what red grape varieties are grown in Bordeaux:
Each of these varieties has its own distinguished features that contribute to the creation of beautiful red wines and every grape its own secret you are about to discover.
Native to Bordeaux, Merlot is the most popular and widely grown grape varietal in France. Thanks to DNA research, it’s now assumed that Merlot is the offspring of sophisticated Cabernet Franc and Magdeleine Noire des Charentes – a vague variety that vine researchers found in France’s northwesternmost region, Brittany.
Merlot earned its romantic moniker from the blue-black plumage of the blackbird (merle in French). Though some experts suggest that the blackbirds are fond of Merlot’s sweet flavored, thin-skinned berries and it could explain the grape’s name as well.
Merlot is easier to grow and ripens two weeks earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon but it can achieve and express its full potential only in cool and moist soils of the Right Bank of Bordeaux where clay retains water much better than gravel or sand. Here, three appellations - Pomerol, Saint Emilion, and Lalande de Pomerol - offer some magnificent examples of 80-100 percent Merlot with outstanding quality and aging potential.
Wines to invest in:
- 2015 Chateau Petrus Pomerol (drink from 2026)
- 2009 Chateau Cheval Blanc Saint Emilion (drinking window: 2016-2057)
Wine to drink now:
A fabulous cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular grape variety in the world today.
But I bet you will be surprised if I tell you that grown everywhere and admired for its fine qualities in so many countries around the world, it is never used as a single varietal in wine in Bordeaux and is always blended here. So, don’t look for 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon from the Left Bank.
As a late-flowering and late-ripening variety, Cabernet Sauvignon doesn’t mature quickly in the cool climate of Bordeaux and there is always a chance that it will fail to ripen fully. But in a high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon blend, everything is brought to perfection with the help of other key components – Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
Classic, cool-climate aromas of Cabernet Sauvignon include distinct black fruit, blackcurrant, mint, plum sauce, and sometimes green bell pepper. Notes of leather, cedar, smoke, tobacco, and spices come with aging.
Hardy tannins (the chemical compounds that give the wine its dryness and astringency) provide Cabernet Sauvignon with incredible aging potential.
Fine Cabernet Sauvignon-based blends which are considered the quintessential example of a Bordeaux wine, come from Haut-Medoc, Graves, Pauillac, St. Julien, and Margaux.
Some of these blends exhibit very strong domination of Cabernet Sauvignon, like those from Pauillac appellation summing up the density and the richness of this variety. To try it for yourself, you can order a bottle or a case of superb 2016 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Pauillac Bordeaux.
Wines to invest in:
- 2010 Liber Pater Collection "La Scene", Graves, Bordeaux
- 2016 Château Margaux, Margaux, Bordeaux (94% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet Franc, 2% Merlot, 1% Petit Verdot. Drinking window - 2024-2066)
- 2016 Château Leoville Las Cases, Saint Julien, Bordeaux (Drinking window - 2026-2078)
Wines to drink now:
- 2010 Château Cos d'Estournel, Saint-Estèphe, Bordeaux
- 2010 Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte Rouge, Pessac Leognan
Not as soft and smooth as Merlot and with fewer tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc at their best offer majestic aromatic complexity, a vibrant freshness, and an astonishing perfumed bouquet – everything you need for a sensational tasting experience.
We already know that Cabernet Franc forms an essential part of Bordeaux blends but I would like to reveal that it is also capable of producing strikingly beautiful single varietal wines that show wonderful energy and freshness on the palate with a long mineral-tinged finish enhanced by notes of cedar, lavender, juniper, thyme, rosemary, and sage, along with flavors of Indian spices and damp soil.
The legendary Château Cheval Blanc (the Right Bank, St.-Emilion AOC), which sets the sky-high standard and produces one of the world’s most desired red blends, devoted two-thirds of their vineyards to Cabernet Franc.
Grown under the best possible conditions here, Cabernet Franc grapes achieve ideal ripeness characterized by mouth-filling dark fruit flavors and beautifully balanced tannins.
Blending it with Merlot in different proportions that vary from year to year allows for producing extraordinary Château Cheval Blanc and Le Petit Cheval – some of the best wines out there.
If you want to enjoy the blend where Cabernet Franc fully dominates over Merlot, you should try the 1990 Le Petit Cheval Bordeaux Saint-Emilion. The 1990 vintage is known as a very unusual vintage composed of 98% Cabernet Franc and just 2% Merlot. Rich and powerful on the palate, with a beautiful long aftertaste, this wine is considered to be one of the greatest vintages of Le Petit Cheval over many years.
Starting with the 2004 vintage, another Château from Saint-Émilion appellation – Trotte Vieille, started producing a limited amount of 100 percent Cabernet Franc. This unique wine made from over 100 years old vines “Les Vieilles Vignes du Château Trotte Vieille” – is not available on the market. Since there are only 135 bottles produced each vintage, this is the rarest wine made in Bordeaux today.
This grape variety from the Pyrénées, Petit Verdot was planted in Bordeaux by ancient Romans, which makes it much older than Cabernet Sauvignon.
As experts suggest, it takes its name from the small size of its berries. Quite tannic and spicy, Petit Verdot prefers gravel based soils of the Left Bank.
Not easy to grow, this variety needs specific weather conditions during the flowering period otherwise, the grape will not be able to reach the ideal ripeness.
Stressed and unripened Petit Verdot displays sharp acidity and unpleasant aromas but when conditionals are great, it shows beautiful tannic depth and a wonderful aroma enhanced with delicious notes of violet, and blueberries.
When Petit Verdot is added to the Merlot- or Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend, it helps improve color and tannins, while adding intriguing spicy character and hints of olives flavor.
Some of the largest plantings of Petit Verdot are found in Chateau Pichon Lalande (Pauillac AOC), Chateau Palmer (Margaux AOC), and Chateau Lagrange (St. Julien AOC).
Prior to the devastating phylloxera plague that destroyed a vast amount of European vineyards in the mid-1800s, Malbec was a popular grape variety in much of Bordeaux estates and used to make up a half in some of the famous blends.
But being prone to fungal diseases and finicky just like Petit Verdot and Carménère, this grape didn’t get as lucky as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc.
After the phylloxera, much of the Malbec vines were not uprooted in order to eliminate the bug and instead replanted with more promising varietals.
What was left of Malbec got hit by another unfortunate event – the sadly famed frost of 1956. Bordeaux wine-growers made their choice in favor of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot again, and since then, Malbec continues losing its positions in Bordeaux.
Its large, dark-colored, thin-skinned berries are believed to be too watery for producing good wines. Nevertheless, fully ripe Malbec is capable of adding color, strong tannins, and balanced acidity to the wines along with flavors of plum and blackberry.
Today, Malbec is grown in small amounts and used in small amounts in the blends produced at Chateau Cheval Blanc, Château Jean Faure, and Chateau Coutet (the Right Bank, St.-Emilion AOC.
As for the Left Bank, you can find Malbec at Domaine de Chevalier and Château Haut Bailly (Pessac Leognan AOC); at Gruaud Larose (St. Julien AOC), and at Brane Cantenac (Margaux AOC).
However, some estates devote to Malbec over 10 percent of their vineyards, like Chateau Clos Rene (Pomerol AOC), and some appellations devote to Malbec around 10 percent of their vineyards, like Cotes de Bourg AOC where some producers make wines from using 100 percent Malbec in the blend.
Cuvée George from Château Puygueraud, for example, (a unique blend that derived its name after the father and founder of the estate) always offers a considerable portion of Malbec – up to 45 percent.
And La Petite Madeleine produced at Château Magdeleine Bouhou is 100 percent Malbec wine, so I am going to give it a try one day. They say, there is a big difference between Malbec from Argentina where the grape found a new very welcoming home, and Malbec from Bordeaux – and I want to see it for myself.
Carménère is one of the oldest European grape varieties that earned a great reputation for wine in Spain before it appeared in Bordeaux thanks to the Romans where it has been used for blends as well as for creating single varietal wine.
Originated in a warm-climate area, Carménère needs more hot and sunny days than Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and other Bordeaux varieties in order to achieve full ripeness and flavor.
It is the deepest, darkest, purplest of all red grapes out there and its leaves turn a brilliant red in fall which makes it one and only in the wine world. It is believed that Carménère obtained its beautiful name from carmin – the French word for crimson.
Among herbal and vegetal flavors Carménère wine exhibits notes of tobacco, jalapeño, green pepper, black pepper, and bell pepper. Other flavors that come with aging, include chocolate, leather, vanilla, and licorice root.
Since Carménère is part of the notable Cabernet family, it shares its exclusive green pepper note from alkyl-methoxypyrazines (or just ‘pyrazine’) compounds that are found in Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec.
When Carménère grapes are collected underripe, the aromas produced by pyrazines can be associated with the smell of rotten asparagus, so letting grapes achieve the perfect ripeness is vital for wine-growers.
Long sun exposure helps to burn harsh tannins, while unpleasant pyrazine aromas are slowly turning into enjoyable aromas of green pepper or jalapeño. Hence, if Carménère is harvested too early or cannot ripe because of the weather conditions, it shows strong bitter characteristics and very undesirable flavors.
Up to 90% of the vines in the Bordeaux region were destroyed and had to be uprooted after the phylloxera catastrophe. It changed the destiny of Carménère forever. The local wine-makers decided not to replant the variety at all considering it unsuitable for the region’s climate. Soon after that, it was presumed effectively extinct.
Luckily for the grape, it was brought to Chile a few years prior to the phylloxera epidemic. The dry, sunny, and warm conditions of the new home allowed Carménère to shine for its excellence. Right now it is the signature grape of the country and Chilean wine producers keep looking for the best terroirs for the grape making sure it gets all it needs to ripe to perfection.
In Bordeaux, Carménère appears in almost nonexistent quantities being used only for blends by a few Bordeaux producers who planted the variety after its triumph in Chile.
Today, you can find it as a part of the blends like in this exclusive Valandraud (St.-Emilion AOC) or as a single-variety wine, produced by a few estates including Chateau Le Geai Carmenere, Château Lapeyronie Carmenere, and Chateau Carmenere.
White Bordeaux Wines
The Ciron River creates a microclimate that is a secret key to the production of some of the finest sweet wines in the world. The cold waters of the river meet the warmer waters of Garonne, engendering a fine mist.
The high level of humidity caused by the mist generates the growth of the fungus Botrytis cinerea also known as “Noble Rot”. Effectively affected by botrytis, dehydrated Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle raisin-like berries concentrate the extraordinary amounts of sugars and flavors.
Altogether, these grapes are used for the production of high-quality sweet white wines known as “Sauternes'' or “Sauternes-Barsac” in case they are made within the Barsac AOC.
Thomas Jefferson described Sauternes as the best white wine in France after Champagne and Hermitage (white Hermitage is made from 100 percent Marsanne grape).
Sauternes have the potential to age well even beyond one hundred years which makes them one of the longest-lived wines in the world.
I recommend trying 2009 Sauternes produced at Chateau Suduiraut. It offers a typical blend with a lovely balance of sweetness and bright acidity. Flavors include apricots, honey, and peaches with a nutty note, induced by Semillon.
Sémillon is planted mostly in the Sauternes region and in the vineyards of Barsac appellation but you can find it in other Bordeaux regions except for Medoc.
Round and full-bodied, with a rich oily profile and low acidity, it is rarely used for single-varietal wines though, some estates like Chateau Franc Baudron (Montagne-Saint-Émilion appellation), and Château Le Puy (Côtes de Francs appellation) produce 100 percent Sémillon Bordeaux blanc that show rich fruit character of honeyed peaches and candied pears, along with creamy vanilla tones and nutty notes.
100 percent Sémillon wines from the Left Bank made from the grapes that grow on well-drained gravel-based soils are more concentrated with a tangy texture and a bright, perfumed character of white peaches and grapefruits.
Another Bordeaux big white grape, Sauvignon Blanc has a strong acidic profile which is piercingly sharp in expressive bone dry wines from the Left Bank that show flavors of lemon zest and green grass complemented by mineral notes of chalk and oyster-shells.
In fact, Sauvignon Blanc can be found all over the region but is highly concentrated in Pessac-Léognan Blaye, and Entre-Deux-Mers. Sauvignon Blanc typically gives wines the necessary acidity, along with mineral character and aromatic freshness.
Its secret is the three notes forming its aromatic signature: citrus, boxwood, and fig leaves.
The best examples come from the Pessac-Leognan appellation offering flavors of lemon curd, lemongrass, honeyed grapefruit, and kiwi, along with distinguished notes of boxwood, and fig leaves. Oak-aging gives these wines a creamy feel and smooth texture but under this silky guise, you will discover a rigid, steely character.
Some estates on the Right Bank also produce 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc wines. Château Cheval Blanc, for example, had been making such wine from 2014 to 2018, but from the 2018 vintage, a tiny amount of Sémillon is also included.
Wine to drink now:
- 2015 Château Malartic-Lagravière, Blanc, Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux (Drinking window - 2017-2027)
Blended together, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon create superbly constructed blends that show unique characteristics depending on terroirs, vintage, and winemaking techniques implemented by the wine producers. Sauvignon Blanc contributes to these wines the essential acidity, mineral notes, and aromatic freshness delicately softened by creamy Sémillon.
Wines to invest in:
- 2016 Ch. Haut-Brion Blanc, Pessac-Léognan (Sauvignon Blanc 70.5%, Sémillon 29.5%)
- 2018 Château la Mission Haut-Brion Blanc, Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux (57.4% Sauvignon Blanc and 42.6% Smillon)
- 2018 Château Haut-Brion Blanc, Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux (81% Sauvignon Blanc, 19% Sémillon; drinking window - 2024 - 2032)
Muscadelle is the auxiliary variety that complements both dry and sweet white wines.
It is a very delicate grape that is capable of producing powerful, highly aromatic wines with balanced acidity.
The variety participates in the creation of dessert Sauternes wines offering noticeable aromatic vibrancy.
Muscadelle is also used in white wines produced within Entre-Deux-Mers appellation, but it almost never exceeds 5 percent of the blend.
How To Pick A Good Bottle Of Bordeaux Wine
Finding the right Bordeaux starts with how much money you are willing to spend and what you expect from the wine. If you are not ready to spend more than $40-$50 on a bottle of everyday Bordeaux, and at least $100 on a bottle of wine that has a well-deserved reputation, you can try to find affordable “Bordeaux” or “Bordeaux Superior”, but you should know that they will be the lowest in terms of wine quality.
But if you are a real wine aficionado, take into consideration the following recommendations:
Buy wines from the top Bordeaux wine producers:
- Chateau Cheval Blanc (Première Grand Cru Classé ‘A’ in St-Émilion)
- Château Ausone (Première Grand Cru Classé ‘A’ in St-Émilion)
- Château Haut-Brion (Première Grand Cru Classé, Graves)
- Château Lafite-Rothschild (Première Grand Cru Classé, Pauillac)
- Château Latour (Première Grand Cru Classé, Pauillac)
- Château Margaux (Première Grand Cru Classé, Margaux)
- Chateau Mouton Rothschild (1st growth, Pauillac)
- Le Pin (Pomerol)
- Château Pétrus (Pomerol)
- Château d’Yquem (Sauternes)
Buy wines from the principal Bordeaux communes:
- St. Estephe
- St. Julien
- Graves / Pessac Leognan
- St. Emilion
Buy wines from satellite appellations (bottles with sometimes almost equivalent quality as those from more acclaimed appellations can be purchased for a fraction of the cost):
- Blaye—Côtes de Bordeaux
- Castillon—Côtes de Bordeaux
- Cadillac—Côtes de Bordeaux
- Francs—Côtes de Bordeaux
Know the best recent vintages: 1995, 2000, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2016.
Bordeaux Wines Classification
Bordeaux has 60 appellations and five classification systems.
In the middle of the XIX century, French emperor Napoléon III initiated a classification of the region's wines through the Syndicate of Courtiers of Bordeaux to showcase them at the Paris Exposition of 1855.
The wine-producing estates within the Médoc and Graves were ranked according to their reputation and wine prices.
The classification was limited to and comprised five tiers – "growths," or "crus" – from first-growth (or Premier Cru) to fifth-growth. The original classification included four first-growths: Lafite-Rothschild, Margaux, Latour, and Haut-Brion.
In 1973, Mouton-Rothschild was promoted to the first-growth status, making a total of five first-growths.
While some estates have excelled in quality and others, on the contrary, have degraded to a position of inferiority, the 1855 Classification is still an essential aspect of Bordeaux culture, a useful road map of the hierarchical prominence of the most acknowledged Châteaus.
Another system in Médoc (which sorts out wines outside the 1855 Classification) includes three categories: Cru Bourgeois, Cru Bourgeois Supérieur, and Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel.
These categories indicate the quality and value of red wines produced in one of the eight Médoc appellations: Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac, Saint-Estèphe, Listrac, and Moulis. The classification lasts for five years, so the producers have to maintain their wines' quality. Otherwise, they may lose the title.
On the Right Bank, Saint-Émilion wine classification includes Saint-Émilion, Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé and Saint-Émilion Premier Grand Cru Classé' B' and 'A'. This classification is based on blind tasting and quality evaluation and is revised every ten years.
18 Premiers Grands Crus Classes
- Château Angélus (A)
- Château Ausone (A)
- Château Beau-Séjour
- Château Beau-Séjour-Bécot
- Château Bélair-Monange
- Château Canon
- Château Canon la Gaffelière
- Château Cheval Blanc (A)
- Château Figeac
- Clos Fourtet
- Château la Gaffelière
- Château Larcis Ducasse
- La Mondotte
- Château Pavie (A)
- Château Pavie Macquin
- Château Troplong Mondot
- Château Trottevieille
- Château Valandraud
The Graves Classification
There is only one classification level - Cru, introduced in 1953, which is not subject to revision. All 16 Crus in Graves belong to the Pessac-Léognan appellation:
- Château Latour-Martillac, Martillac (red and white wines)
- Château Laville-Haut-Brion, Talence (white wine)
- Château Malartic-Lagravière, Léognan (red and white wines)
- Château La Mission-Haut-Brion, Talence (red wine)
- Château Olivier, Léognan (red and white wines)
- Château Pape-Clément, Pessac (red wine)
- Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte, Martillac (red wine)
- Château La Tour-Haut-Brion, Talence (red wine)
- Château Bouscaut, Cadaujac (red and white wines)
- Château Carbonnieux, Léognan (red and white wines)
- Domaine de Chevalier, Léognan (red and white wines)
- Château Couhins, Villenave-d’Ornon (white wine)
- Château Couhins-Lurton, Villenave-d’Ornon (white wine)
- Château de Fieuzal, Léognan (red wine)
- Château Haut-Bailly, Léognan (red wine)
- Château Haut-Brion, Pessac (red wine)
Château Haut-Brion is the only Bordeaux wine that appears in both the Graves classification and the Grands Crus Classés en 1855.
36 AOC Crus Artisans Du Médoc
This classification was created for the high-quality wines produced and bottled on small properties in one of the eight Médoc appellations: Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Listrac, Moulis, Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac, and Saint-Estèphe.
Many appellations don’t have their own internal classification systems, and some are referred to as ‘satellites’ with respect to the more prestigious AOC they surround (such as St.-Émilion or Pomerol).
Luckily for us, not too many wine-producing regions out there share as much complexity as Bordeaux. Besides knowing producers, appellations, vintages, and classifications, we should also take into consideration the concept of a first wine, second wine, and third wine.
Grand Vin (the first wine) – is the top wine of the producer made from the best grapes grown on the best parcels of terroirs. Usually, these grapes are harvested and sorted manually. They are fermented and aged in the best barrels, and handled with great care. Rich, full-bodied, textured, with concentrated flavors and aromas, these wines are created for long cellaring and very special occasions.
And what happens to the grapes of the lower quality? Bordeaux winemakers turn them into the second or third wine. You should know that when it comes to the second wines of the First Growths, while those wines can be quite good, they are most often overpriced due to their close relationship with the Grand Vin of the First Growth, and not all of them are worth trying.
Hence, you should pick second wines very carefully in order to make sure that the price matches the quality.
The Second Wines to invest in or drink now:
- 2010 Château Lafleur, Pensées de Lafleur, Pomerol (drinking window - 2018-2045)
- 2016 Château Léoville-Las Cases, Le Petit Lion, St-Julien (drinking window - 2020 - 2038)
- 2016 Château Mouton Rothschild, Le Petit Mouton, Pauillac (drinking window - 2021 - 2041)
- 2015 Château Rauzan-Ségla, Ségla, Margaux (drinking window - 2010 - 2045)
- 2010 Château Doisy-Daëne, L'Extravagant, Sauternes (drinking window - 2020 - 2025)
How To Read The Labels Of Bordeaux Wines
Labels on Bordeaux wines can really scare you off with all these long phrases written in a foreign language, but with a few clues listed below, you will feel much more confident when choosing the right bottle.
- “Mis en bouteille au château” or “Mis en bouteille à la propriété” can be translated as “Bottled at the estate of the producer within the listed region”.
- “Mis En Bouteille Au Domaine” - can be translated as “It was bottled in the region.”
- If the label says “Bordeaux AOC” or “Bordeaux Supérieur AOC,” you are looking at the entry-level wine that makes up the bulk of the production. The grapes for these wines may come from anywhere within the Bordeaux region. They can pleasantly surprise you with a low price, but you will not get a picture of what the good-quality Bordeaux wine really is. These wines are usually not aged and should be drunk young. Take a note that Bordeaux Supérieur has a higher alcohol level than Bordeaux.
- Higher-end wines come from specific areas within Bordeaux. Different subregions have different wine styles and produce different blends. Some highly esteemed sub-sub-regions include Pomerol, Margaux, Pauillac, St.-Emilion, and some other principal Bordeaux communes.
- If the label has the word “Château,” it must be a part of the wine’s name and also the name of the estate from which this wine comes. Some Château can produce more than one wine, but the one with the Château’s name is likely to be that estate’s best wine. Second and third wines usually have individual names that don’t include the word “Château.”
- If the label says “Cru Bourgeois,” you are looking at the wine from the Left Bank made at one of the estates that were left out of the prestigious Grand Cru Classé group or just didn’t exist at that time. “Cru bourgeois supérieur” will indicate the wine with better quality, and “Cru bourgeois exceptionnel” will indicate the highest quality level of wine within this classification.
- If the label says Grand Cru, Grand Cru Classé, or Premier Grand Cru Classé, you are looking at the wine that belongs to one of 82 Crus of St.-Emilion AOC. Take into consideration that “Saint Emilion Grand Cru” is an appellation rather than a classification; therefore, it is not an indication of high quality. Such Grand Crus are just slightly better than the communal wines. For the real Bordeaux experience, you should look for wines labeled “Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classé.” And as you already understand, the best wines come with the word “Premier.”
- ‘Grand Vin’ in combination with a ‘cru classé’ classification means that you are looking at the first wine or the top wine of the specific producer.
Some appellations don’t have internal classification systems, and you will not see the words like “classé” or “Chateau” on the labels of their wines, but the prices will tell you how good they might be. Noble Petrus – one of the most expensive Bordeaux wines – is a good example illustrating such cases.
Best Food Pairings For Bordeaux Wines
Bordeaux produces both some of the most expensive wines, intended for decades of cellaring and inexpensive wines made for everyday drinking.
Inexpensive Bordeaux wines are generally light-bodied, excluding some St.-Emilion blends.
You can easily pair them with bacon, ham, sausages, cured pork loins, galantines, and ballotines, along with pâtés, and duck or pork confit.
If you are looking for the wine with a character, I suggest trying 2017 Berry Bros. & Rudd Good Ordinary Claret, Bordeaux defined by prominent wood-smoke notes and savory finish.
It's a win-win combination with grilled meats, cold roast beef, or a cold meat pie. Vegetarians can successfully pair this exciting wine with some goat or sheep cheese, along with mild brie and warm camembert or plant-based curry dishes.
If you are interested in sweet wines, I recommend indulging yourself with the luscious 2017 Ch. Coutet, Barsac, but in fact, there is no need to put a dessert on the plate.
Sweet wines from Bordeaux, with their sugary, salty, and savory characteristics, are best enjoyed with spicy food, salty snacks, salty cheese, Foie Gras, or its plants-based alternative made from nuts and mushrooms. The same applies to more expensive wines, but I prefer to drink Sauternes and Barsac wines on their own or pair them with oysters when there is the right season for them.
The 'Left Bank' full-bodied Cabernet-dominated Bordeaux like 2014 Château Giscours, Margaux, Bordeaux with their refreshing acidity and textured tannins, can be enjoyed with herbed roasted lamb or veal, or with a hearty stew during a cold season. Considering the wine's depth and structure, it will taste better with hard cheeses instead of soft ones. And don't forget to add an intriguing note with a few Kalamata olives.
More complex wines with concentrated flavors and aromas like 2009 Les Forts de Latour, Pauillac can be paired with red meats and poultry, grilled or roasted, and accompanied with creamy sauces. Just add a gratin dauphinois on the side, or some mushrooms and truffles and green beans with garlic.
And if you are lucky enough to uncork a Grand Vin wine like this outstanding 2016 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, my advice is to pair it with something delicious like an herb-crusted rack of lamb. Or maybe with something exquisite like duck foie gras casserole; or even with something extravagant like an oyster stew in a red wine sauce.
Everything here depends on your own preferences. Just pair your wine with food you love the most, and you are in clover!
Storing Bordeaux Wines
And now – a few words about storing and serving Bordeaux wines.
If you have invested in wine capable of improving with age, you don't have to drink it right away. Collecting wines is one of the most delightful and rewarding hobbies but storing wines is not such an easy thing like it seems to be.
You cannot just leave a bottle of a precious 2010 Ch. Calon Ségur, St Estèphe somewhere in the basement or on an upper pantry shelf for a couple of decades.
If you want to maintain the wine's value and quality, you will have to get a reliable wine cooler or build a cellar.
Whatever you choose. Some wine-selling companies store the wine for you for a small annual fee and I believe, it’s one of the most attractive options if you don’t have a room for a cellar or a cooler.
With time, tannins in an adequately stored wine soften, the oak integrates, and secondary aromas and flavors come into balance with the primary ones.
Proper storage allows the wine to reach its peak in the most natural way. But when you open a young wine, this process of natural aging comes to stop. Right away, the wine gets exposed to a massive amount of oxygen, and from that moment, it will evolve very quickly – over a period of a few hours.
One way to help wine with aeration is by decanting it. This process involves pouring the bottle of wine into a carafe, where the wine can "breathe" for a while.
But how long does the wine need to sit in a jar for aeration? For the youngest, most complex Bordeaux wines, even decanting well over six hours is a necessary thing to do.
The better the vintage and the better the wine (the price tag helps a lot with indicating that), the more time should be allowed for breathing. On the other side, inexpensive wines with limited aging ability may only require an hour or even less.
Old wines (so-called 'pop and pour') close to their peak don't need any aeration. And if you let such wines stay in an uncorked bottle or a fancy decanter for an hour or so, they will definitely become less enjoyable. Don't let it happen; drink your old wine reasonably fast, and make sure that it is served at the right temperature:
- Red Bordeaux: 16-18°C (61-64°F)
- White Bordeaux: 6-8°C (43-47° F)
- Sauternes: 10°C (50°F)
Now it's time to say a few words about major Bordeaux appellations.
The appearance of the AOC system was initiated by the French Government back in 1936.
The idea of creating such a system was based on the concept of terroirs. When a product, including wine, comes from one particular area, it shows a distinctive character, making it unique. Such distinguished sites were granted official status for their agricultural products.
The department controlling the AOC designations is the INAO – Institut National de l'Origine et de la Qualité. The wine-producing estates and their vineyards have to be located inside the geographical boundaries of the appellation.
The producers within the appellation must agree to follow the strict rules and regulations set forth by the INAO; otherwise, they cannot sell their wines using their Bordeaux AOC's status on the label.
The estates are allowed to plant only permitted varieties. Besides that, the rules and regulations determine the minimum and maximum grape yields, amounts of sugar and alcohol levels in wines, and specific practices for vinification. But let's skip the technical details and take a close look at the most prominent appellations!
Pomerol (The Right Bank)
- Grape varieties: Merlot, Cab Franc, Cab Sauvignon;
- Wines: Red;
- Aroma profile: violet, red berries, truffles, game (the flesh of wild mammals or birds);
- Palate: refined, intense, powerful, sensual;
- The best vintages: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2012, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2006, 2005, 2001, 1998, 1995, 1990, 1985, 1982, 1975, 1970, 1964, and 1961;
- Soils: the famous blue clay in the center of the Pomerol plateau with a mix of clay, gravel, sand, and iron oxide around it;
- Vineyard: 792 ha (1957.075 acres)
- Approximate average annual case production: 345,000
Pomerol is the tiniest of all the major Bordeaux AOC, and currently, it's home to almost 150 estates that produce Pomerol wine.
Most Pomerol Châteaus are small in size but it doesn't stop them from creating one of the most fascinating and renowned wines out there. Here is the list of a few most eminent estates and some of their best wines available on the market today:
- Château Petrus – Petrus 1998, Bordeaux, Petrus (drinking window - 2008 - 2068)
- Château Lafleur – 1989 Château Lafleur, Pomerol (drinking window - 1997 - 2035)
- Château Le Pin – Le Pin 2010, Bordeaux, Le Pin (drinking window - 2020 - 2065)
Saint Emilion Grand Cru (The Right Bank)
- Grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot;
- Wines: Red;
- Aroma profile: small red fruit, fig, prune, rose, peony, and toasted almond
- Palate: powerful structure with refined, silky tannins
- The best vintages: 2016, 2015, 2014, 2012, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2006, 2005, 2003, 2001, 2000, 1998, 1990, 1989, 1985, 1964, 1961, and 1959;
- Soils: sand, alluvial gravel deposits, clay, iron deposits;
- Vineyard: 4160 ha (10279.58 acres);
- Approximate average annual case production: 1,500,000;
St.-Emilion itself is one of the most charming Bordeaux's wine towns, situated on top of the gentle limestone slopes upon which many of the region's superior vineyards are located.
However, more than half of the appellation's vineyards stretch across the plain between the town and the Dordogne River on sandy, alluvial soils with a gravel pinch.
The north-east of the region has complex gravel deposits atypical for the rest of the appellation. This gravel section is home to Château Cheval Blanc (a 1er Grand Cru Classé (A)) – the leading Estate in Saint Emilion that produces the most preeminent Cabernet Franc-based wine in the world.
- Château Cheval Blanc – Cheval Blanc 2005, Bordeaux, Cheval Blanc (drinking window - 2011 - 2060)
- Château Beau-Sejour Becot – 2015 Château Beau-Séjour Bécot, St.- Emilion (drinking window - 2018)
- Château Beauséjour-Duffau-Lagarrosse – Chateau Beausejour (Duffau-Lagarrosse) - St.-Emilion 2016 (drinking window - 2022 -2066)
Margaux (The Left Bank)
- Grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Malbec, Carmenere;
- Wines: Red;
- Aroma profile: fruity aromas of raspberry, cherry, and red currant, along with floral (especially violet), spicy, and roasted notes
- Palate: powerful
- The best vintages: 2016, 2015, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2006, 2005, 2005, 2000, 1999, 1996, 1995, 1990, 1983, 1961, 1959, 1953, and 1945;
- Soils: gravel, limestone mixed with pebbles, stones, rock fragments, and small amounts of clay;
- Vineyard: 1530 ha (3780.712 acres);
- Approximate average annual case production: 600,000;
Experts believe that the ancient Romans planted the first vines on the modern Margaux appellation territory with its poor soils ideal for grapes cultivation.
Château Margaux – one of the most famous estates in Bordeaux, produces exquisite, refined wines much appreciated by Thomas Jefferson, who ordered a few cases of the 1784 vintage.
The majority of estates in Margaux are making truly fascinating wines that differ in styles from Château to Château due to the diversity of the appellation's terroirs.
- Château Margaux – Margaux 2015 (drinking window: 2023 - 2050)
- Château Palmer – Chateau Palmer - Margaux 2016 (drinking window: 2024 - 2066)
- Château Rauzan Segla – Chateau Rauzan Segla - Margaux 2018 (drinking window: 2022 - 2050)
Pauillac (The Left Bank)
- Grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Carmenere;
- Wines: Red;
- Aroma profile: black cherry, licorice, crème de cassis, sour cherry, rose, iris, cedar, smoke, and incense;
- Palate: robust, deep, and rich, with strong tannic structure;
- The best vintages: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2006, 2005, 2003, 2000, 1996, 1995, 1990, 1989, 1985, 1982, and 1961;
- Soils: gravel, rocks, stones, sand with deposits of iron, marl, limestone, and clay;
- Vineyard: 1213 ha (3022 acres);
- Approximate average annual case production: 545,000;
Pauillac provides the perfect terroirs where Cabernet Sauvignon can achieve the ideal ripeness required for producing high-quality Bordeaux wines that offer firm tannins and lots of elegance.
The most prestigious vineyards are located on the steep hillsides not far from the Gironde estuary on the right side and the Atlantic ocean on the left. Warm microclimate and complex soils make Pauillac terroirs exclusively suitable for creating long-lasting blends.
The best wines from Pauillac can age for decades, up to a century or more, if stored under the right conditions.
- Château Latour – Chateau Latour 2003 (drinking window: 2010 - 2028)
- Château Lafite Rothschild – 2005 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Pauillac (drinking window: 2010 - 2060)
- Château Mouton Rothschild – Château Mouton-Rothschild 2010 (drinking window: 2020 - 2080)
- Grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon;
- Wines: Red; Dry White:
- Aroma profile (Red): ripe fruit, currant, violet, toasted almonds, resin, truffle, leather, tar, smoke, and tobacco leaf;
- Palate (Red): balanced tannins and structure, along with a long and pleasant finish;
- Aroma profile (White): notes of hazelnut, citrus, acacia, beeswax, peach, nectarine, broom blossom, and mineral tones of chalk;
- Palate (White): complex, intense, and refreshing, with a long, aromatic finish;
- The best vintages: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2012, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2006, 2005, 2001, 2000, 1998, 1996, 1990, 1989, 1985, 1961, 1959, and 1955:
- Soils: gravel and pebbles on the surface with an underlayer of clay and sandstone in varying proportions;
- Vineyard: 1491 ha (3684.341 acres);
- Approximate average annual case production: 665,000;
Pessac Leognan created in 1987, is the most recent appellation among the major Bordeaux AOC.
The best vineyards that produce red wine, have unique soils with vast gravel deposits, quartz, pebbles, and rock fragments of various shapes and sizes, but sand and clay also present in varying amounts. The best red Pessac Leognan can age for an extended time, over 100 years. The wite grapes grow in terroirs that combine limestone and clay, with small gravel amounts. That soil composition allows producing rich, fresh, and vivid wines with an intriguing mineral character.
- Château Haut Brion – 2017 Château Haut Brion, Bordeaux, Pessac-Léognan, 1er Cru Classé (drinking window: 2023 - 2057)
- Château La Mission Haut-Brion – Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion blanc 2018, Pessac-Leognan (drinking window: 2022 - 2050)
- Château Smith Haut Lafitte – Ch. Smith Haut Lafitte Rouge, Pessac Leognan 2015 (drinking window: 2018 - 2048)
- Grape varieties: Muscadelle, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon;
- Wines: Sweet White:
- Aroma profile: a complex bouquet that includes flavors of almond, quince, mango, pineapple, roasted peach, dried apricot, and passion fruit, along with notes of beeswax, almond, and hazelnut that come with time.
- Palate: powerful, full-bodied yet elegant, with an indulging sweetness and distinguish aromatic finish;
- The best vintages: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2007, 2005, 2003, 2001, 1997, 1996, 1990, 1988, 1986, 1983, 1976, 1975, and 1967:
- Soils: gravel and pebbles on limestone with some clay and chalk;
- Vineyard: 1,599 ha (3951.215 acres);
- Approximate average annual case production: 350,000;
Wines of Sauternes are like no other Bordeaux wine.
Sauternes are the most difficult to make, considering that the grapes must be effectively affected by botrytis and harvested once noble rot begins to appear, which means that a unique combination of factors and circumstances must take place.
Waiting too long increases amounts of sugar, but the acidity begins to decline, indicating that the right moment is gone and the wine will end up being too flaccid.
- Château d’Yquem – Château d'Yquem Sauternes 2017, France, Bordeaux, Sauternes (drinking window: 2024 - 2060)
- Château Suduiraut – 2014 Château Suduiraut Sauternes (drinking window: 2018 - 2050)
- Château Rieussec – 2009 Château Rieussec Bordeaux Sweet White Sauternes (drinking window: 2014 - 2055)
Bordeaux Winemaking Techniques
In Bordeaux, almost all wines are blended, and the region's winemaking techniques are a little bit different from the other winemaking regions of France.
Today, winemaking in Bordeaux is a highly controlled process that involves the usage of stainless steel vats for fermentation, modern cooling technologies, and the implication of the highest possible level of hygiene. We can split the winemaking process into the following steps:
- The beginning of harvesting is based on the development of phenolic compounds and flavors as well as desired levels of glucose and fructose, and acidity
- Hand-picking, which secures maximum quality harvest, is common among the more prestigious châteaux while the rest use the machinery. Grapes should be handled with extreme care, starting with picking the clusters by hand
- 100% destemming
Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot all have different levels of methoxypyrazines – chemical compounds that give the wines a green character, especially if the grapes are harvested too early. The use of stems on these grapes could risk piling additional green flavors on those already present. Therefore, destemming in Bordeaux is a standard procedure.
Cold Maceration (If Possible)
Cold maceration or "cold soak" is a process of soaking grapes in cold water at about 4-10°C (39-50°F) for 3-7 days for extracting colors and aromas. Some winemakers tend to prolong this period up to 10 days. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and even Petit Verdot can benefit from this process, so some winemakers include this step into the entire process.
The fermentation process happens in stainless steel vats and involves punching a cap (the mass of solid matter) down every 6-8 hours to ensure better extraction. Some Chateaux still use only wood vats. However, there is no difference in quality between stainless steel and wood fermentation.
Addition Of Sugar
Sugar is added during the fermentation to facilitate the final alcohol content of the wine.
Every Estate has its own method of maceration that, in general, is based on the gentle mixing of the grape skin and juice. This process can last from 15 to 30 days and occurs in the vat.
When the maceration is complete, the juice stays in steel vats, where the temperature is maintained at 16-20C (61-68F). The malolactic fermentation occurs over 12-15 days.
Finning helps to reduce tannins. Egg whites seem to be one of the most popular fining agents. The active ingredient in egg whites is protein albumin. During the finning, albumin sticks to tannins through an electric charge and then oozes out of the wine.
Often the blending of different varietals takes place before the wine is put in the barrel. However, practices vary from Estate to Estate. For example, winemakers from Lafite-Rothschild keep the wine in the barrels for three months prior to blending, then perform testing to select the blend, move wine back into the vats, and after that place it back in the barrels for 18-20 months.
Maturing (aging) the wine in oak barrels between 12-18 months.
After the malolactic fermentation is done, the wine is transferred to the French oak barrels. Traditionally, first growths use 100 percent new French oak barrels each year. The rest is aging in new or old barrels, depending on a budget.
The racking process involved changing the barrels in order to leave behind the sediment that naturally forms in wine with time. Racking may happen a few times before fining and bottling. Adding sulfur dioxide during the process helps inhibit the oxidation of the wine.
Some producers avoid any kind of filtration, considering it a harsh procedure that can affect aromas and color in wine.
Finally, wine can be bottled, and then it lives through a further aging process in a winery's cellar before being released.
White wines don't require the extraction of color and tannins. Therefore any type of maceration is strictly avoided.
Sweet white wines are produced from non-destemmed grapes affected by noble rot.
The History Of Winemaking In Bordeaux
The ruins of the buildings and bridges built by ancient Romans can be found all over Bordeaux, reminding us about the time when it started earning its fame as a wine-producing region.
As DNA research suggests, the first vines were brought to Bordeaux by the Romans from Spain.
Perfect soils, warm and mild climate, and convenient closeness to the ocean through the Girone made the region exceptionally attractive for winemaking.
Many historians suggest that the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine (a historical region forming the southwestern corner of France) to Henry Plantagenêt, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, in 1152 had become one of the most prominent events in the history of wine in Bordeaux.
Undoubtedly, Eleanor had a strong preference for wines from her homeland, and that love was transferred to her son John. In 1203, upon becoming crowned King John of England, he lowered taxes on Bordeaux wine in exchange for ships and support from the Bordeaux region in the war against France.
Since then, Bordeaux wines could be sold at a lower price than wines from other regions, which meant a tremendous advantage for Bordeaux winemakers in the English market.
When the Hundred Years War was finally over, the Bordeaux wine trade had no limits for expanding. Twice a year, a few hundred British ships sailed to Bordeaux with different goods and came back with about half a million liters of wine each time. Since the inexpensive wine - the object of exchange - was not intended for cellaring, the speed of transportation became a very sensitive issue.
The Plague that spread across Europe in the 1340s, wiping out around one-third of Europe's population, disrupted wine production, market, and trade. After Bordeaux scarcely recovered from the Black Death aftermath, invading French armies destroyed significant parts of the region's vineyards.
Though vineyards were restored with time, French rule cut Bordeaux off from England, creating a disastrous situation for Bordeaux wine producers. High taxes significantly reduced exports and affected prices. English found a new source of cheap wines in the face of Spain and Portugal.
Around 1500 Dutch got involved in the Bordeaux wine industry, making a profound transformation of the land, wine quality, and style.
They found a way to drain the swamps along the major Bordeaux rivers, which allowed the winemakers to cultivate the grapes ideal for producing strong, full-bodied red wines.
The influence of Dutch preferences gave the beginning of production not only dark red wines high in tannins but of sweet yet salty and acidic Sauternes botrytis wines. Besides, the Dutch came out with the idea of burning sulfur in barrels to kill bacteria before filling.
About two hundred years ago, during the first decades of the XIXth century, famous English physicians wrote tons of articles advocating the health benefits of quality wine, which caused an escalated interest in determining the meaning of "wine quality."
It resulted in the 1855 classification that was initially created for the 1855 Universal Exposition in Paris and classified the top 61 Chateau in Bordeaux - all from the Médoc (except for Haut-Brion).
Currently, Bordeaux is a very divergent region with complex social and political history. As a result of that history, Bordeaux is producing the finest and most popular wines in the world (and wines from the Medoc are still the top sellers).
Lots of estates today rely on advanced technologies for making better wines, including implementation of precision agriculture concept and usage of optical sorting machines.
Improved vineyard management techniques, the knowledge of the terroirs, combined with a switch toward organic and biodynamic farming, have allowed Bordeaux to produce better wines than ever.
The wines that are made by less acclaimed Chateau today are better in quality than the fifty years old classified growths. Are you ready to start your own exploration of Bordeaux wines and see it for yourself? A votre santé!