Delving into Bordeaux and trying to understand this classic region and its iconic wines can be a daunting task. There is literally lots of ground to cover, Bordeaux stretches over 296,000 acres, compare to the more familiar Okanagan Valley, with just 8,619 acres of vineyards. We will provide you with some of the most important information you need to know about the not-so basic region of Bordeaux.
Where most people start, is the explanation of right bank vs left bank. The Gironde estuary is fed by the Dordogne and Garonne rivers, which split the wine region into two main areas. The left bank is west of the Gironde and Garonne and north of Bordeaux city. The right bank is on the east side of the Dordogne.
The left and right banks are home to some of the more recognizable regions and prolific Chateaux. Within the greater Bordeaux, there are many other sub-regions and thousands of vineyards. In the north-east you will find Cote de Blays and Cote de Bourg. Between the two prongs of the ‘fork’ is Entre-deux-mers. As well, south of Bordeaux city, Sauternes and Barsac produce some of the world’s best sweet wines.
The 296,000 acres make Bordeaux the second largest wine growing region in the world. The large acreage produces a wide selection of styles of wine from sweet wines in Sauterne, sparkling Crémant de Bordeaux, inexpensive, to the most regarded in the world.
Regions and sub-regions
There are 38 sub-regions in Bordeaux, which cover 57 appellations. A region’s classification will influence the price and demand for its wines. WineFolly shows a table of the premium regions, partnered with the more affordable options.
The left bank, in Haut Médoc is where you can find some of the finest red wines of Bordeaux: Margaux, St. Estephe, St Julien and Pauillac. The regions in the left bank have higher rock content, which provides well-draining soils. Cabernet Sauvignon performs best on well-drained soils. The rocky soils also retain more heat, helping to ripen the grapes. The right bank is home to the highly-prized reds of Pomerol and St. Emilion. The rigth bank has greater clay content in the soil, making it a more ideal location for Merlot.
Understandings the classifications
Among the thousands of vineyards and growers, approximately 200 properties are classified. Châteaux that are ranked within the three classification systems provide the benchmark for quality wines from Bordeaux.
The 1855 Médoc classification is the most expansive and recognized. The list of classified properties was created for the Universal Exposition in Paris, in 1855. Producers whose wines consistently commanded the highest prices were ranked from first to fifth growth. Here is a list of the Chateaux in each of the 5 rankings, provided by Winewisdom.com.
All the classified properties were on the Left Bank, and most were in the Médoc Since 1855 there has only been a single amendment, Château Mouton-Rothschild was raised from a second to a first growth. You can identify wines in this ranking system by “Grand Cru Classée en 1855” on the label.
Since the inception of the 1855 classification, other regions have created their own rankings. Most notable is St. Emilion Classification, and the communes of the northern part of the Graves region, known collectively as Pessac-Léognan in the 1959 Graves Classification.
Bordeaux as a style of wine
The popularity of wines from Bordeaux have created a style of wine that is replicated around the world. From Napa to Adelaide, winemakers produce wines in a ‘Bordeaux style’, using Bordeaux varietals and techniques to achieve a Bordeaux-esque wine. In tasting notes, reviews and media, a wine may be referred to as a ‘Bordeaux blend”, but unless it is from Bordeaux it is referencing a style of wine and not the origin.
The permitted red varietals found in Bordeaux blends are: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. The left bank wines are dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, producing a more tannic, structured wine with higher alcohol and acid. Merlot based, right-bank blends offer a softer style and tannin, that is more approachable in it’s youth.
Bordeaux is unique in that it is an ideal, but also volatile area to grow grapes. The climate is moderate and maritime, vintage variation is high and weather patterns vary year to year. Typically, Bordeaux is temperate with mild winters, damp springs and rainy autumns.The unpredictable nature of the seasons leads to high risk, and potentially high reward. It is important to research vintage notes, especially when investing in an expensive bottle. Most critics and journals will publish vintage scores, like the one shown on Bordeaux.com.
With a deep history, thousands of acres under vine, and many styles of wine produced, Bordeaux is a complicated, but worth while region to study. Many try to simplify the complex structure and terminology of Bordeaux wine, but it is difficult to do this without leaving out important information.
Tell us about your experiences with Bordeaux, your favourite places to visit, the most memorable bottle of wine, or what questions have gone un-answered!