Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot originated in Bordeaux. That should tell you how important Bordeaux is to French wine & wine history in general. Famous for it's age-worthy dry red wines, including some are the most expensive wines globally. There's a wide range of wines from Bordeaux, including white & sweet wines, which makes it's appellation system quite confusing to navigate.
General Terroir & History
Very much an old world wine region, Bordeaux became a winegrowing region under British Rule in the mid 1150s, which created a relationship between French wine & the British Empire. But the Bordeaux region really sprang to life when the marshlands of the Medoc were drained by Dutch merchants in the 1650s after the Hundred Years' War, during which the region came back to French rule. Malbec was the most planted grape variety, until Cabernet Sauvignon was introduced to Bordeaux in the late 1700s after an unplanned grafting of Sauvignon Blanc & Cabernet Franc.
By the 1800s, the Grand Cru Classé Classification of Left Bank Châteaux was set for Chateaux in Medoc & Graves, along with Sauternes & Brasac, which has barely changed since. Turmoil fell when phylloxera destroyed most of the vineyards. Vitis vinifera, the common grape vine, was planted onto American vine rootstock to revitalise the area.
The 1900s were as much a struggle, with many Châteaux being occupied by the German Army in WWII leading to few people tending to the vines. Additionally, Catastrophic February in 1956 resulted in many vines dying of cold frost. However, this was a blessing in disguise, as many of the Malbec vines were replaced with the Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot varietals that we know Bordeaux of today. It was also during this time that the Classification of Grabes & Saint-Émilion were born.
For the modern Bordeaux, 1980s were the big tipping point, where Robert Parker Jr.'s review of the 1982 vintage shot Bordeaux to popularity in the USA.
There are several classifications of Bordeaux wines across the region. Several are worth investigating to identify great regional producers.
- Crus Artisans Small artisan producers of the Médoc
- Crus Bourgeois For producers in the Médoc based on quality assessment of regional character
- Crus Classés de Graves A classification of producers in Graves from 1953 (amended in 1959)
- Crus Classés de Saint-Émilion A classification of top quality producers in Saint-Émilion that is revisited every 10 years.
- Crus Classés de 1855 A 5-tier classification of producers in Médoc and Graves (and sweet wines from Sauternes and Barsac) from 1855. One producer moved up a tier in 1973
Today, there are 2 major trends in modern Bordeaux;
- New grape varieties were approved for growth in Bordeaux. This is mainly driven by Bordeaux's need to anticipate climate change by intoducing varietals more adept to warmer climates - Arinarnoa, Castets, Marselan, Touriga Nacional Alvarinho and Liliorila
- There is an increase in organic practice in Bordeaux, with about 20% today being organic
Major Wine Varietals & Styles
Due to the tempermental weather patterns, most winemakers make blends in Bordeaux. This helps winemakers balance out "impurities" such as less ripened Cab Sauv grapes.
Cremant de Bordeaux
Cremant de Bordeaux is the name given to sparkling wine from Bordeaux. There's generally 2 styles, but all are made using the traditional champagne method, and the appellation coversa about 500 or so vineyards.
Most cremant style wines are best drunk one to five years after bottling. Whites are made from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle, and tend to exhibit more minerality & grassy, floral aromas as compared to Champagne.
Roses are made from Merlot & Cabernet Sauvignon, and have become increasingly popular in recent years.
Light Bodied White Wine
While there are a few other varietals like Colombard & Trebbiano (Ugni Blanc), Sauvignon Blanc is the main white grape grown in Bordeaux, and is actually where Sauvignon Blanc originated. Expect bold notes of citrus, grapefruit & lime, together with grassy mineral notes. These wines make up the majority of White Bordeaux, compared to the rich & creamy styles.
Full Bodied White Wine
Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Muscadelle
Rich & creamy White Bordeaux is highly sought after, and tend to be pricier. They are made in specific regions like Pessac-Leognan, and tend to be Semillon dominant. Semillon give them a richer oily feeling, and expect deeper flavors of baked apples, lemon curd, and orange zest.
Full Bodied Red Wine
Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec
The Cabernet based blend would bring you age-worthy wines. This is due to their high tannins & acidity, which give it the structure to soften over time. While the age of the wine plays a role, you can expect deep colored wines with notes of blacberry, cassis, leather, smoke, and herbal notes
The Merlot based blend would give you softer wines with smoother tannins. Ripe fruit notes & hints of chocolate with a good meatiness make them easier on the palate when young, despite also having the potential to age.
While you definitely have to watch out for variation of profiles & quality from different appelations & vintages, the primary notes from a Red Bordeaux would be black currant, plum, granite, cedar & violet. Most Bordeaux reds are made either Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon dominant, but could also include Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot & Malbec.
Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon
Sauternes is named after the region that produces late harvest style wines in a particular foggy region of Entre-Deux-Mers, which produce wines that are one of the sweetest white wines in the world, with notes of marmalade, apricot, honey & ginger.
Soil type is an important defining characteristic of the wine profile & what grapes are planted in which region. Being essentially cut in half by the Gironde Estuary, where the Dordogne and Garonne rivers meet.
Bordeaux can be divided into 3 major regions;
- Left Bank, or Médoc and Graves
- Right Bank, or Libournais
Left Bank "Médoc and Graves"
Key Regions include:
- Medoc; Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac, Haut-Medoc, Saint-Estephe
- Graves; Pessac-Leognan was part of Graves until it became it's own appelation
The defining characteristic for left bank is gravel soils, which creates a warmer microclimate than clay soils on the right bank. As a result, grapes that require warmer climates to ripen fully prosper here, like Cabernet Sauvignon. You will mostly find Cab Sauv dominant blends, with the percentages varying between vintages, depending on how much help is needed to soften the harsh Cab Sauv
This is why the best areas for Cabernet Sauvignon are on pockets of the Left Bank. Places like Pauillac and Margaux have big mounds of gravel and therefore are able to produce amazingly tannic, age-worthy Cabernet Sauvignon based wines, with aromas of tobacco, leather, and smoke.
Do note that clay soils are also quite plentiful on the left bank, so it's important to know which appellation has which soils.
Sémillon, a white grape, also needs a bit of extra heat to ripen, and though there’s not much of it planted in Bordeaux, the best expressions of it come from gravelly, well drained soils too.
Right Bank "Libournais"
Key sub-regions include:
- Red Only: Pomerol, Saint-Emilion, Saint-Emillon "Satellites", Lalande-De-Pomoerol, Fronsac, Canan Fronsac
- Red & White: Cotes de Bordeaux, Francs Cotes de Bordeaux, Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux
Clay soils are plenty along the right bank, which lends to Merlot dominant red blends as it doesn't need much warms to ripen. You will find mostly blends with Cab Franc, which brings tannin, acod & floral aromas.
Merlot finds its best expression on the Right Bank in places like Pomerol and Saint-Émilion. In Pomerol there’s a lot of clay, gravel, and iron-rich deposits which contribute power and finesse to the wines.
In Saint-Émilion, a mixture of clay, limestone, and gravel allows Merlot and Cabernet Franc to have immense structure and power. These wines, like the finest wines from the Médoc, age for decades, revealing aromas of chocolate, meat, and dried fruits.
Sauvignon Blanc also doesn’t need much heat to ripen, and when it is planted throughout Bordeaux we see it happily ripening on clay and limestone, but also sandy soils too.
The beauty of this area, where the Cirone & Garonne rivers meet, has a beautiful microclimate that lends to beautiful late harvest styles. The misty morning fog promotes Noble Rot, which leads to a slow process of dehydration & concentration of sugar & flavor in grapes, while adding notes of marmalate & orange peel
This makes it the perfect growing grounds for Semillon & Sauvignon Blanc, which are then used to craete late harvest style wines.