Bordeaux: An Introduction
Red wines, made from various combinations of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, and small quantities of petit verdot, malbec, and carménère, are the glories of this immense wine region, whose vineyards cover over 450 square miles in southwestern France. There are also excellent dry white wines, made from sauvignon blanc, sémillon, and sometimes muscadelle, and world-famous dessert wines (from the same grapes), the star of which is Château d'Yquem, as well as small quantities of rosé and sparkling wine (labeled as crémant de Bordeaux). The first vines were planted here by the Romans. In the 12th century, the region became part of the Angevin Empire under King Henry II of England, and the fame of the red wines of Bordeaux, which the British call claret, expanded widely throughout Europe. (English and Irish châteaux names abound in the region, among them Talbot, Barton, Montrose, Brown, Boyd, and Palmer.) Red wine areas are labeled as "Left Bank" (the Médoc and Graves) and "Right Bank" (Pomerol and Saint-Émilion). In 1855, Napoléon III decreed that the wines of Bordeaux should be ranked officially. This was done by members of the wine trade according to price and reputation. Only the red wines of the Médoc and the sweet whites of Sauternes and Barsac were included, the reds divided into five crus, or "growths," the whites into three categories — premier cru supérieur (there was only one: Château d'Yquem) and two growths. The wines of Grave were classified in 1953 and those of Saint-Émilion in 1955. There have been several changes in the particulars over the years — most famously, Château Mouton-Rothschild, which had been classified as a second growth, was promoted to first growth in 1973 — but in general, the 1855 rankings are still in force, more than a century and a half after the fact. Only the rankings of Saint-Émilion are revised regularly.
A vineyard area covering about 22 square miles on the so-called Left Bank of the Gironde, an estuary formed by the confluence of the Dordogne and Garonne rivers. The gravel, clay, and limestone soils are hospitable to merlot and cabernet sauvignon, which together constitute at least half of the vineyard plantings — but the other permitted Bordeaux varieties, cabernet franc, petit verdot, malbec (here known as côt), and carménère, are cultivated as well. The great wine-growing communes of St.-Estèphe, Margaux, St. Julien, and Pauillac are located within the Médoc appellation, but their wines are bottled under their more prestigious commune names. Among the best-known properties labeled simply as Médoc are châteaux La Tour de By, Greysac, Loudonne, and Patache-d'Aux.
There are more classified châteaux in Margaux, including the celebrated Châteaux Margaux itself, than in any other Bordeaux commune. The region's vineyards, the southernmost classified vines in the Médoc, grow on well-drained, gravelly soil and produce some of the most aromatic wines of Bordeaux, with a heavy concentration of cabernet sauvignon.
Home to three of the most famous wines in France, châteaux Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, and Latour, Pauillac, on the Gironde Estuary between St.-Estèphe and St. Julien, is often considered the most prestigious wine commune in the Médoc. At a slightly higher elevation than its neighbors, with well-drained, gravelly soil, it produces elegant wines, based primarily on cabernet sauvignon, known for their stalky, black currant aroma and their silky richness.
The northernmost winemaking commune in Bordeaux's Médoc region, known for its well-rounded, tannic, long-lived wines (one example, Château Montrose, is famous for remaining "closed" for decades before opening into beautiful wine). Cabernet sauvignon predominates in these wines, though percentages of merlot are increasing.
Though it boasts no premier cru châteaux, this cabernet-heavy Médoc commune is the home of a number of the most highly regarded properties in Bordeaux, including the three Léovilles (Las Cases, Barton, and Poyferré), Ducru-Beaucaillou, Beychevelle, and Talbot. The commune's wines may be rich and forthright or more delicate in character, depending on the château.
With its neighbor, Saint-Émilion, one of the two most celebrated wine regions on the Right Bank of the Gironde estuary. This is prime merlot country, with some châteaux producing wines that are close to 100 percent that varietal. Cabernet franc is the second most important grape here, followed by cabernet sauvignon. The soil is mostly clay or sandy, and the wines are typically silky and full of ripe summer fruit flavors. The legendary Château Pétrus is a Pomerol.
With Pomerol, one of the two most celebrated wine regions on the Right Bank of the Gironde estuary. Saint-Émilion boasts a diversity of soil types, with gravel, sand, and limestone predominating. In contrast to the Médoc, here the most important grape is merlot, accounting for about 60 percent of the plantings, with cabernet franc next and cabernet sauvignon a minority. The wines tend to be softer than those of the Médoc, but still retain an intensity of fruit. One of the most famous of Bordeaux, Château Cheval Blanc, comes from this region, and with its neighbor, Pomerol, Saint-Émilion was the birthplace of the garagiste movement of small-scale winemakers producing non-traditional red wines, more alcoholic, oaky, and intensely fruity than usual, one of the most famous being Saint-Émilion's Château Valandraud.
The large Bordeaux sub-region of Entre-Deux-Mers (literally "between two seas," the "seas" being the Garonne and Dordogne rivers), once a major producer of red wines, became famous subsequently for everyday whites at good prices. The best reds of the region, though little known by name, can be excellent; they are bottled not as Entre-Deux-Mers but as Bordeaux Supérieur. The appellations of Cadillac, Loupiac, and Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, known for their sweet wines, are also within Entre-Deux-Mers.
Southeast of the Medoc, the gravelly Graves region encompasses Pessac-Léognan, Sauternes, and Barsac, with red wines being made primarily from cabernet sauvignon and merlot, while whites are blended mostly from sauvignon blanc and sémillon.
Located just south of the city of Bordeaux, in the Graves region — famous, as its name would suggest, for its gravelly soil — Pessac-Léognan is the home of one of the most famous wines of Bordeaux, Château Haut-Brion. Cabernet sauvignon remains the most important grape for red wines, but the percentage of merlot blended in is generally higher than in other parts of the region. There is also excellent white wine produced here, from sauvignon blanc and sémillon.
Sauternes and Barsac
One of the most famous and priciest sweet wine categories in the world, sauternes is produced in the Sauternais region of Graves, southeast of Pessac-Léognan and the city of Bordeaux. It produces only white wines, made from various blends of sauvignon blanc, sémillon, and muscadelle grapes that have been affected with the so-called "noble rot," Bortrytis cinerea, which shrivels them, concentrating their sugar and lending their juice an unmistakable honeyed flavor. The undisputed king of Sauternes is Château d'Yquem, an intensely concentrated nectar that can be among the most expensive wines in the world. Barsac is a commune within Sauternes, producing wines that are sometimes drier and lighter than other bottlings from the region. It may be labeled either as Barsac or Sauternes.
Located west of Saint-Émilion in the hills above the Dordogne River, Fronsac produces firm, aromatic red wines based primarily on merlot and cabernet franc. The soil is clay and limestone.
Côtes de Castillon
With soils of clay, sandy gravel, and clayey limestone, this region, since 2009 correctly called Côtes de Bordeaux Castillon, produces medium-rich, increasingly stylish wines from merlot (mostly), cabernet sauvignon, and cabernet franc primarily.
There are almost 40 appellations within the Bordeaux region, from famous ones like Pauillac, Margaux, and Pomerol to such more obscure ones as Moulis, Sainte-Foy-Bordeaux, and Graves-de-Vayres. Many wines from the region are labeled simply as bordeaux or bordeaux superieur. There are also branded proprietary blends like the ubiquitous Mouton-Cadet. Some of the lesser-known wines of Bordeaux offer great value.