Bordeaux: An Introduction


Bordeaux Basics

An introduction and overview of the Bordeaux wine region.

Bordeaux is arguably the most important, certainly the most widely imitated, wine region in the world. Bordeaux is enormous, with over 9,000 wine producers and over 13,000 vineyards. The wines themselves range from some of the most expensive, most famous wines of the world to workmanlike everyday wines that sell in the $10 range.

Red Bordeaux is made from five permitted varieties (a sixth, Carmenère is pretty much extinct is Bordeaux) and even these are among the most planted grapes in the world. The three main grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Malbec, a blending variety in Bordeaux, is most well known as “the grape” of Argentina. Petit Verdot is used in very small quantities.

White Bordeaux, no where near as well known as the red, is made from three permitted varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle. Typically, the blend is 2/3 Sauvignon Blanc and 1/3 Semillon, with some occasional use of Muscadelle.

Bordeaux is divided into three major subregions – Graves, the Médoc, and the “Right Bank”.

The Gironde estuary, formed by the convergence of the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers, divides the Médoc peninsula from the mainland of France. The Médoc holds the appellations of Pauillac, St. Estephe, St. Julien and Margaux. Those appellations are part of the Haut-Médoc, the more prestigious part of the Médoc. The Médoc features Cabernet Sauvignon, with Merlot and the other grapes usually playing a supporting role.

South of the Gironde, west of the Garonne, lies Graves, home of the Pessac-Leognan appellation and Chateau Haut-Brion. Like the Médoc, the wines of the Graves traditionally feature Cabernet Sauvignon.

To the east of the Gironde and the Dordogne are the “Right Bank” appellations, most famously St. Emilion and Pomerol. This is the largest part of Bordeaux, and the wines traditionally feature Merlot, with Cabernet Franc as the leading support grape.

In 1855, the wines of the Médoc and the Graves were rated by the major wine merchants of the time. 61 modern Chateaux are featured in the so-called “1855 Classification,” the Grandes Crus, the top wines of their day and often, ours. The 61 Chateaux were divided into five groups, known in English as “Growths”.

The First Growths, the best of the best, were originally limited to four wines – Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Margaux, and Chateau Haut-Brion. In the only change to the classification not directly caused by mergers or by properties being divided, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild was elevated from 2nd Growth to 1st Growth status in 1973. Of the First Growths, three are from Pauillac (Lafite, Latour and Mouton), one is from Margaux (fittingly, Chateau Margaux) and one is from Pessac-Leognan (Haut Brion).

From the Right Bank, Chateau Ausone and Chateau Cheval-Blanc (St. Emilion) and Chateau Petrus (Pomerol) are seen as having status equal to the First Growths, although the wines of the Right Bank were not included in the 1855 Classification.

There are two other important areas in Bordeaux, in addition to the thousands of acres of basic Bordeaux wines. The area between the rivers, just before they join to form the Gironde, is known as Entre-Deux-Mers, and is an important area for White Bordeaux. Finally there is Sauternes.

Sauternes (and neighboring Barsac) are the home of one of the most famous sweet wines of the world, rivaled only by Port in that regard. Sauternes is a white wine, made from the same grapes as typical White Bordeaux, with the proportions of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc reversed. Botrytis, a fungus generally despised by grape growers, here is the “Noble Rot.” The grapes are left to almost raisin on the vine, infected by Botrytis, and picked at the last possible moment. The epitome of this appellation is Chateau d’Yquem, considered by many to be “liquid gold.” Sauternes is usually a dessert wine, pairing with cheese, and tart desserts, but the most famous food pairing for Sauternes is actually Foie Gras.

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