A Brief Guide to Bordeaux!

A Brief Guide to Bordeaux!

For hundreds of years Bordeaux has been one of the most revered wine regions in the world. It used to be known primarily for it’s sweet white wines but now produces almost 90% red wines.

If you've often wondered what all the fuss is about then here is some basic information about Bordeaux, just enough to be able to hold your own at parties!

Location:  Bordeaux is region mid way down the west side of France, reasonably near the coast, it can be divided into 3 sections, carved out of the landscape by rivers in the region.

Terroir:  The main river, the Gironde, runs through the middle of the region splitting it into its 2 most famous areas - the left bank with it's gravelly, rocky soil with good drainage, perfect for producing Cabernet Sauvignon and the right bank, consisting of cooler, damper soil perfect for producing Merlot.

The Gironde is met by the Garonne further up river, with the Garonne arm of the river flowing from the South past the appellations of Pessac Leognan, Graves, Barsac and Sauternes and the Dordogne arm of the river flowing from the East. The area between these two rivers forms the Entire-deux-mers region mainly consisting of white wine grapes, predominantly Sauvignon Blanc.

Climate:  The climate in Bordeaux is moderate and temperate with some Mediterranean influences. Winters are quite mild and rainy whilst summers are warm and quite sunny.

The Left Bank:  This area, right on the left hand shore of the Gironde, is home to the regions of St Estephe, Pauillac, St Julien and furthest South, Margaux. These four important regions focus on growing Cabernet Sauvignon and it forms the majority of their blends.

Cabernet Sauvignon Characteristics:
Cabernet Sauvignon will always have black fruit overtones, other influences are commonly tobacco, vanilla, black pepper and licorice. It has high tannins, medium sweetness and high acidity, is full bodied and reacts well to ageing in oak.

The Right Bank:  Equally, situated opposite on the right hand banks of the Gironde, the terroir is made up of cooler, damper, clay soil that holds more moisture, the perfect growing conditions for Merlot. The Chateaux of Pomerol, St Emillion being two of the most important areas in this region with mainly Merlot in their blends.

Merlot Characteristics:
A softer, less tannic wine, at the same time less complicated than Cabernet Sauvignon. Fruit is more plums and brambles but influences of earthy flavours and tobacco and tar are still present due to the cooler climate, it will also react very well to oak ageing.

Classification:  In 1855 Bordeaux was already a thriving wine producing area, producing high quality wines that were being bought and sold across the world.  In order to increase the status, name and prices of his wines, Emperor Napoleon III decided to hold a Universal Exposition in Paris to classify the Chateaux of Bordeaux in order of quality, importance and price.  Wine traders from all over the world were invited to judge. This list has remained pretty much the same ever since with only two changes ever being allowed.  

The list starts by dividing Chateau by importance starting with First Growth or 'Premier Cru' Chateaux, there are only 5 of these:

  • Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Pauillac,
  • Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac
  • Chateau Margaux, Margaux
  • Chateau Latour, Pauillac and
  • Chateau Haut-Brion, Graves, Pessac

Down to 'Fifth Growth' Chateaux or 'Cinquiemes Crus' including Chateau Pedesclaux, Pauillac and Chateau Lynch-Bages, Pauillac.

Over the years, many of these Chateaux have been sold, split up and some would say not all deserve the classification status they were awarded in 1855, some needing to be demoted and some, after decades of investment and expertise, such as Chateau Lynch-Bages are now making quality wines way above their stated level of classification.

Chateaux will generally produce two or three different wines every year. A 'Grand Vin' using their best grapes generally from their oldest vines, this will be the most expensive wine they produce.  A second wine using grapes from a mixture of vines, generally a little younger and a little cheaper and possibly a third wine that will also be from younger vines and slightly different blend.  

Vintages:  There are many rules and regulations on wine production in the Bordeaux regions, such as what type of grapes you are allowed to grow, percentages in blends, etc and due to this large number of rules it doesn't allow for much variation in the wines produced year on year. So, weather conditions became a big factor in varying the quality of the grapes and therefore, the taste of the wine each year. The vintage becomes a much bigger factor than in other parts of the world where rules are not so strict. 

The older and better the vintage, and the more highly classified the Chateau it comes from the more expensive it will be!

Many winemakers across the world have tried to replicate Bordeaux wines - producers in Tuscany have very similar terroir to the Left Bank and produce Cabernet Sauvignon (Super Tuscan's) to rival Premier Cru's from this region and there are some very nice Bordeaux blends coming out of California at present.

There is a lot more to learn about Bordeaux and all its politics, rules and regulations but hopefully this has given you a little insight in to the region so you can make a purchase in your preferred style and know what your paying for when you buy from a particular Chateau.

Happy Drinking!

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