Bordeaux hugs France’s southwestern edge. Two rivers, the Garonne and Dordogne, transverse it to form the Gironde estuary. No mere tack on the map, Bordeaux holds court and ranks as one of the world’s most prestigious wine regions. Rich history, diverse terroir, and timeless wines set Bordeaux on its throne. Let’s raid the castle and explore the enduring legacy that makes Bordeaux wines the epitome of fine wine. 

History

Like so much of history’s meanderings, Bordeaux enters wine-making history with the Roman Empire’s finest. Roman plant vines along the Gironde River, little do they know what the future holds. Meander through history to the 12th century to the wedding of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry Plantagenet (aka King Henry II of England). This marriage of French to English marks the start of the powerful trade route between Bordeaux and England. But it isn’t quite the Bordeaux we know now.

The next transformation came in the 17th century with the arrival of the Dutch, who drained the Medoc marshes. The introduction of modern winemaking follows and brings one of the most sought-after luxury goods to market. The 18th century delivered advancements in barrel aging, bottling, and quality control. 

Lafite and Margaux developed stellar reputations across Europe, an expansion made easy by Bordeaux’s long history as an export hub. Bordeaux’s export business led to the development of an international merchant class. These merchants developed the system of distribution we see today, where merchants move and sell wine rather than the producers. 

In 1855, the Bordeaux Classification of 1855 categorized the estates of the Medoc, and Haut-Brion in Graves, into 5 groups; the wines of Sauternes into three groups. This classification stands the test of time. These classed growths stand as the finest representations of the region. Margaux, Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Mouton-Rothschild, and Haut-Brion reign supreme as First Growths

Grapes and medieval tower in vineyard in region Medoc, France

The designated red grape varieties in Bordeaux are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Carmenere.

Terroir Diversity

Two rivers traverse Bordeaux, the Garonne and the Dordogne. They merge to form the Gironde Estuary. This geographic marker divides Bordeaux into the Left Bank to the west, the Right Bank to the east, and Entre-Deux-Mers in the middle. A hefty 275,000 acres of vines cover Bordeaux.  A mere 3% of the wine production meets the super-premium category from this enormous amount of acreage. 

The proximity of the Atlantic ensures a cooler-than-expected climate with variable rainfall and a strong maritime influence. Like the rest of Europe, climate change increases the weather variability. In recent years this means hot dry vintages like 2003 and crop-decimating frost like 2017. The Gironde moderates these extremes, so those appellations that hug closest to it enjoy protection from extremes. 

  1. Medoc: Located on the left bank of the Gironde River, the Medoc region is famous for its gravelly soils, which are ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon. Wines from here deliver power, structure, and longevity. Iconic appellations are Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien, and Margaux.

  2. Graves: Situated just south of the city of Bordeaux, Graves is known for its gravelly and sandy soils, making it suitable for both red and white wine production. The region is home to famous producers like Château Haut-Brion and Château Pape Clement.

  3. Saint-Emilion: Located on the right bank of the Dordogne River, Saint-Emilion is celebrated for its limestone and clay soils. Merlot thrives here, producing wines with ripe fruit, soft tannins, and a lush mouthfeel. Saint-Emilion and Pomerol are the most renowned appellations in this area.

  4. Pomerol: Pomerol: This tiny but prestigious region is located on the right bank of the Dordogne River and is renowned for its Merlot-dominated wines. Château Petrus, one of the world’s most expensive wines, hails from Pomerol.

  5. Sauternes: Sauternes is famous for its sweet, botrytized dessert wines, thanks to the misty microclimate and Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle grapes. Château d’Yquem is a shining star in this appellation.

Grapes of Region

The Bordeaux Blend, red grapes all, make up over 90% of Bordeaux’s vine plantings. The region produces 90% red wine, 10% dry white wine, 4% rose, and 1% sweet white wine. 

  1. Merlot: Dominant on the right bank, Merlot provides wines with a softer, rounder character, featuring red and black fruit notes.

  2. Cabernet Sauvignon: The backbone of Bordeaux’s left-bank wines, particularly in the Medoc region. It brings structure, tannins, and deep, black fruit flavors.

  3. Cabernet Franc: Often used for blending, Cabernet Franc adds floral and herbal elements to Bordeaux wines, contributing to their complexity.

  4. Petit Verdot: A minority grape in Bordeaux blends, Petit Verdot is known for its deep color and spicy, dark fruit character.

  5. Malbec: Though originally from Bordeaux, Malbec is now more commonly associated with Argentina. It adds rich, dark fruit and earthy notes to Bordeaux blends.

  6. Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon: These white grape varieties are essential for Bordeaux’s dry and sweet white wines, contributing citrus and tropical fruit flavors, as well as acidity and body.

Bordeaux Classification Systems

Bordeaux boasts a unique classification system that dates back to the 1855 Exposition Universelle de Paris. At this event, the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce ranks the region’s top châteaux based on reputation and quality. The resulting Bordeaux Classification of 1855 divides the region’s top wines into five growths, or “crus.” The most prestigious and renowned of these are the First Growths: Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Margaux, Château Latour, Château Haut-Brion, and Château Mouton Rothschild.

Moreover, Bordeaux has several other classification systems, like Saint-Emilion’s controversial classification and the Graves classification. Both aim to distinguish the finest producers within their respective sub-regions. These classifications serve as guideposts for wine enthusiasts and collectors, providing insight into the historical significance and quality of Bordeaux’s wine estates.

Cork of a Bordeaux Wine

More than 7,000 chateaux produce a bit more than 800 million bottles of wine each year in Bordeaux.

Wine Business   

More than 7,000 chateaux produce a bit more than 800 million bottles of wine each year in Bordeaux. While the Bordeaux Classification systems help consumers navigate the vast market, it was the advent of the 100-point rating system attributed to Robert Parker that became the most valuable tool for selling wine in the US market and globally. Bordeaux’s unique commercial system, La Place de Bordeaux, acts as a throughway for producers to sell to negociant merchants who in turn sell it to retailers and wholesalers around the world. As a result, Bordeaux wines find their way to more than 170 countries globally. 

Bordeaux also uses an En Primeur system. This system handles the sale of classed growths and high-quality wines as futures or a contract where the wine is sold 12-18 months before it is bottled. While the system exists in other markets, Bordeaux keeps it famous. The hope is that one might purchase hard-to-find wines at a lower price than when the wines are physically released to the markets. As a result, the negociants and producers benefit from early cash in hand and the consumer gets, presumably, a deal. The process of En Primeur lasts for months as Bordeaux houses and negociants release and market the coming vintage. 

Last Sip

Bordeaux stands as the epitome of fine wine, with a rich history, diverse terroir, and a classification system that echoes the prestige and tradition of this remarkable region. Its red and white wines continue to captivate the palates of wine enthusiasts worldwide, offering an exploration of flavors, aromas, and sensations that are second to none.

Whether you’re a seasoned connoisseur or a wine lover embarking on your first Bordeaux adventure, there is always something new and exciting to discover in this timeless wine region. From the storied châteaux to the rolling vineyards, Bordeaux is a destination that beckons those seeking the finest wines and the most enchanting wine experiences. Cheers to Bordeaux, the timeless masterpiece of the wine world!

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