Reinforced by its imposing châteaux, the aristocratic Bordeaux holds court at the centre of France’s vinous universe. It is the largest AOC area in France. When combined with the peerless pedigree of the world famous reds, the quality whites of Graves and the seductive Sauternes, the 112,000ha of vineyard plantings and around 60 million cases produced annually make this region hard to ignore.
Bordeaux is divided into two general groupings of appellations: those on the left bank of the Gironde River and those on the right with the Dordogne running through them. Generally, the left bank is home to Cabernet-driven wines and the right bank to Merlot-dominant expressions. At the centre of trade is the négociant system; the châteaux sell their wines to négociants, who in turn offer them to their partners around the world, in what is for the most part an open trading market.
In 1855, the French created what became known as The Classified Growths of the Médoc, a five-tier classification of 61 of the leading Médoc châteaux along with two from Graves. These growths, or crus range from first (Premier) through to fifth (Cinquièmes). Over the years there has been little change, apart from events such as Château Mouton Rothschild moving from second growth to first in 1973 (Baron Philippe de Rothschild reportedly saying, ‘Mouton I am, Second I am not.’).
Saint-Émilion introduced its own classification system in 1955, which has sub-sequently been frequently revised. Pomerol has never been classified, although the greatest wine from this region, Château Pétrus, is generally spoken of in the same hushed tones as the five first growths of the Médoc, Lafite-Rothschild, Margaux, Latour, Haut-Brion and Mouton Rothschild. The inherent problem with a system introduced in 1855 is that some of the châteaux have improved out of sight, while others are considered to have rested on their laurels. It’s a reasonable and still relevant guide, as long as one keeps in mind that some of the wines out-side its boundaries can still be superb.
Sited on the left bank of the Gironde estuary, the greater Médoc region is divided into the southern zone of Haut-Médoc and the northern zone officially known as the Médoc. It is characterised by large deposits of mineral-rich silt and gravels. The Médoc region at large is home to illustrious appellations such as Saint Estèphe, Pauillac and Margaux, where you’ll find many of the top classified wines. There are no crus classés, or classified growths, in the general area designated as the Médoc, but its communes can produce exceptional crus bourgeois wines, a step below cru classé but, many would argue, with some overlap in quality.
Saint-Estèphe is the largest and northernmost of the great Médoc communes. It produces a lot of wine from a clutch of highly reputed cru bourgeois producers such as Château Phélan-Ségur. It is separated only by a gully and a stream from Lafite Rothschild, but the terroir is quite different. The soils are less gravelly and contain larger deposits of clay, limestone and sand than those of Pauillac, conditions that tend to produce lighter wines with greater portions of Merlot supporting the dominant Cabernet Sauvignon. Saint Estèphe boasts five classified growths – two seconds, a third, a fourth and a fifth – to accompany its excellent selection of first-rate cru bourgeois.
The most important commune of the Médoc, containing three of the five first growths and no fewer than fifteen other classified châteaux. It covers 23 square kilometres of undulating terrain that varies from site to site and accentuates the individuality of each vineyard. The wines of Pauillac are the archetype of Bordeaux and the taste of Cabernet Sauvignon, which is completely at home here. Dense, full bodied and tannic, austere when young, rich and distinguished when mature, they are the longest-lived of all the Bordeaux wines. The soils dictate the longevity with heavy gravel, thicker to the north than the south, that lies on a sub-soil of larger stones and iron-based sands.
Sandwiched between the famous appellations of Pauillac and Margaux, Saint-Julien is the smallest in the region, but boasts the highest concentration of AOC vineyards. It has no first growths, although there are years when some of its châteaux produce wines to rival them. The commune is dominated by its eleven classed growths, with five second growths, two thirds and four fourths. The Saint-Julien soil is mainly gravel, particularly near the river. The wines are similar to those of Pauillac, with high levels of Cabernet Sauvignon, though the Saint-Julien wines mature more quickly. The top estates can produce superb wines.
The southern two-thirds of the Médoc peninsula is known as Haut-Médoc. The appellation with the same name covers wines produced outside the six Haut-Médoc communes that have their own official designation: Margaux, Pauillac, Saint-Estèphe, Saint-Julien, Listrac and Moulis supply the majority of the wines produced here, while the generic title is used for vineyards lying outside these communes. Soils are diverse, leading to differing styles and quality levels. It is said that some lesser-known wines are rising in quality faster than their more famous namesakes.
The wines of the Margaux appellation are arguably the most sensual and seductive produced in the south-ern Médoc, with the appellation, at 1,413 hectares, the largest in the region. It boasts no fewer than 21 classed growths: one first – the impressive Château Margaux – five seconds, ten thirds, three fourths and two fifth growths. In an appellation of this size the soils vary a great deal; they often include high gravel levels and free-draining conditions that can extract subtle nuances from the Bordeaux varieties. Margaux produces wines that are softer, have less backbone and develop sooner than those from the appellations to the north.
Located on the right bank to the northwest of Saint-Émilion, Pomerol has never been classified. At around 800 hectares it is a tiny place, taking just minutes to drive past every famous Pomerol name. With the best vineyards planted on a seam of iron-rich clay soils, Merlot rules Pomerol, with Cabernet Franc lending a hand in blending. Cabernet Sauvignon vines are very rare. Despite the latter hardly being used, the best Pomerol wines can age as long as the finest first growths from the left bank.
Immediately to the north of Pomerol, Lalande-de-Pomerol is separated only by the small Barbanne stream and very much in the shadow of its prestigious neighbour. The appellation is much larger than its auspicious neighbour, the soils composed of clay, sand and some well-drained gravels, and Merlot dominates. Stylistically, the wines display the same opulence as Pomerol with a little less complexity and subtlety. They command significantly lower prices, making them exceptionally good value.
On the right bank of the river Dordogne lies the large commune of Saint-Émilion. Saint-Émilion was omitted from the 1855 Classification, so in 1954 it established its own classification system (ranked from Premier grand cru classé A, to Premier grand cru classé B, to Grand cru classé), which is revised every ten years. Châteaux have been both promoted and demoted during the revisions. Merlot and Cabernet Franc lead the grape varieties in terms of importance, with Cabernet Sauvignon playing a support role. Soil profiles in this large appellation are diverse, from a mix of gravel, sand and alluvial soils in some areas to gravel and limestone in the best areas.
If you’re feeling a little priced out of the market, there is more to Bordeaux than the rarefied world of premium producers. Some of the best value Bordeaux wines are crafted by the Petits (small) Châteaux. They offer serious, estate-grown and château-bottled wines crafted by quality conscious individuals. These producers work hard at upping the stakes, and many are delivering earlier drinking, riper styles that allow a user-friendly route into the complex world of Bordeaux wine appreciation. In the great years, the best of them offer excellent drinking and exceptional value.
The appellation was only created in 1987, changed from what had been known as Graves. Its most famous wine, Château Haut- Brion is a first growth and one of Bordeaux’ most noble wines. The wines are generally not as full bodied as the other Médocs, though made with more or less the same blends; however, they are similar in weight to those of Margaux. A blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, often oak matured, Pessac-Léognan’s long-lived white wines are considered among the best in the world.
Sauternes lies 65km to the south of Bordeaux city and is made up of different communes such as Barsac (which is its own appellation), Preignac, Bommes, Fargues and Sauternes itself. All wine produced here is white and much of it is sweet, influenced to varying degrees by botrytis cinerea. The varieties are Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and a little Muscadelle. Yields are tiny compared to further north, with one glass of wine per vine not uncommon, whereas one bottle per vine further north is more than common. The legendary first growth Château d’Yquem can live for well over a century.