When people think of the wine world and ask where the best wines come from, they will no doubt receive many answers. Since there are many different tastes, a variety of answers is proper. Certainly Bordeaux would receive numerous mentions. Bordeaux, as a region, not only produces some of the greatest wines in the world, it also produces a large portion of wine in the world. It was one of the first regions to produce wine on a commercial scale and the techniques that its vignerons and winemakers have developed have been very influential to growers and vintners around the world.
Bordeaux has within its boundaries 54 different appellations. An appellation is a sub-region that has a consistency of climate and soil contained in it, separating it from the other appellations, giving the wines grown within a regional signature. These 54 appellations are home to 8,500 different wineries that in an average year collectively produce over 700 million bottles of wine. Though white grapes are grown in the region, Bordeaux is predominately a red wine region with red grapes accounting for nearly 90% of plantings.
Bordeaux is an important wine region and has become one of the reference points across the world for excellence in wine. Though it is large and diverse, it can be broken down in such a way that it is relatively easy to understand.
Perhaps the easiest way to get a handle on Bordeaux is to start with its geography. Bordeaux covers roughly 120,000 hectares of contiguous land in the southwest of France, near the Atlantic Ocean. One of the key facets of its geography is the rivers that run through it that dissect the region into its various principal sub-regions. The Dordogne and Garonne Rivers flow north to meet and form an estuary called the Gironde River. The opposing banks of the Gironde River form the two most important and most talked about sub-regions of Bordeaux: the Right Bank and the Left Bank. The triangular section of land formed between the two rivers before they meet is called Entre Deux Mers. Plenty of wine is made in Entre Deux Mers; some of it very good, and most of it quite affordable. However, it is in one sense less important than the Left and Right Banks as it has not made a similar contribution to the overall reputation for quality that Bordeaux now has. We visited Bordeaux with Iberian Wine Tours recently and found plenty of contrast between the two Banks. We discovered each to be a unique region with plenty of differences and healthy sense of rivalry!
The Left Bank
Looking at a map of Bordeaux one sees the Gironde estuary running in a north/south direction and gradually getting wider as it moves north. Its west side is the Left Bank. The land, as it moves away from the river, gains only a little height. The highest point on the Left Bank is only 40 metres above sea level. In fact, the whole region was a swamp a few centuries ago, until Dutch agriculturists decided it could be converted to arable land if it was drained. The soil there is largely calcareous: loose, limestone-based gravel deposits. These soils are excellent for vine growing as they provide good drainage and the limestone provides just enough nutrients for a healthy plant but still causes the plant to struggle which produces smaller, more concentrated berries. The south of France provides warm dry summers, usually void of excessive heat spikes. It is a humid area and growers need to be careful that fungus and mildew do not form on the vines in these conditions.
The Left Bank, like the Right Blank, grows five primary grape varieties, often referred to as the “Bordeaux Varieties”: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. On the Left Bank, Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the plantings of most of the vineyards. It is the most important grape, grows well and can fully ripen on the heat-retaining gravel soils of the Left Bank. Most Chateaux will blend Cabernet Sauvignon with the other 4 varieties, but Cabernet Sauvignon is often 50% or more of the blend.
The Left Bank has three primary sub-regions within its boundaries: The Médoc, Haut Médoc and Graves. The Haut Médoc sits the furthest to the west and the greatest distance from the Gironde River. In Bordeaux it is a generally accepted axiom that estates closest to the river offer the greatest quality. The wines of Haut Médoc reflect this axiom and while not of the same quality level as the Médoc and Graves, they can still produce some very good wines at affordable prices. But it is the Médoc and Graves that are the homes to the greatest quality wines of the Left Bank, and are largely responsible for Bordeaux being not just a household word, but a region that is held in as high regard by the cognoscenti as any wine region.
The Médoc sits in the northern part of the Left Bank, along the shores of the Gironde. There are four appellations in the Médoc that produce some of the finest and most expensive wines in the world. Moving from north to south those appellations are Ste. Estephe, Paulliac, St. Julien, and Margaux. Just to the south of the Médoc is the appellation of Graves. These five appellations are the most important as they are the ones at the pinnacle of quality and have become the standard bearers from which the reputation of Bordeaux was made. In 1855 the best estates within the Médoc were classified and labeled from “First Growth”, signifying the peak of the quality pyramid to “Fifth Growth”. The top 61 estates were admitted into the classification. All but one were from the Médoc and one from Graves was admitted: Chateau Haut Brion. Originally just four estates were classified as First Growths: Chateau Lafite Rothschild and Chateaux Latour from Paulliac, Chateau Margaux from Margaux, and Chateau Haut Brion from Graves.
Baron Phillipe de Rothschild of Chateau Mouton Rothschild always believed the wine from his estate was on par with the other First Growths and spent years lobbying the regulators who set this order to move his estate up to First Growth. His efforts finally paid off and in 1974 Chateau Mouton Rothschild was elevated from Second Growth to First Growth. It was the only change ever made to the initial classification in the 163 years the classification has been in existence. Each of the 61 classified growths are excellent wines and generally speaking the classifications do represent relative quality. But that does not mean that in every vintage a First Growth is better than a Second Growth and so on down the line. Though the First Growths justifiably enjoy a status that is exalted, there are some vintages when some of the Second Growths are at a similar quality level. Estates such as Montrose, Cos D’Estournal, Leoville Las Cases and a few others, sometimes referred to as “Super Seconds” will be at the same qualitative level as the Firsts. Further down the pecking order estates such as Lynch Bages or Talbot (each a Fifth Growth) can punch well above their weight class. Another notable exception is Graves where just Haut Brion was considered for classification. Estates such as La Mission Haut Brion, Chateau Pape Clément, and Smith Haut Lafite within Graves, are generally considered to be at the quality level of a classified growth with La Mission frequently getting reviews on par with the First growths. While Graves does have its own classification system (created in 1953 and revised in 1956) that classification has much less currency than the Classification of 1855. Exceptions noted, the classification system remains largely valid and is an important marker of the quality hierarchy of the top wines of the Left Bank, and is frequently referred to in wine shops and restaurants where quality wine is sold.
The Right Bank
Facing the Left Bank and across the Gironde on its east side is the Right Bank. The Right Bank is at roughly the same latitude as the Left Bank and enjoys a similar climate. The primary differentiator between the two is the soil. The Right Bank has a greater concentration of clay in its soil than the Left Bank. The clay will tend to hold a bit more moisture than the gravelly soils of the Left Bank but importantly, the clay soils will also be cooler. The lower temperature of these soils means that thicker skinned grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, will struggle to fully ripen. These clay soils will allow varieties with slightly thinner skins, especially Merlot and Cabernet Franc, to fully ripen. As a result Merlot is the dominant grape variety of the Right Bank, accounting for over 70% of plantings. The other Bordeaux varieties are also planted on the Right Bank, with Cabernet Franc being the second most planted, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petite Verdot and Carmenere.
The two principal appellations of the Right Bank are St. Emilion and Pomerol. Surrounding these two are several other appellations (often referred to as “satellite appellations”) but they have less stature and therefore less importance within the region than St. Emilion and Pomerol. St. Emilion does have a classification system, though it does not have the same level of recognition and therefore use as the 1855 Classification of the Médoc and Graves. Pomerol has no classification system at all.
As mentioned above, proximity to the river is an important indicator of quality. On the Right Bank a hill that rises from the river where St. Emilion and Pomerol share a border might be the equivalent. Near the top of that hill you will find the best estates of the Right Bank. On the St. Emilion side there is Cheval Blanc, Ausone and Angelus. On the Pomerol side you will find Petrus, Lafleur and Trotanoy. Proximity to these estates is highly prized within this region.
The wines of the Right Bank and the Left Bank have different characteristics. On the Left Bank the dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon tends to be the largest influence on style. Flavours tend towards black fruits: black currant and black cherry. Complexity comes from subtle notes of cedar and pencil shavings. The texture can be tannic and austere in youth but after a decade of bottle age this rounds out. The top growths can last for several decades. The Merlot dominant wines of the Right Bank show more red and blue fruit flavours such as plum and red cherry. Textures are softer, rounder and more plush. Complexity often comes in the form of subtle notes of mocha, coffee and minerals (some claim they can detect the high iron content of the soil in the wine). Generally more approachable in their youth than the wines of the Left Bank, the best can also last for decades. The best of the Right bank are made in limited amounts and can command astonishingly high prices. Petrus, Le Pin, Cheval Blanc and Lafleur regularly sell for as much or more than any First Growth, with Petrus and Le Pin in some vintages fetching more than double the price of a First Growth. In Canada a First Growth will cost you over $1,000 for a single bottle. Such is the quality and the collectability of the top wines that have made the region’s reputation.
The White Wines of Bordeaux
Though white grapes account for only 10% of plantings in Bordeaux they are important as they generally are of very high quality and especially their sweet wines have contributed much to the reputation for quality in Bordeaux. Two white grapes make up the majority of the plantings of Bordeaux: Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. Sauvignon Blanc most blends. It gives grassy and citrus flavours to the wine. Semillon adds texture and rounds out the wine reducing the higher acid profile that Sauvignon on its own can have. Top examples of white Bordeaux are often found in Graves with the miniscule quantities of Haut Brion Blanc being particularly sought after. Chateau Margaux also does a white that is also highly prized.
South of Graves, within the Bordeaux region are two appellations known for producing some of the world’s best sweet wines. These are the appellations of Sauternes and Barsac and here the Semillon is the dominant planting. The small river running through the regions contributes morning fog and keeps the air moist and slightly cool. Under these damp conditions grapes can develop rot as they grow and ripen. Ordinarily this would not be a good thing, unless the rot is a specific type. Botrytis cinerea is a form of rot that attacks the grapes near maturity and desiccates them. As they dry out they shrivel and produce less juice. This produces wines of much greater concentration. The grapes are left on the vines and harvested later when the sugars have reached higher levels. The grapes are then brought into the winery and fermented. However to make the wine sweet, the fermentation is stopped (usually by reducing temperature) before all of the sugars have been converted into alcohol. The result is a lower alcohol wine that has a certain amount of residual sugar.
The sweetness of the residual sugar combined with the concentration of the desiccated grapes creates a wine that can be a heavenly exlixir in the hands of the top producers. The wine will be viscous and smooth with notes of honey, dried fruits (peaches, apricots, mangoes) and exotic spices. It can also be a wine capable of lasting for 2 or 3 decades. Chateau d’Yquem stands at the top of the quality pyramid. Other top estates worth seeking out are Suduiraut (d’Yquem’s next door neighbour), Giraud, Doisey Dene, Clemens, and Chateau Barsac.
Bordeaux is a fascinating region to visit. It is large and diverse and steeped in history. It offers wines at all different price levels. It also offers some incredible French cuisine. We tasted at some of the top wineries in the region and they will become the subject of future articles. Stay tuned!