With some of the most popular and famous wines in the world, French wines today are the world standard. And within that high standard, France’s Bordeaux has a tradition of viticulture to be reckoned with.
Bordeaux has been famous for its viticulture since Roman times. In addition, the region was popular because of its location along one of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela.
And why is the Bordeaux wine region so famous? In general, Bordeaux wines are known for their consistency in excellence as well as the fact that they age very well. The better the wine is as it ages, the more it will cost, making Bordeaux wines some of the most expensive in the world.
However, here is the confusing bit: a good bottle of Bordeaux wine will not be called a Bordeaux. In general, wines are sometimes named after the grape, not the region. But in Bordeaux, good wines will be named after their producer, not their grape.
For example, the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are actually grapes, after which quite a few different wines are named. This is why those wines can be produced in France, the United States, Australia, etc. and all called by the same name.
At its core, these grapes are native to Bordeaux and were exported from here, and so we follow the French tradition. Approximately 90% of Bordeaux wines are made using a Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grape blend, so that is what the wine will taste like, even if it doesn’t say it on the bottle.
All of the red wines of Bordeaux are aged in traditional barrels before bottling, and the Cabernet Sauvignon grape makes a tannic wine that ages very well.
Classifications: How to pick a bottle
First up, is the initials that are listed on a Bordeaux bottle of wine.
- AOC – Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée
- AOP – Appellation d’Origine Protégée
- Vin de Pays – Wine of France
- Vin de table – Table wine
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Beyond the appellations, Bordeaux wines follow a strict hierarchical quality classification based on location, grapes, soil, climate, and more. There are 38 different appellations for wines based on their location within the Bordeaux region. In order of importance, the hierarchy is as follows:
- Grand Cru Classé (or Premiers Crus) – First Growth
- Deuxième cru classé to Cinquème cru classé – 2nd to 5th growth
- Sub-region AOCs:
- Médoc for red wines from Médoc
- Haut-Médoc for the higher southern part
- Graves for red and white wines from the area south of Garonne and Bordeaux
- Entre-Deux-Mers for dry white wines
- Côtes de Bordeaux located predominantly on the right bank of the Dordogne
- Bordeaux Superior
Beyond the classification of Cru versus Superior, the wines also have an appellation indicating the village or subregion they come from, along with the initials AOC/AOP. You can find out more about reading French wine labels here.
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The Bordeaux Grape Blends
Bordeaux wines are made from a grape blend. The grapes used in the Bordeaux red wines are, for the most part, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, and malbec.
The usual top-quality Châteaux red wine blends are 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc and 15% Merlot, which is referred to as the “Bordeaux blend“.
The white wines use mostly sémillon grapes and sauvignon blanc grapes. The dry white wine blend is referred to as Bordeaux blanc.
Wine history & exclusivity
Dating back to the 12th century, Bordeaux wines always had that whiff of royalty. When Eleanor of Aquitaine (the name of the area around Bordeaux) first married the King of France, and then divorced and married the King of England, she brought her wines and food with her to the royal courts. And bordeaux wines have remained popular ever since.
In addition, the luxurious fairy-tale châteaux, which dot the Bordeaux left and right banks, today are all luxury wine houses. This combined with the wine itself having the ability to age well, gives an aura of exclusivity and opulence that makes Bordeaux wines quite sought after and expensive.
The difference between Left Bank and Right Bank wines
The Bordeaux wine region has 2 rivers running through it, the Garonne and the Dordogne and breaks down into 3 regions:
- Left bank: the area on the left bank of the Garonne river.
- Entre-deux-mers: the area in the middle of the 2 rivers.
- Right bank: the area on the right bank of the Dordogne river.
Left Bank bordeaux red wines are majority cabernet sauvignon grapes with a blend of merlot added to it.
Right Bank bordeaux reds, on the other hand, are usually lead by the merlot grape, and blended with a small portion of cabernet savignon.
The Entre-Deux-Mers (translates to “between two seas”) appellation is usually white wine, using sémillon grapes and sauvignon blanc grapes.
Are Bordeaux wines high in tannins?
The soil which is more gravelly on the Left Bank, making wines with a cabernet savignon grape that has more tannins. It is why Left Bank Bordeaux can be tough to drink when very young, but gain substantially in depth as they age and the tannins smooth out.
Right Bank Bordeaux are generally smoother and can be imbibed right away with the sweet fruit tones of the merlot balancing out the tannins. Although they can be drunk earlier, they do also age well.
What do the wines taste like?
Red wines from Bordeaux are quite bold in flavor and range from medium-bodied to full-bodied. They have a lot of black currant, plums, and berry notes, along with a rather earthy undertone due to the soil they are grown in.
White wines like Sauternes are relatively sweet, while dry Bordeaux blancs are light & fruity without a lot of acidity.
What dishes pair well with Bordeaux wines?
The white wines are go well with dishes like seafood and marinated pork or chicken, etc. See further ideas below on pairing ideas for each type of burgundy wine.
Appellations & Famous Wines
1. Cabernet Sauvignon
As I mentioned before, the Cabernet Sauvignon is a grape, and makes some of the most popular wines across the world. It is not possible to judge the quality of the wine just from the name “Cabernet Sauvignon”, you must check the label for the appellations noted above, and the name of the estate/domaine. It could be a table wine or a high-end AOC.
In general, the Cabernet Sauvignon is known for its fruity tones (cherry, currant, blackberry).
Pairing: It is usually paired with red meats or cheese and dishes like the raclette.
Buy a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon here.
One of the most popular wines in the world, the merlot grape is very much at home in Bordeaux. Interestingly, the Merlot is not recognized as an AOC in France by itself. The grape is used in many other wines, including Pomerol and Saint Emilion wines (see below).
Bordeaux Merlot wines are sold under the appellation “Vin de France”. And with tones of ripe red and blackberries and cheaper price point, it is easy to see why Merlot wines are so sought after.
Pairing: It pairs easily with everything from pizzas to elaborate meat dishes.
The category of Médoc is a bit special, because it grows some of the finest wines in the world. A Médoc Grand Cru is one of the most prestigious of Bordeaux wines in France and beyond, with prices to match.
This sub-region is so important in winemaking terms, there are several AOCs within the Médoc category, broken down by village:
- Saint Estèphe
- Haut Médoc
Some of these wines like the Pauillac and Margaux are so prestigious, they need their own category (see below). Unless the wines are part of one of village categories above, they are usually marketed under the Médoc AOC.
Médoc wines in general have a fruity and lightly oak aroma with a lot of tannins.
(P.S. if you have ever thought about doing a marathon, try the Marathon de Médoc. It is a race where you drink wine as you run!)
Pairing: They tend to pairs very well with a lot of dishes, but a particular favorite is lamb roast.
Buy a bottle of Médoc here.
Within Haut-Médoc in Bordeaux, is the village of Margaux. It contains 21 Cru Classé, more than any other commune in Bordeaux. They tend to be quite fruity with red berries, and age very well, which is also why they are so well sought after. A vintage Margaux Grand Cru classé can keep for more than 50 years. One of most famous Grand crus from this area is the Château Margaux.
Pairing: The Margaux is said to go particularly well with duck, lamb and steak.
Buy a bottle of Margaux here.
Another quintessential Bordeaux wine from Médoc, is the Pauillac. There are 18 Cru Classé from the village of Pauillac, including several Grand Cru classé.
Some of the most famous Grand Crus are:
The Pauillac is a heavy complex wine, whose flavors soften as it ages. It has tones of red fruits (blackcurrant, blackberry, plum), as well as vanilla and a peppery taste. The older the vintage, the softer the nuances, so a Pauillac Cru is usually held for years, if not decades before it is opened.
Pairing: The wine goes particularly well with red meats.
Buy a bottle from Paulliac here.
Another famous Bordelaise appellation is the Pomerol AOC, from the town of Pomerol. The grapes used in the Pomerol tend to be the Merlot grapes. Pomerol is the smallest of the major fine wine regions in Bordeaux, covering an area that is roughly 3km x 4km (1.8miles x 2.5miles). The area has one Premier cru called the Château Pétrus.
The Pomerol AOC tends to be softer than the Médoc wines, with less tannins and a richer plum flavor. Because of this, it requires less aging, with most vintages only kept for 5-12 years.
Buy a bottle of Pomerol here.
7. Saint Emilion
The Saint Emilion Grand Cru is an AOC of great distinction. But there are white and rosé wines which will also be called Saint Emilion (without the AOC attached).
The wines of Saint-Émilion are typically blended from different grape varieties, the Merlot (60% of the blend), Cabernet Franc (nearly 30%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (around 10%). This fruity red wine has discreet notes of vanilla and spices.
Pairing: It pairs well with all sorts of dishes, but especially lamb and beef.
Buy a Bordeaux Saint Emilion here.
8. Savignon Blanc
Similar to the Cabernet Sauvignon, the Sauvignon Blanc is also a grape that is widely used in white wines. Again, you will have to look for one of the other appellations such as the name of the village, etc. to judge the quality of the wine.
The Bordeaux Sauvignon Blanc AOC is known for tones of green apple, citrus, peaches and pears.
Pairing: It is usually paired with lighter dishes like salads or starters like the coquilles st. jacques.
Buy a Bordeaux dry white here.
Type: Red or White
Graves is often said to have the oldest vineyards in Bordeaux, as part of the historic Duchy of Aquitaine. Records show that the area started exporting wine to London as early as the 12 century, under Eleanor of Aquitaine.
The subregion of Graves is the only one in the Bordelaise area that can produce Graves AOC red and white wines. The soil here is of poor quality and gravelly, hence the name.
Pairing: A red Graves wine goes well with duck and lamb, while a Graves white marries well with fish like trout and sole.
Buy a Bordeaux Graves here.
Type: Sweet Wine
Located on the Left bank of the Garonne river, is the area of Sauternes which specializes in sweet wines. It is made from overripe sémillon grapes to give it that saccharine flavor.
Buy a Bordeaux Sauternes here.
11. Les Cordeliers
Type: White or Rosé Sparkling wine
Bordeaux doesn’t have many sparkling wines (sold under the appellation Cremant de Bordeaux AOC), but it does have Les Cordeliers. The tradition dates back to 1892, with Les Cordeliers sparkling wines being produced deep in the heart of Saint Emilion.
Pairing: A light bubbly, try Les Cordeliers with seafood such as shrimp or gambas prawns.
Prices and best wines
Bordeaux wines can be some of the most expensive in the world. The grand cru classé red wines, as you can imagine, are the top of the top in France and around the world and an aged Bordeaux can go for several tens of thousands of dollars.
Being able to hold on to a wine that gets better with age demands a premium, which is why a good vintage increases the price. The most expensive Bordeaux wines can cost anywhere from a few thousand euros to 6-7 € figures.
The Left Bank has more luxury wine houses but the Right bank, however, includes some of the most expensive wines in the world like Châteaux Petrus and Cheval Blanc.
Some of the Bordeaux Grand Crus and the most famous French wines in the world (on the Left bank) are:
|Bordeaux Wine Name||Appellation||Starting price|
|Château Lafite Rothschild||Pauillac||€1000+|
|Château Mouton Rothschild||Pauillac||€700+|
But never fear, there are plenty of great Bordeaux wines that are more reasonably priced, even some of those with the distinction “crus” and “grand crus” ranging from €50 on up.
Should you chill your bottle?
Yes, the white wines from Bordeaux can be served chilled. The red wines are not usually cooled, but they are served at slightly below room temperature, as wine caves are usually underground in a luxury chateau(!).
As an alternative, you can cool the bottle lightly in an ice bucket (avoid the fridge).
What cheeses pair well with it?
These wines pair easily will several types of cheeses, especially soft cheeses like the camembert. A sweet Bordeaux Sauternes also makes a lovely combination with a blue cheese like roquefort. You can read more about French wine and cheese pairings here.
Médoc wine tour and Route des Châteaux
With Bordeaux being one of the biggest wine regions in France, the wine route here is one of the most visited attractions in the south west of France.
It comprises of five different wine trails around the city of Bordeaux, with the most popular one being the Médoc wine tour. Its unofficial name is the “Route des chateaux”, because these days the châteaux have mostly been converted into luxury wine houses with sprawling vineyards that are open to visitors.
So are you ready to splash out on a good Pauillac? Or will you stick to other Bordeaux crus? If you enjoyed that article, you may want to read more about wine and cheese pairings here.
As always, as the French Government advises, “the abuse of alcohol is dangerous for your health. Consume with moderation.” A bientôt!