Bordeaux, Bordeaux, Bordeaux. Even if you know nothing at all about wine, the chances are you’ll have heard of Bordeaux. What’s the big deal and why it is the world’s most famous wine region?

Reason 1: Location, Location, Location

The region of Bordeaux is located on the west coast of France and it experiences a maritime climate with warm summers and mild winters. When the Romans set up camp here in around 60 BC, they discovered it was the ideal place to cultivate vines, due to the soils and the benefits of being next to the sea, whilst still being protected from the powerful ocean winds by the sand dunes and forest on the coast. Another favourable influence on the climate was the Gulf Stream and the two rivers, the Dordogne and the Garonne, which helped to create a humid area that rarely experienced spring frosts. Of course, the rivers had another plus point as well – the wine that was made here could be easily transported to the rest of the world. Which leads me onto Reason 2…

Reason 2: Reputation, Reputation, Reputation 

In 1152, Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry Plantagenet (who became King Henry II) and Bordeaux was served at the royal wedding (and we all know what happens at a royal wedding – everyone wants what the royals are having). Their son, Richard the Lionheart, made Bordeaux his everyday beverage and a while after that, King Edward I would get Saint-Émilion imported soley for his own pleasure. It also helped that Bordeaux was owned by England for 300 years, which only strengthened the royal connection to the wine, and the King of France said negociants (wine merchants) didn’t have to pay taxes, which helped the wine trade to flourish.

Image: Shutterstock

Left Bank, Right Bank, what?

You might hear wine buffs waxing lyrical about Left Bank Bordeaux or Right Bank Bordeaux. What are they quaffing on about? OK, so the Dordogne and the Garonne rivers combine to form the Gironde Estuary and divide the Bordeaux vineyards into three broad areas: The Left Bank, the Right Bank and the area between the Dordogne and the Garonne which is mostly covered by the Entre-Deux-Mers appellation. 

On the Left Bank (west and south of the Gironde/Garonne) lie the principal districts of Medoc, Graves and Sauternes. On the Right Bank (to the north east of the Gironde and Dordogne) the principal districts are Saint-Émilion and Pomerol.

Appellations of the Left Bank and associated grape varieties (north to south)

Medoc. (Bas-Medoc) – Clay soils, but some gravel, Merlot

Saint-Estephe – Cabernet Sauvignon 

Pauillac – Cabernet Sauvignon 

Haut-Medoc – Cabernet Sauvignon 

Saint-Julien – Cabernet Sauvignon 

Margaux – Cabernet Sauvignon 

Pessac-Leognan – Gravely soils, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc  

Graves – Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc 

Barsac – Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Muscadelle 

Sauternes – Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Muscadelle 

Appellations of the Right Bank and associated grape varieties (north to south)

Blaye Cotes de Bordeaux – Merlot 

Pomerol – Rich, spicy, blackberry fruit Merlot

Saint-Émilion – Gravel and limestone soils, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, occasionally some Cabernet Sauvignon 

Francs Cotes de Bordeaux – Merlot

Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux – Merlot

Middle area

Entre-Deux-Mers – Only white wine, Sauvignon Blanc 

Cadillac Cotes de Bordeaux – Merlot


Bordeaux Red Wines

Bordeaux is a region that doesn’t experience much of a difference in temperature throughout the year and the benefit of this are long summers in which the grapes have a longer ripening period. On the Left Bank, the Landes forest and sand dunes protect vines from winds and rains. Downy mildew is one of the bigger pests here, for which they treat with a copper based spray. There isn’t much organic and biodynamic wine and the flat terroir means they can machine harvest in many of the sites.

The principal black grape varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Petit Verdot is another black grape variety. Cabernet Sauvignon shows flavours of black fruits, blackcurrant leaf and bell pepper with high tannins and high acidity. Merlot is all about the red fruits, soft tannins and medium acidity. It grows easily and ripens faster that Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet Franc is riper here in Bordeaux and less green. Petit Verdot struggles to ripen, but it is used in the warmer years in about 2-4% of the blend as an enhancer, as it brings spice, colour and violets.

The Left Bank of Bordeaux has dark, gravelly soils and there is more Cabernet Sauvignon grown here because it is generally warmer, though Merlot is the most widely planned grape in Bordeaux. Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the Haut-Medoc, the Bas-Medoc and the Graves. The Right Bank of Bordeaux grows Merlot and Cabernet Franc and these grapes are particularly important in the premium wines of Saint-Émilion. Merlot can grow successfully in this area on the cooler clay soils.  

Bordeaux White Wines

The key white grape varieties in Bordeaux are Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle (which isn’t used so much but brings a delicate grapiness). Bordeaux is all about the blending – Semillon attracts noble rot, whereas Sauvignon Blanc adds acidity, so these work well together. There is both machine harvesting as well as hard harvesting in this region.

Dry styles of white Bordeaux use Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc and they can be both simple and fruity or premium and oaked. Key appellations are Pessac-Leognan, Graves and Entre-Deux-Mews, which produces fresh, fruity whites.

Bordeaux and the labelling laws

How much time have you got?

The Bordeaux labelling system concerns two area categories: the large generic appellation of Bordeaux (Bordeaux AC) and smaller appellations in Bordeaux. The wines from the large generic appellation are either labelled Bordeaux or Bordeaux Superiere. These can be from anywhere in the region and will be inexpensive, easy-drinking wines (usually Merlot). The smaller appellations have individual classification systems and four main ones are: Medoc; Sauternes; Graves and Saint-Émilion.

Medoc is an area north of Bordeaux on the Left Bank of the Gironde. There are two large appellations here, Haut-Medoc and Medoc, plus smaller appellations known as communes, which are: Saint-Estephe, Pauillac, Saint-Juliet and Margaux – these are all red wines. There are no smaller appellations used to distinguish the quality levels in these red wines and so within the Medoc there are two classification systems which are independent of the appellation system: 1855 Classification and Cru Bourgeois. 

The 1855 Classification ranked wines by five quality levels: Premier Crus; Deuxieme Crus; Troisieme Crus; Quatrieme Crus and Cinquieme Crus. This ranking system is known as Cru Classe and it is outside of the appellation laws. If wines are ranked in the system, they don’t need to state what level they are in the system – they might simply state Grand Cru Classe. On the label, the appellation (e.g. Margaux) applies to the grapes and the classification (e.g. Grand Cru Classe) applies to the chateau. 

Wines labelled Cru Bourgeois are wines that were not included in the 1855 Classification and chateaus can apply for this status for their individual wines (the wines themselves are awarded this status, rather than the chateau). Every year a producer must submit a wine for this and might not be awarded, therefore there are wines that do not belong to either the 1855 Classification or Cru Bourgeois.

Sauternes is an appellation that lies on the Left Bank of the River Garonne and it makes sweet white wines. The wines are ranked by the 1855 Classification into three different levels: Premier Cru Superiere; Premier Crus and Deuxieme Crus. Cru Classe will appear on all labels.

The Graves appellation is located south of the city of Bordeaux on the Left Bank of the Garonne. There is only one sub-appellation for dry wines in Graves, Pessac-Leognan. Within Graves, there is a separate Cru Classe system, which does not have quality levels, but there are separate lists for red wine and white wine. It could be that the chateau has the Cru Classe classification for one and not the other. 

Saint-Émilion is east of Bordeaux on the Right Bank of the River Dordogne. The classification system is incorporated into the appellation system. There is Saint-Émilion, then Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classe, then Saint-Émilion Premier Grand Cru Classe. Because these classifications are part of the appellation, they appear on the label in full.

So, there you have it – an intreaux to Bordeaux! Of course, I’ve barely scratched the surface, but hopefully this will help you can talk about Bordeaux with confidence and have an idea of what you’re swilling about in your huge balloon glass.

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