The Wines of Bordeaux
Producing many of the world’s finest wines with exceptional age-ability the wines of Bordeaux (located on the central Western coast of France) are found on all the top wine lists around the world. Unlike wines from the USA and most of the New World, the wines of Bordeaux are blends, instead of just a single varietal wine. Due to their success, you can find many “Bordeaux style blends” from other wine growing regions throughout the world.
The wines of Bordeaux are known to age well and taste exceptional over 20 years after their vintage date, however most are drunk 10-15 years in. There are many a great Bordeaux out there that don’t cost an arm and a leg, but taste great at a younger age. After all, the region does produce around 25% of the wine that comes from France.
Bordeaux Appellation and it’s Terroir
The Bordeaux wine appellation covers both banks of the Gironde estuary, with the Left Bank and the Right Bank of this estuary being the most well-known regions, and the Left Bank being where the region’s most famous wines come from. The Bordeaux appellation also covers the areas around the town of Bordeaux itself including the rivers which feed into the Gironde Estuary.
The area is crisscrossed by many streams and the small, rolling hills of the region meaning that the vines never sit more than a few meters above sea level. This topography provides growers with a variety of aspects on which to grow their grapes.
The climate of Bordeaux, because of its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, is a warm, maritime climate, warmed by the Gulf Stream. The wide Gironde estuary helps to pull this climatic influence further inland, thus extending this influence and allowing for the growth of more top-quality wine grapes.
It is the soils of this region which have had the most influence on the wines to come out of it, with the Left Bank having gravely, well-draining soils, perfect for growing Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Right Bank which has clay, slit, sand and limestone soils, with excellent water retention; perfect for growing Merlot.
By far the most famous wines to come from Bordeaux are their red blends and it is important to know which grapes go into the blend and what they contribute to the final wine. There are six red grapes grown in Bordeaux and the most prominent are as follows:
- Cabernet Sauvignon – The only noble grape in the Bordeaux region, constituting the highest percentage in Bordeaux’s grandest wines. It produces strong, powerful wines, with high age-ability, deep colors, high tannins and flavors of black fruits, especially blackberry. This wine dominates Left Bank wines; the region where Bordeaux’s best blends call home.
- Merlot – By far the most planted grape in the region Merlot contributing plushness, texture, high alcohol and flavors of ripe blue and red fruits like plums and cherries to the wines. This grape has a moderate level of tannins.
- Cabernet Franc – This grape, actually one of the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon, has a high level of acidity (helping balance the blends) and flavors of black and red berries and plums, with a low to moderate level of tannins.
These grapes make up most of the red Bordeaux however Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenére are also permitted and are usually found in the less reputable blends. High tannins and high acidity are necessary for a wine that is going to age as long as Bordeaux does, and these three main varieties of grape provide all these things. The other grapes are used to add nuances of other flavors, such as earthy notes and fragrances.
There are two different styles of red blend that stand out in Bordeaux and these are the blends of the left bank and the right bank. Left bank blends are Cabernet Sauvignon dominant whilst those of the right bank are Merlot dominant.
The white blends of Bordeaux, whilst not nearly as re-known as the reds are still excellent wines. These are mainly sourced from the Graves region on the left bank as well as the Entre-Deux-Mers region. There are seven permitted white varietals in White Bordeaux blends however two varietals dominate.
- Sauvignon Blanc – The dominant grape in white Bordeaux blends, Sauvignon Blanc has a high acid content -helping with age-ability- and adds grassy flavors.
- Sémillon – This grape adds texture and weight to the blends that Sauvignon Blanc lacks.
Muscadelle is the third most popular grape in the region and it adds floral aromas and other aromatics to the wine. White Bordeaux ages exceptionally and is one of the only whites in the world able to do so, aging as well as its red sibling, still evolving 15-20 years after being bottled.
There is a small part of Bordeaux called Sauternais which produces one of the world’s best dessert wines. This rich, honeyed, slightly nutty dessert wine is decadent to behold. Aged in new oak this wine (also with exceptional age-ability after bottling) is made predominantly from Sémillon grapes often with a bit of Sauvignon Blanc or Muscadelle thrown in there too. The grapes to make this wine are affected by noble rot, which literally rots the grapes on the vine, raisining them, extracting all the water and concentrating the sugars inside; allowing the wine makers to produce an exceptionally sweet wine.
Certainly there is so much more to know about Bordeaux and her regions than I’m able to write here, however the important things are the three main styles of wine that come from the region: red and white blends with a high age-ability whose flavors and aromas transform over their time spent in the bottle, along with one of the world’s greatest dessert wines.
Lastly, there is a ton of history surrounding the region, including the immutable classification of 1855, where the top red Bordeaux were classified by price and these are still the most sought-after Chateaus today. So much of Bordeaux’s great wine is about the evolution of flavor and what we can appreciate from wines that have spent 20 long years quietly evolving in the bottle. But, as aforementioned, Bordeaux need not be bought for thousands a bottle when it is really old. Look on the shelves in the store and at wine lists in restaurants you go to. There’s a high chance you’ll see some very tasty, reasonable priced Bordeaux or, as the Brits like to call it, Claret.