A Guide To The Wines Of Bordeaux
By Angela Mount
Whilst Bordeaux is classified as a single region, in the broadest sense of the appellation, it is an area of great contrasts, both in terms of landscape, microclimates, and especially wine styles.
Dominated by the two main rivers, the Gironde and the Garonne, which naturally divide the region, Bordeaux has numerous sub-regions, each of which produces wines of unique character, style and individuality. In very broad terms, the region is divided into Right Bank, Left Bank, and ‘in-between’, the latter definition being applied to the area which lies between the two rivers and is aptly named ‘Entre-deux-mers’ (between two rivers).
Soil types vary, as does the dominance of any of the permitted Bordeaux grape varieties. The region is governed by very strict appellation laws, and thus, adherence to these is fundamental; however the Bordeaux producers, over many centuries have learnt which grapes grow best in each sub-region. In the Medoc region, the mighty Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the majority of the blends: over on the Right Bank, the fleshy, earlier ripening merlot is king. Whilst the cooler area between the two rivers produces some of the best Sauvignon blancs and Semillon blends.
The 1855 Bordeaux classification set up very strict regulations, in terms of how individual wines could be labelled, what they were made from, and where they were produced.
Bordeaux Rouge, Blanc, Rose
This is the broadest of the classifications and covers red, white and rose wines, which must be produced from the accepted range of grape varieties for Bordeaux, but which can be produced and blended, from any part of the overall Bordeaux designation. These wines are usually best for early drinking, often sound, fresh, young, fruity examples, with simple, yet characteristic traits.
Unlike some other regions, for example Chianti, this appellation is not linked to a smaller region within Bordeaux, but to the laws which govern its production. Bordeaux Superieur can be produced across the entire Bordeaux region. However, it is differentiated from generic Bordeaux by a number of factors – the wines need to have a slightly higher minimum alcohol level; the yields per hectare of grapes have to be lower, thus ensuring higher quality fruit; the grapes generally come from older vines; and the red wines have to be aged in barrel for longer ( a minimum of 12 months).
As a generality, much of the Bordeaux Superieur production is from the area north of Saint Emilion and Medoc, which does not have its own classified sub-regions. About 25% of the Bordeaux generic appellation is covered by the Bordeaux Superieur classification.
This is a classification well worth looking out for, as it frequently offers wines that are several steps up from basic Bordeaux, but at prices that are not massively inflated, and provide excellent value for money.
Cotes de Bordeuax
This is a new appellation, created in 2009, which covers four individual and noteworthy areas, which all on the fringes of the Bordeaux region, produce high quality wines, and were not receiving the recognition they merited, whilst labelled simply as Bordeaux, or Bordeaux Superieur. All four have distinctive characteristics. It is not a geographically based appellation, but a commercial one, to give more kudos to these areas. Cotes de Castillon and Cotes de Francs are in the east of the region, Cadillac in the South, and Cotes de Blaye in the west.
Cotes de Castillon
This area lies in the far east of the region, and produces wines that are often more approachable, fleshy, yet softer than many Bordeaux wines. The merlot grape is normally the dominant one in the blend, and the wines are recognised as offering good typicity, but also great value for money, and seen as a good buy, for every day drinking by Bordeaux lovers. All wines from this area are red.
Cotes de Francs
This appellation covers 3 villages, Saint Cibrad, Tayac and Francs, which lie close to Bergerac, to the east of Bordeaux and north of the Dordogne river. They are closer in style to Bergerac, than classic Bordeaux, and cover white, red and sweet white wines. The whites are the typical Sauvignon, Semillon blend, crisp, and fresh, with Muscadelle added in the sweet whites. The reds are softer and made for early drinking, with the merlot dominant, as it is well suited to the limestone clay soils and slightly elevated terrain, which also suits the fresh, lively cabernet franc.
Cotes de Cadillac Rouge
This covers the red wines made in the traditionally sweet white wine producing area to the south, and are similar in style to Francs and Castillon, with merlot dominant blends, and a softer, earlier drinking style.
Cotes de Blaye
Cotes de Blaye is situated close to the Medoc, just over the river Gironde, and the wines, although softer, are not dissimilar in style to generic Medoc. The area produces fresh, dry whites, from the classic white Bordeaux grapes Sauvignon and Semillon, with a little Muscadelle and some Ugni blanc and Colombard. The reds are structured and elegant, combining merlot grown on limestone clay soil, and Cabernet Sauvignon, which is better suited to the gravelly soils, which typifiy neighbouring Medoc. The other permitted Bordeaux red grapes are also grown.
Cotes de Bourg
This is an area that was originally designated as part of Cotes de Bordeaux in 2009, but has found its own commercial niche and recognition. Like Cotes de Blaye, situated just to the north, Cotes de Bourg produces red wines which are well structured, and of high quality, but offer significantly better value than the more classic Medoc wines.
Bourg is situated about 20km north of the city of Bordeaux, on the confluence of the Garonne and Dordogne rivers. The soils are heavy, from the proximity to the river, and the land is relatively flat. Merlot is best suited to this region, with Cabernet sauvignon playing the supporting role, and the wines, whilst heavier than many, are made for relatively early drinking, and are fleshy, and ripe. Some dry whites are also made.
Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux
Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux is an area, which lies to the south east of Bordeaux, along the river Garonne, and encompasses the most southern appellations in Bordeaux. It produces white, red and sweet white wines. The whites are from the typical Bordeaux white grape blends, whilst the reds, staying true to the typicity of ‘Right Bank’ Bordeaux, are usually dominated by the fleshy, early ripening Merlot, which produces wines closer in style to Saint Emilion than to Medoc.
Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux is also home to 3 high quality, but lesser known sweet white wine appelations, Loupiac, Sainte Croix du Mont and Cadillac, which have their own designations. Cerons also lies nearby.
The area, which lies south of Bordeaux, close to the main rivers and numerous streams has a unique microclimate, which encourages the development of ‘botrytis cinerea’, or ‘noble rot’, which is responsible for creating some of the greatest sweet white wines in the world. The proximity to the rivers and the sometimes damp, cool mornings, in the late Summer and early Autumn, lead to the noble rot on the grapes. Whilst these individual appellations do not quite match up to the intense complexity of dessert wines from neighbouring Sauternes, they are luscious, sweet, unctuous, yet fresh, and offer far better value than their expensive neighbour.
Cadillac is on the north bank of the Garonne, opposite Cerons, and north of Loupiac. Loupiac is the area on the slopes above the Garonne, and the clay and limestone soils lead to a fresher, more delicate style of dessert wine. There are strict laws regulating the minimum ‘must weight’ – ie the potential sugar levels in the wine, and here, these are higher than Sauternes, up at 245g/lt, so residual sugar levels are higher, yet the wines, ofter lighter and fresher.
Sainte Croix du Mont is another small pocket area, in the south, again within the broader region of Entre deux mers, which covers this vast part of Bordeaux. There has been a great deal of development in this area, and the wines are carving out a reputation as serious quality contenders within the dessert wine portfolio, offering richness, lusciousness, intensity, yet better value than Sauternes and Barsac.
Cerons is the other sub-area in this southern region, which produces sweet wines, however, here the intensity and complexity are less, and these are far more simplistic wines, partly due to the flatter landscape, less variation in temperatures, and permitted higher yields, which will reduce the concentration of the wines.
Entre Deux Mers
Entre deux mers (translated as ‘between two seas’) is a large appellation in Bordeaux, aptly named, as it lies between the two rivers Garonne and Dordogne. It stretches from the city of Bordeaux right over towards Bergerac in the east. It is home to some great sweet wine appelations, such as Loupiac, and Cerons, but in terms of the Entre deux mers appellation, it is only allowed to produce dry whites, from the Sauvignon and Semillon grapes, with the addition of Muscadelle and Ugni Blanc. The wines are crisp, zesty and fresh, and changes in style over recent years, have made them a far more attractive proposition in the current market, with verve and zing.
Graves & Pessac Leognan
This sub-region is one of the most important in the whole of Bordeaux, and is arguably viewed as the area that discovered the high quality red wines that the region could make, way back in the 14th century, before the Medoc sub-region was established. As its name suggests the soils in this area are gravel and sand, and are best suited to the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, which loves these conditions, unlike the merlot, which thrives better on heavier clay soils, and is king of the Right Bank.
Graves produces both red and white wines, generally at a high quality level. This is an area full of top, and world renowned Chateaux, including one first growth Chateau Haut-Brion. There are numerous well known estates in this area, Chateau Smith-Haut Lafitte. The top estates are all within the commune of Pessac-Leognan.
The whites are intense, fresh, very dry, occasionally oaked, and epitomise the best of Bordeaux whites. The reds are superlative, with the currant, cedar streaked Cabernet prominent.
It is a sizeable area, lying south of Bordeaux, with the town of Langon at its southern end. It also encompasses the sweet wine designations of Sauternes and Barsac within its boundaries, although these have separate appellations.
Click here for a full guide to Sauternes Wine.