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Bordeaux the region

Bordeaux is the largest fine wine region in the world. Its 120,000 hectares of vineyards produce over five million hectolitres of wine a year - four times as much as Burgundy, France’s ‘other’ fine wine region, and nearly three quarters as much as the whole of Australia.

From this region comes diverse styles and qualities. Bordeaux reds are blends, in varying proportions, of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Petit Verdot and Malbec add seasoning at most. Over centuries, these full-bodied wines have earned international renown for their unique combination of longevity, intensity and refinement. Dry whites are blends of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, and range from fresh quaffers to some of the most underrated age worthy whites in the world. Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc are also behind the sweet wines of Bordeaux, most famously those of Sauternes and Barsac.

The perception of Bordeaux’s wines is enviably coherent. Even the most basic wines are labelled with the ‘Bordeaux’ name. However, the region’s interest and allure arise from the powerful minority of its greatest and finest wines.

Bordeaux’s South-westerly position makes it fundamentally sunny and dry. The buffering Atlantic ensures mild winters and long, warm summers. But this is still a marginal climate, making great wines from vines on a healthy knife-edge. Rain can still spoil play, and vintage variation is a source of frustration as well as fascination.

The great estuary of the Gironde marks out the fundamental divide in Bordeaux’s territories. On the Left Bank of the Gironde are the heat-retaining, well-drained gravel soils of Médoc and Graves. Some of Bordeaux’s greatest wines originate here, made with a high proportion of sun-loving, late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon. On the Right Bank, variations on a theme of limestone, sand, clay and smatterings of gravel are behind the scented wines of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol, and their less distinguished brethren. Here, further from the tempering sea, summers are hotter but more abrupt, and winters colder. Earlier ripening Merlot dominates in the cooler soils and more continental climate.

Bordeaux is a watery kingdom. Into the estuary flow two rivers, which join at the southern tip of the Médoc. Garonne comes from the south, flowing close to the vineyards of Sauternes, then through the vastly underrated Premières Cotes, and the city itself. Dordogne comes from the east, rolling down past Saint-Emilion, the ‘other’ port town of Libourne, and the vineyards of Bourg and Blaye. These rivers and their tributaries protect against frost and provide essential drainage throughout this low-lying land.

The clay-rich terrain between Garonne and Gironde is the Entre-Deux-Mers, Bordeaux’s largest district. This erstwhile plonk factory is today a source of exciting and over-performing red and white wines.

Bordeaux appellations (AOCs) trace these variations in soil, microclimate and topography. In one sense they are easy to grasp. They are far fewer than those of Burgundy, and describe larger areas. Unlike Burgundy, however, the detailed hierarchy of quality is not tied to the AOC system, and it is Bordeaux’s disparate classification system that can prove challenging for wine lovers to master.

Of the 54 appellations in Bordeaux, a couple of handfuls are household names:

Médoc and Haut-Médoc

The left-bank district of the Médoc contains some of the most famous communes and producers in Bordeaux. It is a spur in water, with the Gironde reinforcing the maritime climate of the Atlantic. Even by Bordeaux standards, the Médoc is particularly warm and balmy with mild winters, warm summers, and – one reason the Cabernet Sauvignon dominates here – long, sunny autumns. The coveted sites are all in the southerly sub zone of the Haut-Médoc, and are on undulating banks of warm gravel soils up to three metres deep. The very best vineyards, which are all in the four renowned but much smaller communes of Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Margaux, can ‘see the River’: their gentle slopes face north- east and catch the early and sustained warming of the morning sun.

The fundamental style for wines of the Médoc is for refined aromatics, restrained fruitiness, fine-grained density and attractively resistant tannin. AOC Médocs range from decent, dutiful reds to some seriously over performing Cru Bourgeois. ‘Basic’ Haut-Médoc is more refined and aromatic by comparison. This AOC even has some classed growths in its boundaries: Chateau Cantemerle, Chateau Beaumont.

However, the nirvana for lovers of age worthy fine red wine is yet more specific, and is found in the miraculous expression of nuance from a thin strip of vineyards, no more than 20 miles long, grouped into four communes to the south of the Haut-Médoc. Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Margaux produce great red wines of entrancingly distinctive character and personality.

Saint-Estèphe

Saint-Estèphe is the most northerly of the ‘big four’. Its soils are more fertile, with less gravel and a little more clay than the other three communes. The accepted wisdom has been to see Saint-Estèphe as a sturdy workhorse – valiant, robust but a little rustic. It has long had a less glamorous profile than the other three, partly due to small number (just five) of its châteaux being recognised in the 1855 Médoc Classification. This perception is changing, although not as comprehensively as the wines. Saint-Estèphe wines are still among the most assertive of the four communes, but many châteaux have reduced the proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon in favour of the softer, plumper Merlot. It is well worth remembering that in drought years, such as 2010, Saint-Estèphe’s richer, water-retaining soils make superb wines without the hard tannins that tell tales on dehydrated vines from the “less tannic” communes.

Pauillac

Pauillac has the highest elevation of all four communes, and the deepest gravel banks. Some of its vineyards are positively hilly. The great estates here are large, with contiguous and consistent patterns of vineyard ownership. It makes archetypal red Bordeaux: fully ripe, yet restrained, tightly grained wines of coiled power and unhurried complexity.

Saint-Julien

Saint-Julien runs south from Pauillac, and is a relatively small commune. The gravel here is not as deep as in Pauillac, and there are fertile blobs of clay in the subsoil, encouraging vines to root deeply. Saint-Juliens are scented and firm, but more rounded than Pauillacs, with gentler tannins and a courtly, graceful intensity.

Margaux

Margaux is the most southerly of the four famous communes of the Left-Bank, and is possibly the most frustrating. Its austere soils are the thinnest and stoniest of all the communes. Margaux has been called the “Burgundy of Bordeaux” for its ethereal, lifted and nuanced red wines. In true Burgundian style, however, it is the most capricious of the communes, and can be angular and ascetic in cool years. Many Bordeaux lovers like that sort of thing: if you are desperate for fruit there are plenty of places to look, but the scent of Margaux is entirely singular.

Geographically speaking, the wines of Listrac and Moulis belong between Saint-Julien and Margaux, but their wetter, heavier soils mean that their wines, although sturdy and potentially satisfying, do not share the finesse of their near neighbours. 

Graves

The ancient wine growing area of Graves lies to the south of the city of Bordeaux. Its best châteaux and vineyards are disconcertingly suburban and notoriously hard to find. The Graves is warmer and hillier than the Médoc, although its soils are as gravelly as its name. Fine reds, from grape varieties in proportions similar to those of the Médoc, are made here. They are plush and enticing, with a deeper pile. Red AOC Graves have deep toned and sweetly spicy aromatics, and are earthily seductive. Excellent dry white wines (AOC Graves) from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon are also made here, the best from soils with some limestone. Since the 1980s their quality and consistency has increased as quantity has, quite dramatically, decreased. Good white Graves is a captivating paradox of restrained exoticism and succulent, stony intensity.

Pessac-Léognan

Graves includes the AOC of Pessac-Léognan, which was created in 1987 to represent the very best wines, of both colours, of this region – including Haut-Brion, La Mission-Haut-Brion and Pape Clément. Once you move away from the more commercial areas and the University of Bordeax campus, the northern suburbs of Talence and Pessac reveal vineyards nestled beside pine forests and small farms. In the south of Graves, Martillac and Léognan also form part of the Pessac-Léognan appellation. Like the rest of Graves, the soils here provide excellent drainage.

Wines of high quality in their own right, Pessac-Léognan, and the larger Graves are often also regions to look to when Bordeaux experiences a disappointing vintage. 

Saint-Emilion

The most famous wines of the Right Bank come from Saint-Emilion and Pomerol. They are very different characters. The greatest wines of Saint-Emilion are grown in vineyards of deep limestone on which Merlot and Cabernet Franc thrive, and make finely resistant and expressively scented reds with a juicy, sweetly-fruited core. Modernist producers ramp things up with more extraction and heavier oak. To each horse his course. The ‘satellite’ appellations of Lussac, Montagne and Puisseguin do similar things to the mother-ship, but in a more straightforward, uncomplicated style.

Pomerol

Pomerol still feels like a back-water. Its wines are voluptuous and sanguine. It combines hedonism with integrity, the child of Merlot and Cabernet Franc ripened to perfection on warm gravel soils, interlaced with clay and sand.

Lesser appellations not discussed:

Côtes-de-Francs, Côtes-de-Castillon, Fronsac Lalande de Pomerol, Côtes de Bourg, Côtes de Blaye, Entre-deux-Mers, Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux, Saint Croix du Mont Loupiac.