Bordeaux, located in the southwest of France, sits at the top of any list of the world’s most prestigious wine regions. Famous for dry medium to full-bodied reds, headlined by the legendary Cabernet Sauvignon-based “First Growths”: Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Haut-Brion, and Chateau Latour, but the First Growths only account for a small portion of the roughly 700 million bottles produced annually in France’s largest wine region, making Bordeaux one of our favorite sources for great values. While the new world generally favors single-variety wines, Bordeaux is all about blends with wines typically dominated by a single variety but using 2+ varieties in the blend to create more complete wines.
Like most regions in France, the grapes permitted to be grown in Bordeaux are heavily regulated. For reds, the varieties permitted to be grown are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and the very rarely seen, Carmenere. White wines in Bordeaux are typically a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon with perhaps a touch of Muscadelle, but Sauvignon Gris, Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Merlot Blanc, Ondenc, and Mauzac are permitted though rarely seen.
The future wines of Bordeaux may be quite different than the wines we’ve seen for so long. In 2019, Bordeaux wineries authorized the planting of new varieties (so far only allowed in Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur wines) in order to combat increasing temperatures. New red varieties are Marselan, Touriga Nacional, Castets and Arinarnoa, for whites you have Alvarinho, Petit Manseng and Lilorila. While wines including these new grapes are not yet available, changes in one of France’s most traditional regions are very rare.
Bordeaux is dominated by the Gironde estuary and its tributaries, the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, defining the main subdivisions of the region and providing an oceanic climate for the region. The climate with long, relatively warm summers with gentle breezes and light clouds, combined with soil composed of gravel, sandy stone, and clay, provide the perfect backdrop for the late-ripening varieties that Bordeaux is famous for. The three waterways define the main breakdown of subregions in Bordeaux, The Left Bank, the Right Bank, and Entre-Deux-Mers.
The left bank follows the west side of the Gironde and Garonne and produces wines generally dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, with a typical blend including Merlot and Cabernet Franc, as well as potentially small amounts of . On the left bank you find the majority of Bordeaux’s most famous regions, Medoc, Haut-Medoc, Saint-Estephe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Margaux, Pessac-Leognan, Graves, Barsac and Sauternes (the latter two the source for some of the world’s greatest dessert wines). The reds are full-bodied, tannic and powerful and well reward cellaring.
The right bank, following the east side of Gironde and Dordogne, produces wines dominated by Merlot. The best come from Saint-Emilion and Pomerol but great value can be found in wines produced in the Cotes de Bordeaux (Blaye, Francs, Bourg, Castillon, and Fronsac) and in the various satellite appellations surrounding Saint-Emilion proper. Your typical blend here features Merlot with Cabernet Franc and, potentially, Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines are very aromatic and expressive, with a plushness on the palate and nice spiciness.
The Entre-Deux-Mers sits in between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers in the center of the region. Mostly known for good value table wines based on Merlot. While the wines do not reach the heights that can be found on the left and right banks, they are always a reliable go-to for a good bottle to have with dinner on Tuesdays.
While Bordeaux is most famous for its reds, the dry whites made from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon can be some of the best whites in the world. At the low end, the wines are vibrant and versatile, but the top whites, mostly found in Pessac-Leognan, are phenomenal, complex wines that rival Burgundy for the best whites in France.
In addition to the dry whites, Bordeaux also produces phenomenal dessert wines. Using the same varieties as dry whites, the secret is their location. Located in the far south of Bordeaux, just off the Garonne river, Bordeaux’s dessert wine regions benefit from what in most places would be considered a flaw, the easy susceptibility to fungus. In Bordeaux, the “risk” is boytritis cinerea, also known as the noble rot, one of the three typical ways to create a dessert wine. Boytritis serves to dry out the grapes while still on the vine, resulting in extreme concentration, making the perfect conditions for making dessert wine. The best of these shows exceptional sweetness that is perfectly balanced with vibrant acidity, and capable of easily aging for decades.