Bordeaux Wine 101
What do you know about the largest wine region in the world? Bordeaux is not just an iconic name in the wine industry: it is a region with more than 10,000 producers, 60 recognized appellations, and yields of nearly 75 million cases of wine annually. Learning about Bordeaux can be daunting, but our simple guide makes this prolific wine region easy to understand.
History of Bordeaux
Although the ancient Romans first cultivated Bordeaux for wine, the region only began receiving acclaim in the last few centuries. In the 1600s, the region produced a sweet white wine from a subregion called Sauternes. Even Thomas Jefferson was a fan of Sauternes! By the 1700s, the region also became known for its rose wine, which the British called “claret.”
A century later, Bordeaux winemakers shifted their focus to red wines. As these wines gained popularity, Bordeaux officials created the now-famous “1855 Classification.” The 1855 Classification was essentially a list that identified the top producers of wine in the region and ranked them. Interestingly, this classification has undergone just two alterations since its original decree. This means that, according to the Bordeaux classification system, the wines have not changed in their quality for more than 160 years.
Understanding Bordeaux’s regions
Bordeaux is an area that has many regions. Each of these regions have subregions. If you try to learn all about Bordeaux in one sitting, it becomes very difficult: these 60 appellations are confusing!
An easier way to learn about Bordeaux is to split the region into two subregions: the Left Bank and the Right Bank. These banks sit on either side of the Gironde estuary, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean. The Left and Right Banks make different wines, so it is easy to classify them if you can locate a wine in one of these two regions. As a general rule, remember that Left Bank wines are predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon and Right Bank wines are predominantly Merlot.
Subregions of Bordeaux
Bordeaux’s Left Bank
Bordeaux’s Left Bank is located on terroir situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gironde estuary. Two subregions––the Medoc and Graves––comprise the Left Bank. It includes eight appellations (Medoc, Haut-Medoc, Listrac-Medoc, Pauillac, St. Estephe, St. Julien, Margaux, Moulis).
When you think of the Left Bank, think of tradition: it is the location of all of the wines from the 1855 Classification. In essence, the Left Bank contains wines from centuries-old chateaux with tried-and-true winemaking methods.
Left Bank wines are most often blends. The grapes used in these blends are the following:
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Cabernet Franc
- Petit Verdot
Left Bank wines are known for having a tannic structure, which is what allows them to age so beautifully (often for decades). When young, they are full-bodied with notes of currants, spices, earth, and tobacco. As the wines age, the notes of earth and tobacco soften to become more elegant flavors, such as cedar, leather, and truffle.
Bordeaux’s Right Bank
The Right Bank includes two of the most famous wines from Bordeaux: Petrus and Cheval Blanc. Its most famous two appellations St. Emilion and Pomerol. The Right Bank is also home to Sauternes, which still produces some of the world’s best sweet white wines.
Right Bank red wines are most often blends. The grapes used in these red blends are the following:
- Cabernet Franc
- Cabernet Sauvignon
Since Merlot is the primary grape in Right Bank wines, it is no surprise that Right Bank wines are lush and supple. Tannins are softer; the wine is “juicier” and has notes of cherries, plums, and licorice. When the wine ages, it exudes notes such as chocolate, tobacco, and earthy truffle.