The Bordeaux Basics

A primer on Bordeaux—one of the most famous and highly coveted wines in the world!

Bordeaux Defined

Bordeaux is one of, if not the, most famous and highly coveted wines in the world. Like many wines with a long history, there’s a lot to learn, so I’m going to cover just the basics today.

Bordeaux refers to a wine from Bordeaux, France. Bordeaux is actually the largest wine growing area in France with 57 appelations. Average vintages produce over 700 million bottles of Bordeaux wine, ranging from large quantities of everyday table wine, to some of the most expensive and prestigious wines in the world. While there are both red and white Bordeaux wines, the name Bordeaux is primarily associated with the red wine blend and for the purposes of this blog we’ll focus on red Bordeaux.

In the Bordeaux region, where the wine is made, the Gironde estuary cuts through the center of the region creating two banks: a left bank and a right bank. It is a winery’s location on either bank that determines the proportion of Merlot to Cabernet inside each wine. If the winery is located on the Left Bank, the blend created will have more Cabernet Sauvignon than Merlot. If the winery is instead located on the Right Bank of the river, the wine will have more Merlot in the blend than Cabernet Sauvignon. The split between the Left and Right Banks of the Gironde River is attributed to the soil composition on each side of the river, both of which favor one grape variety over the other.

All red Bordeaux wines—no matter the category or classification—are blends, and can only be made from the six accepted grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenère. Most wines consist of majority Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, with the other four varieties appearing as blending partners.

Bordeaux Flavor Profile

Primary Flavors in Red Bordeaux: Black Currant, Plum, Graphite, Cedar, Violet

Red wines from Bordeaux are medium- to full-bodied with aromas of black currant, plums, and earthy notes of wet gravel or pencil lead. When you taste the wines, they are bold with mineral and fruit notes that lead into savory, drying tannins. The tannins and fruit are often powerful enough that these wines will age for several decades.

Depending on the quality, vintage, and what region within Bordeaux the wine is from, fruit flavors range from more tart fruit to sweeter ripe fruit. Vintage variation is definitely something to watch for from this area.

Deciphering a Bordeaux Label

There are lots of things to be conscious of on a Bordeaux label. A few callouts are shown in the image below. A major indicator of what you are drinking is in the appellation descriptions that follow.

Bordeaux AOC

Bordeaux wine that is not part of a specific appellation is labeled “Bordeaux AOC” (or simply “Bordeaux”). In the hierarchy of Bordeaux wines, the Bordeaux AOC category offers nice expressions of the region’s wines, made to be enjoyed in their youth with relatively fruit-forward characteristics. They are generally not aged that long in barrel and offer easy-drinking personalities.

Bordeaux Supérieur

“Bordeaux Supérieur” reds are, as their name implies, intended to be a slightly “superior” form of standard Bordeaux AOC wines. Bordeaux Supérieur on the label is viewed as a type of classification, as well as an appellation. These wines must meet select quality standards in order to be classified as Bordeaux Supérieur. The elevated status is defined by:

  • Use of older vines
  • Densely planted vineyards
  • Required ripeness of fruit and natural sugar levels upon harvest
  • Lower harvest yields
  • Minimum 10.5% ABV
  • 12-month minimum barrel aging requirement

Grand Cru Classé

Grand Cru Classé is the top classification — the most prestigious wine of the region with prices to match. These wines are usually aged in oak barrels and in bottle for years, developing complex flavors. They are not good to drink young because of the high acidity and tannins they have, but they soften with age and the wine becomes very desirable.

The Bordeaux Wine Official Classification took place in 1855, compiling a list of the best wines into the Grand Crus Classés. The 1855 classification considered only the wineries in the regions of Médoc and Sauternes, and not all the Bordeaux wineries. For instance, the wineries Saint Emilion did not take part and they created their own classification later on. Given that there are several thousands of châteaux producing their own wines in Bordeaux, being included in this list meant reaching a high prestige.

Within the list of Grand Cru Classé, the wines were further ranked and classified into five growths or categories: first, second, third, fourth and fifth. The best wines were ranked higher: first Cru. Only four wines (Château Latour, Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Margaux and Château Haut-Brion) received this distinction.

Cru Bourgeois

Cru Bourgeois is also prestigious and is a designation that is awarded yearly. It is level lower than Grand Cru Classé, but any property in the Médoc may apply for this award.

How to Drink Bordeaux

With their beautiful labels and dark green glass, Bordeaux bottles have an elegant look. Here’s what to know about drinking this wine:

  • Serve red Bordeaux slightly below room temperature (around 65 °F)
  • Decant red Bordeaux for at least 30 minutes
  • Expect to spend around $25–$30 for a decent bottle of red Bordeaux, such as one in the Bordeaux Supérieur classification. The ones from the Grand Cru Classé can range from $100–$1000 per bottle.

Good Vintages for Bordeaux:
2015, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2005, 2003, 2000, 1998


1 comment on “The Bordeaux Basics

  1. I’m new and appreciate all I have learned on your blog so far. Thank you, the Modifica!

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