A Beginner's Guide to the Wines of Bordeaux

By Sandra Crittenden
Bordeaux Wines 

The wines of Bordeaux have been revered for as long as they have been produced. Pliny the Elder, who has been described as one of the first wine critics of the world, mentions the region’s vines in his writings in the first century AD. Ausonius, a poet and scholar from Bordeaux, referenced the wine quality in his writings throughout the 4th century AD.

Bordeaux would enter its first Golden Age, becoming heavily traded after the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Henry II in 1152. Centuries later, Napoleon III would further elevate the wines with the Classification System of 1855.

Though many historic events would wreak havoc on the region, like World War I and the devastation by Phylloxera, its reputation as an iconic place for wine would remain intact.

Bordeaux is located in the southwest of France on the Atlantic Coast, where the climate is regulated by the Gulf Stream. It lies within Aquitaine which means a “well-watered place,” due to the large network of rivers that run through it.

It has warm soils of gravel and sand that are primarily found on The Left Bank, and cool soils composed mainly of clay and limestone on The Right Bank. The Entre-Deux Mers lies between the rivers and has a mix of soils.

The majority of the wines produced are blends of grapes. Historically, the reds are made from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc, with some Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Carmenere potentially in the mix. The whites are composed primarily of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc with some Muscadelle and a few lesser used secondary grapes.

Within the greater Bordeaux appellation, red, white, rose, and sparkling wine are all produced, along with some sweet wines, however, red wine production dominates the region with approximately 85 percent of all wines made being red.

BordeauxBordeaux AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlee) covers the greater region, and all producers may use it. Bordeaux Superieur AOC is used for wine made with grapes from lower yielding vineyards and higher minimum alcohol. There are also sub-regions like Graves, the Medoc, and the Cotes de Bordeaux, along with others.

Next up on the quality tier are the communes such as Pauillac, Margaux, Saint Emilion, and Pomerol. Most within these smaller zones of production will use that labeling to further differentiate themselves as a wine of place.

The Bordeaux region is the largest wine producing AOC in France making over 650 million bottles per year on average. In 2020, there were 5,653 growers and 8,800 registered wine producing chateaux.

Despite these large numbers, only a small amount seems to make it to the local area restaurants and wine sellers here on the island. Houston does have a huge array of these wines featuring everything from the everyday value drinkers found in the general Bordeaux category on up to the more illustrious and expensive top chateaux found in the communes.

Wine lovers wanting to try more of these wines should express their interest to local wine shop representatives as well as at their favorite restaurants and at the local watering holes they frequent.

The key to understanding what is in the bottle is knowing some of the basic geography and geology of the region.

The warm soils of The Left Bank are where Cabernet Sauvignon is King. This is where the famed communes of Saint-Estephe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Margaux, and Pessac-Leognan lie and subtle terroir nuances add to stylistic differences in the bottle.

Saint-Estephe wines are often more savory with a distinct tannic profile; Pauillac wines are powerful with an intensity and fruit concentration; Saint-Julien can be more diverse delivering the power of Pauillac and/or the elegance of Margaux.

Margaux is known for its silkier texture and more floral aromas, while Pessac-Leognan is famous for the mineral character that comes from the mineral rich soils. The cool soils of The Right Bank best support Merlot and Cabernet Franc vines.

Saint-Emilion is located on a limestone plateau that creates well rounded, fruit driven wines with velvety tannins, while neighboring Pomerol’s iron rich soils create some of the finest and most expensive wines in the world that are also velvety in texture but with greater depth and a more savory edge.

The Côtes de Bordeaux wines come from vineyards located on sunny hillsides and tend to be a step up in quality to simple red Bordeaux designated wines and may be sourced from Blaye, Cadillac, Castillon, or Francs, the place will be designated on the label. All of these areas are bordered by rivers but tend to have distinct personalities of their own.

There is also a fifth appellation, Côtes de Bourg, which did not join the grouping for their own bureaucratic reasons but is also deemed of higher quality to generic Bordeaux.

Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur labeled wines are where consumers will find affordable wines for everyday drinking although a range of quality or typicity may also be found. All rose wine that is made in the greater region carries the more basic Bordeaux AOC designation while whites and reds may carry either depending on alcohol content and vineyard yields.

Entre-deux-Mers translates to “between two rivers” and strictly produces white wines, while the subregion of Graves has earned the reputation for producing higher quality white wines due to the pockets of limestone and sandy soils that exist between their gravel-based soils that are planted to red grapes.

Sauternes is the premium region for the sweet dessert wines of Bordeaux showcasing an opulent style while neighboring Barsac has more limestone which creates a brighter style. While Sauternes and Barsac are considered the top of the line for dessert wine production, other delicious and more affordable versions can be found labeled as Graves Superieur and Premières Côtes de Bordeaux.

The history and the size may seem daunting to the novice wine drinker wishing to explore. However, breaking it down by budget and style makes it easy for all wine lovers to become aficionados and find Bordeaux wines to suit their needs.