Much has been written about Bordeaux, perhaps the most famous red wine region in the world. The subject of Bordeaux fills countless books for decades, almost centuries. Therefore here is a humble attempt to condense this very complex topic into the essential facts.
If you’re also curious about other noticeable wine regions of Europe, check our best wine destinations list here.
Left and right bank: Compass of the grape varieties
In order to provide a good introduction to the subject, I would first like to geographically approach Bordeaux: the westernmost wine region of France is not only near the city of the same name, but also on the rivers Garonne and Dordogne, which are there to the Gironde unite. If you look at a map of Bordeaux from above, the Garonne and Dordogne come from “bottom right”, flow together to the Gironde and then flow into the sea “top left”. This results in a left and a right bank and exactly these two banks help wine lovers to find their way around grape varieties in Bordeaux. Sorry?
It’s actually quite simple: Appellations, i.e. growing areas, on the left side of the Gironde and Garonne produce wines that are dominated by the Cabernet Sauvignon grape variety – often blended with Merlot and Petit Verdot. The most famous appellation of Bordeaux, the Médoc, is also located on this “left bank”. On the right side of the Gironde and Dordogne, the Merlot usually dominates the wines – in many cases still mixed with Cabernet Franc to the typical Bordeaux cuvée. The small but fine Pomerol and the Saint-Émilion appellation enjoy the best reputation here. However, I will provide a more detailed overview of the appellations in a second article.
The 1855 Bordeaux classification: tradition obliges
That of Napoleon III. The introduced classification system has been used by wine lovers for orientation since 1855. Still a good idea today, especially since we are currently dealing with around 120,000 hectares in Bordeaux, where around 3,000 châteaux produce around 5.7 million hectoliters of wine per year. However, this classification only takes into account the left bank and only wineries from the Médoc wine sector and its appellations, since they produced the best wines at the time. Only one exception was made, because the Château Haut-Brion, which is included in the classification, is located in the southern Pessac-Léognan. But how exactly was the classification determined?
At the World Exhibition in Paris in 1855, the most important association of wine dealers in Bordeaux made a very pragmatic decision to award the five-tier classification: the wines were not tasted “against each other”, but rather the reputation of the individual wineries was taken into account, but above all they were for the wines achieved decisive market prices. No other winery has ever been added since, and neither has one of the wineries had to give up this status.
1973: Minor adjustment
There was only one change in 1973 when the Château Mouton Rothschild rose from the Deuxiéme Grand Cru Classé to the Premier Grand Cru Classé. All of the names that make the heart of a wine lover beat faster can be found in this historical, yet current classification in five quality levels with a total of 61 houses. Just to give a few examples, an excerpt from the list with the sonorous names:
There are only five wineries in the Premier Grand Cru Classé:
- Château Lafite-Rothschild (Pauillac)
- Château Latour (Pauillac)
- Chateau Margaux (Margaux)
- Château Mouton-Rothschild (Pauillac), since 1973, previously Deuxième Cru
- Château Haut-Brion (Pessac in Graves)
The Deuxième Grand Cru Classé is made up of fourteen houses, including …
- Château Rausan-Ségla (Margaux)
- Château Léoville-las-Cases (Saint-Julien)
- Château Pichon-Longueville-Comtesse de Lalande (Pauillac)
The Troisième Grand Cru Classé also has fourteen wineries with …
- Château Lagrange (Saint Julien)
- Château Giscours (Labarde-Margaux)
- Château Cantenac-Brown (Cantenac-Margaux)
The Quatrième Grand Cru Classé comprises ten houses, including …
- Branaire-Ducru Castle (Saint-Julien)
- Château Duhart-Milon-Rothschild (Pauillac)
- Château Beychevelle (Saint-Julien)
The 18 wineries of the Cinquième Grand Cru Classé include, for example …
- Chateau Pontet-Canet (Pauillac)
- Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste (Pauillac)
- Château Lynch-Bages (Pauillac)
Of course, this classification can no longer be transferred to wine quality without restrictions. For example, some of the “5 Grand Cru Classé” such as Château Pontet-Canet have developed excellently and therefore today feel more like a “3” or even “2”.
Sweet wines, Saint-Emilion and Pomerol
As already described, the red wine classification of 1855 does not cover all appellations in the core area of Bordeaux, which is why further classification systems were created in the neighboring regions. The classification of the world-famous sweet wines from Sauternes and Barsac also dates from 1855. However, there are only three categories here: Premier Grand Cru Classé with eleven wineries, fifteen châteaux with Deuxième Grand Cru Classé status and the overriding classification as Premier Cru Classé Supérieur, which is solely attributed to the legendary Château d’Yquem.
St. Emilion & Pomerol
The red wine appellation Saint-Émilion, located on the “right bank”, took its time in terms of classification. They classified their wines only a hundred years later as their “left” neighbors, namely 1955. However, Saint-Émilion is somewhat less traditional and more interested in a real seal of quality. Therefore, the classification is adjusted on average every ten years. This vinophile hierarchy currently includes forty-six Grand Cru Classé. This is followed by fourteen estates with the status of a Premier Grand Cru Classé B. Four wineries, which are identified as Premier Grand Cru Classé A, top the list: Château Ausone, Château Cheval Blanc, Château Angélus and Château Pavie.
The neighboring and smallest appellation in Bordeaux called Pomerol had “luck” in terms of classification: it was only at the beginning of the 19th century that the wine world became aware of the wines, which are mostly made from 100 percent Merlot. In addition, the area is so small that, in exceptional cases, orientation is also possible without classification. The really special thing about this 800 hectare appellation is the fact that some of the best and most expensive wines of Bordeaux come from here. Above all, Château Petrus, which is world famous among connoisseurs.
The characterization of the individual growing areas
After general overview on the renowned wine region of Bordeaux, this time a brief description of the individual growing regions follows. So, dear wine lovers, pay attention.
Like Graves, Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, the Médoc is a sub-region of the Bordeaux wine region and in this municipal appellation a large number of the best-known and most prestigious wines of Bordeaux are produced. The prevailing, very barren soil provides the best conditions for the production of wines from the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot varieties.
The Haut-Medoc is especially known for its red wines dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot, Petit Verdot and sometimes Malbec complete these blends. The wines that are created here are complex, elegant with aromas of red and black berries. This lively fruit is often accompanied by a note of methol.
The Margaux is the largest appellation within the Médoc and has a vineyard area of almost 1,500 hectares. The wines usually have complex aromas of spices, floral notes and red berries. The finish is elegant but powerful at the same time and therefore has an excellent aging potential. The Château Margaux of the same name is the figurehead of the region.
The Pauillac is considered by many connoisseurs to be the home of the best châteaux in Bordeaux. With Château Lafite, Château Latour and Château Mouton-Rothschild, three of the five Premier Grand Cru Classé alone come from Pauillac. The wines are full-bodied and have a rich tannin structure. Ripe specimens seduce with the typical aromas of black currants and cedarwood.
Saint-Julien lies on two plateaus between Pauillac and Margaux. The region has the smallest production of the four main appellations in the Médoc. In relation to the 1855 classification, most of the wineries that have been awarded the Grand Cru Classé are located here, including Léoville-Las Cases and Léoville Barton.
Saint-Estèphe is the northernmost region in the Médoc and it produces particularly robust red wines that are endowed with a very good acidity. The Châteaux Cos d’Estournel and Montrose are certainly the most famous names in the area. Saint-Estèphe offers many exciting wines, which are often already available as cheap cru bourgeois.
The Pessac-Léognan appellation lies in the sub-region of the Bordeaux wine region, Graves. It has only existed since 1987 and was founded with the aim of highlighting the best producers in the Graves. Both red and white wines are produced in the Pessac. The best known producer of both of these types of wine is the Château Haut-Brion.
Sauternes & Barsac
This pure sweet wine appellation has become world famous through wineries such as Château d’Yquem and Château Rieussec. The wines are characterized by their unlikely aroma complexity and have enough acidity not to be perceived as “sticky”. A high quality Sauternes from a good year can easily mature for more than fifty years.
The Saint-Émilion is one of the most important red wine areas in Bordeaux along with the Médoc, Graves and Pomerol. The wines here almost always consist of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Saint-Émilion is not part of the 1855 classification, but has its own system that was established in 1955. Château Ausone, Château Cheval Blanc, Château Angélus and Château Pavie form the top of this classification (Premier Grand Cru Classé A).
Pomerol is the smallest appellation in the Bordeaux wine region and yet some of the best wines in the area are produced here. They are often opulent and characterized by the exuberant Merlot fruit. There is no classification system at all in Pomerol and yet some of the most expensive wines in the world come from here – especially from Pétrus, Le Pin and Lafleur.
Entre Deux Mers
This region is a specialty in the Bordeaux wine region, because it is primarily known for its dry white wines – usually cuvées from Sauvignon Blanc , Sémillon and Muscadelle. The wines convince with their fine, citrus freshness and are particularly suitable as an accompaniment to fish dishes. The name of this appellation literally means “between the seas” and this is to be taken literally: Entre Deux Mers lies between the two largest rivers of Bordeaux, the Garonne and the Dordogne.
Of course, you should not only know the Bordeaux appellation, but also taste and enjoy the wines. Every wine lover may do that for himself. However, I hope that after this very brief introduction, the most important assignments will become easier. Therefore only an honest “have fun” at the end.