Bordeaux Basics

Ask nearly anyone in France where the best wines in the world are made and they will say, “France.” Except for two groups of people who will give you a different answer.

1. Visiting winemakers from overseas.

2. People from Bordeaux.

In fact, people from Bordeaux won’t even answer. They’ll just look at you like you’re an idiot. For them, this is a pointless question. The answer is evident to anyone with taste buds. And to be fair, many wine drinkers, regardless of where they’re from, will agree with them. Bordeaux is the epitome of winemaking. But what’s its secret? How did it achieve its status?

That’s simple.

Bordeaux is all about perfectly balanced variety. In absolutely everything. Over a very, very long period of time.

Terroir Bordelais

Let’s start with the environment the wine is made in.

Bordeaux is on the southwest coast of France, where the Atlantic nestles into the Bay of Biscay. The city of Bordeaux itself is flanked by woodland areas to the west and south that protect it from the salty winds and excessive rainfall from the ocean. The region’s bedrock is packed with grape-loving minerals. The summers are sunny, but not excessively hot. The winters are mild. There is plenty of sun and good rainfall. And the undulating landscape and two rivers (the Dordogne and the Garonne) keep the soils well drained. This is a region that could have been purposely designed for winemaking.

The rivers, rather than the city of Bordeaux itself, are the geographical reference points for the region’s wines. There’s an old saying that the best estates can see the river (either one will do) from their vineyards. Unsurprisingly, river-front real estate is dominated by wine vines.

The Garonne and the Dordogne create three main subdivisions in the landscape:

Right bank vineyards are located on the (you guessed it) right bank of the Dordogne, the northernmost river of the two. This is where clay soils make Merlot and Cabernet Franc sing, resulting in velvety, rounder wines. This is home to globally recognised appellations such as Pomeral and Saint-Emilion and premium brands like Château Pétrus and Château Le Pin.

Left bank estates are on the (yes, you are correct again) left bank of the river Garonne to the south. This area is in turn split into two subregions: Graves, upstream of Bordeaux; and Médoc, downstream of Bordeaux. This is where Cabernet Sauvignon vines thrive in the gravelly soil, and where the reputations of winemakers such as Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour and Château Margaux were (and still are) forged by excellence.

The land between the rivers is ambitiously called Entre-Deux-Mers (between two seas) and is where Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle thrive. That’s right. Bordeaux makes white wines, in case you thought it was all claret. In fact, the world’s most famous white dessert wine is made on Bordeaux’s left bank: Sauternes.

So here you have a region with a startlingly diverse environment, allowing winemakers to make a wide range of wines from a variety of grapes. Adding to the diversity the drive by the top estates make wines from single vineyards in a bid to give these bottles the distinct characteristics of the micro terroir.

Bordeaux vineyards

The diverse terroirs in Bordeaux add to the variety of wines the region produces. Image: Image by Denis de Villers from Pixabay

Between Two Styles

Despite the overwhelming variety in grapes, terroirs and estates, there are some general guidelines that characterise left-bank and right-bank reds. This is because each area has a winemaking tradition distinct from the other. Left-bank grapes are harvested later and given longer maceration than right-bank grapes.


Mainly Cabernet Sauvignon

Mainly Merlot

Robust, high in tannins, intense, structured and more acidic

Fruitier, rounder, more restrained tannins and easier on the palate

Aged in new oak, which gives stronger oak notes: vanilla, cedar

Aged in older barrels, which gives weaker oaky flavours in the wine

Blackcurrant, cedar, tobacco

Red fruits, plum and cherry especially


Both will survive a good few years in the cellar, but left-bank wines are intended for cellaring.

Sauvignon grapes growing in Bordeaux

On the left bank, Cabernet Sauvignon (pictured) is the dominant grape variety. On the right bank, Merlot is the most commonly used grape. Image: Megan Cole, CC BY 2.0

Reputation Matters in Bordeaux

Such is the intense competition among Bordeaux winemakers that excellence is pretty much the entry level requirement. Standards are kept high by virtue of there being so many competing winemakers in a single region. Nobody wants to bear the shame of letting the side down.

Unsurprisingly, competition for the top status is relentless. Estates take huge pride in their place on the local ranking tables.

The oldest classification dates back to 1855 and was created exclusively for Médoc red wines and sweet white wines of Sauternes and Barsac. Estates were ranked in five categories based on their reputation and the price of their wine, which at the time genuinely reflected quality.

Four left-bank châteaux were listed as Premier Cru (first growth/top tier) estates: Château Lafite, Château Latour, Château Margaux and Château Haute-Brion. This upset Château Mouton Rothshild immensely. In fact, it was so upset, it adopted a protest as its motto: “First, I cannot be. Second, I do not deign to be. Mouton I am.” Eventually, Baron Philippe de Rothschild made such a nuisance of himself that Château Mouton Rothshild was promoted from the second tier to the top tier in 1973 as a Premier Cru estate. It subsequently changed it’s motto to “First, I am. Second, I used to be. Mouton does not change”, in other words, “I told you so.”

The remaining left-bank claret producers are divided over four ‘lower’ growths. There was controversy in 1855 when Château Cantemerle was initially left off the list of fifth growths. Intense personal lobbying by the owner resulted in Château Cantemerle being added soon afterwards. (Moral of the story, don’t upset Châteaux owners.)

Fun fact: at the time of the original Médoc classification, the vast majority of estates didn’t use the word Château in their name. Now, they all do—a perfect microcosm of the region’s balanced variety. The names are all the same, yet they are all different: Château X.

Not to be outdone by their Médoc colleagues, the winemakers of St-Émilion responded as quick as lightning and introduced their own classification less than 101 years later, in 1955. In 1959, Graves winemakers did the same, having been slower out of the starting blocks.

Pomerol, on the other hand, has never bothered with a classification. Not because it is absolutely tiny (so why bother?) but because when you produce über-elite wines like Château Pétrus and Château Le Pin, you’ve got nothing left to prove and everybody else can just shut up.

Claret Wasn’t Always Red Wine

Although red wine production in Bordeaux outstrips white wine production 6 to 1, the word ‘claret’, which has become synonymous with Bordeaux reds, didn’t originally refer to red wine. Instead it was the name for a dark rosé, known locally as ‘clairet’. (Gasp.)

This wine is exceptionally rare now, but back in the 1200s, when Bordeaux was controlled by the King of England (it’s complicated), clairet was popular in England, where it became anglicised to claret. And while clairet has all but vanished, the word claret has attached itself to red wine from Bordeaux instead, proving to be as long-lived as the wine itself and its enduring reputation as the greatest wine on Earth.

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