Bordeaux is the meeting point of three rivers, two famous banks, 57 appellations, 7.500 producers making more than 10.000 different wines. Quite an achievement for a region that only stretches for about 100 km around the city of Bordeaux and along the rivers Gironde, Garonne and Dordogne.
Bordeaux is also the meeting point of five red grapes and two white, creating the so-called “Bordeaux blends”. The reds are dominated by two major styles: “Left Bank” red blends made mostly on Cabernet Sauvignon and “Right Bank” red blends made mostly on Merlot.
For the whites there are two main directions: Dry blends made mostly on Sauvignon Blanc (for freshness) together with Sémillon (for body) - and sweet whites, the most famous being the Sauternes, which came to life as a result of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle grapes being affected with Botrytis cinerea, also known as noble rot.
Winemaking history, the 1855 Classification, and today
Winemaking came to Bordeaux with the Romans. there they discovered a great terroir for winemaking combined with an excellent transport system with waterways leading straight into the wine cellars. The same waterways also provided easy access to the Atlantic Ocean for distribution, particularly into England.
When speaking about quality wines from Bordeaux much attention often falls on the “1855 Classification”. This was and remains a scoring system with 5 levels of quality or “Growths” (crus). The estates ranked in 1855 maintain their position. Only twice has the list been changed: Once in 1856 when one estate was added, and once in 1973 when an estate was upgraded from 2nd to 1st Growth.
Left and right banks
On the Left Bank they continue to make great wines but much has changed since 1855. In 1855 the Right Bank was regarded as a back-country area with inferior terroir but with a good supply of cheap labour for quality winemaking which was used by the Left Bank. Today some of the World’s most critically acclaimed reds are made from vineyards on the Right Bank – and Bordeaux continues to be a draw for talented new winemakers.
While the classification system has been instrumental for Bordeaux to build and maintain its reputation for making some of the finest wines in Europe, it has made Bordeaux a bit stuffy and hard for the outsider to penetrate.
The most famed chateaux are often not open to the public, their prices are high and not an encouragement for most wine lovers. A complex trade system further complicates things. But. things are beginning to change.
Things are changing in Bordeaux. Some winemakers are now focusing their efforts on creating great wines from vineyards in close proximity to well-known appellations where it remains next to impossible to acquire land, unless one starts out with a great fortune.
Further, a number of younger winemakers – growing up on family estates – have now taken over from the previous generation and breathe new life into their family’s tradition of winemaking.
With these changes new opportunities are arising to explore and discover great wines from Bordeaux.
While Bordeaux is for the most past farmed for its incredible red wines, some of the World’s finest sweet whites hail also from Bordeaux. More specifically the Sauternes from the Graves areas, south east of Bordeaux city, on the left bank, south of most of the appellations of the famed 1855 classification.
The grapes used for Sauternes are: Sémillon, Sauvignon blanc and Muscadelle. What makes a Sauternes different is that unlike when harvesting grapes for dry wines, the winemakers let the grapes hang much longer on the vines, allowing them to be affected by Botrytis cinerea – or as it is also called “noble rot”.
The grapes then become partly raisined creating higher levels of concentration and increasing sugar levels. The rot – fungus – is not for flavour but for concentration and the fungus activates fermentation in the winemaking. Because – when partly raisined – the grapes produce less must (wine juice) it requires a lot more fruit (as much as 5-8 times more) to make, compared to when making dry wine. It goes without saying that it is important to be aware of production costs when assessing the price of Sauternes wines.
The most distinguished Sauternes come at very high prices. However, less-distinguished, less expensive sweet wines – with similar characteristics are made at estates neighbouring renowned estates producing “Premier Cru Supériuers”. So, go forth and explore the areas around Monbazillac, Cérons, Loupiac and Cadillac.
Great full-bodied red blends and zesty, herbal and round whites.What are the most popular grape varieties in Bordeaux?
Cabernet Sauvignon is the red king, followed by Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Sauvignon blanc and Sémillon are the white queens.What types of food works well with wines from Bordeaux?
Lighter reds: Charcuterie, pâté, terrines. Fuller reds: Roasts, meat with herbs, Italian style ragu. Whites: Risottos, (raw) fish, shellfish and cheeses.