By far one of my favorite red wines. I’m definitely not a minority on this one as Bordeaux (pronounced “bore-doe”) is the most famous and sought after wine in the world. Bottles of this vino can fetch in the thousands. Mind blowing isn’t it? What’s so special about it? Only that it is the oldest and most well respected blend of your favorite red wines. France, in general, is the grandfather of all wine and every world wine in production has been working to imitate and compete with it.
A lot of people overlook Bordeaux in their wine selections due to it’s inflated price. Fortunately you don’t need to spend that type of money to appreciate a beautiful Bordeaux. There are plenty of bottles under $30, and they’re great! Although a little pricey for an everyday bottle for your BBQ or a buzzed viewing of The Bachelorette – it’s a great bottle for romantic dining or a dinner party.
This isn’t necessarily going to be a specific wine purchasing guide for Bordeaux considering there are over 7000 chateaus (a.k.a wine estates) in this region. You know I want to taste them all! Instead it’s going to be a general overview for the Bordeaux challenged and those that ask “Bor-WHAT?”.
I know some of you have seen these wines in stores or restaurants and thought “Hmmmmmmm. Should I? Shouldn’t I? What is it exactly?” Have no fear my fellow curious wine lovers. I’m here to tell you to the best of my ability.
What’s in the Bottle?
First, let’s start with the obvious. “Bordeaux” isn’t a grape; It’s an area in France. As some of you might remember from my past blog posts, French wines are labeled by their geographic wine region and not by their grapes. That seems to make it so much more complicated doesn’t it?
Additionally and most importantly, Bordeaux wines are “blends” meaning they use more than one grape in the mix. Just like many paintings, it takes different colors to create an overall masterpiece.
So then what the heck is in a bottle of Bordeaux? Believe or not, that’s sort of the easy part. You see, there are only 5 red wine grapes used in all of Bordeaux. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are the super stars and Cabernet Franc, Petit Verot and Malbec are the best supporting actors.
Here’s a breakdown:
Red Bordeaux (which accounts for nearly 90% of all Bordeaux wines):
A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon being the two most widely grown grapes. Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot are added for texture and flavoring.
White Bordeaux (the minority of Bordeaux): White Bordeaux is predominantly made from Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. Just like the reds, white Bordeaux wines are usually blends, most commonly of Sémillon and a smaller proportion of Sauvignon Blanc.
Even though white wines also come from Bordeaux, we’re going to ignore them for now. Let’s focus on the reds as they are the majority.
Are you still with me? Awesome! Moving right along…
Within the Bordeaux region, there are 57 wine appellations. They are all divided by a body of water called the Gironde which is where two other rivers meet before they flow into the Atlantic. Because of this, the Bordeaux sub-regions are commonly referred to as either “Left Bank” , “Right Bank” or “Graves” (pronounced “grahv” as opposed to something in a cemetery). With the exception of Graves which is a region west of the Gironde, “left bank” and “right bank” obviously refers to the side of the river banks they are on.
The reason why “Left Bank”, “Right Bank” and “Graves” can be significant to understand is because each side of the rivers has it’s own flair in regards to their blending styles. While each chateau has it’s own combination of their special sauce, each bank has a general style of which grape is the dominant grape used.
Left Bank = Cabernet heavy
Right Bank = Merlot Heavy
Graves = roughly an equal split and famous for sweet wines
Although it seems like an over-simplified explanation of such an active wine region – it really can be this simple for common wine drinking purposes. Given how many wineries there are here, it would be impossible for anyone to memorize every single wine producer in this region. This region puts out something astronomical like 700+ million bottles of wine per year. Sounds like heaven – I KNOW! Trust me when I say that wine experts also use this system to help them identify the potential taste of a wine they are unfamiliar with. They’re where I got the info in the first place. 🙂
Instead of me listing all of the appellations and their corresponding bank, I’m only going to mention the most popular ones you might see in your favorite beverage store and tell you which bank they are on:
The Left Bank and home to Cabernet-heavy Bordeaux wines:
• St. Julian
• St. Estèphe
Right Bank and home to Merlot-heavy based wines:
• St. Émilion (<—- I love anything from this region)
Graves (Left Bank) and home to the famous sweet wines such as:
Not so scary. Right? The above example is just a generalization and common rule of thumb when choosing a wine. By no means is it a rule set in stone. Plenty of chateaus can create whatever combination they want regardless of what bank of the Gironde they’re on.
How to figure this out on the wine label
I have found French wine labels being the most beautiful labels and also the hardest to read next to Italian wine labels. Their labels are full of information because of their local wine laws. Personally, it usually takes me a minute to process everything on the label. So if you find yourself staring blankly at a label and spacing out due to the intimidating nature of it – it’s ok. Just break it down like this:
The above label states everything I need to know to try this wine. It’s a 2008 Bordeaux from Pomeral – which means it’s heavy on Merlot because Pomeral is a right bank area. Cool huh?
You’ll also notice French wine labels having a lot of extra info on them such their Cru Classe which is read as “Premier Cru”, “Deuxiémes Crus” or “Grand Cru” (which refers to their growth). This can be a headache unto itself. It’ll be another post for another day!
Bordeaux under $20 – side note – If you find a Bordeaux that has no region on it other than a generic title of “Appellation Bordeaux Controlee” or no Chateau listed at all, that means that it is a generic Bordeaux wine and usually heavier on the Merlot. You’ll usually only find (or not find) this on a Bordeaux that is under $20. If you happen to find a Bordeaux that has a Chateau listing on it that is under $20, that means the Chateau is outside of the main wine areas where all the major Chateaus are. It doesn’t mean it’s not good. It just means it’s not part of the range that makes this region so infamous.
A PDF for you!
I’ve made a little PDF for you to download and print out if you want to keep the “Left vs. Right” list handy in your wallet for your next wine purchasing excursion. Click here to view or print!
Enjoy your Bordeaux exploration!
Extra wine fun fact: Some of you might be noticing the name “Cabernet” used twice as “Cabernet Sauvignon” and “Cabernet Franc” and asking yourself “what’s the difference since they’re both red”? Well check this out:
Cabernet Sauvignon is the mutated crossing of the Cabernet Franc grape and Sauvignon Blanc grape. The crossing of the two created what we know as the “Cabernet Sauvignon” grape.
Cabernet Franc is actually lighter than Cabernet Sauvignon with a much more muted flavor.
• Andrea Immers Robinson, Master Sommelier extraordinaire and a totally bitchin’ woman.
• www.WineSpectator.com, various articles