Guide to Bordeaux Wine: A French Favorite

Big, bold, beautiful Bordeaux. That sexy silent x at the end. Pronounced bore-doe. Home to the king of terroirs, maker of the prince of wines and the benchmark to which most (if not all) wines aspire to. Bordeaux wines are the pinnacle of olde-worlde excellence. They’re proud. They’re noble. They’re probably where you want to start if you’re using a wine investment app. It’s where the legendary 1855 classification system was born and where the chateaux are so beautiful, they almost outshine the product. But what do you do if you don’t know your Merlot from your Malbec? Hopefully our basic guide to Bordeaux wines will help you out of any sticky oenological situations. Let’s explore one of the best wine regions.

What Is Bordeaux?

Any wine that comes from grapes grown in the 120,000 hectare region in the south west of France. The Bordeaux wine region, which is just 60 miles big, owes its success in part to the separation by the Gironde estuary. This stretch of water makes Bordeaux a story of two halves; right bank and left bank. Left bank wines come from hallowed soil; this is where the terroir is rockier. Although left bank soil is technically “bad” – those deep deposits of limestone mean the vines have to look harder for nutrients. This actually gives left bank wines the robust character that they are famous for, and are thus superb at ageing. Right bank wines come from healthier soil, giving a smoother finish for sooner consumption.

Red Bordeaux Wine

The disparity in soil naturally leads to a difference in the grapes planted. Left bank blends tend to be heavy with Cabernet Sauvignon, while right bank blends are Merlot dominant. Up to 90% of Bordeaux wine is red, and blends vary from producer to producer. A red Bordeaux blend will primarily be made up of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, while lesser amounts of Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and occasionally Carménère are not uncommon. Some producers are happy to publish their recipes, while others believe the secrets of their success must go to the grave with them. Cab Sav dominant wines are bolder and age better while Merlot heavy wines are smoother. Both banks give that often copied, never equalled, signature Bordeaux wine taste. 

Learn more about Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec in our detailed guides on these varieties.

White Bordeaux Wine

While Bordeaux is undoubtedly most famous for its left and right bank red blends, there is a third blend that is often – and mistakenly in our opinion – overlooked. News flash, Bordeaux wine colors do not stop at rouge; 10% of the terroir is devoted to Sauvignon blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle. These Bordeaux blancs are zesty and zippy, fresh tasting with citrus and floral flavors. More about that later. 

There is one clear exception to the rule however and that is of course Sauternes. This sweet dessert wine is liquid gold in a glass. Grown exclusively in Graves, Sauternes is pure nectar. It’s made from a blend of Sémillon, Sauvignon blanc, and Muscadelle grapes that have been affected by Botrytis cinerea, otherwise known as noble rot. Yes, that’s right, one of the most expensive and hard to come by wines in the world is made using mouldy grapes. We suggest trying it before you make any opinions though – not only does Sauternes age beautifully,  it’s delicious, especially when served with strong flavoured cheese or foie gras. 

The Bordeaux Wine Region

The French are world renown for being, shall we say, a little complicated. Thus, it would be only natural that their famous wine region would follow suit. The Bordeaux wine region comprises 38 regions and a whopping 57 appellations (more than any other region in Europe). A region can contain several subregions too – such as Medoc (the region) and St. Estephe, St. Julien and Margaux (the sub-regions). 

An appellation is basically a fancy way of saying terroir. The governing body AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée or Protected Designation of Origin for the non-French speakers among you) makes sure that the 57 different terroirs are farmed following a strict set of very French and sometimes incomprehensible guidelines. You can learn more about the Bordeaux 1855 classification system.

Bordeaux is the only region in the world to use the famous classification system. This was set out in 1855 by Napoleon III and is the single most important classification system of wine regions everywhere. Sixty-one wines are ordered from premier to cinquieme crus (first to fifth growth) and are rightly considered some of the best wines in the world. The five premiers crus (Châteaux Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Haut Brion and Mouton-Rosthchild) are capable of reaching astronomic prices, and are some of the most coveted and counterfeited wines in the world. 

Bordeaux Wine Tasting

Understanding the differences between a grand cru and where Graves ends is just the beginning. Bordeaux wine is so much more than what’s in the glass – it’s as much about decanting and dosage as it is about temperature and tannins

How to Serve Bordeaux?

First of all there is the all important breathing that we hear so often about. The best way of doing this is by decanting, but even just opening a bottle up prior to serving it will allow it to oxidize, helping to soften flavors and release those all important aromas. But there is another reason why decanting is so important, particularly with older wines, and that’s sediment. As wines age, tannins and other particles polymerize which creates the solid matter that you often see at the bottom of your bottle. Stand the bottle up for a couple of hours (or better still, a couple of days), and gently pour into decanter. Voila – sediment no more.

The second reason why decanting is a good idea is temperature. Yes, we all grew up thinking that red wine should be served at room temperature, but this is in fact a myth. So it’s time to turn that thermostat down. Light, fruity Bordeaux red wines should be served slightly chilled at around 12-13˚C, medium bodied reds a touch warmer at 14-16˚C, while those big bodied beauties that have made Bordeaux wines so famous should only reach 16-18˚C maximum. 

What Wine Glass to Use for Bordeaux?

Then there is the glass. The ideal Bordeaux wine glass probably does not come from Bordeaux wines are famous for their complex bouquets and in order to get the full flavor of these, we suggest investing in some large wine glasses with tall bowls and a wide, thin, rim. This is not only for aesthetic purposes; the tall bowl allows for a smoother taste and evens out tannins and acidity. 

When choosing your glass, think about matching the shape to the grape. Heavy reds need a big bowl, and the thin rim adds to a good delivery. This means your wine will arrive on the right area of the palate. Fresher, younger wines need narrow apertures to contain the aromas. Sauternes should be drunk from a bulb-shaped bowl, in order to emphasise acidity and balance sweetness. Finally, a long stem avoids heat transference. 

What Does Bordeaux Taste Like?

But what about that all important Bordeaux wine taste? The thing that makes the difference between a Petrus and a Parenchere? The region is fabled for its complex tastes and aromas but do you really know what they mean?

In order to understand the real taste of Bordeaux, you must first understand that the spectrum is vast. No two producers are alike and there are huge differences from one region to another. And we haven’t even mentioned the aging process, blending, vinification or commitment to biodiversity yet. We recommend you first read the basics of how to taste wine, because to put it simply, it is not simple.

Red Bordeaux Taste

As red is the region’s star player, let’s start here. But remember, there is no one size fits all rule. So many factors affect the wine’s taste including terroir, right or left bank, quality, age, and of course vintage. The same wine from the same producer can taste completely different depending on that year’s weather conditions. However, having said that, medium to full bodied Bordeaux red wine tastes lean towards primary flavors of black and red fruits such as blackcurrants and plum as well as graphite and delicious pencil lead (yes, really). Merlot heavy wines (bonjour Château Petrus) tend to be fruitier and softer on the palette, while Cabernet Sauvignon dominant wines will be channeling warm spice, vanilla, liquorice, and black pepper. High tannins can lead to a mouth drying aspect which some might find unpleasant in younger wines, but oh so delicious in older vintages. 

White Bordeaux Taste

With less than 10% of white grown on these hallowed soils, white Bordeaux still accounts for over 4 million bottles a year (that’s 300,000,000 litres by the way). So you know that if a producer gives over even half a hectare to white it’s going to be worth it. Basically, Bordeaux blanc is tres bon

Without delving into the complexities of sweet wines such as Sauternes (see above), white Bordeaux is generally fresh and mineral, with an encyclopedia of flavors. Think lemon, citrus rind, orange, lime, grapefruit, butter and vanilla. As these Bordeaux beauties age, the wines mature gracefully and develop honey, flowers, citrus, spice and stone characteristics. 

It would seem then that wine from French wine regions, just like French women, just gets better with age.

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