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Wine By Region Right Europe Right France Right Bordeaux Right Left Bank   Right Bank   Entre-deux-Mers

A vineyard in the Haut-Medoc

Heavy plantings in the Haut-Médoc of Bordeaux. Photo by Jonas Roux. License: Creative Commons SA 2.0 Generic.

Vineyards in St Emilion

Vineyards in St-Émilion. Photo by michael clarke stuff on Flickr.
License: Creative Commons SA 2.0 Generic.

Bordeaux's long history has led to a high reputation. Aristocrats and people of leisure have favored the wines of Bordeaux since royal years, but mere commoners across the world that can afford their high prices also appreciate their inimitable flavors. Although perhaps not as exclusive as some of the red wines of Burgundy, the best Bordeaux wines can cost upwards of $1,000 new, and untold thousands more when of a classic vintage. Nonetheless, of the millions of bottles that are made, some of them are affordable or midrange.

Bordeaux wine typifies a certain style: heavy, full-bodied, high in tannins, high in alcohol, and low to medium in acidity. These wines are not often easy to drink, and are often considered an acquired taste. The most mouthbittering wines consist mostly of Cabernet Sauvignon and come from the Left Bank of Bordeaux, while the more approachable ones are largely made up of Merlot planted on the Right Bank.

Although many of the region's traditions have changed little since its inception, Bordeaux has also been swept up in the recent trend towards red wine, especially full-bodied red wine. White wine plantings have plummeted and they now make up only about 10% of production, most of which is the sweet wines of the Sauternes region. These wines, made from Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, rival the red wines of Bordeaux in both elegance and price. Legendary Sauternes producer Château d'Yquem is considered one of the best wine producers in the world.

While wine buyers looking for bargains will undoubtedly have to renounce the preponderance of wines from Bordeaux, those seeking the maximum in refinement will look to Bordeaux as well as Burgundy. Unlike many appellations, the quality of Bordeaux wines has generally not suffered despite the hype that surrounds these wines. Most of the highly classified châteaux (see more about classification in the producers section) have stuck to the same methods that they have used for hundreds of years.

The red wines of Napa Valley were mostly modeled on Bordeaux. The idea was to use the same grapes, but use less complicated and expensive processes, to provide a much lower price to the consumer. The problem is, once the possibility emerged that the modern Napa wines were as good as or better than Bordeaux, they also rose in price. And Bordeaux has risen off its laurels to again become the best producer of the Bordeaux style of wine.


Old bottle of Bordeaux

A 1911 bottle of Bordeaux.
Amazingly, this winery still
exists after 100 years, and is one
of many with a very long history.
Photo by BerndB on Wikipedia.
License: Creative Commons
Attribution SA 3.0

The history of Bordeaux is interesting, as it is the single greatest factor that determined Bordeaux's domination of the wine world. In the early ADs, while France was ruled by Romans, wine production in Bordeaux began. Just like with the rest of the French wine regions we now know today, the Romans saw the potential to profit from Bordeaux's climate and geography. The best way to do so was to harvest and vinify grapes.

Although the technology of wine production was still in its infancy, wine from Bordeaux gained popularity. According to some historians, Romans were actively trading their wine with Britain by the 2nd century A.D. As Roman trade increased, so did the magnitude of the wine industry in Bordeaux. But the inevitable fall occurred, and the rulers that took the place of the Romans lacked their economic expertise. The wine industry collapsed, and it would not recover for centuries.

The Frankish empire failed to utilize the capabilities of Bordeaux in all the 500 years that they reigned there. The world quickly forgot about these excellent wines as stability and peace in France became the nation's main goals. But when Henry II, a British ruler, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, an important Frenchwoman, married, Henry saw the potential in French wine, and exports began to increase again.

During the Middle Ages, French wine saw a dramatic return to form, mostly thanks to the British influence. The entire family started by Henry was in support of Bordeaux wine exports, and trading began to bustle. But the Hundred Years' War between France and England curtailed wine exports there, and another dark period of war began.

A comeback was required, and its inception lay in the discovery of the Médoc's wine-growing potential in the 1700s. Back then, few growers dared to plant their plantings in the area, as it basically consisted of swampy marshes. Instead, only Graves had any plantings. But the Médoc's potential was eventually realized, and the area was cultivated. At that point relations between France and England were still tense, but the wines produced were so good that a number of wealthy Englishmen found ways to purchase and ship them.

When the people involved in Bordeaux wine realized that well-off people were extremely interested in their wines, a market was readymade. Bordeaux growers raised prices, and the area became much higher-quality. A number of châteaux, such as Pichon Longueville, that still exist today, were started during this resurgence.

Bordeaux had finally found its market - the rich. In 1855, a detailed classification system was set up that ranked the best wines. Officially called the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855, the classification established separate ranking systems for the sweet wines of Sauternes and the dry red wines of the Médoc. Although the classification's only criterion was price, its accuracy is evident considering the fact that the five "first growths" (what they considered the best Bordeaux producers) still are today. Detailed breakdowns of the classifications can be found on the Médoc page and Sauternes page respectively.

Bordeaux's long history in wine was further solidified by extensive government regulation in the mid-1930s when the AOC system went into place. However, the regulations and the view that Bordeaux wine was cemented in as the best in the world led to laziness and stagnation in the area. The 1976 Judgement of Paris, where Napa wines swept away Bordeaux wines in a blind tasting, was an abrupt wake-up call. The ensuing competition between the two regions has, for the most part, led to higher quality in both.

Climate and Viticulture

Bordeaux is located in the Aquitaine region, which just so happens to have a perfect climate for wine. The region is divided by two rivers, the Dordogne and Garonne. Wines on either side are distinct from each other due to subtle differences in climate. The comparatively small area between the two of them has an less substantial wine industry; this area is called Entre-Deux-Mers, and is the source of many less expensive Bordeaux wines.

Bordeaux's climate is relatively warm, regularly reaching 80F in the summer months and not often dipping into the 30s, even in the coldest parts of the year. Rain levels are high, as necessary for good wine growth, and the region is kept from excessive drying by its closeness to the ocean. The soil is made up largely of limestone, but the wines are kept from austerity by their proximity to the river.

Grape Varieties

Semillon grapes affected by botrytis

Sémillon grapes affected by noble rot, like they are in Sauternes.
This photo is in the public domain.

Stiff regulations almost everywhere in Bordeaux keep the grapes planted there down to a bare minimum. Rosé is rarely made, and grapes from other regions, such as Pinot Noir, do poorly in Bordeaux. Even in the case of white grapes, only a few thrive with the given climate. But those that do can produce some of the best wines in the world.

For red wine, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the two most planted grapes, in their respective domains. On the Left Bank, especially in the Médoc, Cabernet makes up most of the wine, with some Merlot blended in, while Merlot is more prevalent on the Right Bank. But Right Bank houses such as Ausone and Cheval Blanc are legendary for their usage of Cabernet Franc, a lighter derivative of Cabernet Sauvignon that can provide completely unique flavors. Some houses still use blending grape Petit Verdot. Malbec, mainly known for its South American usage nowadays, sometimes makes up a few percent of the blend.

These five grapes--Cab, Cab Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec--make up a common term, the Bordeaux blend. Wine from Bordeaux became so famous that producers tried to replicate the style by using the same grapes, having surprising success in many countries. In order to identify the grapes, producers will call their wines Bordeaux blends rather than listing out the exact makeup of the wine. Other terms for these wines include meritage and claret.

Regulations are less strict in white wine production. Even low-level Trebbiano is allowed to be used. However, in the prominent white wine area of Bordeaux--Sauternes--Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc are the main grapes. The former is normally around 50-70% of the blend. Blending grape Muscadelle is used in small portions.

Major Producers

There are thousands of producers in Bordeaux; although there are not that many AOCs, within each AOC there are many producers. More than almost anywhere else in France, Bordeaux quality is producer-based, meaning it is not possible to simply rely on the name of one of its regions to guarantee quality. (In this respect, it is the opposite of the far more region-based Burgundy). Although many people think that the 1855 classification is outdated, it at least provides a reasonable way of determining what the biggest and most famous players are. These wines are not necessarily the best, but always the most expensive! Buyers looking for top-pedigree wines will want to look at the top wines of this classification.

Here is a list of the top five Médoc wines; go to the Médoc and its individual pages for more information.

Lafite-Rothschild 1999

Is Lafite-Rothschild the best wine in the Médoc?
In 1855 it was classified in the top 5.
This photo is in the public domain.

The 1er Crus (this essentially means top of the top) producers from Médoc number five:

The 2er Crus are one step behind the 1ers. Some, such as Cos d'Estournel, Ducru-Beaucaillou, Léoville-Las-Cases, and Montrose, can rival the 1ers in some years, although they generally lack the same consistency. These wines are not quite as ostentatious in expense or reputation, but to the average drinker can often be equally magical. The same is true of the 3ers Crus, 4ers Crus, and 5ers Crus, some of which have become obscure but most of which still make great wine 150 years later. For more in-depth discussion of each wine, see the Médoc page, where all these wines are covered.

The region of Graves has a few good wines on its own, but the only classifications are for Pessac-Léognan and Sauternes. Here are five good wines from Pessac; see the page for the entire classification and in much more detail.

Sauternes is the best white wine in Bordeaux, and generally considered the best sweet wine in the entire world.

For those who cannot afford the greatness of Yquem, the classification also includes 1er Crus and 2er Crus. See the Sauternes page for more details.

Right Bank wines were slower to be classified. Fans of Merlot--and the luscious, lighter red wines it produces--had to wait a century after the 1855 Médoc ranking for St-Émilion to be classified. The 1955 lineup singled out two wineries as the overall victors, but gave plenty of runner-ups. The top two are listed here with details; the full list is available on the St-Émilion page.


Vineyards in Figeac, one of the prominent St-Émilion houses.
This photo is in the public domain.

As for Pomerol, they simply do not have a classification. The famed Château Petrus, often selling for $5,000 per bottle or more, is the best, but runner-ups like Clinet, La Conseillante, l'Eglise Clinet, Lafleur, Le Pin, and Vieux-Château-Certan are also near legendary status. Check out the Pomerol page for our unofficial classification of the best producers.


An AOC for the general region of Bordeaux does exist, logically called Bordeaux AOC. Usually, this wine is nothing special, as almost any wine made within the physical region of Bordeaux can use this name. Most Bordeaux AOCs are produced in the less desirable areas, but there are exceptions. For example, second wines produced in highly regulated areas by expensive châteaux, such as Yquem, do not meet the regulations and have to be put under Bordeaux AOC proper. Generally, these wines, called second wines sell out rapidly and can range radically from excellent to rather dull. A few châteaux even produce "third wines", which seldom compare in quality to the top cuvées.

Not all winemakers, however, have the name recognition as the large châteaux. As a result, most of the ambitious ones that are not lucky enough to be located in the prime, classified areas, call their wine Bordeaux Supérieur AOC. Put into place in 1943, 7 years after Bordeaux AOC, this AOC has marginally more complicated rules. Several good wines exist, but there are also many poor wines.

Garonne river

The Garonne River. Photo by Havang(nl) on Wikipedia.
License: Creative Commons SA 3.0 Unported.

Other AOCs, such as Bordeaux Sec, Bordeaux Moelleux, Crémant de Bordeaux, Bordeaux Rosé, and Bordeaux Clairet (a darker, fuller rosé) have existed since the AOC system was first created in 1936. Generally, these wines exemplify a totally different style from what people normally associate with Bordeaux. These appellations are very obscure but can be interesting for a flight of fancy.

Bordeaux can be divided up into three very distinct subregions: the Left Bank, Entre-Deux-Mers, and the Right Bank. The Gironde river, which flows in from the Atlantic Ocean in the northwest of Bordeaux, divides up into two further rivers: the Dordogne and the Garonne. The Garonne continues a southeast direction, and the Dordogne goes east. To the west and south of the Garonne lies the Left Bank. To the east and north of the Dordogne is the Right Bank. The area in between the Dordogne and Garonne is called Entre-Deux-Mers (in English, between two waters). Click on any of the bolded regions below to go the page for that region.

Further regions are discussed within the subpages, and of course, more detailed explanations of most of the factors at work in these places are available there.

A view of Chateau Margaux

A view of the tremendous Château Margaux. Photo by Benjamin Zingg. License: Creative Commons SA 2.5 Generic.