An Introduction to Bordeaux Wine

Bordeaux in France is considered the largest wine producing region for fine wine in the world. The region stretches over an area of roughly 70km both north to south and east to west, and is home to several thousand wine producers. Depending on the size of the harvest or the so called “yield” in a vintage, these between 700 and 1,000 million bottles of wine are produced in one year. While most bottles are only of table wine quality, even the number of “Chateaux” which produce high quality wines is large at around 400. The vast majority of wine produced in Bordeaux is red wine, with the remainder being dry whites and the also well known sweet wines from Sauternes and Barsac.

Given the size of the area and the diversity and number of producers, a finer geographical segmentation of Bordeaux wine is useful. Wine lovers usually split Bordeaux into the so called “left bank”, which are the Chateaux located to the west of the river Garonne (including the “appelations” of Graves, Margaux, St. Julien, Pauillac, St. Estephe, Haut Medoc, and for sweet wines only, Sauternes and Barsac), and the “right bank” to the east of the river (most important for fine wines here St. Emilion and Pomerol). The typical styles of Bordeaux red wine from the left- and right bank are not alike due to the different blends of grape varieties used and the different soil encountered on the two river banks. While Bordeaux red wine is always a blend of two to five grape varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and the now less common Malbec), the blend changes year by year, as each producer will define the optimal mix depending on the quality of the harvest. The harvest quality is heavily influenced by the season’s weather which will favour the development and quality of one or the other grape variety.  

“Left bank” Bordeaux producers usually use a higher share of the somewhat sterner Cabernet Sauvignon grapes which grow on the more gravel dominated soil. The softer and rounder Merlot variety is more dominant on the “right bank” with its limestone, sand and clay dominated grounds.
A second, often mentioned differentiation of Bordeaux wines is the Grand Cru classification established in 1855, which ranked the best producers from the left bank communes into 1st , 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th growth wines (“Grand Cru Classe”). The ranking today still reflects the quality as of 1855: a single significant revision was made to the classification in its history, when Chateau Mouton Rothschild was elevated from 2nd to 1st growth in 1973. While the 1855 classification has certainly maintained relevance at the very high-end where the five 1st growth Chateaux (Haut Brion, Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Mouton-Rothschild) often produce truly exceptional red wines, its use is limited when it comes to the “lesser” growth. Some of the 2nd to 5th growth Chateaux have continued to improve quality due to the investments and efforts made over decades and today produce quality very close to 1st growth (e.g. 5th growth Pontet Canet), others have not only fallen behind their peers but also behind some of the best non-classified Cru Bourgeois (e.g. Sociando Mallet, Phelan Segur, Meyney), where quality regularly matches many of the Grand Cru Classe.
On the right bank a similar classification was created in 1955 only for the St. Emilion region, and has caused plenty of controversy among producers due to the more frequent up- and down-grading of wines. These revisions happened in 1969, 1986, 1996, 2006 and most recently in 2012. The best producers in St. Emillion are classified into Premier Grand Cru Classe A, Premier Grand Cru Classe B and Grand Cru Classe. After the recent elevation of Chateau Angelus and Chateau Pavie to Premier Grand Cru Classe A, this very top segment contains four producers including Chateau Ausone and Chateau Cheval Blanc. Neither the right back commune of Pomerol nor the left bank commune of Graves have a similarly granular classification of their producers.

Unlike most whites and simple red table wines, fine red wines from Bordeaux require time to age in order to reach their peak and provide the most drinking pleasure. This aging is needed for the more complex wine aromas to evolve and surface. If such a fine wine is opened early, i.e. within a few years of bottling, it will often have a very concentrated but rather simple taste of fruit, combined with a sometimes dry or harsh finish from the tannins in the wine which have not yet softened. This development process can take about 10 years for good Bordeaux in good vintages, but it can take much longer for very good vintages as one can see for example in the 1995/1996 vintages where many top wines have yet to reach their peak. While this need to mature might seem inconvenient at first, it allows the wine lover to follow a wine’s development over many years by opening a bottle every few years, and it also allows you to enjoy wines from very good vintages at age 30 or 40 (e.g. 1982, 1975, 1961), with exceptional bottles even providing drinking pleasure at age 100+ (e.g. 1900, 1899, 1870). Bordeaux reds share this need to age and develop in bottle with other high quality Italian and French wines (e.g. Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Rioja, Ribera del Duero). While cellaring might also benefit the so called “New World” wines (US, Australia, Argentina, South Africa, Chile), wines from these regions tend to be fruitier and ready to drink much earlier. The disadvantage of such early maturity is that they usually will not last for much more than a decade.

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