An Introduction to Bordeaux and its Wines

Bordeaux is the reference standard for wine. Bordeaux produces more wine, more great wine, more good wine, more ordinary wine, more red wine, more white wine and more sweet wine than any other single wine region in the world.

And Bordeaux has been doing this for centuries. There was wine produced here during the Roman occupation more than two millennia ago. Through the dark ages, the middle ages, medieval times, the renaissance to the modern era, Bordeaux has been the source of the greatest wines on earth.

If you do not know the wines of Bordeaux, then you cannot claim to be knowledgeable about wine. Fortunately, Bordeaux is also the most studied, most documented, most written about wine region of the world, and its wines are sold all around the world, so it is not too difficult to learn the basics of Bordeaux.

The name Bordeaux applies to the city and its wines – with a capital B it usually means the city; bordeaux with a lower case b it means the wine. Bordeaux is a fairly large region, and the names of the different wines of Bordeaux are strictly controlled by a complex framework of regulations. There are two basic platforms for this framework:

1. The French “Appellation Controlée” system, under which wines are named from the place where the grapes are grown and the wine is made. Each province in France is divided into communes – usually a small town with its surrounding lands, something we might call a township. The better communes have the right, under the regulations, to name the wines produced there after the commune. Lesser wines from lesser communes may only bear a regional name, the lowest ranking name being simply Bordeaux. In total there are several dozen different “Appellations” in Bordeaux.

2. The classification of 1855 – a ranking system brought in to identify and rank wines by quality, that quality being determined by the wine’s historic price on the open market. This classification dealt with only the best wines of the region, and ranked all these wines as First, Second, Third, Fourth or Fifth Growths. You will recognize these wines by the words: “Grand Cru Classée en 1855” prominently displayed on the label.

The classification of 1855 applied only to the Haut Médoc region of Bordeaux, plus one Chateau in what was then called Graves. Other regions of Bordeaux have since drawn up classifications of their own, the best known being the commune of St. Emilion, and the communes of the northern part of the Graves region, known collectively as Pessac-Léognan.

A Bordeaux wine estate is usually called a Chateau, sometimes a Domaine. So here are some examples of what you might find on a label of bordeaux wine:

Chateau Bonnet Appellation Bordeaux Controlée – this is the red wine from a well known chateau in the very large Entre-Deux-Mers region of Bordeaux. They produce both red and white wine at this chateau, so you will also see:
Chateau Bonnet Appellation Entre-Deux-Mers Controlée – this is the white wine from the same chateau. The regulations only allow the white wine from this region to be called Entre-Deux-Mers.
Chateau Timberlay Appellation Bordeaux Supérieur Controlée – parts of the region are allowed to add the word “Supérieur” to their name; they are held to a slightly higher standard of quality and production to exercise this entitlement.
Chateau Loudenne Appellation Médoc Controlée – within Bordeaux, the region stretching along the left bank of the river downstream from the city of Bordeaux is called the Médoc. The portion of Médoc closest to the city is called the Haut-Médoc; further downstream is the Bas-Médoc, but on wine labels they leave out the Bas and call their wine simply Médoc. This example is a very fine wine from a chateau just below the line separating the two regions of the Médoc.
Chateau Caronne Ste. Gemme Appellation Haut-Médoc Controlée – the wines from the Haut-Médoc always put the Haut in their name, as this region is considered superior to the Bas region.
Chateau Batailley Appellation Paulliac Controlée Grand Cru Classée en 1855 – there are two things of importance to note here. First, the appellation for this wine is the name of its commune. There are several commune names you should learn to recognize, they are listed below. The second significant feature is the notice that this wine was included in the 1855 classification.
Chateau Bouscaut Appellation Pessac-Léognan Controlée Cru Classé – this wine is from one of the regions that drew up its own classification system in 1987. Before that date, these communes were part of the much larger Graves region that stretches upstream from the city of Bordeaux. Both red and white wines may be labelled Pessac-Léognan, and both red and white wines may be classified as Cru Classée. Some chateau make only red, some only white; some chateau have both their red and white classified, some only one colour. And of course there are many chateaux within the appellation that make very good wine that is not classified as Cru Classée.
Some communes whose names you should learn to recognize:

St. Estèphe, Paulliac, St. Julien, Margaux – these are the four most famous communes of the Haut-Médoc. All of them make wonderful wine. Most of the chateau that were included in the 1855 classification are in these four communes. Almost all the wine made here is red, and most of it to a very high quality standard – and prices to match! They require several years of ageing to reach their peak; as they mature they reach heights of elegance and power, complexity and sophistication – a rare treat, worth the price and worth the wait.
Moulis, Listrac – these two communes often write their names as Moulis-en-Médoc and Listrac-Médoc. They are also in the Haut-Médoc, upstream from the previous four, but are not quite as renowned. There is much very fine wine made here, but none of the chateaux were included in the 1855 classification.
Pessac-Léognan – the collective name given to a collection of communes in the northern part of the Graves region. This classification was created in 1987 – up to that time they were part of the larger Grave region. One chateau here, Chateau Haut-Brion, was included in the 1855 classification. More recently this region drew up its own classification. Both red and white wine of exceptionally fine quality is made here.
St. Emilion – a large commune across the river from Bordeaux, on what is known as the “right bank” of the river. The wines of St. Emilion were not included in the 1855 classification, so they have created with their own, which they tinker with every now and then. The rankings to look for are: Premier Grand Cru Classée, Grand Cru Classée, and Grand Cru. All the wines of St. Emilion are red, most of them are very good: rich, full and satisfying. Most of them improve with age, as do the wines of the Haut-Médoc, but they don’t demand as much time to become enjoyable.
Pomerol – a smaller commune on the right bank, next door to St. Emilion. The wines are similar: rich, fleshy, and full of fruit. The wines of Pomerol have never been officially classified.
Sauternes – and now for something completely different! The wines of Sauternes are white and sweet. They are the most wonderfully sweet wines on earth – rich, powerful, pungent and delicious. They are made by a unique natural process (which is described in a separate article) and make a most marvellous dessert.

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