The Bordeaux wine region is the most renowned and storied wine region in the world. Its long history, which dates back to the Romans, the quality of the wines produced and its large area of production have created and built its insurmountable reputation. From red to white, rosé, sweet and sparkling wine, almost every style is produced in Bordeaux.
With such a long history, an ideal location, wine which is considered to be amongst the best in the world and its strong global influence, Bordeaux is a wonderful region producing wines of superb quality.
The wine region of Bordeaux is located in the south west of France. Its name is derived from the main city around which its vineyards are centred. Three rivers cross the region: The Gironde, the Garonne and the Dordogne. The total area of production represents 120,000 hectares of vineyard with 60 appellations and around 7,400 chateaux producing wines. Within this, there are four main sub-regions delimited naturally by the rivers and the city: the Left Bank, the Graves and Pessac-Léognan, the Right Bank and the Entre-Deux-Mers (between two seas).
“Bordeaux” is derived from the French term “au bord de l’eau” meaning “along the water”. This references the Gironde estuary and its tributaries, the Garonne and the Dordogne Rivers, all of which play key roles in the history and success of this magnifique region.
Almost 2000 years ago the first vineyards were planted, right at the peak of the Roman Empire. This was where the grape variety Biturica was discovered, a varietal that could withstand the harsh winters of Bordeaux.
Yet it was not until the Middle Ages in which Bordeaux began to provide wine to the royal families of England. This was due to the marriage between Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine, a union that transferred ownership of the region from French to English for many years. Resulting in wine exploding onto the English market and trade with Aquitaine growing steadily, soon to become one of the prime markets for Bordeaux wine. Leading to Saint-Émilion, the oldest of Bordeaux’s wine guilds, being founded in 1199.
Difficulties and Diseases
Napoleon III requested an improvement on quality checks in 1855, bringing in the Classification System to separate the best from the mediocre. Unfortunately, diseases hit the vines heavily during the mid-late 1800s.
Powdery Mildew - vine disease, struck in 1851. Discovery of sulphur spraying could eliminate the disease.
Phylloxera - 1875-1892. Entire vineyard destroying disease. Grafting Bordeaux scions onto American rootstock that could resist the disease was found to be the best solution.
Mildew - a parasitic fungus, controlled with a Bordeaux mixture of slaked lime and copper sulphate.
Severe Frost - 1956, Destroyed most vineyards on both banks. Bordeaux still holds the record as the coldest year in history since 1709.
Following the eradication of diseases, vineyards expanded rapidly and the market became flooded with cheap and nasty wines. Therefore, in 1936, the I.N.A.O. (Institut National des Appellations d'Origine) was founded, with an aim to enhance the value of all wines within the region through improved quality.
Climate & Soil
In Bordeaux the terroir is split into two distinctive types. The Left Bank contains gravel-based terroir that is best for this section of growing as it provides drainage and retains/radiates heat at optimal times to support the ripening process. Furthermore, the gravel retains water during the dryer periods, adding the minerality within the wines.
The Right Bank, such as the Medoc, and Pessac Leognan or the Entre-Deux-Mers, have a highly complex mix of soils, all relatively inhospitable for most agriculture but perfect for the grape vines.
Due to the lack of water in Bordeaux vineyards, vine stress is caused. When occurring at the best times, it encourages the development of grapes rather than the leaves and canopies, helping produce smaller berries with a higher juice-to-skin ratio, naturally causing lower yields. The end result being wine with higher concentration and more flavour.
Overall the climate of Bordeaux is one of temperate maritime, planted right in the middle of the equator and the North Pole. With the average temperatures throughout the year remaining mild and cooler nights, Bordeaux has a distinct advantage over other regions, yet slightly more susceptible to frost.
When purchasing a Bordeaux wine, rarely will you find a single varietal listed on the bottle. These wines are beautiful blends of the best grapes within the Bordeaux region. The specific aromas of each grape variety blend together in assemblage to create a unique wine. Each grape variety has its characteristics, soil, and microclimate: it is the mastery of these combinations that makes Bordeaux wines so unique.
Even though single-varietal wines are extremely popular these days, blending varietals allow winemakers to accentuate the best qualities. It is quite simply a ‘1+1=3’ method, obtaining the best of all the grapes to produce something on the next tier above. Proving to be an exquisite alternative to the single grape wines currently flooding the market.
22.5% Cabernet Sauvignon
9.5% Cabernet Franc
2% Auxiliary Varieties
43% Sauvignon Blanc
The wines of Bordeaux follow five main classifications, the first introduced by Napoleon III in 1855, with other classifications following in subsequent years.
The 1855 classification
The Graves classification
The Saint-Émilion classification
The Crus Bourgeois du Médoc classification
The Crus Artisans classification
The Great Growth (“Crus”) 1855 Classification
As the most renowned classification, it highlights the quality of 60 Médoc châteaux and 1 château from the Pessac-Léognan appellation.
All the red wines are ranked within the five categories:
5 Premiers Crus (First Growth)
15 Deuxièmes Crus (Second Growth)
14 Troisièmes Crus (Third Growth)
10 Quatrièmes Crus (Fourth Growth)
18 Cinquièmes Crus (Fifth Growth)
This classification is also comprised of sweet white wines from 27 châteaux in the Sauternes and Barsac appellations, ranked within three categories:
1 Premier Cru Supérieur
11 Premiers Crus
15 Deuxièmes Crus
Since 1855, this classification has only been revised once, in 1973, with the promotion of Château Mouton Rothschild from the rank of Deuxièmes Grands Crus Classés to that of Premiers Grands Crus Classés (Médoc).
Special labelling - This classification included only red wines from the Médoc, the Sauternes and Barsac sweet white wines, and one Graves red cru.
The Graves Classification
The Graves classification was established in 1953 (and slightly revised in 1959). This classification is comprised of 16 châteaux from the Pessac Léognan appellation, recognized for their red wines, white wines, or both:
7 Crus classés red
3 Crus classés white
6 Crus classés red and white
Estates and wines belonging to this classification are not ranked; all are therefore entitled to the name “Cru Classé” (classified growth). This classification is not subject to review. In fact, Château Haut-Brion is the only wine in Bordeaux to belong to two classifications, the Crus Classés de Graves and the Grands Crus Classés in 1855.
Special labelling - Only one classification level, no hierarchy; this classification is not subject to revision.
The Saint-Emilion Classification
The next classification, Saint-Emilion, on the Right Bank, was created later on in 1954 as a common goal for the chateaux to achieve greater quality and to promote the area. This classification is reviewed every ten years.
The 2012 classification names 82 estates: 64 Grands Crus classés and 18 Premiers Grands Crus classés
82 crus in the AOC Saint-Émilion classification
Special labelling - The decree states that the INAO must revise the classification every ten years. Six classifications have been established since 1954.
The Crus Bourgeois Classification
AOC Crus Bourgeois du Médoc
The term Cru Bourgeois was established through the constant use of the term within the Middle Ages, the citizens (bourgeois), residents of the “burgh” (bourg) of Bordeaux, acquired the region’s best lands and were subsequently granted this designation.
Further determination of what fits into the classification is the quality and value of the red wines produced in one of the eight Médoc appellations: Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Listrac, Moulis, Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac, and Saint-Estèphe. Each year, between 240 and 260 properties, often family-owned, form the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois, accounting for more than 40% of the Médoc’s production.
The Crus Artisans Classification
36 AOC Crus Artisans du Médoc
In the Médoc, the term “Crus Artisans” has officially existed for over 150 years: these small wineries often belonged to craftsmen, such as coopers, wheelwrights, and blacksmiths.
This distinction found new life in 1989 with the founding of the Syndicat des Crus artisans du Médoc. They are “autonomous, small- and medium-sized estates at which the manager is actively involved in the operations of his/her vineyard, produces AOC wines, and sells the production that is bottled at the château.” 36 properties, the names of which were published in the Journal Officiel in 2012. The list is reviewed every 5 years.
Special labelling - In 1994, European regulations reintroduced this designation and authorized a “Cru Artisan” mention on the wine’s main label.