The ABCs of Bordeaux

France's premier wine region gave the world the classic red blend of Cabernet and Merlot

The ABCs of Bordeaux
Bordeaux's Cité du Vin celebrates wine around the world. (Deepix Studio)
Mar 27, 2019

Bordeaux is France's largest winegrowing region, comprising approximately 280,000 acres of vineyards and making millions of cases of wine annually. The region is defined by its history, its blue-chip wines and, like most Old World regions, its complex appellation system through which wines are categorized by geographic origin.

Bordeaux Today

Major Regions by Appellation:
Left Bank / Médoc
Left Bank / Graves
Right Bank
Other Appellations of Note
Map: Wine Districts of Bordeaux

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The 1855 Classification
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Traditionally in France, a "château" is a grand country house belonging to an aristocratic family, but in Bordeaux, the term is used to describe a wine estate with its own winery and vineyards. Some châteaus, such as Margaux and Haut-Brion, actually have a great manor house, but many have just a small house or two for the owners or workers, in addition to the necessary facilities for vine cultivation and winemaking.

The Bordeaux region, which takes its name from its central city, has thousands of wine estates. According to its official trade organization, the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux, the region is home to 6,100 estate owners and growers. However, it's the 100 or so superstar châteaus of the region that make the reputation of a vintage. It's the wines from these estates on which the world focuses its attention, especially in the spring, during en primeur, when the newest wines are available first for tasting and later for purchase as futures.

Several classification systems have been created to help consumers identify these top producers. The first and most famous was the 1855 Classification. Other official classifications cover the regions of St.-Emilion and Graves. At the very top of the quality pyramid are the five first-growths of the 1855 Classification (Haut-Brion, Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Margaux and Mouton-Rothschild); St.-Emilion's three Premiers Grands Crus Classé A (Ausone, Cheval-Blanc and Pavie); Pomerol's top estates of Lafleur, Le Pin and Pétrus; and Sauternes' Grand Premier Cru, Château d'Yquem. These are the blue-chip stocks of the Bordeaux wine world.

This is not to say, however, that the most expensive wines are always the best. Particularly in a top vintage, "lesser" producers may make wines of equal or superior quality.

Today, all the leading châteaus, whether they sell for $20 a bottle or $2,000, take the utmost care of their vineyards, which in most instances are planted to Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Red Bordeaux is nearly always a blended wine, and labels rarely indicate grape varieties, as they do in California or Australia. Instead, they indicate the producer's name and the origin of the wine, or its appellation.

Bordeaux comprises two large subregions: the Left Bank, located south and west of the Garonne and Gironde rivers, and the Right Bank, located north and east of the Dordogne and Gironde rivers (with Entre-Deux-Mers occupying the less prestigious region between the Dordogne and the Garonne). The Left Bank includes regions such as Graves and Médoc (with its prestigious subappellations of Margaux, St.-Julien, Pauillac and St.-Estèphe); vineyards here are dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. The Right Bank's prestige appellations are St.-Emilion and Pomerol, and Merlot and Cabernet Franc are favored here.

Bordeaux's prized dessert wines rely on the white grapes Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle, with the leading appellations for these sweet, botrytized wines being Sauternes and Barsac in Graves. Many châteaus across Graves also make dry white wines.

The leading châteaus have well-equipped cellars as well as the best winemaking money can buy. Since the 1980s, investment in vineyards and cellars has been enormous, from high-tech wineries and A-list consulting enologists to the finest oak barrels and bottling lines.

Harvest here typically begins in September. The wines are fermented and macerated for anywhere from 10 to 30 days, depending on the quality of the grapes. The new wines are then aged in barrels for 12 to 24 months, and released about six months after bottling.


The Romans, who took wine with them as their empire expanded, probably planted the first vineyards in Bordeaux in the first century B.C., most likely in the area now known as St.-Emilion.

Bordeaux's next era of expansion came more than a thousand years later, lasting from the mid-12th to the mid-15th century, when the ports of Bordeaux and Libourne were under English rule. The wines were shipped to international markets, most notably England, whose merchants coined the term "claret" for red Bordeaux.

The English were defeated at the Battle of Castillon in 1453, and the territory reverted to French rule. But the profitable trade routes were maintained, and the English continued to be big players in the wine market, followed eventually by Dutch, Irish and German merchants. Many descendants of these families—Sichel, Mähler-Besse, Barton and Cruse, among others—are still prominent in Bordeaux today.

The Médoc, which extends north from the city of Bordeaux, was the last major area to be developed, as its swampy terrain was not initially hospitable to grapegrowing. In the 17th century, Dutch engineers drained the marshes, and vignerons planted the gravel-rich vineyards that would become home to highly regarded châteaus such as Lafite Rothschild, Latour and Margaux.

Courtesy of Château Lafite Rothschild
Baron James de Rothschild purchased Château Lafite in 1868.

As the wine trade developed, a business structure emerged. The château owners worked with courtiers, or brokers, to sell the wines to négociants, the merchants who then sent the wines to market. Beyerman, a Dutch firm, was the first courtier house established, in 1620, and some from this era are still in business today.

Château owners took care of the vineyards, the harvest and making the wine. Négociants provided needed cash flow by buying the wine not long after harvest; they handled everything from maturation through bottling to the sale and distribution of the wine. This model, unique to Bordeaux, still dominates its wine market (though the wines are now mostly matured and bottled at the châteaus).

In the mid-19th century, French emperor Napoléon III requested that the Syndicate of Courtiers of Bordeaux compile a classification of the region's wines to showcase them at the Paris Exposition of 1855. The châteaus were ranked according to which fetched the highest prices (in contrast, for example, to the terroir-driven classification of Burgundy, which came later).

The 1855 Classification was limited to the Médoc and Graves and comprises five tiers, from first-growth to fifth-growth. It initially included only four first-growths. However, in 1973, the original ranking was altered in a historic decision when Château Mouton-Rothschild was promoted from second-growth to first. While some estates have surpassed their rank in quality and others have fallen into mediocrity, the 1855 Classification is still an important aspect of Bordeaux culture, a useful road map of the hierarchical prestige of the most celebrated châteaus.

Bordeaux Today

Bordeaux is home to more than 6,000 growers either making and bottling their own wine or supplying their grapes to cooperatives and négociants. The wines are bottled under 60 distinct Appellations d'Origine Contrôllées (AOCs).

The grapes allowed in a red Bordeaux wine are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenère. Cabernet Sauvignon is generally dominant on the gravel-rich Left Bank; Merlot is preferred on the Right Bank. Cabernet Franc plays a strong supporting role in both areas, whereas the other three grapes' importance has dwindled.

The négociant system, widely known as the Place de Bordeaux, is still the dominant business model. Châteaus sell allocations to négociants every spring following the harvest, and they, in turn, are in charge of selling and distributing the wine to wholesalers, importers and merchants around the world. This period, known as en primeur, and the futures sales that accompany it, remain one of the wine industry's biggest economic engines.

James Molesworth
Pauillac first-growth Château Latour made waves when it abandoned the futures system in 2012.

During the 1970s, Bordeaux fell into an economic malaise. Many châteaus were sold for a fraction of their worth today. It was the U.S. market that slowly helped pull Bordeaux back up, with increasing demand in the early 1980s and into the 1990s.

Today, the Bordeaux market touches nearly every country in the world; most recently, the Chinese have become important buyers and are busy investing directly in many of the region's châteaus.

Major Appellations

Left Bank / Médoc

Wines: Red
Vineyard acres: 3,780
Approximate average annual case production: 700,000
First-growth: Château Margaux
Classified growths: 21

Courtesy of Château Margaux / Mathieu Anglada / Saison d'Or
Château Margaux is the appellation’s flagship property.

The Margaux appellation, in the southern Médoc, is nearly 5 miles long and includes the communes of Arsac, Cantenac, Labarde, Margaux and Soussans. Its size results in heterogeneous styles among its many producers, but typically the wines are marked by violet and lilac aromas and an elegant structure.

The area is composed of relatively low-lying terrain with poor sandy and fine gravel soils and markedly less clay than farther north in the Médoc. These soils are also very shallow, which allows them to warm up quickly but also makes them susceptible to drought. Consequently, Margaux generally performs better in cooler years with sufficient rainfall.

Wines: Red
Vineyard acres: 2,243
Approximate average annual case production: 435,000
Classified growths: 11

Courtesy of Château Gloria
Château Gloria in St.-Julien is among Bordeaux’s best values.

St.-Julien is the smallest of the four major Médoc appellations, and 80 percent of its vineyards belong to properties that were classified in 1855.

The soils here are among the most varied in the Médoc. The topsoil is covered with large white stones called galets. Underneath, deep mounds of gravel are peppered with quartz pebbles, sand, flint and clay. St.-Julien rises in terraces moving westward, away from the Gironde estuary.

Stylistically, St.-Julien's wines fall between the finesse of Margaux and the power of Pauillac; they display pure and polished fruit as well as enough muscularity to age beautifully. Generally, the châteaus along the Gironde tend to make more refined wines featuring minerality, whereas properties farther inland display a burlier structure and less minerality.

Wines: Red
Vineyard acres: 2,997
Approximate average annual case production: 575,000
First-growths: Châteaus Latour, Lafite Rothschild and Mouton-Rothschild
Classified growths: 18

Courtesy of Château Mouton-Rothschild / Deepix
Château Mouton-Rothschild was elevated to first-growth status in 1973.

Cabernet Sauvignon thrives in the appellation's typically well-drained sand and light gravel soils. These soils form rolling mounds, called croupes, throughout the Médoc, giving vineyards varying exposures; in Pauillac, the croupes reach their highest point at 100 feet above sea level.

Pauillac runs from the border with St.-Estèphe on its northern end to St.-Julien on its southern end. While this results in stylistic differences among the châteaus, there is a common thread that makes Pauillac so celebrated: the classic combination of dark cassis and blackberry fruit flavors supported by signature iron and graphite minerality. At their best, Pauillacs are among the longest-lived wines in Bordeaux, easily developing in bottle for two to three decades.

Wines: Red
Vineyard acres: 3,036
Approximate average annual case production: 600,000
Classified growths: 5

Courtesy of Cos-d'Estournel
Cos-d'Estournel is one of two second-growths in St.-Estèphe.

The terroir of St.-Estèphe is divided. The best of it is located on the Cabernet Sauvignon–friendly gravelly croupes, facing the Gironde estuary. Farther inland the soils are dominated by clay, in which Cabernet struggles to ripen. In recent years, there has been a shift toward using more Merlot in these vineyards, as this earlier-ripening grape prefers clay.

St.-Estèphe's soils are excellent at holding water reserves, and the AOC often excels in hot and dry years, such as 2003. St.-Estèphe's wines are considered the most austere and sometimes rustic versions of the Médoc, with taut tannins and pebbly-textured finishes that can take decades to mellow.

Wines: Red
Vineyard acres: 1,042 in Listrac; 1,499 in Moulis
Approximate average annual case production: 575,000

These two appellations lie inland, adjacent to each other, between Margaux and St.-Julien. The soils are mixed and variable, with clay and limestone on a mostly gravel and iron base. The best wines generally come from the eastern part of Moulis, where the soils are more gravelly, with a sandstone-clay base. With land prices in the major AOCs skyrocketing, some producers have begun to expand production into these areas.

Wines: Red
Vineyard acres: 13,645 in Médoc; 11,569 in Haut-Médoc
Approximate average annual case production: 5,200,000
Classified growths: 5 (all in Haut-Médoc)

The name Médoc is used loosely for the whole peninsula, but it is also an AOC on its own. Areas that do not fall under the St.-Estèphe, Pauillac, St.-Julien, Margaux, Moulis or Listrac appellations are labeled under the regional Médoc and Haut-Médoc AOCs. The Médoc AOC comprises a block to the north, closest to the estuary, whereas the Haut-Médoc AOC encompasses land farther south. These appellations are home to the majority of cru bourgeois estates and can offer excellent value.

Merlot is important in the Médoc due to the presence of clay and sandy soils, whereas the Haut-Médoc has more of the gravel croupes that favor Cabernet Sauvignon.

Left Bank / Graves

Wines: Red, white
Vineyard acres: 4,363
Approximate average annual case production: 770,000 (85 percent red, 15 percent white)
First-growth: Château Haut-Brion
Classified growths: 1

Courtesy of Domaine Clarence Dillon
La Mission Haut-Brion is a sister property of first-growth Haut-Brion.

Pessac-Léognan is the northern portion of the larger Graves region; it was recognized as its own AOC in 1987. Growers here felt their wines were superior to those of their Graves neighbors to the south, an argument bolstered by the location of Graves' lone first-growth, Château Haut-Brion, in Pessac. Pessac has a long winemaking history, with production at Haut-Brion recorded in the mid-17th century.

The soils in Pessac-Léognan comprise more gravel and iron-rich sandstone than do their counterparts farther south. Reds are based on Cabernet Sauvignon, though Merlot plays a large part, and they tend to show an earthy, tarry profile with a touch more rusticity than their Médoc counterparts. White wine is as important as red, and some white bottlings can be as long-lived as the reds.

Wines: Red, white
Vineyard acres: 8,097
Approximate average annual case production: 1,600,000 (79 percent red, 21 percent white)

Graves is the general term for the viticultural area that spreads south of Bordeaux on the Left Bank of the Garonne River. It encompasses Pessac-Léognan as well as sweet wine appellations such as Sauternes and Barsac. However, it is also an AOC in its own right.

This is one of the only areas where white wine, based on the Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon grapes, is just as esteemed as red wine. The Graves region as a whole is hillier and more wooded than the Médoc, although the soils are similarly gravel-based, as its name implies. There are also limestone and sand soils, which favor the production of white wine. White wines labeled Graves are dry; those labeled Graves Supérieures are medium-sweet versions.

Wines: Dessert
Vineyard acres: 4,847 in Sauternes; 963 in Barsac
Approximate average annual case production: 340,000 in Sauternes; 90,000 in Barsac
Grand Premier Cru: Château d'Yquem
Classified growths: 15 in Sauternes; 10 in Barsac

Gérard Uféras
Château d'Yquem is world-renowned for its rich dessert wine.

Bordeaux makes some of the finest sweet wines in the world, and Sauternes is the region's cream of the crop. The wines are made mostly from the Sémillon grape, supported by Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle.

The Ciron River creates a mesoclimate that is key to the production of sweet wine here. The cold waters meet the warmer Garonne currents, generating a fine mist. The humidity that arises from this mist spurs the growth of the fungus Botrytis cinerea, or noble rot. Attacking grape skins, it shrivels the berries, reducing the amount of juice and concentrating the remaining sugars. Harvest of sweet wines typically starts around mid-October as pickers do several tries (individual passes through the vineyards), selecting the bunches and individual berries that have been affected by the rot.

Barsac is one of the five communes allowed to label its wine Sauternes, but it is also its own AOC, so producers there can label their wines with either AOC. Barsac's distinct terroir features more limestone than the gravel of neighboring Sauternes; typically, Barsac wines are brighter and more minerally in style, with Sauternes richer and more opulent.

The economic pressures of producing small quantities of sweet wine have resulted in numerous properties being bought by producers either farther up the Médoc or from the Right Bank. In addition, many Sauternes and Barsac estates now also produce dry whites under the generic Bordeaux AOC, made from earlier-picked grapes.

Other Dessert Wine Appellations:
Wines: Dessert
Vineyard acres: 2,001
Approximate average annual case production: 290,000

To the north and east of Barsac and Sauternes are four other appellations that produce sweet wine: Cérons sits on the left bank of the Garonne while Loupiac, Ste.-Croix-du-Mont and Cadillac are on the right bank.

Lacking the mesoclimate of Barsac and Sauternes by the Ciron River, these areas are less affected by botrytis and depend more on overripening of the grapes. Their wines tend to be lighter-bodied and more forward in nature.

Generally, the best quality among these can be found in Cérons, where sandy gravel on a limestone base provides the freshness and acidity needed for balance, as opposed to the more clay-rich soils found across the river.

Right Bank

Wines: Red
Vineyard acres: 13,173
Approximate average annual case production: 2,500,000
Premiers Grands Crus Classé A: Châteaus Ausone, Cheval-Blanc and Pavie
Classified growths: 79

Gérard Uféras
Château Cheval-Blanc's state-of-the-art winery was completed in 2011.

Though archaeological evidence suggests that Romans planted vines in the area of St.-Emilion, the region's wines were largely ignored by the Bordeaux wine trade until well into the 20th century, one reason they were left out of the 1855 Classification. The appellation has come a long way since, and the charming town of St.-Emilion is now a major tourist attraction with UNESCO World Heritage site status.

Large and densely planted, St.-Emilion reveals significant variation among its subzones. Below the town itself, there is a large portion of flat, sandy soils spreading out toward the river, which generally make generic St.-Emilion. Approaching the town and atop the plateau upon which it sits is a limestone base, often farmed in terraces, and home to the appellation's top sites.

Overall, Merlot is the star grape, often comprising 50 percent to 80 percent of the blend, with Cabernet Franc playing a supporting role. Bordering Pomerol, however, there is a high percentage of gravel compared to the rest of the AOC, where Cabernet Franc performs well, giving wines from this area a different profile.

Although St.-Emilion estates were not ranked in 1855, winegrowers lobbied to create their own classification in the 1950s. From lowest to highest ranked, the chateaus are labeled Grand Cru, Grand Cru Classé, Premier Grand Cru Classé B and Premier Grand Cru Classé A. The classification is scheduled to be revised every 10 years, but the process has been fraught with squabbles and litigation, often delaying and even annulling the results. The last revision was in 2012.

St.-Emilion Satellites:
Wines: Red
Vineyard acres: 9,837
Approximate average annual case production: 2,000,000

The Barbanne River divides St.-Emilion from its satellites to the north. From largest to smallest, these satellites are Montagne-St.-Emilion, Lussac-St.-Emilion, Puisseguin-St.-Emilion and St.-Georges-St.-Emilion. Nearest St.-Emilion, in Montagne and St.-Georges, the geology is similar, with clay-limestone soils on a limestone base. Lussac is located on a gravel plateau, mixed with sand to the west and clay to the east. In Puisseguin, which reaches nearly 300 feet above sea level, it's back to clay-limestone.

The wines blend a majority of Merlot with Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Generally, wines from these areas are lighter-bodied and more forward than those from St.-Emilion proper.

Wines: Red
Vineyard acres: 1,957
Approximate average annual case production: 345,000

Courtesy of Pétrus
Pétrus is one of Bordeaux’s most collectible wines.

Pomerol is marked by a small plateau of blue clay in its middle, home to the top properties. From there, rings of gravel and eventually sand spread out toward the edges of the appellation. Merlot is the most important grape; it typically represents at least 80 percent of the blend, with Cabernet Franc playing a supporting role.

This enclave (the smaller of the two major Right Bank appellations), located to the northwest of St.-Emilion, was relatively unknown to American consumers until the 1980s and 1990s. Now, some of its wines command eye-widening prices. Unlike the Left Bank or neighboring St.-Emilion, there is no classification in Pomerol.

Wines: Red
Vineyard acres: 1,905 in Fronsac; 600 in Canon-Fronsac; 2,851 in Lalande-de-Pomerol
Approximate average annual case production: 1,000,000

On the western side of Pomerol, beyond the Barbanne River, lies Fronsac and its smaller enclave of Canon-Fronsac. Fronsac is on a high plateau of clay-limestone soils, with mostly limestone slopes descending into Canon-Fronsac to the south. The area's terroir has much in common with the limestone plateau of St.-Emilion just 6 miles away.

Due north of Pomerol is Lalande-de-Pomerol, which is considered its satellite. Until 1954, this was two separate AOCs: Lalande and Néac. The Néac area is still considered superior, boasting gravel soils mixed with clay and limestone on an iron-rich base. In the original Lalande, the soils are thinner and mixed with sand.

Wines: Red (Blaye and Francs also make white)
Vineyard acres: 34,812
Approximate average annual case production: 7,500,000

The appellations now collectively known as Côtes de Bordeaux can be confusing. They were previously called Côtes de Blaye, Côtes de Bourg, Côtes de Francs, Côtes de Castillon and Côtes de Cadillac. But in 2009, after years of lobbying, these appellations came together under the Côtes de Bordeaux umbrella, with the exception of the Côtes de Bourg, which chose to remain separate. Blaye, Francs, Castillon and Cadillac can now use the AOC Côtes de Bordeaux, with their individual name as a prefix. This was a purely marketing-driven move, however, as these appellations are rather distinct. Their principal commonality is that they are all bordered by rivers, giving them some maritime influence.

Bourg and Blaye are across the Gironde from the Médoc. Francs and Castillon, on the right bank of the Dordogne, have more in common with neighboring St.-Emilion and its satellites. Cadillac is a bit farther south, sandwiched between the Entre-Deux-Mers and the Graves regions across the Garonne.

Other Appellations of Note

Wines: Red, white, rosé
Vineyard acres: 143,009
Approximate average annual case production: 32,500,000

The generic Bordeaux AOC is used for all areas that do not fall under a more specific AOC. The designation can also be used for wines of a color not permitted under that appellation. Some fine white wines are made in the Médoc, for example, and are labeled as Bordeaux AOC.

Bordeaux Supérieur is used for red and white wines only, with slightly more stringent requirements such as minimum alcohol and restrictions on yields. All rosé is bottled as Bordeaux AOC.

There is not much typicity here, as the AOC is large and diverse, so it's best to follow producer style when choosing wines.

Wines: White
Vineyard acres: 3,807
Approximate average annual case production: 815,000

Entre-Deux-Mers, which literally means "between two rivers," is a large viticultural area between the Garonne and the Dordogne. This AOC is the only one in the region to be 100 percent dedicated to white wines. The soils are essentially clay mixed with limestone, with pockets of sand. There are parcels of gravel in the north and loam in the south.

Data source: Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux. Vineyard acreage data from 2015; average annual case production reflects figures from 2006 to 2015.

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