The renowned red, white and dessert wines of Bordeaux are the products of blends so successful that they have been imitated the world over.
The reds rely primarily on three grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenère are also permitted, but their popularity here has waned in recent decades.
Bordeaux’s white and dessert wines are based on Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, along with Muscadelle and other varieties.
The blending model employed by regions like Bordeaux, Champagne and the Rhône Valley is a means of achieving both complexity and qualitative consistency. Employing a variety of grapes that ripen at different intervals allows winemakers to adjust their blends to best suit the vagaries of a given vintage.
Bordeaux’s Key Grapes
CABERNET FRANC (red) ka-bər-nā fräŋk
Cabernet Franc is typically a supporting grape in Bordeaux, although it comprises about half the blend of the great Château Cheval-Blanc in the Right Bank's St.-Emilion appellation.
One of Cabernet Sauvignon’s parent grapes, Cabernet Franc long lived in its offspring’s shadow, but its success in France’s Loire Valley has earned it international attention. Prize bottlings can be found from Napa to the ice wines of Canada’s Niagara Peninsula to Tuscany, Austria, Australia and beyond. The grape has become a darling among the hipster somm set.
In style, Cabernet Franc can range from light- to medium-bodied to as intense and full-bodied as Cabernet Sauvignon. Its currant and berry aromas and flavors often stray into herbaceous notes, which can become more pronounced with age.
CABERNET SAUVIGNON (red) ka-bər-nā sō-vē-nyōⁿ
Cabernet Sauvignon reigns on Bordeaux’s Left Bank. It grows well in many appellations, and is capable of rendering wines of uncommon depth, richness, concentration and longevity. Some of the world’s most coveted Cabernet Sauvignon–based wines come from the Médoc appellations of Pauillac, Margaux and St.-Estèphe.
Elsewhere in the world, Cabernet Sauvignon is as likely to be bottled on its own as in a blend, with California’s Napa Valley serving as a prime example of both iterations. It’s a key grape among Italy’s super Tuscans, thrives in South Australia and has met great success in Washington, South Africa, Argentina and Chile.
At its best, unblended Cabernet produces wines of great intensity and depth of flavor. Its classic fruit flavors are black currant, blackberry, plum and black cherry. It can also be marked by spice, like star anise, as well as tobacco, cedar and licorice. In warmer areas, it can be supple and have ripe, jammy notes; in cooler areas, its herbal and mineral flavors will be more pronounced. It can also be very tannic. The best Cabernets feature firm acidity, a full body, great intensity, concentrated flavors and firm tannins.
Cabernets are usually aged for a year or more in new or used French or American oak barrels, a process that (when properly executed) imparts a toasty cedar or vanilla note to the wine while also softening its tannins.
MERLOT (red) mer-lō
Merlot rules the Right Bank of Bordeaux. In St.-Emilion and Pomerol, especially, it can yield plush, ethereal wines of supreme elegance, as displayed in the trophy wines of Pétrus and Châteaus Le Pin and Lafleur.
Merlot is a difficult grape to grow well, as it sets and ripens unevenly. Nevertheless, it’s popular around the world, including Italy, California, Australia and Washington.
Classically styled Merlots are supple, medium-weight wines with velvety tannins, primary fruit flavors of plum, cherry, raspberry and blackberry, and spice and herbal hints.
Like Cabernet, Merlot benefits from being blended with a supporting cast of grapes and also marries well with oak.
SAUVIGNON BLANC (white) sō-vēn-yōⁿ bläⁿ
Sauvignon Blanc is grown in many regions of Bordeaux, where it’s a key part of the blend in the dry whites of Graves and the Médoc; it’s also an important grape in the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac.
Sauvignon Blanc grows well in a variety of appellations, marries well with oak and blends well with Sémillon. It’s bottled as a standalone wine in France’s Loire Valley, where Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are the leading appellations for the grape. New Zealand has had striking success with Sauvignon Blanc, producing its own perfumed, fruity style. In the United States, Robert Mondavi brought the variety to prominence in the 1970s by labeling it Fumé Blanc, and his winery and others have enjoyed success with it.
It can be crisp and refreshing, with primary fruit flavors of citrus (grapefruit, lemon and lime), apple and gooseberry, and notes of lemongrass, peach, honeysuckle and herbs. It matches well with food, and is less expensive to produce than many other popular grapes.
SÉMILLON (white) sā-mē-yōⁿ
Sémillon is Sauvignon Blanc’s blending partner in Bordeaux’s dry white and sweet dessert wines.
Sémillon, like Riesling, is highly susceptible to Botrytis cinerea, or noble rot, a mold that shrivels grapes and concentrates their sugars. These prized botrytized grapes yield luscious dessert wines. When blended with Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon adds body, flavor and texture.
In Australia's Hunter Valley, Sémillon stands on its own as a rich, well-balanced, honeyed wine with complex fig and pear flavors.