Introducing the Bordeaux wine region 

History

For thousands of years the history of mankind has been intertwined with that of the grapevine, making wine a fundamental symbol of our civilisation and a part of daily life. The art of fermenting grapes had been around for centuries by the time it first reached the South-West of France, near Bordeaux, almost 2000 years ago. The works of the poet Ausonius attest to the presence of viticulture in Bordeaux during the Roman period. Winegrowing swiftly became one of the cornerstones of Bordeaux's identity, shaping the course of the city's future. Over the course of two millennia wine has come to define Bordeaux and its people, becoming a source of pride and prestige for the whole region.


Winegrowing region

With approximately 120,500 hectares of vineyards (as of 2012), Bordeaux remains France's largest winegrowing region. One of the key Bordeaux appellations in terms of its geographical stretch is the Haut-Médoc, with its 5,523 hectares of vines. The surface area of the neighbouring Médoc appellation is slightly lower, covering 4,572 hectares. Moulis accounts for 596 ha, the prestigious Margaux 1,494 ha, Saint Julien 913 ha, Pauillac 1,220 ha and Saint Estèphe 1,214 ha. The Graves appellation covers a total of 3,939 ha, of which 1,434 fall within the famous Pessac-Léognan appellation.


On the other side of the river, east of Bordeaux in the area around Libourne, the Saint-Emilion, Pomerol and Fronsac appellations account for some 12,339 hectares of vines: Saint Emilion 5,405 ha, Pomerol 794 ha, Lalande-de-Pomerol 1,136 ha and Fronsac and Canon Fronsac 1,066 ha.
Throughout the Bordeaux region approximately 9,303 hectares of vines are used to produce dry white wines, with around 3,516 ha dedicated to sweet whites.

Classification of Bordeaux wines

1855 was a watershed year for Bordeaux's great Châteaux, with the the first ever official classification.  In preparation for the Universal Exhibition to be held in Paris, Napoleon III asked the merchants of the Place de Bordeaux wine market to draw up a classification system for the "red and white wines of the region." Châteaux were ranked by general reputation, but also based on the price at which their wines were currently traded.


This classification is at the origin of the Grands Cru Classés ranking system, divided into 5 grades. This classification dealt exclusively with the finest wines of the "left bank" (Médoc and Graves), ranging from Premiers to Cinquièmes Grands Crus Classés. Twenty-seven sweet white wines were also cited, divided into three categories: Premier Cru Supérieur for Château d'Yquem, and Premiers and Seconds Crus for the 26 others.


Considered as the birthplace of Bordeaux wine, and the place where some of the most enduring winegrowing traditions and techniques were first developed, the Graves region is characterised by its gravelly soil and the exceptional elegance of the wines it produces. They are rightly considered to be the first 'Grands Vins de Bordeaux', highly prized by the British nobility during the Middle Ages. 14 Graves wines were left out of the 1855 classification, with only Château Haut-Brion included. These omissions were finally rectified in 1952 following a procedure initiated by the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine. This classification was further expanded to include 16 estates in 1959. All of the classified Crus from Graves are found within the Pessac-Léognan appellation.


In 1954, realising the enduring international prestige and importance afforded to the 1855 classification system, the Saint Emilion Winemakers' Union decided to establish a classification system of their own. They created the categories Grand Cru Classé, Premier Grand Cru Classé A and Premier Grand Cru Classé B. This classification is revised every ten years, obliging winegrowers to continue producing the best possible wine year after year in order to retain their distinction. Each application to join the classification is carefully examined by a jury of independent experts, and assessed on the basis of some very specific criteria. The 2012 classification recognised 18 Premiers Grands Cru Classés and 64 Grands Crus Classés.


The Cru Bourgeois du Médoc classification dates back to the middle ages and was first used by the rich townsfolk (bourgeois) of Bordeaux, owners of the best land in the region. The French Revolution overturned this long-established system, however the reputation of the 'Cru Bourgeois' endured. In 1855 the classification was refined further still, dividing the wines into three new categories: 'Bourgeois Supérieurs', 'Bons Bourgeois' and 'Bourgeois Ordinaires', thus distinguishing them from the Crus Artisans and Paysans. Despite these changes, the Crus Bourgeois du Médoc distinction (247 châteaux) is still in use today. A list has been published every September since 2010. The quality criteria for the selection of the Crus Bourgeois are demanding, ensuring that consumers receive excellent wines that are also superb value for money.

The two river banks and their grape varieties

The terroirs of the left and right banks

The Garonne is a dividing line which cuts the Bordeaux region in two, and - contrary to popular belief - the terroirs of the two banks are profoundly different from one another. Take the soil composition of the right bank, for example: the soil contains a high concentration of clay, perfect for Merlot grapevines. As a result, Merlot is the most widely-planted variety in this area. On the left bank, meanwhile, the dominant grape varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, which thrive in the gravelly soils.


It is also important to remember that appellations which are geographically close to one another can often produce wines with very different characteristics. Although it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between a Saint-Emilion and a Pomerol, in some years the extremely localised weather conditions can make a substantial difference.


Wines from Bordeaux's many appellations may differ in many ways, but they all fall under the same umbrella of excellence - their true unifying feature!

Characteristics of the classic Bordeaux grape varieties

For red wine:

Cabernet Sauvignon: the noble grape variety par excellence, and an emblem of the Bordeaux region. Cabernet Sauvignon is particularly suited to Bordeaux, especially the left bank.  In the very best vintages the Cabernet Sauvignon helps produce wines with an exceptional ageing potential, blessed with intense and complex tannins and a medium to high level of acidity. The aromas most often associated with this elegant variety are dark fruit (blackcurrant, Morello and black cherry), and vegetal notes with hints of green pepper, mint and cedar wood.
Cooler years produce wines with greater astringency and a tough, almost austere body (depending on the proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon used in the blend), but also introduces green, leafy aromas. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon varietals are rare, and for centuries this variety has been blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc (and occasionally Petit Verdot), to produce the internationally-feted wines that have come to define the Médoc.
Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely-planted grape variety in the Saint Estèphe, Saint Julien, Margaux and Pauillac appellations, the most prestigious names on the left bank.
 
Merlot: bringing different flavours, softer tannins and a weaker level of acidity than that found in Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot is the dominant grape variety on the right bank, where it thrives in the clay-limestone soils. The Merlot grapes improve the body and the alcohol content of wine, introducing a delicious palette of aromas including blackberry, black plum, black cherry and even hints of fruit cake, chocolate and mint. Harvested at peak maturity, Merlot grapes are capable of producing exceptional vintages with an ageing potential to rival that of Cabernet Sauvignon. As they age in the barrels the Merlot pick up woody and spicy notes from the wood, adding a whole new dimension to the wine. Merlot is the most prevalent grape variety on the right bank of the Bordeaux region, particularly in the St Emilion and Pomerol appellations.
Cabernet Franc: famously used in the unusual composition of Château Cheval Blanc, Saint Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classé A, a touch of Cabernet Franc endows wines with finesse, elegance and a delicate subtlety, enhancing the bouquet with notes of raspberry, violet and blackberry.
Malbec: a variety of black-skinned grape that is planted mainly in the Cahors region, but is much less popular in Bordeaux. Malbec grapes give a superb depth of colour, add astringency and produce wines with an exceptional ageing potential thanks to the complex nature of their tannins.


Petit Verdot: a black-skinned grape that is scarcely planted in the Bordeaux region, even on a small-scale. And yet small quantities of Petit Verdot are used in the composition of some of the region's finest wines (ranging from 1 to 5%), adding colour, fruity aromas and a dash of gusto.


Carménère: a variety of black-skinned grape scarcely found in the Bordeaux region, occasionally used to add structure without increasing the firmness of the tannins or the astringency.


For white wines:

Sauvignon Blanc: a green-skinned grape, this variety enjoys tremendous popularity in our region. The adjectives most commonly used to describe Sauvignon Blanc wine are "lively", "fresh" and "refreshing". This variety is renowned for its minerality and expansive palette of aromas, with hints of flint in the nose and on the palate, and nuances of green pepper, asparagus, cucumber and even exotic fruit in cooler vintages, along with prominent hints of grapefruit and passionfruit.  Typically a major component in dry white wines, Sauvignon Blanc grapes possess a medium to high level of acidity. Wines composed predominantly of Sauvignon Blanc are generally ripe for consumption a couple of months after maturation and should not be left to age in a cellar, where they risk losing that vibrant youthful freshness.  


Semillon: a green-skinned grape variety that provides a rounded, almost oily texture. The pleasant floral and honeyed bouquet is highly distinctive. A majority component in vintage sweet white wines and also in some excellent dry wines.  The Sauternes, Barsac and Cérons appellations produce exquisite sweet whites using a blend of these two varieties.

Muscadelle: a white wine grape used in the production of sweet Bordeaux wines that adds pleasant, albeit delicate, nutmeg aromas.

Deciphering wine labels

Knowing how to read a wine label is very important. The label conveys the wine's credentials, providing consumers with key factors to help them in their purchase decision. The main or front label must contain certain mandatory information. In France, the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d'Origines) has been instrumental in developing these guarantees of origin and quality. Mandatory information to be included on the label includes: the appellation of origin, the name of the wine, the country of origin, the capacity of the bottle, the identification number of each batch, a health warning for pregnant women, the statement "Contains sulphites", the alcohol content and the name and address of the bottler.


With regards to optional information, labels often provide the vintage year, the grape varieties used, any medals received, harvest conditions, distinctions etc.


Additional information is often included on a second label, on the back of the bottle; this is optional, and will often suggest a few suitable wine/food pairings.

Serving wine

Conviviality, sharing, discovery, pleasure; the list of words triggered by the opening and the tasting of bottle of wine is never-ending. 

There is nothing quite like the delightful "pop" of a cork to usher in a night in good company. And when serving a great wine, particularly an older vintage, it is important to be properly equipped and prepared to present this treasure in the best possible conditions. In a way it is a mark of respect for the winegrower, recognition of the long hours spent crafting, nurturing and maturing the wine which has now made its way to your table, for your unalloyed pleasure.


A quick glance at the cork is essential as it allows you to determine its state. If it appears firm, the cork can be gently coaxed from the bottle with a traditional corkscrew. Other corkscrews may be more appropriate for bottles where the cork has become damaged over time, such as a twin-prong or screw cork puller.

               

Many wine enthusiasts and professionals recommend decanting a wine before serving. This allows young wines to open up a little, and permits truly great wines to express their full potential. A couple of minutes or even several hours are sometimes necessary, and this waiting period can be a source of great pleasure in its own right, as the gradual emergence and blooming of the different aromas can help you better understand and appreciate the character of the wine. Furthermore, patience is often the key to truly enjoying a wine. It is important to note that a young wine will often require more time to breathe, more so than an older wine, where the level of volatility must be carefully monitored.

 

Decanting a wine into a carafe also allows you to eliminate any deposits which may have accumulated, especially with old vintages. And of course there is no harm in leaving the empty bottle on the table so that guests can admire the label and discover the name of the producer and other details about the wine. The opposite is also perfectly acceptable, inviting your guests to conduct a "blind" tasting, removing any expectations and prejudices.  


The choice of glasses is a crucial consideration when serving wine, and can make all the difference when it comes to tasting. For both red and white wines, the perfect glass should have an ample bowl that tapers in towards the top, concentrating the wine's aromas. A long stem makes the glass easier to hold, whilst reducing the contact between skin and the body of the glass.  In the case of white wine, this contact can transfer body heat from the palm to the liquid.


It is well-known that temperature plays an important part in the enjoyment and evolution of a wine's bouquet. A red wine served between 16 and 18°C can offer a magnificent aromatic complexity, whereas if it is served at a temperature below 10°C the aromas will be muted and unremarkable. On the other hand, some red wines such as Beaujolais and Pinot d'Alsace are best cooled for a few minutes, as this adds to their vivacity and provides an extra touch of freshness. Fine white Burgundy wines are usually served between 12 and 14°C, while some of the more full-bodied among them can be enjoyed at slightly higher temperature. Dry and light white wines are best served between 9 and 13°C, while sweet wines such as Sauternes are generally best appreciated between 14 and 16°C.


Serving wine in the right order can make a big difference; the norm is to drink the youngest and most tannic wines first. It is also recommended to serve wines in ascending order of quality, as it would be a shame to spend the second half of a meal longing for the wines from the first course. And yet, on the contrary, it is sometimes more enjoyable to drink the best wine of the meal first in order to truly enjoy it with as clear a palate as possible. The choice is yours!


During a meal the main purpose of wine is to enhance the flavours of the dishes. Pairings should be decided accordingly. When matching food with wine the objective is to attain a sense of harmony. A white Bordeaux wine is ideal as an aperitif, or with cooked fish or white meats. A light-bodied red wine is a perfect match for pizza or pasta, whereas a more powerful and fuller-bodied wine pairs well with grilled red meats and game. Champagne goes beautifully with shellfish and practically all seafood. When it comes to pairings, a truly great match should always convey a sense of adventure and discovery. The possibilities are endless...