Geographically, Bordeaux is dominated by the influence of water, whether it be the rivers Dordogne, Garonne and Ciron, the Gironde estuary, or the Atlantic Ocean, which gives the region a moderate, maritime climate. Over millennia, rivers have deposited gravel along the left bank of the Gironde and Garonne, creating sites that are warm, well-draining and perfectly suited for the long growing season of Cabernet Sauvignon. Ancient sea beds now exposed, became the limestone slopes in Pomerol and St. Emilion along the right bank of the Dordogne, where soft clay topsoil perfectly suits Merlot. Since the Middle Ages, the growth of the city of Bordeaux as France’s premier Atlantic seaport brought riches to the inhabitants and connected Bordeaux to export markets thirsty for local wine. The influence of foreign trade is still seen in the negociant system where merchants buy wine from producers while it is still in barrel to be further aged and bottled.
Today Bordeaux is the largest appellation in France, and produces more wine than any other region except the Languedoc. Red grapes account for 90% of vineyard plantings, led by Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc, with tiny amounts of Petit Verdot and Malbec to be for blending. The main white grapes are Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, with fragrant Muscadelle planted as a minor component to make the dry white and lusciously sweet dessert wines of the area.
Graves, an area surrounding the city of Bordeaux and extending southward is named for its gravel rich vineyard soils, was the first area to become famous for its wine. Here, Château Haut-Brion rose to prominence for its blends of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines were once brilliant but quite pale in color, giving rise to the term “claret” being used as a catch-all for the wines of Bordeaux. Today the Pessac-Léognan subregion within the Graves encompasses the top estates of the area, and the area excels equally with its red wine and its barrel-fermented dry white wines, which combine the richness and body of Semillon with the freshness and structure of Sauvignon Blanc to create a complex wine with savory notes of beeswax, celery, honey, and nectarine.
Winegrowing spread north from the city of Bordeaux in the mid 1600s, spurred by the draining of massive salt marshes by Dutch engineers, a feat which first revealed the croupes, or deep beds of gravel. These beds are where the left bank villages of Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien, and Margaux planted their vineyards. Cabernet Sauvignon is perfectly adapted to ripening here, and when balanced by smaller portions of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, creates wines infused with blackcurrant, cedar and violet notes that age gracefully for decades. To recognize the quality of the wines from the area and promote sales, producers in the Medoc and Graves were given elevated status by a government-sponsored classification in 1855 which sorted a select group of producers into five tiers, from 1st growth to 5th growth. The classification still stands today, and enshrines luminaries such as Châteaux Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux and Haut-Brion as First Growth royalty. Following suit, the Graves created a classification scheme in the mid 20th century that recognizes its most successful producers.
Upstream on the right bank of the Dordogne river, St-Émilion and Pomerol are appellations that are prized for the quality of their Merlot-based wines. These wines bear many similarities to their left bank cousins, with ample use of French oak barriques for maturation and age-worthy potential. These wines emphasize a plushness of fruit and tannins which contrast with the firm, nearly astringent, texture of the young Cabernet Sauvignon based left bank blends. St-Émilion’s various soil types, mainly clay-limestone or sand from the banks of the Dordogne, retain more water and favor Merlot which thrives in a mild climate. St-Émilion has its own classification, recognizing three tiers of producers: Premier Grand Cru Classé (A), Premier Grand Cru Classé (B), and Grand Cru Classé. Wines labeled “St-Émilion Grand Cru”, confusingly, are not recognized as part of the classification scheme, but are simply required to meet higher minimum standards of ageing and grape ripeness than wines without the “Grand Cru” designation. Pomerol, a tiny appellation encompassing a single village, has a more uniform terroir noted for its rich clay soils flecked with iron deposits. Merlot is almost exclusively grown here, and the grape reaches its apogee of richness and suppleness. The limited supply of wines from Pomerol can push their prices to heights unseen anywhere else in Bordeaux, and has silenced any demands for a classification scheme since the exclusivity of the region makes all producers in Pomerol essentially famous.
Between the two rivers Dordogne and Garonne is a flat triangle of land, the Entre-Deux-Mers which specializes in dry blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon that are fruity, unoaked, and refreshing. To the south of the Graves on the left bank of the Garonne river, these same two grapes are used in the Sauternes and Barsac appellations to create some of the most exclusive sweet wines in the world. The secret to these wines is the daily mist rising from the Ciron river, which ensures the humidity needed for the growth of a noble rot, Botrytis cinerea. This fungus concentrates the sugars and flavors of the grapes so that the resulting wine is a luxurious nectar with a bouquet of marmalade, honey, and saffron. Sauternes’ producers were also classified in 1855 into three tiers, with Château d’Yquem standing alone above the pools of 1st and 2nd growth producers.