Much like the Loire Valley, Bordeaux should not be viewed as a single region, but a collection of several discrete communes, each having their own personality based on the wines that are produced (see the map above).
Bordeaux is more complicated for many reasons. The varying climate and soils are the factors given by nature, but people have added commercial and legal issues into the mix, resulting in a market that none but the most dedicated wine professionals could ever hope to keep up-to-date with.
The Blended Wine
The first thing one should be aware of is that Bordeaux wines are typically blends of two or more varieties.
For red wines (~90% total Bordeaux plantings), these varieties include:
- Merlot (66% plantings)
- Cabernet Sauvignon (22.5%)
- Cabernet Franc (9.5%)
- Petit Verdot
- Malbec (Cot)
- (These last three take up the remaining 2%)
White varieties (~10% of total plantings) for dry and dessert wines include:
- Sémillon (47%)
- Sauvignon Blanc (45%)
- Muscadelle (6%)
- and 2% other permitted white varieties
(Figures taken from Bordeaux.com)
So why do Bordeaux producers choose to blend different varieties?
Climate and Soil
These are the two key reasons why different varieties are planted and used.
Using the Rule of L.A.W. to observe Bordeaux:
- Latitude – Most of the vineyards lie between latitudes 44°N and 46°N.
Altitude– generally flat and low, so not a huge factor.
- Water – Two rivers joining together to form a third, so very large influence, as well as the Atlantic Ocean in the west.
The latitude gives a marginal environment for growing grapes, being quite cool.
The extent of the moderating influence of water will depend on each area’s position and proximity to the various rivers and the Atlantic Ocean.
Conveniently, the rivers divide up Bordeaux into three large areas (which are themselves further divided into smaller communes) that are typically referred to as:
- The Left Bank (west of the Gironde estuary, where the two rivers converge)
- Entre-Deux-Mers (literally “Between the Two Seas”, the land between the two rivers)
- The Right Bank (east of the Gironde)
In regards to soils, very general associations can be made:
- The Left Bank = Gravel
- Entre-Deux-Mers = Limestone
- Right Bank = Clay, on top of Limestone
Again, these are very general associations – you would also find areas with clay on the Left Bank, and plots of gravel on the right bank, for example.
All of the above explains why there are so many different grapes grown – each variety performs best in varying environments:
- There is more Merlot on the Right Bank, simply because it performs better on clay soils than Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Conversely, there is more Cabernet Sauvignon grown on the Left Bank due to the gravel soils there.
This also acts as a hedge against the whims of nature (frost, storms, hail, rot, etc…) – if one variety performs poorly, the others can make up the difference, wine can still be made and the producer stays in business.
This is also the source of Vintage Variation, and the reason why you will see some wine aficionados argue about the merits of the 1982 vintage compared to, say, 1983 – they are really talking about the weather during that year.
Was it rainy? Was there rot? Or was the weather just perfect, giving birth to a perfect wine?
Limits Of Classification
Much of Bordeaux’s additional complexity can be traced back to the infamous 1855 classification.
A list was drawn up of ~60 chateaux, divided into five rankings from First Growth to Fifth Growth.
The 1855 Classification has stood to this day, but a cursory look on the matter shows some severe limitations:
- Classification was limited to chateaux on the Left Bank only, excluding producers of arguably similar quality in the other areas.
- The list was based mainly on price, drawn up by merchants, rather than any truly objective measures of quality.
- Classification was awarded to Chateau names, not plots of land; it therefore became possible for higher-ranking chateaux to buy up extra land from lower-ranking chateaux, and in one stroke the wines made from this humble plot are transformed into a premium First Growth wine.
The owner of a small property one took me to his vineyards in northern Pauillac, and pointed to some rows of vines. “They used to belong to me, and I’m cru bourgeois [i.e. below Fifth Growth]. Then a few years ago I sold them to Mouton, so now they’re premier cru [First Growth]”
– Extract from The Complete Bordeaux, 3rd Edition, by Stephen Brook
What we can take from this, above all, is that Bordeaux chateaux are essentially brands.
Therefore, knowing what to expect from a wine becomes an exercise in knowing your brands.
Climate, variety and soil become secondary considerations, for better or worse.
You could know, for example, that Chateau Mouton-Rothschild (located on the Left Bank):
- owns 84 hectares of black grapes, and that
- 80% are dedicated to Cabernet Sauvignon
- 16% to Merlot
- 3% to Cabernet Franc
- 1% to Petit Verdot
- (Figures taken from The Complete Bordeaux, 3rd Edition, by Stephen Brook)
But they are not obligated to use these same proportions in their wines year to year, and certainly they may not be able to.
What if the weather is bad and their considerable Cabernet Sauvignon holdings do not meet their standards?
What if the producer changes their mind on what style of wine they want to aim for? Maybe they will use more Merlot, and the remaining Cabernet Sauvignon will go to their second wine (another issue entirely!).
You see now how complicated Bordeaux can become. Building reasonable expectations of Bordeaux wines becomes an exercise in knowing not only the regions, but also the producers and vintages.
As they were excluded from the original 1855 classification, other areas have attempted to come up with rankings of their own.
- St-Emilion (Right Bank) in 1955
- Graves (Left Bank) in 1959
- Cru Bourgeois – annulled by French Courts in 2007. Term now used to classify individual wines, rather than chatueax.
Pomerol, on the Right Bank, is probably the only high-quality Bordeaux region that has forgone classification and avoided this drama.
You may well find that Bordeaux is needlessly complicated and be compelled to find quality elsewhere. The prices alone for some of these wines would be enough to drive many people away. But if you know what to look for there are still bargains to be had.
Read more: What Should I Drink Next?