Alright cool kids, here we go, diving right into France‘s most popular region—Bordeaux. If you’ve not read my generic France Overview, definitely do. I cover a few key terms that will be important to know going forward.
Here we’re going to cover a lot of information as it pertains to Bordeaux as a whole. Separately, we’ll dive into the Left and Right Banks and take a look at the specific AOCs, crus, wine styles etc.
For a simplified version of this information, please see Bordeaux Wine Region Breakdown and Bordeaux Classification System (more appropriate for WSET Level 3 studies).
ENVIRONMENT AND CLIMATE
I think the first thing we need to memorize are the top important bodies of water: Number one, by far, is the Atlantic Ocean, as it is Bordeaux’s proximity to the ocean that gives it its overall maritime climate, which—I think—is one of the most defining features of the region as a whole. As The World Atlas of Wine (8th Edition) states, “Atlantic Ocean influence means mild winters and warm summers: a moderate and stable climate with relatively few frosts severe enough to kill vines in winter or harm buds in spring.”
I want to make a note here that almost equally as important as the Atlantic Ocean is the Gulf Stream, which acts as a warming influence. This is why, compared to other maritime climate wine regions (for example, New Zealand, which shares the same latitude in the Southern Hemisphere), Bordeaux has an overall warmer climate, thus able to ripen the more heat-loving varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon more successfully.
Moving on, the Oxford Companion to Wine perfectly describes the importance of the next body of water of significance, the Gironde Estuary: “The vineyards of Bordeaux are moderated and heavily influenced by their proximity to the Atlantic, here warmed by the Gulf Stream, and this gentle oceanic regulation of the climate extends well inland, thanks to the wide Gironde Estuary.”
The Gironde Estuary is where the Garonne River and the River Dordogne (the other two key bodies of water to know) converge.
The Garonne River and the River Dordogne really define the lay of the wine-growing land. When we talk about the Left Bank of Bordeaux, we are specifically referring to vineyards located to the west of the Garonne River and Gironde Estuary. When we say Right Bank, we’re talking about those vineyards found east of the Dordogne River and Gironde Estuary. And the area called Entre-deux-Mers (literally translated to “between two seas”) refers to vineyards located between the two rivers.
The Atlas has a perfect summary defining the main growing regions of Bordeaux. It’s a tad long, but I’d like to share it here, since my comment in the margin is “memorize this.” (Bolding is mine.):
“The great red wine areas are the Medoc, north of the city fo Bordeaux, and to the south the best of the Graves, Pessac-Leognan, on the west bank of the Garonne. These are the so-called ‘left bank‘ wines. The ‘right bank‘ consists of St-Emilion and Pomerol and their immediate neighbors along the north bank of the Dordogne. The country between the two rivers is called Entre-deux-Mers, a name found only only on bottles of its dry white wines, although this region also makes three-quarters of all red wine sold as AC Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur. In the far south…Bordeaux‘s centre of sweet white wine production.”
Another defining feature of the terroir of Bordeaux is the extensive pine forest called the Landes. It’s noted that the Left Bank is partially protected from the Atlantic’s salty winds and occasional stormy weather patterns by the bordering forest. But those vineyards situated in the northern portion of the Medoc are less protected, thus more open to the maritime influence and, as a result, are cooler than those vineyards found in the southern Medoc and Graves.
Further, the Landes also protects the area where the Garrone River meets the river Ciron where Bordeaux‘s sweet wine districts are clustered together. This causes a cooling influence over the river Ciron which produces morning mists as it reaches the warmer waters of the Garrone River—and idyllic environment for forming noble rot from which the famous sweet wines of Graves and Barsac are made. (More on this in a follow-up article).
As is true with any maritime climate, rainfall is variable from year to year as well as the times of year when the rain falls. As we know from our D1 studies, excessive rain at key moments (like flowering, fruit set, at or shortly after veraison, and harvest) will play a significant factor on vintage yields and grape (and thus wine) quality.
D1 and D2 FACT: Thanks to our friend climate change, there have been more hot, dry summers with insufficient rainfall within recent vintages of Bordeaux. And while the hardier grapes can more or less handle the warmer temperatures, extreme hot and dry years can lead to wines with low acidity and high alcohol (as growers wait for phenolic ripeness before picking) and, thus, lack of balance in resulting wines.
Though the maritime climate generally protects from winter freeze and spring frost, they are still noted as a regular risk. In fact there have been notable vintages (such as 1956) that greatly destroyed the wine production for that year.
Additionally, my text notes that there are also areas just a mile or two west of the prestigious vineyards of the Medoc that can be devastated by unpredictable bouts of hail.
Put that all together—rain, climate change, frost events and hail—and what that means is that vintage variation in terms of volume is a real deal in Bordeaux. It can affect yield, thus significantly affecting the financial situation of growers and producers alike—and for the wine business of the region as a whole.
The good news is that the mix of varieties grown (listed and described below) all flower at different times. Thus, growing a variety of varieties is to the advantage of Bordeaux growers who can then benefit from a kind of “insurance” against poor weather conditions during critical times of the growing season.
Here’s a fun story: In the 17th and 18th centuries the large Medoc peninsula was actually a huge marshland unsuitable for viticulture and known for its production of corn. There were just a few vineyards located in, what is today referred to as, the Bas-Medoc, producing a red-white blend called Claret. It wasn’t until well into the 18th century that the marshy area was drained by Dutch settlers living in the city of Bordeaux who discovered the now infamous gravelly soils buried beneath and planted the land to wine grapes. By mid-18th century, wines from estates like Lafite and Margaux began gaining notoriety in both the E.U. and the U.S.
Part of Bordeaux‘s near immediate success as a wine region was due to the fact it had already established itself as a center for wine exports from other French regions. Thus an established class of merchants and brokers (who, my text notes, originated from England, Ireland, Germany, Holland and elsewhere) were already established and able to distribute the new wines of Bordeaux, leading to an international reputation.
That system of distribution remains to this day.
Though those gravelly soils are certainly the region’s claim to fame, I want to call out what the Atlas notes: “There are clearly differences in soil structure and soil type all over the Bordeaux region, impossible as it is to identify a precise soil type within, say, first growth quality […] Even within one part of Bordeaux, the Medoc being perhaps the most intriguing example, the soil is said to ‘change at every step.'”
Another note elaborates on this notion: “First growths do not all share the same soil type; some have deep gravelly soils (Haut-Brion), others stony clay soils (Latour, Lafite), and even limestone soils (Margaux, Lafite).”
This is because, to put it simply, the soil formation throughout Bordeaux has been created through different geological deposits formed over millions and millions of years.
Found on the Left Bank (Medoc and Graves) are deposits of gravel and stony soils carried to the region by floodwaters from the Pyrenees and the Massif Central. Depending on specific origin, the gravel and stone may be mixed with clay and/or sand. My text notes, specifically, that top estates of the Left Bank are planted on gravel mounds known as croupes.
As we remember from our D1 studies, gravel (unlike clay) drains well, so even after a bout of rain, the roots of the vines will dry out. The Atlas notes that the gravelly soils of the Medoc produce great wine because the gravels effectively regulate water supply. It was Dr. Gerard Seguin of the University of Bordeaux who came to the conclusion that “a supply of moisture to the vine that was no more than moderate was much more important than the exact composition of the soil. Drainage, in other words, is key.” (The Oxford)
Of course the other importance of gravel is that it aids in heat retention, holding onto the warmth from of the daytime sun and slowly releasing that warmth upward into the vines during the evening to facilitate slow, but continuous ripening.
But, in extremely hot years, this excessive drainage can put vines at risk of drought stress—especially where soils are shallow, for example FUN FACT: soils in Pomerol (Right Bank) are rarely more than a meter deep.
On the Right Bank there is far more clay in the soil. (NOTE: There are clay soils on the Left Bank [like in St-Estephe] BUT wines do not achieve the “same acclaim” as those planted on gravel.) This is why the dominant grape variety is Merlot—it requires less heat to ripen fully, thus suited to the cooler clay soils. And WOOHOO—Merlot is able to ripen fully in most vintages.
My text does note that the best of the best on the Right Bank come from grapes grown on the limestone plateau or the gravel selection that borers Pomerol.
“With their neat, low rows of densely planted Guyot-trained, low-vigour vines, Bordeaux‘s vineyards are some of the world’s most recognizable.” (The Oxford)
Indeed my text also notes that growers cultivating high quality grapes destined for the best wines keep vineyard spacing quite close together. This is considered ideal for the relatively infertile soils and for moderating vigor. Of course, as we know from our D2 studies, close planting adds to cost, as more vines, trellising, and specialized vineyard equipment are needed (including spraying to reduce fungal pressure—discussed more below). BUT, my text also points out that close planting is an efficient use of Bordeaux’s expensive vineyard land.
NOTE: Vineyards in less prestigious appellations are often planted at lower density. (For example, Bordeaux AOC is typically planted between 3,000 and 4,000 vines per hectare verses 10,000 vines per hectare)
As noted in the above quote from the Oxford, and elaborated in my text, the most common training system is head-trained replacement cane pruning in which canes are trained along wires. This is partially (maybe more than partially) due to the fact that because of environmental moisture, the two most common vine diseases are Eutypa dieback and Esca, which will rot the vine from the inside. Having less permanent wood, means less risk of disease. My text also notes that growers have implemented a kind of new treatment called “soft pruning,” which involves making small cuts and leaving extra wood at the cut site to allow the wood to dry out and maximize the opportunity for sap to flow around the plant.
An interesting note I found is that on the Left Bank, vines typically have two canes or Double Guyot whereas on the Right Bank you’re more likely to see single cane or Single Guyot. (I *think* this is because the clay soils of the Right Bank are more fertile, so the single cane helps reduce vigor and yields.)
But there is is a second, less common system my text mentions that uses cordon trained, spur pruned vines. Apparently the argument for this is that it reduces yields naturally and allows for better aeration to the bunches. The system is said to be used in “some prestigious vineyard sites.”
As you can imagine, because of rain, some of the biggest threats in the vineyard are going to be downy mildew, powdery mildew and botrytis. As such, it stands to reason growers pay extra attention to their canopy management in order to increase aeration in an effort to both prevent rot and increase sun exposure. But because of the prevalence of mildews and rots, many growers do spray in order to mitigate and/or treat the issue(s), thus organic viticulture, though on the rise, is no easy feat.
Historic Mildewy Fact: According to the Oxford, in 1852, Bordeaux was struck by a “series of vine plagues,” the first of which was, in fact, powdery mildew. It was first noticed in the sweet wine producing areas near the Garonne, and soon spread to the Graves and ultimately the Medoc. “Between 1854 and 1856, all properties which were rated classed growths in the 1855 Classification [see below] produced a total of only 3,400 tonneaux of wine, not much more than half the crop in a prolific year.” It wasn’t until 1858 that the fungal disease was “conquered” by spraying, what is today referred to as, Bordeaux mixture (a mixture of lime, copper sulfate, and water).
A last note about vineyard management—harvest. It’s noted that, in an effort to pick grapes at the proper time and to avoid unforeseen weather events that may impede harvest, harvesting hands are hired for a long period of time with the expectancy that there will be idle days (should harvest be interrupted by rain). Estates will hire teams numbering up to 100 workers—many from other EU countries—and board them through the harvest season. Obviously this has cost implications, but it’s to the benefit of grape and thus wine quality to have the team on-site ready to pick as needed.
Also note, the above is specifically in reference to top quality estates. In general, Bordeaux AOC and a typical Medoc chateau will actually more like than not utilize machine harvesting. In fact, according to the Atlas, 90% of all Bordeaux vineyards are machine harvested.
FUN BORDEAUX GRAPE FACT: 90% of all plantings are of red wine grape varieties.
Merlot—an early budder, this red wine grape also flowers and ripens at least one week before its well-known partner, Cabernet Sauvignon (below). As such, it’s more vulnerable to spring frosts, prone to coulure, but its earlier ripening time means that it can be picked before autumn rains. Though the bunches are looser than Cabernet Sauvignon, they’re also notably bigger, and with its thin skins, Merlot also finds itself vulnerable to rot and downy mildew, making sorting both in the vineyard and in the cellar necessary to maintain quality.
As noted previously, Merlot can ripen more reliably in cooler vintages (compared to Cabernet Sauvignon) and is more at home in the cooler soils of the Right bank and northern Medoc, which both have higher clay content than the classical Left Bank wine regions. However, my text also notes that it is less drought-resistant, thus very well-drained soils along with warmer temperatures can result in underdeveloped Merlot grapes.
The Oxford also notes that Merlot is very sensitive to the timing of harvest. It’s larger berry size means it can reach higher levels of sugar (and thus potential alcohol) than Cabernet Sauvignon, thus if picking is delayed too long, the grapes can become over-ripe and experience a rapid loss of acidity, resulting in unbalanced wines.
In a Bordeaux blend, Merlot contributes medium to pronounced intensity fruit (strawberry, red plum, herbaceous flavors in cooler years; cooked blackberry, black plum in hot years); medium tannins, and medium to high alcohol.
Cabernet Sauvignon—this guy is a late budder, so is nicely protected from spring frost events. But the small berries and tight bunches means that it’s more prone to fungal diseases, particularly powdery mildew as well as the trunk diseases Eutypa and Esca.
As discussed, this variety ripens later, thus requires warmer temperatures and soils in order to fully and uniformly mature. Additionally, a late ripening date does put Cabernet Sauvignon at risk during autumn rain events.
In a Bordeaux blend, Cabernet Sauvignon contributes pronounced violet, black currant, black cherry and menthol or herbaceous flavors, medium alcohol, and high acidity and, of course due to its thick skins, tannins. But, note that in cooler seasons these guys will struggle to ripen fully, resulting in wines with high acidity, unripe tannins and little fruit flavors—this is why Cabernet Franc and Merlot (both earlier ripening varieties) are regularly blended in.
Cabernet Franc—for a full description of the variety, please see Taste and Learn: Loire Valley, Anjou-Saumur.
In a Bordeaux blend, Cabernet Franc contributes red fruit, high acidity and medium tannins.
Malbec—Also called Cot or Pressac, has not played as important a role in Bordeaux since the the 1956 frost event. Following that vintage, much Malbec was replaced with Merlot, which is easier to grow in this environment. Malbec is known to be a vigorous variety and susceptible to coulure. If it is included in a Bordeaux blend, it is more likely to be found in the wines of the Right Bank, according to the Oxford.
Today, Malbec has found a good home in the Southwest of France (yet to be covered on this site as of this writing), as well as other regions around the world.
A typical Malbec is said to be deep ruby, medium to pronounced aromatic and flavor intensity depending on quality. Key notes are violet and various red and black fruits. It provides medium to medium (+) acidity and medium to high tannins.
Petit Verdot—one of my favorite varieties, but is rarely found as a single varietal wine. This lovely grape buds early but ripens even later than Cabernet Sauvignon. Thus, it is susceptible to both spring frosts and harvest rains and can fail to ripen in cool vintages. Petit Verdot thrives best in the warmer parts of the Medoc.
In Bordeaux blends, Petit Verdot often makes up less than 5% of the final wine, but contributes its deep color, spice notes and high tannins.
Semillon—another favorite grape of mine, this white wine grape is a high-yielding, mid-ripening variety and is most noted for its susceptibility to botrytis, which in the right conditions create the noble rot needed for the beloved sweet wines of Sauternes.
On its own, Semillon tasting markers include low intensity apple, lemon and, if under ripe, grassy flavors and has overall a medium body, medium alcohol, and medium to medium (+) acidity.
In dry expressions, as found in the white wine blends of Graves and Pessac-Legonan, Semillon contributes low to medium intensity aromas, weight and body and medium acidity. It works to soften the more pronounced tones of Sauvignon Blanc’s flavors and high acidity. Semillon is also noted as having a “strong affinity” with vanilla and sweet spice flavors from new French oak.
In its sweet expressions, Semillon contributes honey and dried fruit (lemon and peach) character and a waxy texture. As noted, because of its susceptibility to botrytis, the top Sauternes wines have a higher proportion of Semillon blended with smaller amounts of Sauvignon and, in some instances, Muscadelle (both below). Semillon also ages well, developing toast and honey notes (a notable contrast to Sauvignon Blanc whose high acidity can help hold flavors, but whose flavors will not evolve).
Sauvignon Blanc—for a full description of grape characteristics, please see Taste and Learn: Loire Valley, Central Vineyards.
In dry white Bordeaux blends, Sauvignon Blanc contributes grassy and gooseberry fruit flavors along with high acidity. NOTE: An increasing amount of single variety Sauvignon Blanc is being produced in Bordeaux.
In Sweet white Bordeaux Blends, Sauvignon Blanc contributes the high acidity, lending to ageability as mentioned above.
Muscadelle—this is a vigorous white wine variety that ripens early and is noted in my text as requiring a well-exposed site in order to ripen fully and also, I assume, to avoid instances of botrytis bunch rot of which it is very susceptible. Most Muscadelle is used in sweet wines, contributing flowery and grapey notes.
A general winemaking note from my text is that in recent years, many properties, especially high quality winemaking sites, have moved to plot by plot winemaking. This, of course, assures higher quality grapes are picked, thus wines produced, but also requires several passes through the vineyard because, as mentioned, vineyards are planted to several varieties, all of which mature at different rates and require their own kind of management. Thus, with more attention to detail needed so too is manual labor, adding to production cost and, inevitably, the end-cost of the wine(s) produced.
After harvest, grapes are typically destemmed, as the dominant Bordeaux varieties are already quite tannic in nature. Fermentation takes place in all kinds of vessels, including stainless steel, concrete, and even wood. The Oxford notes that, as of the 1970s and 80s, some form of temperature control has been installed at most estates, as it is increasingly common to heat fermenting must at the beginning of the fermentation process. The Oxford goes on to explain that fermentation temperatures in Bordeaux are higher than commonly seen in our New World due to the concentration of phenolics in ripe Bordeaux grapes (specifically the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon), thus precise techniques of extraction are extremely important in creating balanced wines.
Of course, the amount of extraction desired, whether pre or post fermentation, will depend on the wine style desired: mid-temperature fermentation and short post-fermentation maceration of about 5 to 7 days is suitable for early drinkers, whereas mid-range to warm temperatures with 14 to 30 days post fermentation skin contact is better for wines intended for age-ability. NOTE: Maceration time is often reduced in poor, cool vintages when grape skins fail to fully ripen in order to prevent astringent wines with green tannins.
Following fermentation the wine is drained and pressed, with pressed wine going into separate barrels to be blended later depending, again, on style desired. ML takes place in either tank or barrel. For those intending to present their wines for en primeur, ML will often take place during fermentation in order to have a near-complete wine ready for the presentation. Similarly, many estates inoculate to ensure rapid completion of ML.
Simpler wines will age in stainless or concrete or large barrels for 4 to 6 months and, believe it or not, even the vintners of Bordeaux may add oak chips for flavor. And I love this line from the Oxford:
“Most wine which qualifies as Bordeaux AOC (see below) is more likely to be fairly ruthlessly filtered than fined, and is not given any barrel maturation, but is bottled after a few months in tank. Some petits chateaux may well treat their wines to a stint in barrique, but such barrels are likely to be hand-me-downs from properties whose wines sell at a higher price.”
Higher quality wines will be matured in French oak barriques, most commonly a mix of new and used, though some use up to 100%. Interesting factoid from the Oxford: “The luxury of new barrels” wasn’t introduced to the region until the 1980s and, interestingly, the percentage of new barrels, even at the most high-tier estates, tends to be lower than in the “most lavish New World wineries,” as in rarely more than 60% and even lower in less-ripe vintages.
Complementary to that fact, my text notes that the percentage of new oak in Bordeaux wines has been decreasing in recent years. (And I’m wondering if that has to do with climate change, price, or modern consumer preference? All of the above?)
When choosing barrels, winemakers typically select from a variety of coopers and toast levels. Think of it as a winemaker’s “spice rack” if you will.
Wine will mature in barrel for 18 to 24 months, depending on the quality of the wine. (Obviously, the more tannin/concentration in the wines, the longer they will need longer).
Interesting factoid: According to my text, “by tradition,” wines are racked every three months. But modern winemakers often take an alternative approach, preferring to leave wine undisturbed on its lees and create a more reductive environment by utilizing micro-oxygenation to replace the oxygenation typically generated by racking and still soften those tannins.
The final stage—blending. NOTE: a majority of top Bordeaux producers work with a winemaking consultant whose main role is to assist with blending process.
There are two approaches depending on when a winemaker is intended to present the wines produced:
- Most estates, especially those presenting wines early for en primeur blend over winter, creating a “near-final” blend. This also allows them to sort out which wines will end up in their second or third wines or simply be sold off in bulk to merchants.
- A few estates blend just a few months before bottling. At this point, the winemaking team can better assess how the different batches have evolved during the maturation process before making the final blending decisions.
Rosé winemaking can be broken down into two styles:
- A deeper colored, traditional Clairet, produced using the saignée method, wherein the primary purpose is to concentrate wines for the red wine program and the wine bled off to do so creates the rosé wine.
- A lighter colored rosé made using the direct press method utilizing grapes grown and harvested specifically for rosé wine production.
Depending on the style desired, grapes are either pressed directly in order to sustain maximum freshness or grapes can be left on skins for about 24 hours in order to increase aromatics and phenolic complexity. (Captain Obvious is weighing in here to say that for this latter technique to work, grapes must be fully and healthy, otherwise you’ll extract off-flavors)
- Early drinkers will be fermented cool in stainless steel tanks and mature in tanks for a just few months before being clarified and bottle.
- Mid-pricers are often left on fine lees for 6 to 12 months in order to add a bit of weight and complexity.
- High-quality white wines are often fermented and aged in barriques with varying percentages of new oak. Some producers will opt to block ML to retain freshness and acidity. Interesting white winemaking factoid: it used to be common for producers to regularly conduct batonnage in order to enrich the wines even further, but today many are wary that, especially in hot vintages, the technique will give excess body and weight in relation to the lower level of acidity.
Because when we talk about the sweet wines of Bordeaux we are (usually) talking about botrytized sweet wines, the production process is considered “complex,” as it truly starts in the vineyard. Yields must be kept low, often, my text notes, 1/3 the level acceptable for still wine production. This is to ensure a high enough concentration in the sugars. Those low yields can be achieved by pruning early in the season to a low number of buds and then through green harvesting later in the season to get rid of any fruit that shows signs of disease, damage, or uneven ripening.
Remember, botrytis/noble rot actively concentrates sugars by puncturing holes in the berries and allowing the natural water content to evaporate. Thus, the reduction of juice in combination with the necessary low yields means that there is an extremely small amount of fruit harvested even below the maximum allotment. For example, in Sauternes and Barsac, the legal amount one can harvest is 25 hL/ha—pretty low. But in actuality, the top vineyard sites rarely harvest more than 10 hL/ha. This is the main contributing factor as to why these wines command such a high price.
Further, a well-trained vineyard crew (educated in identifying noble rot versus grey or black rot) must be attentive during harvest, which can take 10 to 12 passes through the vineyard, meaning the harvest can last as long as September through November.
THINK ABOUT THE FOLLOWING IN RELATION TO QUALITY, FLAVOR PROFILE AND COST:
The level of botrytis in the final wines depends on:
- Correct conditions for spreading noble rot (very much varied by vintage)
- Position of estates in reference to where those idyllic areas are (ex: Ciron/Gironde misty meeting place)
- The willingness (and I assume the financial ability) of the estate to wait for the best time to harvest and risk losing all or part of crop due to adverse weather and the ability and willingness of said estate to pay for the long-term seasonal employment of the skilled labor needed.
NOTE: As a result of some or all of these factors, sweet wines may be a combination of botrytis affected and late harvested fruit, the latter being more common in some of the lesser sweet wine regions (covered in a later article).
Once picked, grapes handled as for dry white wine: fermentation takes place in stainless steel, concrete, or barriques and then aged for varying periods in any of those vessels.
Top quality wines are typically barrel fermented with a high percentage of new oak and then barrel aged for 18 to 36 months to encourage gentle oxidation adding those tertiary notes. New oak is commonly used, ranging between 30 to 50% inclusion, but my text notes that it can be up to 100% at places like Chateau d’Yquem. (Pricey!)
DID YOU KNOW: Wines from the less prestigious sweet wine appellations (NAME ONE NOW!) are often unoaked and released a year after harvest. (I didn’t know that, so I thought I’d share.)
GENERIC APPELLATIONS AND CERTIFICATION SYSTEM(S)
FUN FACT: Bordeaux has 111,000 hectares of vines planted, but the majority of wine produced is of the Bordeaux AOC or Bordeaux Superieur AOC appellations, thus inexpensive to mid-priced. In fact, around 70% of the wines produced fall into those two more affordable categories, while only 30% fall into the premium or super premium categories. —MY WHOLE FOODS PURCHASES NOW MAKE MORE SENSE…
Bordeaux AOC is a vast regional appellation referring to all of Bordeaux. It is an for still red, rose, and white wines.
Bordeaux Superieur AOC is still a regional appellation, but max yields are less (for example, 59 hL/ha for red wine grapes grown in Bordeaux Superieur AOC versus 67 hL/ha for red wine grapes grown in Bordeaux AOC).
Together Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Superieur AOC account for 50% of all wine produced in Bordeaux.
For both AOCs, red wines made mainly from Merlot and are all about the MEDIUM: medium intensity red fruit, high acid (ok there’s an exception), medium (+) tannins, medium body and medium alcohol.
White wines are typically blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, today made with increasing amounts of Sauvignon Blanc (and, as noted, increasing single-varietal expressions are being produced). Wines have medium intensity of aromas and flavors (namely those Sauvignon Blanc notes of gooseberry and lemon), medium body, high acid, and medium alcohol.
There are four official classification systems:
1 – 1855 classification—Here’s THAT story: In this same year, a major commercial exhibition, the Exposition Universelle de Paris, was taking place. The Bordeaux chamber of commerce asked the region’s brokers to compile a classification of the wines. (Remember how I told you these were the guys distributing Bordeaux wines and giving them global recognition?) The brokers did, and as brokers do, this classification was all based on price. The list includes 60 leading properties or chateaux from the Medoc plus one (Chateau Haut-Brion) in Graves. All were classed into first through fifth growths, or premier crus through cinquième crus.
Sauternes is also included in the 1855 Classification. Chateaux were classed into first and second growths; Chateau d’Yquem was awarded a special category of its own—Premier Cru Superieur (shmancy).
Note: Winemakers do not have to list what level they were classified into, instead simply labeling their wines with the name of their chateau, the appellation, and the words ”grand cru classé.” NOTE: Cru classé wine represents just 1/4 of wine produced in Médoc.
This 1855 classification was the first official status and remains in place today and still influences prices.
BUT the weirdo thing about it is that the classification refers to the chateaux, not the actual vineyards. So, technically, someone listed as a premier cru chateau, could sell his fancy vineyard, purchase a cheaper vineyard and still have premier cru status because it refers to, basically, his “brand name.” Yeah.
2 – The Graves Classification was established in 1959. There are 16 classified chateaux for red, white, or both all located within the Pessac Leognan sub-region of Graves.
3 – The ST-Emilion Classification was established in 1955 and is revised every 10 years. The classification only applies to some wines within the St-Emilion Grand Cru AOC. To achieve cru classe status, chateaux are judged on terroir, methods of production, reputation and commercial considerations as well as a blind tasting of at least 10 vintages. The classification has three tiers with super creative names: Premier Grand Cru A, Premier Grand Cru B and Grand Cru Classe.
4 – The Cru Bourgeois du Medoc classification was established in 1932 and includes three tiers of classification: Cru Bourgeois, Cru Bourgeois Superieur and Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel. However, note, any tier is considered a level below cru classe. Any property in Medoc can apply for classification status and labels are awarded annually with classifications lasting five years. The title applies to individual wines as a mark of quality based on assessment of both production methods and the final wines.
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