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An Introduction to the Bordeaux Wine Region

Vineyards with a Chateau in the background.
A vineyard in the Margaux region of Bordeaux. Photo by: Javarman

Bordeaux is famous for its blended wines featuring Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot as the dominant grapes. Many associate Bordeaux with world-class Cabernet dominated blends, but surprisingly, Merlot makes up 66% of the red grapes grown in the region while Cabernet Sauvignon makes up only 22.5%.

You’ll find Bordeaux in Southwest France along the Atlantic coast. The Gironde River runs right through the region splitting it in half. The West side of the river or “Left Bank” is where you’ll find Cabernet Sauvignon dominant blends. The East side of the river or “Right bank” is where you’ll find Merlot dominant blends.

There are six grapes allowed in a Bordeaux blend. They are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Carmenère. The third biggest partner in the blend is Cabernet Franc while the others may or may not be part of the final blend.

Climate & Soil

Bordeaux has a warm climate with heavy rainfall due to the Atlantic Ocean. The soil on the Left Bank is gravelly which reflects the heat back to the vines overnight, this helps Cabernet grapes to ripen. The Right Bank has clay soil that is a bit cooler and holds moisture which is perfect for Merlot vines.

Classification & Labeling

How do you decipher the labels on Bordeaux wine? Well, very carefully.

In Bordeaux, it’s important to understand the appellations (aka sub-regions within Bordeaux) as well as the classifications for certain producers (aka Château). The appellations will tell you whether the wine is a Cabernet or Merlot dominant blend, while the Chateau classifications are meant to identify quality producers.

However, the Chateau classifications, established in 1855, only include a subset of the producers in the region. While this classification still accurately identifies quality producers, it leaves out many that are producing similar, high-quality wines. Those producers don’t get to use the prestigious Chateau classification on their wine labels. Hardly seems fair and equitable in this day and age.

Appellations in Bordeaux

  • Regional Appellations: Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Superior AOC are produced from grapes grown across the region. These wines are Merlot dominated blends.

example of a Bordeaux Superior AOC wine label.
Bordeaux Superior AOC

  • Left Bank Appellations: Médoc AOC, Haute-Médoc AOC, Margaux AOC, Pauillac AOC, Graves AOC, and Pessac-Léognan AOC. These are wine blends with Cabernet Sauvignon as the dominant grape variety.

Example of Haut-Medoc AOC wine label.
Haute-Médoc AOC

  • Right Bank Appellations: Pomerol AOC, Saint-Émilion AOC, Saint-Émilion Grand Cru AOC. These wine blends feature Merlot as the dominant grape.

Example of Pomerol AOC wine label.
Pomerol AOC

Chateau Classifications in Bordeaux

  • Grand Cru Classé / Cru-Classé: This is a classification that was drawn up in 1855 to identify the best wines from the best Château (aka This references producers, not a big castle). These are the crème de la crème of the region and very pricey, as you might expect.

Example of a Grand Cru Classe wine label.
Grand Cru Classe: Left Bank region of Pessac-Léognan AOC

  • Cru Bourgeois: For those wines specifically in the Médoc region that are left out of the high-end classifications of Grand Cru Classé and Cru- Classé, they can apply to use the name, Cru Bourgeois. While these wines can be just as fantastic as their royal counterparts, they do not command the same astronomical prices.

Example of Cru Bourgeois wine label.
Cru Bourgeois from the Médoc region

Aging Potential

Bordeaux wines are known for their ability to age. This means the wine flavors will continue to change and evolve over 10 to 20 years and even longer. The high acidity and high tannin give red wine backbone and aging potential. You’ll find this especially in Cabernet dominated blends. But don’t count out Merlot blends as many are age-worthy as well.

Selecting and aging a wine may seem like an advanced move…and well…you’d be right. The weather can have a big impact on the growing season which then affects the blending approach taken by the producers, making it complicated to know which to buy and how long to hold. This is why you’ll hear that “the 2000 vintage of Bordeaux was a great year” and so on.

Work with a knowledgeable wine shop that can guide you to the best wines for aging. Then reference Wine Spectator’s Left Bank and Right Bank Vintage Charts identifying which ones to hold and which ones are ready to drink.

Bordeaux Wine Region Summary

This famous region in France is home to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. They are perfect blending partners that produce age-worthy red wines. You’ll find Cabernet dominated blends on the Left Bank and Merlot dominated blends on the Right Bank.

Wines labeled Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Superior AOC are great options to get to know this region. These wines are affordable and meant to be drunk young.

À Votre Santé! To Your Health!


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