Arguably, the greatest wines in the world come from Bordeaux, France.
Even if you’re not familiar with this iconic region, you are likely familiar with the grapes responsible for making these classic wines.
Bordeaux lies in southwestern France just inland from the Atlantic Ocean. The region is best known for its red wines but also produces outstanding white, rosés and dessert wines. For reds, the wines are always blends comprised of a mix of the five permitted black grape varietals: cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec and petite verdot. For whites, the wines are typically blends of semillon, sauvignon blanc and muscadelle and are referred to as white Bordeaux.
Bordeaux has a long history of viticulture dating back to the 3rd century. The two most famous sub-regions are divided by the Gironde, an estuary that is fed by the Dordogne and Garonne rivers. For a simplification, the “Left Bank” is home to the greatest classified growths, which are dominated by the cabernet sauvignon grape. The “Right Bank” is typically dominated by the merlot grape.
Within Bordeaux, the 1855 Classification differentiates the quality and price of the greatest chateaus. It represents the Left Bank wines. The Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce was required by the government of the Second Empire to present a selection of the region’s wines at the 1855 Exposition Universelle. In total, there are 60 crus (quality vineyards) of red wines. The classification breaks down into five categories, referred to as “growths.”
The first growth category hosts the top five chateau, which for most of us are unattainable due to cost, with prices starting around $1,000 a bottle. Depending on the vintage, these prices can quickly increase. The further down you go into the second growths and third growths, the prices become considerably more palatable.
Moreover, each of these classified chateau produce a second or third label bottling. These are excellent values considering their provenance. Typically, these are younger vines than those in their flagship wine, but they offer style and quality at a affordable price.
The majority of the greatest wines come from four famous communes: Margaux, St. Julien, Pauillac and St. Estephe. Each commune offers uniquely different wines stemming from varietal and soil composition, slope, aspect and micro climate weather.
Below the Grand Cru Classe system, there are excellent wines to be found in the lower-tiered category of Bordeaux Superieur and Bordeaux AOC designation. These wines range from $10-$30.
The wines of Bordeaux offer unparalleled complexity because of their soil composition, varietal makeup, barrel aging and vintage. While the higher classified growths offer more concentration, they also require longer bottle aging. The wines offer notes of cassis, violets, cigar box, cinnamon, all spice and vanilla. On the palate, they can range from light to full body – price-dependent of course – and when young can be austere with high acids, firm tannins and minerals. These wines benefit from decanting for at least an hour in addition to being served with a meal.
Alan Cuenca is an accredited oenophile and owner of Put a Cork in It, a Durango wine store. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.