Bordeaux Wine Regions Guide

Unleash Your Inner Wine Connoisseur: Experience the Best of Bordeaux and Beyond

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Last updated: January 30, 2024

Introduction

Bordeaux evokes images of the fairy tale châteaux of the left bank (or “rive gauche”), the picture-perfect medieval hamlet of St Emilion, and, of course, of the handsome city of Bordeaux itself – considered to be a mini version of Paris. This is the beauty of Bordeaux: you don’t have to look hard to find an idealized version of this venerable region. Yet the largest fine wine vineyard on earth does not solely exist for the benefit of visitors; over 110,000 hectares of vines are the economic – and cultural – lifeblood of the Aquitaine region, producing an incredibly diverse range of styles, including white, rosé, dessert and even sparkling wines. And while connoisseurs go weak at the knees (understandably) when Chateau Margaux or Cheval Blanc enter the conversation, Bordeaux produces an even greater volume of high-quality and affordable wine. At the extremes are the world’s most prestigious bottles and awful wines that shouldn’t be made at all. But there is a gigantic space in the middle for the delectable whites of Graves and the underrated red wines of Fronsac and its neighbors. Make no mistake: Bordeaux does not exclusively cater to auction houses and the oligarch set. But there is plenty of luxury and decadence to go around, too.

Winemaking and regional classifications

Bordeaux is the world’s most heterogeneous vineyard. The majority of the region’s bottles are not in the luxury segment; they are delicious rosés, superlative dessert wines, and saline dry whites that consumers love. Bordeaux boasts over 6,000 producers scattered across its diverse appellations, each crafting every imaginable style of wine.

The Tradition of Blending in Bordeaux

However, there is a unifying tradition in Bordeaux: the cult of blending. Red wines have long been a concoction of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc; the exact composition varies depending on the region, cepage (proportions of different varieties planted), winemaker preferences, and vintage.

Merlot’s Role and the Insurance Policy of Varietal Diversity

As a general rule, Merlot plays a dominant role in the wines of the Right Bank – Cabernet Sauvignon is the kingmaker in the Medoc. It also plays a major part in the beguiling reds of Pessac-Leognan and Graves. But why blend at all, you may ask? This panacea largely evolved out of necessity: in Bordeaux’s marginal climate, it was not uncommon for one (or more) varieties to fail to ripen in wet vintages. This was the case in 1992, ’93, ’97, 2007, and 2013. So planting different grapes provided the estate with an insurance policy against the vagaries of the season; Merlot’s ability to ripen earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon can be a godsend in difficult years.

Winemakers’ Perspectives on Blending

In addition, many winemakers advocate blending as a way of increasing the complexity of the wine. Indeed, this approach is becoming more fashionable in the New World as mono-varietal styles become passe among consumers and key influencers. “Blends have been picking up in the Chilean market for some time now,” said Chilean oenologist Francisco Baettig. “I think they give the opportunity to complement the strengths of different varieties and help achieve a more complex and balanced wine. Our icon wine Seña was born as a Bordeaux blend, under the idea of showing in a single wine the full potential of our terroir and Chile of making a world-class wine.”

San Francisco-based sommelier Joseph DiGrigoli agrees. “Great Bordeaux highlights how varying amounts of Cabernet can demonstrate different characteristics in the finished wine over time,” said DiGrigoli. “Yet there is a place for mono-varietals Cabernet and a legion of drinkers who value and enjoy these wines. That said, I think you’ll find a decreasing number of drinkers who regard blending as somehow inferior, and that can only be a good thing.”

Bordeaux Blanc and Its Composition

This is a good moment to mention Bordeaux Blanc. Produced across the wider region, it is invariably a mixture of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon – the former brings freshness, fruit, and aromatics to the blend. Semillon, however, provides the crucial backbone: structure, richness, and texture. Occasionally, winemakers incorporate Muscadelle and Sauvignon Gris to enhance the aromatics, although some consider these varieties to be second-rate. This basic recipe is the lifeblood of Bordeaux sweet wines made in Sauternes and Cadillac; sparkling Cremant can involve any number of varieties, including Carmenere, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Bordeaux Wine map

Bordeaux Wine Region Map
Download Bordeaux Wine map

Geography and terroir

The massive (1000 sq km) region of Bordeaux encompasses over 55 distinct appellations and a range of soil types, terrains, and mesoclimates. You’ll find the city in southwest France, on the left bank of the Garonne River. There are two key winegrowing areas in Bordeaux, known for centuries as the ‘Left Bank’ and ‘Right Bank.’ The most famous Left Bank region is the Medoc Peninsula, sandwiched between the Atlantic and the Gironde estuary.

Left Bank and Medoc Peninsula

The Gironde flows in from the Atlantic at Pointe de Grave and extends south towards the city outskirts. On its Left Bank stretching southwards, you hit the Médoc appellation and then consecutively St Estèphe, Pauillac, St Julien, Listrac Médoc, and Mouilis en Medóc further inland, and Margaux. Meanwhile, the Haut Médoc’s vineyards extend along half of the peninsula. The grapes used here primarily are Cabernet Sauvignon (the flagship Left Bank grape, which is responsible for the structure, tannins, fruit, and aging potential of the wines), Cabernet Franc (which gives elegance and finesse to the blends), and smaller quantities of Merlot (bringing roundness, soft fruits, and body). Then minute quantities of Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Carménère are thrown into wine blends – as a chef would use a spice – to bring out other flavors. The poor soils here make for great viticulture; you will find a mix of gravel, pebbles, and sand in the vines. Vines propel their roots deep into the earth (as far as fifty feet down) to find water, which leads to low-yielding vines that make ultra-intense, delicious wines.

Near the village of Margaux, the Gironde forks into two rivers and becomes the Garonne (heading south, flowing through Bordeaux and the appellations of Pessac Leognan, Cadillac, Graves, Cérons, Barsac, Loupiac, St Croix du Mont and Sauternes) and the Dordogne (heading east and en route flowing through the wine appellations of Côtes de Bourg, Fronsac, Pomerol, St Emilion and its “satellites” and eventually on to the Dordogne region with its varied wine regions). Between these two rivers lies the aptly named and very beautiful “Entre-Deux-Mers” white wine region: Sauvignon Blanc blends are the lifeblood of this appellation’s inexpensive but high-quality whites.

Right Bank: Merlot-Dominated Wines

However, Merlot is the mainstay of production in the Right Bank, yielding velvety and opulent reds that consumers love. Pomerol and St Emilion are the two most famous names, while there are some delightful surprises in Fronsac and Côtes de Castillon. Merlot’s historic dominance (as opposed to its supporting role in the Medoc) is due to the complex relationship between soils, grapes, climate, and vineyard exposure. The Right Bank has more clay and limestone soils and, as a rule, has more gentle hills than the Left Bank, which is quite flat. While the Left Bank is home to countless grand chateaux (and rather unattractive scenery in between), the Right Bank is more about gorgeous scenery and more humble wineries. This is where you will encounter many famed “Garagistes” and “Garage wines,” such as Le Pin in Pomerol.

Geographical and Climatic Influences

Climatically, Bordeaux enjoys a maritime weather system with warm, humid summers and damp winters. In the 20th century, proximity to the Atlantic ruined many a vintage in Bordeaux; downpours during harvest led to berry rot, dilution, and astringent green tannins. 1992 and 1993 are classic examples of this phenomenon – very few chateaux made exemplary wines in those years. Twenty-five years ago, people widely accepted the wisdom that Bordeaux’s weather exhibited a high degree of capriciousness, and the looming threat of a mildew attack was ever-present. The threat of spring frosts is another pernicious aspect of wine growing here: producers lost a high volume of their crop in 2021 due to unseasonably cold weather. Meanwhile, the average growing season temperature is about 66°F, with rainfall hovering around 900 mm annually.

Impact of Global Warming on Bordeaux Wines

Yet global warming has exceeded expectations in Bordeaux: a succession of hot vintages produced super-ripe Cabernet Sauvignon, a dead ringer for Napa Valley. Will this trend continue, or was it a blip? It is impossible to answer those questions with total accuracy, although owners and producers are adapting their viticultural practices to reflect what they believe is the ‘new normal.’

The lowdown

Bordeaux has seduced generations of wine lovers, critics, and sommeliers. The vineyards of Graves, for example, have been producing wine since the late Middle Ages, yet the glamor has not faded. In London, New York, and Hong Kong auction houses, the finest châteaux sell for princely sums, only rivaled by the Grand Crus of Burgundy. Meanwhile, growing numbers of wine lovers are discovering the joys of Bordeaux Blanc: elegant, perfumed whites that run the gamut from saline to positively voluptuous. At the same time, mid-range Bordeaux (rouge) appeal has risen as Millennials reject the idea of trophy hunting; red Graves and Blaye/Bourg with a few years bottle age can be superb and excellent value. Likewise, the reds of Fronsac, Lalande-de-Pomerol (especially Chateau La Fleur de Bouard), and the Saint-Emilion satellites should all be snapped up.

The Unique Charm of Bordeaux’s Aging Potential

Yet it is not easy to pinpoint what it is about Bordeaux that has such a firm hold on oenophiles worldwide. After all, exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon wines (both single-varietal and blends) are made in South America, California, Australia, and New Zealand. The best of this newer firmament garner high praise from critics – and even higher prices. Perhaps it is the unrivaled ability of Bordeaux to age into subtle splendor: New World Cabernets can peak after five years due to the high alcohol. Minor châteaux from light vintages need only two or three years, but even modest wines of great years can improve for 15 years or so, and the greatest châteaux of these years can profit from double that time. Bottle age is useful for some regions: in the world of Cru Classe Bordeaux, it is indispensable.

Adaptation to Changing World and Sustainable Practices

The region has also successfully adapted to the demands of our changing world. This covers various interests, including viticulture, experimentation with new grape varieties (due to climate change), and tourism. According to the Bordeaux Wine Council, the region now boasts the highest number of certified producers of sustainable wine, with 70% of the vineyard area managed under the rules of the HVE (Haute Valeur Environnementale) program. This drive to encourage sustainable viticulture, now widely adopted, was developed by the French Ministry of Agriculture in 2001.

There are three pillars:

  • A reduction in the use of synthetic chemicals
  • An increase in the level of biodiversity
  • A reduction in carbon footprint.

Sustainable Initiatives and Modernization

We obtained the ISO 14 001 certificate and the High Environmental Value (HVE) level 3 in 2017,” says Matthieu Bordes, Directeur Général, Chateau Lagrange. “In addition to encouraging biodiversity and eliminating artificial herbicides, 800 square meters of solar panels on a cellar roof now account for 15% of our electricity consumption.” Moreover, a growing number of estates have converted to organic and biodynamic methods, including Chateau Climens in Sauternes. And the progress continues apace as wineries embrace the 21st century with chic tasting rooms, multilingual staff, and on-site restaurants.

Bordeaux’s Balance of Tradition and Innovation

The truth is that modern Bordeaux has it all: tradition and innovation exist as equal partners in this venture. A great bottle of Bordeaux, regardless of its color, can refresh your palate; it possesses balance, harmony, and poise and is utterly delicious.  The region occasionally disappoints with a rain-soaked vintage or disconcerting level of bottle variation. But its siren song remains uniquely irresistible, all the same.

Bordeaux gastronomy

Le Pavillon des Boulevards, Michelin Starred Dining
Le Pavillon des Boulevards, Michelin Starred Dining

The magnificent city of Bordeaux is bespeckled with excellent restaurants of all descriptions: Michelin-starred temples of fine dining, elegant bistros, relaxed brasseries, and the ubiquitous terrace cafe. Chefs work with an enticing array of fresh seasonal ingredients, including oysters and langoustines from nearby Arachon, Blaye white asparagus, foie gras, Aquitaine caviar, and the rare (but sublime) Bordeaux saffron. It’s enough to make you forget about the wine, if only for a second.

A Guide to Bordeaux Gastronomy and Cusine: Read more

History

The history of Bordeaux winegrowing is intrinsically intertwined with a series of political earthquakes that have molded the region for centuries. Yet it is also a history driven by commerce; unlike Burgundy, the church and peasant farmers have never had a controlling stake in the vineyards of Aquitaine. The Romans were the first to spot the potential of this expansive region, planting vines after their conquest of Gaul (France) in the last century BC. Bordeaux’s first vineyards were planted in the vicinity of the city itself, in addition to Saint-Emilion, Loupiac (Entre-Deux-Mers), and the right bank of the Gironde estuary. However, the collapse of Rome’s hegemony over Western Europe in the 5th century was disastrous for Bordeaux’s wine economy: rival civilizations fought over the spoils while vineyards were left to rot.

Medieval Resurgence and Expansion of Vineyards

Its resurgence occurred in the Middle Ages, following the marriage of Henry II of England to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152. Trade with England flourished in the aftermath of this political union, while the area under vine increased exponentially in Bordeaux, spreading to the southern reaches of Graves and Libourne. Indeed, the best-known region in this era was Graves and not the Medoc – the latter existed as marshland until the 17th century. Bordeaux’s oldest First Growth chateau is Haut-Brion: Jean de Pontac planted vines in the 1500s, laying the foundations for the ‘chateau’ system and the rise of individual brands. A century later, Haut-Brion was the toast of Europe’s aristocracy, producing red and white (invariably sweet) wines of great renown.

Transformation of the Medoc and Rise of Elite Landowners

However, after Dutch engineers drained the Medoc’s swampy terrain, elite landowners began to sideline Graves and invest in the untapped potential of the Medoc Peninsula, taking advantage of the newly liberated gravel terraces and altered water table. Suddenly, the land was suitable for human habitation and, more importantly, the cultivation of vines. The wealthiest families, including the Rothschild banking dynasty, rushed to invest in Medoc real estate. Thanks to their proselytizing, it did not take long for the region to establish a reputation for excellence in northern Europe; the wines of Chateau Lafite and Latour were soon fetching record-breaking prices, while Graves (excluding Haut-Brion) faded into the background.

Bordeaux’s 19th Century Global Renown and the 1855 Classification

The 19th century was a seminal moment for Bordeaux and its global renown. Today, Bordeaux has many ‘classified’ châteaux, largely referring to the famous 1855 classification. In 1855, Napoleon III held the Exposition Universelle de Paris. He ordered the creation of a new classification for the best wines of Bordeaux, possibly in part to showcase them to international visitors. Bordeaux’s wine brokers (known as négociants) selected wines based on reputation, the extravagance of the château, cost (the higher, the better) and categorized them from 1st growth (Premier Cru, the highest honor) to Fifth Growth.

The few wines selected for First Growths were Lafite, Latour, Margaux, and Haut-Brion. Apart from reds, botrytis sweet wines in Sauternes and Barsac were also classified. Their system had an extra spot at the top for “Superior First Growth” (Premier Cru Supérieur), and the only wine estate to receive this honor was Château d’Yquem. In addition, the wineries of Pessac-Leognan and Saint-Emilion devised their own classification framework in the 20th century; Pomerol is the only fine wine appellation to have eschewed this approach.

Evolution in the 21st Century

The 21st century has witnessed numerous changes in Bordeaux: unprecedented global investment, new players, climate shifts, and experimentation with grape varieties – including Touriga Nacional – that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago. Yet, at the heart of this complex region is an unrivaled ability to satisfy every preference, budget, and desire. Bordeaux remains the motor of the fine wine world; it is by far its biggest producer of blue chip labels, exciting consumers and sommeliers. But a wealth of ‘everyday’ Bordeaux also stimulates the palate with its savory tannin, moderate alcohol, and wonderful freshness. Brilliant wines at affordable prices? That’s a side of Bordeaux that deserves greater air time.

Author

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James lawrence

Uncovering the Hidden Gems of Bordeaux's Wine and Food Scene: Off-the-Beaten-Path Recommendations

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