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.’