Part 2 of the French Waterways guide to French wine looks at the king of vin, Bordeaux wine. A wine region that needs no introduction, Bordeaux produces some of the world’s finest wines. Any discerning wine connoisseur includes Bordeaux clarets in their collection. Bottles from some of the region’s most exceptional vintage years fetch small fortunes at auction.
In this piece, we take a snapshot of the history of this fine wine, look at the different regions behind Bordeaux production, sample its bouquet and offer tips on how to match the wine with food for the perfect pairing.
A bit of Bordeaux history
Bordeaux has been producing wine for centuries. The Romans first introduced vines to this maritime area, but it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the region reached its first heyday. In the 12th century, Bordeaux enjoyed the reputation as the world’s finest wine and was the wine purveyor to European kings and queens. In 1199, the region’s oldest wine guild Saint Emilion was founded.
Historic, economic and natural ups and downs followed throughout the centuries. Perhaps the most devastating was the arrival of the deadly phylloxera, a pest that almost single-handedly finished off the Bordeaux vineyards in the 19th century.
Fortunately for lovers of fine wine, the region’s vines recovered and by the 1950s Bordeaux had regained its status as one of the top wine producers in the world. Today, vines cover some 306,000 acres in the region. 10,000 wine producers make wine and Bordeaux boasts 57 appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) labels.
Did you know? Bordeaux isn’t the largest wine producing area in France – that accolade belongs to the Languedoc – but it is the country’s most famous.
The entire wine producing region lies within Aquitaine in south-west France and all its vineyards within the Gironde area. The wide Gironde estuary shaped by the confluence of the Dordogne and Garonne rivers forms an essential part of Bordeaux wine. Rich river sediments feed the soil, which also benefits from the unique maritime climate.
As is the case with all French wines, the key to Bordeaux is its terroir, which defines where the wine is from. Bordeaux is made up of five main terroirs.
This wine producing area lies to the west of the Gironde estuary and is known as the ‘left bank’. It’s the nearest to the Atlantic of all the five Bordeaux terroirs and this proximity to the sea gives wine from the Médoc its characteristic bold taste. It’s also the most tannic of all Bordeaux wines. Cabernet Sauvignon grapes form the base for most wines from this region, which has eight AOCs.
Blaye and Bourg
Situated to the right of the estuary, this area is characterised by its hilltop vineyards and well known for its prehistoric caves. One of the smaller terroirs, Blaye and Bourg have seven AOC labels from largely family owned vineyards, bringing a very personal touch to wine tastings and tours.
To the north of the Dordogne river and known as the ‘right bank’, this area is home to several Côtes de Bordeaux labels as well as Saint Emilion. Merlot grapes dominate wines from the Libornais, which are bold but with softer tannins than those produced on the left bank. No less than 15 AOCs are produced here.
Entre Deux Mers
Between the two rivers (or two seas) of Garonne and Dordogne, this Bordeaux wine region produces red but is better known for its whites, several of which boast AOC status. Some Côtes de Bordeaux labels are produced here along with 18 AOC wines.
Graves and Sauternais
This wine-producing region lies to the south of the Garonne river and includes the city of Bordeaux at its tip. One of its most famous wines is the sweet white Sauterne, famed as one of the world’s best dessert wines. Graves and Sauternais have eight AOCs.
Did you know? Bordeaux wines don’t have to sport an AOC label or be classified in the five-level crus (see below) to be good. Some of the tastiest (and cheapest) come from vineyards not on the AOC list.
Main types of grapes in Bordeaux wine
Bordeaux wines are overwhelmingly red. Around 88% of wine produced in the region is red and made from the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes. Some wines also include Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot or Malbec grapes.
The much smaller proportion of white wine comes from three grape types: Sauvignon blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle. Sémillon grapes form the base of the sweet Sauterne.
Bordeaux reds come medium to full-bodied with a variety of tastes. Blackcurrant and plum make up the main fruity undertones with an earthly graphite and woody cedar adding to the body of the wine. You may also sense a dash of violet.
Whites on the other hand tend to have sharper, more acidic undertones. Grapefruit, lemon, lime and gooseberry, all tart fruits, are common in the fruity bouquet where you may also taste chamomile.
Did you know? Over 300 vineyards in Bordeaux take part in the annual En Primeur week when they open their doors and present the wine made from the previous year’s grapes. The Grands Crus guild organises the event at the beginning of April.
Best Bordeaux vintages
Bordeaux wines have enjoyed numerous excellent vintages. Recent goodies for red include 2016, 2015, 2010 and 2009. For whites, 2015 was an exceptional year as were 2001, 1996 and 1990.
The Bordeaux wine classification is generally considered to be one of the most important in the world. It goes back to the 1855 Classification of the Médoc, invented to grade French wines for the Paris Exhibition. 58 of the region’s best wine estates were classed in five levels of growth (crus classes). The classification continues to exist today, although 61 estates now form part of the Classification of the Médoc.
Did you know? Baron Rothschild spent 50 years trying to upgrade his Mouton Bordeaux wine from second to first cru. He finally succeeded in 1973.
Food and wine matching
The scope of Bordeaux wines means you can pair them successfully with almost anything. The region’s official wine website does just that and recommends a type of Bordeaux for whatever’s on your table from escargots and cassoulet to pizza and puddings.
Reds pair perfectly with any red meat. The bold Médoc wines go especially well with steak while almost any red pairs well with duck. You can even pair a Bordeaux red with chilli dishes and still appreciate the wine’s texture and taste.
Sauvignon blanc wines come into their own with fish and seafood, particularly mussels. The sweet wines pair most obviously with desserts but also combine well with lobster – try it!
Did you know? Bordeaux reds should always be served at just below room temperature (18ºC/65ºF) and always be decanted.
Taste Bordeaux wine for yourself
How better to discover the best of Bordeaux wine than from the Garonne itself? Our hotel barge cruises make their way leisurely up river giving guests plenty of time to soak up all this lovely region has to offer, including, of course, its magnificent wines. Book your space on board now.
Step by step guide to French wine:
- Part 1: French wines – an overview
- Part 3: Burgundy wines
- Part 4: Champagne
- Part 5: Loire Valley wines
- Part 6: Côtes du Rhone wines
- Part 7: Alsace wines
- Part 8 : Languedoc wines
- Part 9: Lesser known wines of France
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