Wines of Bordeaux

The Bordeaux region of France is famous for great, noble, and fabulously expensive wine. It is the home of the famous Chateaux and famous names like Lafite-Rothschild and Petrus.

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The Bordeaux Classification System

Much of the Bordeaux region is classified. If you have ever heard the terms "First Growth" and "Grand Cru," they come from the Bordeaux Classification.

In 1855, under Napoleon III, the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce was ordered to produce a ranking of the wines of Bordeaux for the Universal Exposition in Paris. This ranking has remained largely unchanged since then, although additional regions were classified under similar systems at later times.

Not all of Bordeaux was classified. Only the Medoc, Sauternes-Barsac, Saint-Emilion, and Graves regions are classified.

In the Medoc, chateaux in the classified districts are ranked from First to Fifth growth based on quality, historical achievement, and market value. Just below the classified growths are the Cru Bourgeois. The specific rank may or may not be indicated on the label. A label stating "Grand Cru Classe" means that the wine is from a classified growth but does not explicitly state the rank.

There are five great First Growth Chateaux. They are:

  • Chateau Lafite-Rothschild (Pauillac)
  • Chateau Mouton-Rothschild (Pauillac)
  • Chateau Margaux (Margaux)
  • Chateau Haut-Brion (Pessac-Leognan)
  • Chateau Latour (Pauillac)

Technically, Chateau Haut-Brion is in the Graves district, but it is included among the Medoc growths for historical reasons.

The Medoc classification has changed only once, when Chateau Mouton-Rothschild was elevated from Second Growth to First Growth.

The Sauternes district is classified in a two tier system (first and second growth). In addition, Chateau d'Yquem is classified as a "First Great Growth," higher than any of the red wines of the Medoc.

The Graves classification was not established until after the Second World War, and only contains a single level, with red and white wines classified separately (a chateau's red may be classified while it's white is not, or vice versa).

The Saint-Emilion classification was also established in the postwar era, and contains two levels. In addition, it is the only classification that undergoes routine revision, having been revised three times since creation.

Chateau Petrus in the unclassified Pomerol district is commonly considered to be at least the equal of the First Growths. Pomerol is too small to be worth classifying, but wine snobs all know the name of Petrus.

Below the classified wines are the Cru Bourgeois and Petit Chateaux, which are ranked higher than plain AOC Bordeaux wines.

Grape Varieties

In the Bordeaux regions, red wine is made from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot, the latter three being used only in small quantities for blending. All red Bordeaux is a blend of these grapes.

There is regional variation within Bordeaux for the blending proportions. The Left Bank of the Gironde River (Medoc, Haut-Medoc, Graves) produces blends heavily slanted toward Cabernet Sauvignon, while the Right Bank (Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, most of Bordeaux) produces blends heavily slanted toward Merlot.

White Bordeaux is made from Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle, and Ugni Blanc, with the first being the dominant grape.

Semillon is especially vulnerable to infection from the botrytis fungus, which dries out the grapes and concentrates the sugars. This is a good thing. In the Sauternes district (and a few others, including Barsac and Saint-Croix-du-Mont) the resulting wine is made sweet and has very concentrated flavors. Since the fungus-infected grapes must be hand-picked, production yields are very low and consqeuently the finer wines are fabulously expensive.

Reading a Bordeaux label

Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1997

A Bordeaux wine label will include the information common to all AOC French wines: winemaker, vintage, geographical origin, etc.

Curiously enough, most labels will not indicate the classification level beyond the fact that it is classified or not. There are sufficiently few traditional first-growth caliber wines (seven, actually), that it is assumed that anyone who is a serious wine drinker will know these names by heart, and thus no indication of their exalted status is required on the label. For the lower ranked classified chateaux, the label often indicates only "Grand Cru Classe," which means that it is classified.

You can find lists online and offline with the classifications, if you're curious about the exact rank of a Grand Cru Classe. It is possible to memorize the entire list (it's not that long; there are less that a hundred classified chateaux in the Medoc, and the other regions are much smaller), but it is generally not worth the trouble.

You will frequently encounter the phrase "mis en bouteilles au chateau," which roughly means "bottled at the chateau." You'll also see "Bordeaux Superieur," which means that it is about 1% higher in alcohol (not necessarily superior).

The label above is a Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1997. This chateau is a First Growth, although this is not indicated on the label. The label tells us that it comes from Pauillac, which is on the Left Bank in Medoc. This is more colorful that most Bordeaux labels; Chateau Mouton-Rothschild commissions a famous artist every year to design the label. Past label artists have included the likes of Kandinsky (1971), Chagall (1970), Warhol (1975), and Picasso (1973).

What's Good

Naturally, the First Growth Chateaux are good. However, they are well out of the price range of mere mortals, and are certainly not good values due to their extraordinarily high prices.

Lower-ranked Classified Chateaux are more affordable but still expensive, often well over $30 per bottle. However, Cru Bourgeois and village appellation wines are available at reasonable prices, and compare well to other good Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots.

You should focus on Left Bank or Right Bank depending on your preferences for Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, respectively.

Wine Comments

White Chateau Lafaurie-Peyraguey Sauternes 2003 (AOC Sauternes)
8 August 2009 Deep syrup with orange blossoms, honey, and spice. Exceedingly rich. Never-ending finish.
$33 / bottle
White Maison Nicolas, "Reserve" Sauternes 1999 (AOC Sauternes)
2002 Light and sweet, with citrus and floral scents.
$11 / 375ml
White Chateau Bastor-Lamontagne, Sauternes 1997 (AOC Sauternes)
2002 Rich and heady honey and ambrosia flavor, with flowers and a moderate mineral backing. Faint nut and wood flavors.
$30 / 375ml
White Chateau Haut-Mayne, Sauternes 1998 (AOC Sauternes)
2002 Deep mineral and melon flavor with light grassy tones. Very sweet. Slightly spicy. Intense and rich.
$19 / 375ml
White Chateau du Mont, "Premieres Tries" Saint-Croix-du-Mont 1998 (AOC Saint-Croix-du-Mont)
13 March 2002 Extremely bold and powerful grapefruit flavor, with lots of honey. Oily/syrupy texture, like liqueor. No discernable grape flavor. Botrytisized flavor in the extreme.
$12 / bottle
White Chateau La Freynelle Bordeaux 2005 (white) (AOC Bordeaux)
12 January 2008 Bright tropical flavors of citrus, smooth buttery mouthfeel, round and not overly crisp. Refreshing.
$10 / bottle
White Chateau de Rochemorin, Pessac-Leognan 2005 (AOC Pessac-Leognan)
29 January 2009 Plump tropical fruit with a slightly buttery mouthfeel. Wet finish with a lot of volatile flavors. Unusually round for pure sauvignon blanc.
$16 / bottle
White Delagrave, Bordeaux 2006 (AOC Bordeaux)
2008 Deep apple notes with a very mellow and soft mouthfeel.
$11 / bottle
White Chateau Graville-Lacoste, Graves 2006 (AOC Graves)
3 February 2010 Smooth and very soft, with light vegetal notes over plump citrus. Unassuming.
$24 / bottle
White Herzog Selection "Chateneuf" Bordeaux 2006 (white) (AOC Bordeaux)
12 June 2008 Muted grapefruit, peach, and melon. Very pleasant buttery and semi-sweet mouthfeel.
$11 / bottle
White Mouton Cadet, Bordeaux 2000 (white) (AOC Bordeaux)
2003 Sharp grassy flavors with starfruit, citrus, and bell pepper. Very smooth texture, short finish.
$8 / bottle
White Schroder and Schyler, "Chartron La Fleur", Bordeaux Blanc 2000 (AOC Bordeaux)
13 March 2002 Fruity, pineapple like flavor, with strong earthy tones and a long finish. Smooth, no oak, and very pleasant. Good bargain.
$8 / bottle
White Chateau Grand Bourdieu, Graves 1998 (AOC Graves)
4 September 2004 Sprightly tropical nose over mineral. Tame. Short finish.
$9 / bottle
Red Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Pauillac 1997 (AOC Pauillac 1er Cru)
13 March 2002 Initial soft impression, with prominent spicy chocolate flavors. Long finish, with vanilin-oak flavors. Very complex. Overpriced.
$225 / bottle
Red Mouton Cadet, Bordeaux 2008 (red) (AOC Bordeaux)
4 March 2011 Bitter tannins over bloody fruit and bell peppers, with hints of leather on the finish. Immature.
$12 / bottle
Red Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Saint-Emilion 1998 (AOC Saint-Emilion)
13 March 2002 Strong spicy flavor with prominent smoky tones, good tannins, and slight oak with musky flavors. Stronger than average alcohol flavor.
$20 / bottle
Red Chateau Daugay, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2001 (AOC Saint Emilion Grand Cru)
10 July 2010 Very mellow and smooth, with aged peppers, incense, and vanilla wood. Quiet but satisfying.
$27 / bottle
Red Tertre du Moulin, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2002 (AOC Saint-Emilion Grand Cru)
27 November 2009 Smooth and very mellow, with moderate oak and firm stemmy tannins and a long finish. Plump yet thin fruit.
$15 / bottle
Red Chateau Passe Craby, Bordeaux Superieur 2005 (AOC Bordeaux Superieur)
20 December 2007 Strong dry tannins, plump fruit with a touch of plums and berries. Rustic, hearty, and somewhat heady.
$9 / bottle
Red Grand Prince, Bordeaux 2005 (AOC Bordeaux)
9 October 2009 Bold and very tannic, with chocolate and currant notes. Somewhat heady and unusually powerful.
$15 / bottle
Red Chateau Bernadotte, Haut-Medoc 2000 (AOC Haut-Medoc)
1 August 2006 Rich, spicy flavor. Light oak, moderate tannins, heady feel.
$17 / bottle
Red Chateau La Grande Clotte, Lussac St Emilion 2005 (AOC Lussac St Emilion)
27 December 2008 Fruity with firm tannin and surprisingly light wood. Heady.
$18 / bottle
Red Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) "Reserve Speciale" Medoc 2004 (AOC Medoc)
6 April 2008 Mellow fruit, light notes of tobacco and leather. Robust tannins but overall mellow character.
$19 / bottle
Red Chateau Belles-Cimes, Saint-Emilion 2001 (AOC Saint-Emilion)
14 July 2007 Firm tannin, strong bell pepper and vegetal notes.
$18 / bottle
Red Chateau Cantemerle, Haut-Medoc 1997 (AOC Haut-Medoc 5th Cru)
13 March 2002 Strong tannins, very forward spicy flavors with restrained smokiness. Very intense. Long aftertaste reveals oak.
$30 / bottle
Red Chateau Ferriere, Margaux 1997 (AOC Margaux 3rd Cru)
13 March 2002 Very strong woody oak flavor, restrained tannins, and earthy flavors with undertones of chocolate and leather, with very long finish.
$30 / bottle
Red Font Villac, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2000 (AOC Saint-Emilion Grand Cru)
5 July 2008 Lively mouthfeel with pepper, licorice, leather, and mellow tannins. Very long finish.
$22 / bottle
Red Font Villac, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 1999 (AOC Saint-Emilion Grand Cru)
2003 Very lively on the tongue, with ripe fruit, pepper, leather, and wood age. Fairly intense. Bone dry.
$16 / bottle
Red Chateau Pipeau, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2000 (AOC Saint-Emilion Grand Cru)
28 April 2004 Spicy, earthy chocolate and pepper. Heady, tannic, and very dry. More Left Bank than Right Bank, more New World than Old World.
$30 / bottle
Red Chateau d'Arcins, Haut-Medoc 2003 (AOC Haut-Medoc Cru Bourgeois)
24 November 2007 Rich plum and berry flavors, smoky wood, soft but approachable tannins. Heady. Good bargain.
$18 / bottle
Red Chateau d'Arcins, Haut-Medoc 2000 (AOC Haut-Medoc Cru Bourgeois)
1 May 2004 Dark, stemmy fruit with cherry, blackberry, and no spice. Exceptionally smooth but a touch soft.
$15 / bottle
Red Chateau Haut-Chatain, Lalande de Pomerol 2000 (AOC Lalande de Pomerol)
28 February 2004 Dark and peppery, with smoky leather and very centered fruit. Moderate finish. Heavy for a Right Bank wine.
$24 / bottle
Red Chateau La Haute Claymore, Lussac-St-Emilion 1998 (AOC Lussac St-Emilion)
2004 Fruity and peppery initial impression gives way to berry fruit finish. Medium body, probably heavy merlot blend. Medium finish. More accessible than heavier Medoc wines, good with food.
$11 / bottle
Red Chateau de la Coste, Margaux 1998 (AOC Margaux)
23 January 2004 Heavy vanilla oak, with tobacco and incense. Very smooth.
$19 / bottle
Red Chateau Grand Corbin-Despagne, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2000 (AOC Saint-Emilion Grand Cru)
2004 Dark fruit, with light oak and moderate smoke and spice. Very well-balanced tannins and earth tones. Understated and classy.
$25 / bottle
Red Chateau La Rose Bellevue, Premieres Cotes de Blaye 1997 (AOC Premiers Cotes de Blaye)
2003 Rich smoky flavor, with lighter berry notes and prominent oak over an earthy foundation. Soft tannins, short finish.
$11 / bottle
Red Chateau Roland-La-Garde, Premieres Cotes de Blaye 2000 (AOC Premieres Cotes de Blaye)
2004 Dark and peppery, rich but soft. Restrained and pleasant tannin. Very good.
$25 / bottle
Red Augey, Bordeaux 1998 (AOC Bordeaux)
2003 Soft tannins, light grassy flavor. Very mellow.
$9 / bottle
Red Chateau La Cardonne, Medoc 1997 (AOC Medoc Cru Bourgeois)
2003 Extremely smooth, with heavy oak vanillin. Strong berry flavors.
$17 / bottle
Red Chateau Timberlay, Bordeaux Superieur 2000 (AOC Bordeaux Superieur)
2004 Dark and murky flavor, with heavy tannin and spicy leather. Surprisingly thin in the mouth.
$12 / bottle