Bordeaux Wine Region in France: World's Most Famous Fine Wine Region

Bordeaux is arguably the greatest wine region in the world.  Great cellars around the world are filled with wines from the different chateaus of the region.  America’s first wine connoisseur, Thomas Jefferson, not only drank wines from here, but made it a point to visit the region and see for himself what made these wines so great.

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Bordeaux lies in the southwest corner of France where it follows the Gironde River inland from the Atlantic Ocean.  The region takes its name from the largest city in the area (also named Bordeaux) which is a thriving port metropolis on the Gironde.  It is a very large wine region with around 250,000 acres under vine.  Although there are perhaps one hundred producers who have achieved worldwide fame, there are approximately 20,000 producers making wine in Bordeaux.  Approximately 850 million bottles are produced each year. 

Bordeaux Map

Wine has been grown in Bordeaux for a couple of thousand years predating even the Romans arrival in 56 BC.  Unlike most areas of France, where the Church developed and controlled the wine, the merchant class traditionally was at the center of the Bordeaux wine trade.  Perhaps this is due to its location near a port which made for easier commerce.  The area was under English rule for a long time.  Wineries would sell their barrels to merchants in England.  Boats filled with barrels of Claret, the English word for the red wine produced here, made their way from the port of Bordeaux to England on a regular basis.  In the 1400’s half of all production was sold to England. 

It was the Bordelaise who realized early on the advantage of selling wines under the name of the Chateau and not the city where it was grown, a concept known today as branding.  In 1855, at the direction of the Emperor Napoleon, the merchants of Bordeaux drew up a classification of the best Chateaus.  This was not a classification of the best vineyards like other areas of France; rather it was a listing of the sixty-one best estates.  The merchants divided up these estates into 5 classes based on the prices they were able to charge for their wines at that time.

All of these estates were in an area called Medoc with the exception of Haut Brion which is in an area called Graves.  Haut Brion was already well established by 1855.  There are references to it being one of the great wines of the area as far back as 1663.  Four Chateaus were classified as first class:  Haut Brion, Lafite, Latour and Margaux.  A complete listing of the 1855 classification can be found at the end of this article.  Although some of the Chateaus listed have fallen from grace and other wines have escalated to preeminence, the 1855 classification is still used and revered.

The sweet dessert wines from Sauternes and Barsac were also classified in 1855.  Chateau d’Yquem was the only property (including the red wines) to be classified as a Great First Growth (Grand Premier Cru). 

In the 1900s Baron Phillipe de Rothschild was an innovator at Mouton Rothschild where he bottled wines at the chateau instead of selling barrels to merchants to bottle.  This gave him more control over the finished product.  In addition, he made an economical wine putting his chateau’s name on the bottle.  Mouton Cadet, despite being an inexpensive wine of average quality, became a huge seller.  Perhaps, however, he will be most famous for his continual lobbying of the French AOC system to upgrade his property to first class.  Eventually his hard work paid off.  In 1973 Chateau Mouton Rothschild was upgraded to first class in the only significant change to the 1855 classification. 

Bordeaux makes red, white and sweet dessert wines.  The red wines come from five different grapes.  They are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec.  The first two make up the bulk of the wines with the last two being used in very small quantities.  The wineries tend to get divided based on which side of the Gironde they are on.  While not required by law, the left bank wines tend to have more Cabernet Sauvignon than other grapes and the right bank wines tend to be Merlot dominated.  In either case, all of the wines are blends of grapes.  The white wines are for the most part Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grape blends as are the dessert wines.  Some also have some Sauvignon Gris.  The better white wines seem to come from the commune of Graves although many properties make both red and white wines.  Most, however, have one they regard as their best. 

The proximity to the ocean protects the grapes from too hot or too cold temperatures.  The winters tend to be short.  Due to the humidity from the ocean, rot in the vineyard is a concern.  It is also the source of a mold that, under the right circumstances, allows the grapes to make wonder wonderful dessert wines.  The climate is not consistent from year to year and in a given decade there may be two or three outstanding vintages and two or three subpar vintages.  Vintages do matter here.  The vignerons, however, are learning to make good wine even in off vintages. 

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