Château Haut-Bages Libéral vineyard in Bordeaux, France
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May 21, 2021  |  6 mins read
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Region in Focus: Bordeaux

Château Haut-Bages Libéral vineyard in Bordeaux, France

Think of Bordeaux as the grandparent of the wine world. The French region has a storied history going back centuries, and to this day is grounded in traditions that have been defined over generations.

Bordeaux has shaped the wine industry in more ways than one. Wine regions everywhere have emulated its blending technique: Bordeaux’s star grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, are some of the most planted varieties on the planet, taking root in terroirs from California and Italy to Australia and South Africa.

In recent years, a new generation of Bordeaux winemakers have worked to innovate and bring the stalwart region into the future, notably through advances in sustainable farming practices. The best Bordeaux wines embrace this ethos while staying rooted in tradition.

History

The first vineyards in Bordeaux were likely planted in the first century B.C. by the Romans. From the 12th to 15th centuries the English ruled the area. The region’s success is partly due to its proximity to a harbor, allowing the English to easily ship the wine home and farther afield, building an international wine trade. Bordeaux reverted back to French rule in the 1450s, but continued cultivating markets with English, Dutch, Irish and German merchants. This was key to establishing Bordeaux’s place as the one of the top wine regions it is today.

By the 1600s, demand was high. But because much of the region consisted of marshes and swamps—watery environments not conducive to the cultivation of wine—Bordeaux wasn’t operating at full tilt. That is, until Dutch engineer Jan Adriaanszoon Leeghwater devised a plan to drain the area’s marshes and swamps, thereby increasing the region’s wine-growing potential and allowing for easier transportation of the wine. 

In the mid-19th century, Emperor Napoléon III requested a classification of Bordeaux estates according to how much money their wines’ fetched, the ultimate sign of prestige at the time. The famous 1855 Classification was born and still endures today, although some châteaux underperform their rank while others punch well over their weight.

When learning about Bordeaux, you’ll hear terms like “first growth” or “Premier Grand Cru Classé” — this is the top echelon of Bordeaux’s hierarchy. While these blue-chip wines command high prices and accolades, the overwhelming majority of wine in Bordeaux is made in appellations that don’t carry the same prestige. The kicker: These wines are much more affordable yet still deliver incredible quality.

Sustainability

Château Guiraud in Bordeaux

Bordeaux has 65 appellations, hugging each side of the Gironde Estuary, which divides into the Dordogne and Garonne rivers. It has an oceanic and tempered maritime climate. The summers are hot and the winters are mild, although the spring is susceptible to frost and hail. The dominating climatic force in Bordeaux is the rain. The region is very wet, creating disease pressures that make sustainable practices in organic and biodynamic farming more difficult, but many dedicated winegrowers have persevered.

After years of vineyard mismanagement and pesticides galore, which reached its peak in the 1970s, Bordeaux is back on track in terms of sustainability. According to the Bordeaux Wine Council, more than 65 percent of Bordeaux châteaux have some kind of environmental certification. In 2018, more than 600 estates were certified organic or going through the conversion, compared with nearly 50 estates going biodynamic. And by 2030, the use of sustainable farming practices will be compulsory for Bordeaux AOC. 

Sustainable viticulture is important for protecting our environment and ensuring the health of the planet for generations to come, but farming sustainably, organically or biodynamically also allows the vineyards’ true expression to shine through.

Subregions 

Terroir is defined by the different geographic appellations, their unique soil, and climate-driven characteristics. The two main subregions you need to know in Bordeaux are the Left Bank and the Right Bank.

map of Bordeaux's subregions

The Left Bank, south of the Gironde, has gravelly soil. Its northern part close to the coast is called the Médoc — this is where Bordeaux’s most prestigious estates live, and where you’ll find VIVANT producers like the organic-certified Château de Côme in Saint-Estèphe, Château Haut-Bages Libéral in Pauillac and Château Durfort-Vivens in Margaux, both certified biodynamic through Demeter. The Graves, farther south, encompasses the Pessac-Léognan appellation, where you’ll find organic VIVANT producer Château Haut-Bergey.

The Right Bank is north of the Gironde and has mostly clay soil. The two most important appellations are Pomerol, where VIVANT producer Château Bellegrave farms organically, and Saint-Émilion, the home of Château Grand Corbin-Despagne, also an organic VIVANT producer.

Key Grapes & Wine Styles 

Soil is vitally important to understanding the region’s terroir, and it also dictates which grapes are grown where. The main varieties in red Bordeaux are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc (grapes like Malbec and Petit Verdot make up smaller proportions of the blends).

In Bordeaux, blending is an art and a region signature. The mixing of different grapes and wines is done to express the different terroirs of an estate; to moderate the vintage effect; and to impart balance and complexity. And it goes beyond grape varieties. Variations might include plots that have been vinified separately, or the use of different fermentation vessels. Simple wines are usually aged in stainless steel or in concrete containers, whereas more complex wines are traditionally aged in French oak barrels. Other winemakers are taking a more experimental approach—for instance, VIVANT producer Gonzague Lurton at Château Durfort Vivens uses terracotta jars to preserve the freshness of the fruit as well as add velvety tannins. 

Because Cabernet Sauvignon loves gravel soils, the wines from gravelly areas will have Cabernet as its lead grape. On the flip side, Merlot prefers clay soils, so Right Bank wines are Merlot-dominated. Cabernet Franc plays a supporting role in both, although it’s more prominent on the Right Bank.

Each appellation in the subregions have their own unique terroir, too. For example, in the Médoc, Margaux wines are more elegant due to the area’s finer gravel and sandy soils. Think brighter, red fruit and floral aromas. Saint-Estèphe reds are more rustic, with burly tannins and darker fruit, because of the higher amounts of clay in the gravel-based soils than elsewhere in the Médoc.

On the Right Bank, Saint-Émilion is a large appellation with variations in its clay-based soil. The most lauded wines come from plateau areas where there is limestone mixed in, resulting in pronounced minerality in the Merlot-based wines.

Most people associate Bordeaux with red wines, but the region also makes underappreciated white wines. In fact, white wines dominated Bordeaux until the 1970s. The region produces world-class dessert wines, and its dry white wines have skyrocketed in quality and popularity in recent years. These rely mostly on Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, with Muscadelle and Sauvignon Gris supporting. 

You may have heard of Sauternes, the dessert wine sometimes referred to as “liquid gold” in the wine world. Located in the Graves, the appellation has a unique microclimate that is integral to this sweet wine. Where the cool waters of the Ciron River meet the warmer currents of the Garonne, a mist is formed that spurs the creation of botrytis cinerea (also called noble rot) on the grapes, a type of fungus. Botrytis shrivels the berries and concentrates its sugars; the grapes are then hand-harvested in several passes, yielding unctuous, concentrated sweet wines. VIVANT producer Château Guiraud, which is certified organic and embraces some principles of biodynamics, goes through this arduous process with its Sauternes.

Bordeaux’s dry white wines should not be overlooked. They are refreshing and aromatic, boasting orchard fruit, minerality and herbaceous accents. Many Sauternes producers now make a dry white bottling in addition to their dessert wines, with an emphasis on Sauvignon Blanc instead of Sémillon. These are bottled under the generic classification Bordeaux AOC.

Entre-Deux-Mers, a large area in eastern Bordeaux, is one of the few appellations in the region 100-percent dedicated to dry white wine production. These wines offer great bang for your buck. Try a bottle from Château Ferran, a VIVANT producer who farms biodynamically.