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This week, “Wine 101” returns with a rerun handpicked by VinePair senior staff writer Tim McKirdy. In one of the show’s most popular episodes ever, VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers explores everything there is to know about Bordeaux, from its history to the varietals coming out of the region — and yes, that famous chateau.
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My name is Keith Beavers, and I am the tastings director at VinePair. I need you guys to get ready. I need you guys to buckle up. We’re about to talk about Bordeaux.
You know what I want to do? I want to tell you three things about Bordeaux. I want to tell you the history, the minutiae, and how it got to where it is today. But, like I said in the Burgundy episode, I would need a series of episodes to really give you a sense of the meatiness of Bordeaux. But I only have a little over 20 minutes.
I might throw in some history here, but the thing about Bordeaux is it is such an important place. The wine made in the Bordeaux region of France is so influential to the rest of the world. You’ve heard “this is a Bordeaux blend,” even though it’s not from Bordeaux. California, itself, has tried to emulate Bordeaux for a very long time. There was actually at one time a term called meritage for wines in California that had Bordeaux varieties blended into it. It’s not really a thing anymore, but it’s a huge place. It has so much influence. And the history is really cool. It is a fascinating, crazy thing, but it’s just so dense. But what I really want to do is address the anxiety around Bordeaux when it comes to the American market.
I don’t know about you, but I think there’s a lot. When I was coming up in wine, the Bordeaux section of a wine shop was like, “What am I looking at?” It was so confusing. And there’s so much to explain for what we know today about Bordeaux. This episode is going to be an explainer. We’re going to explain Bordeaux to you and give you an idea of what’s going on, so when you go into a wine shop, your anxiety level will be a little bit lower.
There are two rivers, one is called Dordogne, and that starts all the way in the eastern part of France on that central massif we talked about in the Burgundian episode, at the highest point a mountain called Puy de Sancy and runs all the way west towards the Atlantic ocean. And there’s another river called the Garonne, which starts in the Pyrenees at the south and starts working its way north then west towards the Atlantic Ocean. As these two rivers get closer to the Atlantic ocean, they begin to parallel and eventually there’s a confluence where the two rivers come together and that area is called an estuary. An estuary is a body of water where brackish river water meets ocean water and eventually dumps into the ocean, so this dumps into the Atlantic. That estuary is called the Gironde. The two rivers come in, they meet, they dump into the estuary, and then eventually into the Atlantic Ocean. This area, the Gironde, and the confluence of these two rivers, this is the Bordeaux region in southwestern France. This is the birthplace of the grape Cabernet Sauvignon. And along with other native grapes like Merlot, a grape called Petit Verdot, and a little orphan grape from the Basque region of Spain called Cab Franc make up the Bordeaux blend in different proportions throughout the wine-growing region. Interestingly enough, the Malbec grape is prominent, or once was very prominent, in this area of Southwest France, and it sometimes can still be used to blend into Bordeaux reds, but not really much anymore.
Another grape called Carménère, which is very well known in Chile, is also from here, but again, it’s not really used that much. And, although this is not the birthplace of Sauvignon Blanc, this is a very significant home for Sauvignon Blanc and a native grape called Sémillon, which primarily makes up the white wines of Bordeaux. And this place is massive. There are over 50 appellations in this region alone, comprising almost 7,000 châteaux — which basically means castle, which means winery. And of those 7,000 or so, only 5 percent of that are the famous wines we know, or at least we’ve heard of like in movies or when people talk about Bordeaux.
As the Garonne River works its way towards the confluence of the Dordogne River and then dumps into the estuary, it passes on the Left Bank of a town called Bordeaux. This is the actual town of Bordeaux, and throughout history is a very important port town. Just north of the town of Bordeaux going towards the Atlantic ocean is a wine growing region called the Médoc. One general thing about Bordeaux is it is always going to be a blend, with very few exceptions, especially the red wine. And almost all red wine blends from Bordeaux are based on two varieties: either the Cabernet Sauvignon grape or the Merlot grape, and then every other grape comes after that. In the Médoc, which is the Left Bank of the Gironde estuary, the wines coming from the Gironde are primarily Cabernet Sauvignon-based blends. This is the area with some of the most famous châteaux in Bordeaux — which I’m going to get to in a second — and what can be very confusing about the Médoc is that it’s broken up into two classification systems, two larger regions, and six smaller regions that are basically just called communes, or villages.
These are the things that you’re going to see on the wine labels when you’re in the wine shop. The two larger regions are Médoc — if you see Médoc on a wine label, the grapes can come from anywhere in the Médoc region, but mostly from a low-lying area just inland from the Atlantic coast.
The other larger appellation is called Haut-Médoc, or the high Médoc. As we come in south from the Atlantic Coast and we get past the low-lying regions, the land starts to rise up a little bit. From this part all the way to the town of Bordeaux, this is called Haut-Médoc. Anything that comes from that area can be called Haut-Médoc.
And then, right on the Left Bank of the Médoc are these little communes or villages of these wine- growing areas with specific names because of their specific terroir that are very famous. Some of the most famous wines come from here. Starting north and going south towards the town of Bordeaux, you have the commune of Saint-Estèphe, the commune of Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Listrac, Moulis, and then Margaux. And among all this, our two classification systems. This is crazy. This is just one part of Bordeaux, guys. This is a very cool part of Bordeaux that has a really cool history to it, and I wish I’d get it to get to it in this episode. But what’s important about the Médoc is this is the place where Bordeaux became recognized on the world stage. In 1855, Napoleon the Third was hosting the world’s fair in Paris, and he wanted to showcase the best of France: the best artists, the best food, the best wine. He put in a request to Bordeaux to come up with the best wine to be displayed at the fair so people would see how awesome it was. The people of Bordeaux, brokers and merchants and such, they came up with a system to present to Napoleon the Third. This was a classification basically, and this classification was called the Classification of 1855.
This was a very famous moment in Bordeaux where it really started to be recognized. And it was called Grand Cru Classé. Châteaux were put into five categories: first growth, Premier Cru; second growth, Deuxième Cru; Troisième Cru, going all the way down to five. First through fifth growths. And these châteaux were not chosen based so much on terroir, they were really based mostly on popularity and the price in which these wines could fetch at the time. I mean, if the wines were great and they were fetching high prices, obviously they had good terroir, but it was really more of a political thing because they wanted to just showcase the best of the best. In the end, 60 châteaux from the Médoc and one château from outside the Médoc became part of this classification system. Four châteaux were lucky enough to become first growths. Then you had 15 second growths, 14 third growths, 10 fourth growths, and 18 fifth growths.
Now, I can’t get into all those château but the top of the top is a short list, so I can tell you those, and you’re going to really recognize these names. From the commune of Pauillac you had Château Lafite Rothschild or the Lafite Rothschild, which I’m sure you guys have heard before, and Château Latour, I’m sure you’ve heard of that before. And the commune of Margaux, there was, of course, Château Margaux. We’ve heard all these names before, but this is where they came from. Just south of the town of Bordeaux in the Graves district, which we’re going to get to, in a little area called Pessac-Léognan, is a château called Château Haut-Brion, and that also became a first growth — it’s the only one outside of the Médoc that became a first growth.
And this system holds today and there’s been really no changes to it except for one. It took until 1973 to have one more château added to the first growth list. And that is Château Mouton Rothschild, which is also in Pauillac. And that was elevated from a Deuxième, or second growth, to a Premier Cru, or a first growth. It took a while, a lot of lobbying, a lot of politics, but it worked. This secured the prestige of this area. These wines can age for 30-plus years in the Médoc. And so these are some of the most long-lived, age-worthy wines in the world, and for the first growth wines, you’re definitely going to see on the label Premier Cru, they want you to know. As for the other growths, the second through fifth, they don’t always put the growth on the label. They’ll just say Grand Cru Classé, or Grand Vin, or Grand Cru Classé 1855. I mean, so good for them. But what about all the other winemakers out there in the Médoc? Well, in 1932, in response to this they created in the Médoc what’s called Cru Bourgeois. This is the second classification, and this is crazy.
To become a Cru Bourgeois wine, on your label, you just have to make wine, whether it’s the commune or the larger appellations, it just has to be made within this area, but then you can submit to be classified. And here it’s not the château that’s being classified, it’s the actual wine that’s being classified. And this classification is reassessed every five years, so it can change. 25 percent of all the wines in the Médoc are Cru Bourgeois. You’re going to see a lot of that in the American market, they’re not as expensive, they’re less expensive, they’re said to only age 10 years or so, but there are Cru Bourgeois made that lasts longer. But what you’ll see on a label, for example, is it’ll say château something, it’ll say Cru Bourgeois, and then only Haut-Médoc, let’s say. Or château something, Cru Bourgeois Pauillac. That is primarily, wine lovers, what is considered the Left Bank of Bordeaux.
Now, south of the town of Bordeaux is a district called the Graves District. This area is also on the Left Bank of the Garonne, so it’s technically a Left Bank Bordeaux because in a little growing area called Pessac-Léognan, just south of the town of Bordeaux, that is where château Haut-Brion is. And that is one of the only château that was added to the classification that’s not in the Médoc. And this area is so special that, in 1987, the Pessac-Léognan became its own appellation. So you have the full Graves district, and then within that, you have the Pessac-Léognan. And the thing about this area is it’s not only known for their Cabernet-based red wines, but it’s also known for some of the most expensive, focused white wines in the world. You’ll have white wines that are primarily going to be Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, with a little bit of a grape called Moscatel and a grape called Sauvignon Gris. Some of these wines are stunning. And in 1959, this area created its own classification system but they just call it Grand Cru Classé, and there’s about 22 châteaux that are in it, and they’re classified with their reds and white wines. I can’t get into all of it, but it does have its separate classification there. That’s why this gets very confusing, because there’s all these different classifications.
You guys still with me? Is this kind of crazy? It’s crazy, but you’re getting to kind of understand this, I hope. On the Right Bank of the Gironde estuary and the Dordogne River is an area of Bordeaux where the red wine blends are primarily based on Merlot and then, often, Cab Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines from the Right Bank, with all their Merlot-based wines, are just beautiful and elegant, with a little bit of power to them and some spice. They don’t have that big structure of the Left Bank wines but they have this beautiful softness because Merlot is the dominant grape and then Cab Franc comes in with a little bit of peppery notes. They’re awesome. And really the most well known region on the Right Bank is Saint-Émilion — there’s a town called Saint-Émilion, and then the wine-growing region around it, it’s just inland from the Dordogne River, and it’s hilly. There’s wine made in Saint-Émilion proper, and then there are these four satellite regions that are attached to Saint-Émilion with their own names that are defined by their specific terroir.
So in general, just like in the Médoc, you have a Saint-Émilion wine, it’s grapes that can come from anywhere in the Saint-Émilion region. And this is where it gets a little confusing. Are you ready? The next step up from that is Grand Cru. There is an area in Saint-Émilion that is demarcated as Grand Cru and if you make a wine within that area you can enter to be classified as a Grand Cru, and right now there’s well over 200 of them. A step up from that is Grand Cru with the word “classé” at the end. There’s about 60-plus of these, and these are judged based on their quality, and if you get a 14 out of 20 from the panel you are a Grand Cru Classé. Above that, there Premier Cru classé B, and there are about 15 châteaux that are in that category. And then at the tippy, tippy top, the best of the best is called Premier Grand Cru Classé A, and there are only four château in that category. And I don’t know that I’m going to pronounce these correctly, but there’s Château Angelus, Château Ausone, Château Pavie, and a very well known one called Château Cheval Blanc — if you guys have ever seen the movie “Sideways,” that’s the wine he drinks in the fast-food restaurant right before the credits. But wait, there’s more. Just north of Saint-Émilion proper are those four little satellite regions: You have Lussac-Saint-Emilion, Puisseguin-Saint-Émilion, Montagne-Saint-Émilion, and Saint-Georges-Saint-Émilion, and that’s it. So that is Saint-Émilion in the Right Bank.
Now, just northwest of Saint-Émilion is a very important place called Pomerol and just north of Pomerol is a smaller region called Lalande-de-Pomerol. This is a very cool region, the wines are awesome, and they’re Merlot-based, and they’re affordable, and they’re great. The thing is there’s no classifications. They don’t want to be classified. They’re totally fine with what’s going on. They’re just like, “We’re making wine.” It’s really wild. They have all these classifications going on, and in this one place there’s none. Except, at the highest point of the Pomerol wine-growing region, it’s about 130 feet above sea level, there is a natural outcropping of a very specific kind of soil, a very old soil, about 40 million years old called “blue clay.” It’s sometimes referred to as “the button,” a little button of this specific kind of clay that’s nowhere else in the region. And the story goes, the Romans in antiquity actually named this spot Petrus, which means rock or stone, because when this blue clay hardens, it hardens like rock. And that is the name of this plot of land, or vineyard, it’s also the name of the winery that makes the wine. And I say winery not château because it really isn’t a château, it’s more like a farmhouse. And the unique thing about the wine Petrus is that it is 100 percent Merlot. Now, it wasn’t always that way; there was a time when it was like 70-30, 70 percent Merlot and then Cab Franc, but as of 2011, it’s all Merlot. This is some of the most elegant, and one of the most terroir-driven wines in all of the Bordeaux region. The production of 30,000 bottles a year is minuscule in this region. It has a huge cult following to it. And a lot of people believe that it should be a Premier Cru but it’s not, and it’s from Pomerol because there’s no classification system, and they don’t care. It’s just this amazing little place that makes a beautiful wine that’s different from everybody else. Bordeaux is crazy like that, guys. Pomerol, Lalande-de-Pomerol. Remember, during the Burgundy episode there was the village category? Well, they don’t really have that in Bordeaux but they have something like it. It’s called Côtes de Bordeaux. They’re all on the Right Bank. It’s kind of a local pride thing.
So you have a Côtes de Bordeaux with a village name attached to it and it’s kind of like a village. So you have Côtes de Bordeaux Cadillac and Côtes de Bordeaux Castillon; those are for red wines. You have Blaye-Côtes de Bordeaux — they flip it — and they do red and white wines. You have Côtes de Bordeaux Francs, they do red and white wines, but the white wines can be sweet or dry. And then you have Côtes de Bordeaux Bourg, which also does red. These wines are often very affordable as well. And then for red wine, to top this all off, you have just the generic or just general Bordeaux AOC, which is the Bordeaux regional wine. It’s Bordeaux blends made from anywhere in Bordeaux. A lot of it comes from the Right Bank and a lot of it’s Merlot-based, but it’s mostly cooperative wine and it’s called “Bordeaux.” Then, in that category, there’s also Bordeaux Superior which is also just generic sort of general Bordeaux wine, but it just is a little more concentrated because it has a lower yield comparatively to the Bordeaux. That is Bordeaux. Mostly red wine. Wow. Wow. But now I have to talk about white wine. Oh, my God.
Other than the beautiful, expensive white wines of Pessac-Léognan when the Dordogne River and the Garonne River begin to parallel, there’s a large swath of land there called Entre-Deux-Mers. It’s this beautiful wooded land with all these vineyards, and this area here is where white Bordeaux is made. And white Bordeaux is always going to be very affordable, and it’s going to be a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, and it’s going to be Sémillon, sometimes Moscatel, and then Sauvignon Gris is blended in, but it’s always just a really affordable, awesome blend. And they have their own system in there, but I don’t really have the time for it. You’ll see Entre-Deux-Mers, it’s going to be on the label, grab it. It’s delicious. It’s easy to drink. They’re starting to make wine in a screw cap. It’s awesome. It’s also the largest wine-growing area in Bordeaux. If you can even believe that.
And last-ish but not least, you have back over on the Left Bank just south of that Graves district is a place called Sauternes and a place called Barsac. And this area is famous for its sweet wine. What happens here, because of the climactic situation, grapes start to rot, and they get infected by this thing called Botrytis cinerea, otherwise known as noble rot, and it saps the moisture from these grapes. So what’s done is they actually make wine from these grapes, because all the sugar is still in there, and they made these extremely sweet wines that are made from Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Moscatel, and Sauvignon Gris. And some of the most famous wine in the world, some of the most long-lived wine in the world comes from here. Now this is really cool. During the 1855 classification, there was a separate classification dedicated specifically to sweet wines from this area, Barsac and Sauternes.
White wines were not even considered at this time, they were not a thing. Sweet wines drank well, aged well, and traveled well. That’s why they were so popular at the time. It was really a two-tier classification system. You had Premier Cru, or first growth, and you had Deuxième Cru, second growth. And in Premier Cru there were 11 châteaux, and Deuxième Cru there were 15. That’s 26 châteaux from this area being classified as sweet wines. The best of the best. But in Sauternes there is a château that was so famous, and to this day is so famous due to its quality and consistency of quality, and the fact that this is some of the most aged wine in the world. If you’ve ever read “Billionaire’s Vinegar,” you’ll know that Thomas Jefferson loved this stuff. This château is called Château d’Yquem, and it is revered so much, even in 1855, that they created another category on top of Premier Cru just for this château. So you have Premier Cru and Deuxième Cru, that’s 26 châteaux, and then all the way at the top, you have Premier Cru Supérieur, or the first superior growth, and that is Château d’Yquem. That category was made for Château d’Yquem, and it’s been there forever, and it’s not going to change, and it’s never going to add, it’s just going to be that one. And last, but not least, there is sparkling wine made in Bordeaux, they call it Crémant de Bordeaux, and it’s always going to be a white, and sometimes a rosé. And it’s not very prevalent. You’re going to see only a few of them on the market, but they’re very affordable, and they’re kind of starting to catch on. So at some point we’re going to see more of that, but, and I don’t really think there’s a region. There’s a region just south of the Graves and Sauternes area that a lot of it’s made, but that’s it.
Wine lovers, that is Bordeaux. There’s so much more to tell you about history and stuff, but that’s what you’re going to see in wine shops. That’s what you’re going to see in movies and on wine lists. And that is it. I hope you guys have a better understanding of Bordeaux now than you ever have before.
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And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.