Bordeaux 101: A guide to the wines, appellations and vinous history of Bordeaux


The grand Chateaux of Bordeaux are famous around the world

“I can certainly see that you know your wine. Most of the guests who stay here wouldn't know the difference between Bordeaux and Claret.” - Basil Fawlty


A short introduction...

The great Châteaux of Bordeaux and their vineyards still represent the pinnacle of fine wine for many - whether it is the muscular, long-lived Cabernet Sauvignon blends of Margaux and Pauillac, the soft, supple Merlot and Cabernet Franc-dominant wines of the Right Bank or the unctuous, complex sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac. Boasting nearly 2,000 years of history, Bordeaux has shaped the world of wine well beyond the region's borders. And yet there is often a great deal of confusion surrounding this much-loved region. In this guide we delve into the historic region of Bordeaux and seek to shed some light on a few of the questions that we are often asked: 

Where is Bordeaux wine made?

The wine region of Bordeaux is situated in southwest France and has a typically moderate maritime climate, benefitting from the warming Gulf Stream current. The Landes forest and coastal sand dunes offer the vineyards some protection from the storms of the Atlantic Ocean to the west. The region is traversed by two rivers: the Garonne and the Dordogne, which merge to form the Gironde estuary.

Bordeaux is produced in the south-west of France


What is meant by ‘Left’ and the ‘Right Bank’?

‘Left’ Bank is the term given to the vineyards to the west of the River Garonne and Gironde, which includes the districts of Médoc, Graves and Sauternes.

Entre-Deux-Mers – (lit. ‘Between two seas’), is the term given to the majority of the vineyards between the two rivers.

‘Right Bank’ is the term given to the vineyards to the east of the River Dordogne and Gironde, including Saint-Émilion and Pomerol.

How many appellations are there in Bordeaux?

There are over 50 appellations in Bordeaux, ranging from the large, generic labelling term such as ‘Bordeaux’ and ‘Bordeaux Supérieur’, down to the smallest commune appellations. Key appellations are listed below.

What are the key appellations in Bordeaux?

Médoc and Haut-Médoc - two of the larger appellations in Bordeaux, both on the left bank of the Gironde river

Margaux, Pauillac, Saint-Estèphe, Saint-Julien - these four 'Left Bank' appellations are home to some of the world's most famous wines

Saint-Émilion and Pomerol - the two most prestigious appelations of the 'Right Bank', home to Château Cheval Blanc and Pétrus respectively

Pessac-Léognan - a prestigious sub-region of Graves that is famously the location of Châtau Haut-Brion

Graves - an appellation famous for producing high quality red and white wines

Listrac-Médoc and Moulis-en-Médoc - two lesser known regions within Bordeaux that nonetheless produce a number of very fine wines

Sauternes and Barsac - home to some of the world's greatest sweet wines, both are located further in-land, at the southern tip of the Bordeaux region

What is a Claret?

The Oxford Companion to Wine defines a Claret as follows, “English term generally used to describe red wines from the Bordeaux region, or red Bordeaux. Claret has also been used as a generic term for a vaguely identified class of red table wines, supposedly drier, and possibly higher in tannins, than those wines sold as generic burgundy”.

What are the key grapes varieties used in Bordeaux?

For red wines, the key Bordeaux varieties are:

Merlot: The dominant red variety on the Right Bank and in the cooler northern Médoc. Contributes notes of strawberry, red plum, herbaceous character (cooler years), cooked blackberry, black plum (hotter years), medium tannins and medium/high alcohol.

Cabernet Sauvignon: A red variety that produces wines with high tannins, medium alcohol, high acidity and notes of blackcurrant, black cherry, violets, menthol and herbaceous character.

Cabernet Franc: Gives high acidity, medium tannins, red fruit and floral notes.

Malbec: Produces deeply coloured wines, with red and black plum and violet character.

Petit Verdot: Grows best in the warmer parts of the Médoc, producing deeply coloured, powerful, high tannin wines with wonderful spice character.

Key white varieties include:

Sémillon: A key white variety for sweet wine production in Bordeaux. Also used in dry white blends with Sauvignon Blanc. Adds body, weight and medium acidity to a wine. Susceptible to botrytis (noble rot), resulting in wines with glorious honeyed, dried fruit and waxy character and excellent ageability.

Sauvignon Blanc: Used in both dry and sweet wine production in Bordeaux. Gives high acidity, citrus, grassy, green fruit and gooseberry notes.

Muscadelle: This white variety is mainly used in sweet wine production as it is susceptible to botrytis (noble rot) and gives flowery, grapey character to a wine.

Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are two of the key varietals in Bordeaux


What is a Bordeaux Blend?

The region of Bordeaux is renowned for its wonderfully balanced wines, produced from a blend of varieties, to produce dry and sweet red and white wines.

Red Bordeaux blends use the key varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carménère to create dry red and rosé wines. Each variety gives its own unique contribution to a blend, whether it be body, herbaceous notes, structure or longevity. The range on offer at Hedonism is eye watering, from Angélus and Angludet to Branaire Ducru, Cheval Blanc and Pichon Lalande.

White Bordeaux blends are used to produce both sweet and dry white wines. A key blend is Sauvignon Blanc – Sémillon. Sauvignon Blanc lends acidity and aromatic freshness to the blend, often with distinctly fruity, herbaceous and floral aromas. Sémillon meanwhile adds beautiful body, texture and ageabilty. The region of Bordeaux sees top dry white blends from Château Haut Brion and Clos Cantenac. Sweet wines take centre stage on the shelves at Hedonism with our huge vintage library of Sauternes and Barsac from world-acclaimed Châteaux Yquem, Rieussec and Doisy Daëne.

What are the best Bordeaux sweet wines? How are they made? And what is noble rot?

Bordeaux is home to some of the top sweet wines in the world. Key appellations to explore include Sauternes, Barsac, Cadillac and Loupiac. These sweet wines tend to be produced from a blend of 3 main white grape varieties: Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. The top appellations are situated on the banks of the Garonne and its tributary, the Ciron. These rivers create the ideal unique misty autumnal conditions to encourage the onset of botrytis, or noble rot, essential for the production of sweet wines. Damp, misty mornings encourage this special fungus to develop on the grape, which then pierces the grape skins. Warm sunny afternoons cause water to evaporate from the grape, concentrating the sugars, flavours and acids, whilst generating unique honeyed and dried fruit flavours. These grapes are then picked by hand, with multiple passes often required in the vineyard, and are using to produce low yields of lusciously sweet wine.

What is meant by the term ‘Château’?

Literally translated, ‘château’ (plural châteaux) is French for ‘castle’. In the world of Bordeaux however, the term usually denotes a wine estate (including its vineyards, winery and historical building - from castle-like mansion to crumbling farmhouse). Top examples include Château Mouton Rothschild and Château Palmer.

Ageing is oak barrels imparts key flavour characteristics to the fine red wines of Bordeaux


What is the 1855 Classification?

1855 is a key date in Bordeaux vinous history. It marks the year of an important commercial exhibition: Napoléon III’s Exposition Universelle de Paris, for which the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce called for a classification of the region’s wines to be drawn up, based on price.

The result: a five-class classification of the 60 leading Médoc château (in addition to Château Haut Brion in Graves). The appellations of Sauternes and Barsac meanwhile were classified with initially just two divisions: Premier Crus and Deuxièmes Crus, (with the addition of Premier Cru Supérieur for Château d’Yquem).

This 1855 classification has official status and holds important sway; to this day it remains unchanged and influences Bordeaux wine prices.

To further complicate matters, the appellation of Saint-Émilion has its own unique classification system dating back to 1955 and revised roughly every 10 years, whilst in 1959 a classification for the Graves was also established.

What are First and Second Growths?

The divisions/classes established by the 1855 classification are known as ‘growths’ or ‘crus’:

Premiers Crus – First Growths e.g. Château Lafite-Rothschild

Deuxièmes Crus – Second Growths e.g. Château Léoville-Poyferré

Troisièmes Crus – Third Growths e.g. Château Palmer

Quatrièmes Crus – Fourth Growths e.g. Château Talbot

Cinquièmes Crus – Fifth Growths e.g. Château Pontet-Canet

What are the five Bordeaux First Growth wines?

Château Haut-Brion in Pessac-Léognan

Château Lafite-Rothschild in Pauillac

Château Mouton Rothschild in Pauillac

Château Latour in Pauillac

Château Margaux in Margaux

What is Bordeaux en primeur or ‘wine futures’?

En primeur is a method of selling wine (usually high-quality, classed growths), whereby buyers purchase the wine prior to bottling, and the wine remains in the producer’s cellar until it is bottled 12-18 months later- in this way the wines are sold as ‘futures’. Historically, the Bordeaux en primeur system dates back to just after the second world war when châteaux were struggling financially. The en primeur system helped generate cash flow earlier whilst the stock was still tied up aging in the cellars. The benefit for buyers is that it provides the opportunity to purchase highly sought-after wines, at potentially lower prices than post maturation and bottling.

Known as the ‘en primeur campaign’, each April following the vintage, top wine buyers, journalists and critics descend on Bordeaux to taste, assess and review the new wines in barrel. These professional verdicts are then used to help establish the pricing for the wines. In 2022, en primeur week will be held in Bordeaux from the 25 - 28th April.

Should Bordeaux wine be decanted?

Wines with a heavy deposit of sediment (naturally formed as red wines aged) should be decanted to remove the potential bitter and textural influence on a wine’s enjoyment. This is particularly the case with older Bordeaux wines. However, the aeration that occurs when decanting can have a detrimental effect on older, more fragile wines, so timing is key.

Here is a useful rule of thumb when decanting Red Bordeaux:

Older than 20 years - Decant immediately before serving.

Aged between five and 20 years - Decant one or two hours before serving.

Five years or younger - Decant vigorously (to achieve maximum aeration) up to four hours before serving.

The Bordeaux selection at Hedonism Wines in Mayfair


What are the key accessories for decanting and serving?

Decanting cradles

Corkscrews and Butler’s Thief

Looking for that perfect decanter? Here are some of our top picks:

Richard Brendon x Jancis Robinson Mature Wine Decanter

Riedel Cabernet Magnum Decanter

Riedel Margaux Decanter

For the perfect hedonist experience, browse our top Glassware picks for Bordeaux wines:

Riedel Sommeliers 'Bordeaux Grand Cru' Glass

Riedel Sommeliers 'Sauternes' Glass

Riedel Veritas 'Cabernet Sauvignon' Twin Pack

Richard Brendon x Jancis Robinson Wine Glass Twin Pack

This guide is a mere snapshot into the world that Bordeaux has to offer the true wine connoisseur. The best way to learn is through experience, and our shelves are a great place to begin. From Château Angélus 2005 (the favoured tipple of James Bond), to the Château Cheval Blanc enjoyed in the much-loved film ‘Sideways’, the wines of Bordeaux are some of the world’s most iconic bottles. With over a 1,000 products to explore in a magnificent array of formats, from half bottle to 1800cl, discover the full range at Hedonism Wines.