In terms of land size, Graves is one of the largest appellations in Bordeaux, though it produces much less wine than expected, an amount that seems to decrease every day. Since the 1960s many of the vineyard land in this appellation has succumbed to suburban sprawl, and in 1987 the land immediately surrounding the city of Bordeaux was reclassified under the appellation Pessac-Léognan. This area was long considered the best site in Graves for producing fine dry whites and deeply-colored yet elegant reds, and all of the estates Classified in 1855 were then sold as Pessac-Léognan instead of Graves, including the first growth Château Haut-Brion which holds the distinction of being the first estate mentioned in English Literature in 1663. Still, many fine wines of both red and white hues are produced in this region, a distinction that no other Bordeaux appellation can lay claim to.
Graves extends south from the city of Bordeaux all the way to Langon, bordering the Garonne as it passes the great havens for Botrytis wines of Cérons, Barsac and Sauternes. The soil is mainly Gravel as the name suggests, with pockets of sand, sandstone and eventually clay further to the south. This region has much more in the way of historical artifacts, castles, cathedrals and tourist attractions than the Médoc to the north, and is often one of the more visisted areas of France. The gravel soil ripples out from Bordeaux in waves, leading into forest land that has much more contour than the flat vineyards to the north.
For years the Graves was known for producing primarily white wines that varied from dry to off-dry, with some hits but many misses. In the past few decades much more red wine has been produced, and the red wines of Graves can be an excellent alternative to some of the pricier versions of Bordeaux, though since the minimum level of alcohol in these wines is just 10%, some tread towards the lighter side. Cabernet Sauvignon is the primary grape varietal, though Merlot and Cabernet Franc are used extensively. The white wines can be pleasant if given proper care in the vineyard and Château, and the best examples have a mix of fruit, minerality and crisp acidity that is enjoyable when young yet sturdy enough to take to a few years in bottle.
Unfortunately for Graves all of the most famous estates are now sold as Pessac-Léognan. The appellation guidelines forbid a reclassification of the vineyards in this area, so for the time being Graves wines, no matter what the quality will be sold simply as Graves. Quite a bit of off-dry to sweet wines are produced in the region under the AC Graves Supérieures.
Visit Bordeaux for an in depth look at the history of Bordeaux.