The greatest wine region in the world. Many other spots can stake a claim to the title, but only Bordeaux has the history, the mystique, the fame and centuries worth of world class wines in all three categories: Red, White and Sweet. A large region, Bordeaux covers three times the amount of land as Burgundy, and produces around 70 million cases of wine per year, which accounts for almost one quarter of all production annually in France. Situated in southwestern France around the city of Bordeaux, Bordeaux is comprised of 56 smaller appellations that line the banks of the Gironde Estuary and its tributaries the Garonne and the Dordogne.
Already famous in the 14th century, though winemaking in Bordeaux dates back to Roman times. The great Château Ausone of St. Emilion is named for the 3rd century Roman poet Ausionius, though there is some disagreement as to whether he owned the vineyard or not. The true fame of Bordeaux began in the 12th century when Henry Plantagenet, heir to the thrown of England, married Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, thus creating a stable environment for the exportation of Bordeaux to England and eventually many othe parts of the world. The English have been hooked ever since, and have always been the most important export market for Bordeaux.
During the next few centuries Bordeaux thrived, both as a port town and as a producer of fine wines. A social elite formed within the shipping and wine production circles, paving the way for the creation of the great Châteaus that we know today. Through the Napoleonic wars and the French Revolution, Bordeaux remained stable in both status and wealth. The first single estate wine mentioned in English literature was Château Haut Brion.
Much of the wine produced before the 18th century came from the eastern appellations of Bergerac and Gaillac, but in the late 17th century Dutch engineers drained the swampy land around the Gironde, thus revealing a gravel and limestone rich soil that would become the Médoc, home to the most famous wineries in the world. Shelterd by forest land, and with a moderate temperature due to the rivers nearby, Bordeaux is blessed with a number of natural favors. Unlike most famous wine regions, the vineyards of Bordeaux lay on flat rolling landscapes. It is in the soil that the fame of Bordeaux is created. Rocky gravel, sand and marl on the left bank of the Gironde, and with more clay and limestone on the right.
The wines of Bordeaux can vary greatly in style, price and quality. It is a common misconception that all Bordeaux is great, when in reality the most famous wines make up a tiny percentage of overall production. Many of the common wines have little resemblance to the great Châteaus, and there are serious financial difficulties among many in Bordeaux, though like in many situations the rich get richer...
Bordeaux is known for red wine. Over 80% of the total production today is red, though as recently as the 1960s more white wines were produced. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the major players, with Cabernet Franc also playing a key role. Petite Verdot and decreasingly Malbec are also permitted in the Bordeaux reds, which are invariably a blend of two or more grapes.
White wines of varying quality are also produced, usually from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémeillon, though Muscadelle is also permitted. Many of the whites range from dry to off dry, but the best are very dry and are capable of aging for up to a decade. Beautiful and seductive sweet wines are produced from Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, and are harvested late after they have been affected by Botrytis Cinerea, or Noble Rot. These are some of the greatest dessert wines in the world, and the best can last for several decades. But it is the reds that garner the most fame.
The poor wines can seem thin and acidic, as Bordeaux has a more moderate climate than other areas of the world famous for Cab and merlot. Getting the grapes to ripen fully can be a tricky feat, dependent upon exposure to the sun, soil type, spring frosts, drought and fall rains. Bordeaux also makes a mountain of quality wines that range from acceptable and enjoyable to quite good. It is in this area that the British became enamored with Bordeaux. The British word Claret refers to any young red from Bordeaux.
But it is in the immense number of fine wines that Bordeaux truly shines. The famous classification of Bordeaux wines in 1855 ranked the best Châteaus. They were ranked by price at the time, and though there has been little revision of this since, it remains a mostly accurate list of the best wines of Bordeaux. Some estates perform either higher or lower than their classification. The great reds of Bordeaux offer a combination of intensity, finesse, fruit, earth, flavor, tannins and longevity that no other red wine on earth can match. Almost as importantly, they are produced in large quantities. A great vineyard in Burgundy may produce only a few hundred to few thousand cases per year, where as the top Châteaus create 30,000 case or more per vintage. They can be hard in their youth, but as they mature and develop they take on flavors and aromas unique to themselves, and they can last for decades.
While a great Bordeaux can be a wine-life changing experience, the prices have continued to rise to the point of lunacy. Some believe that Robert Parker Jr. and his publication are partly to blame. Bordeaux is sold on futures, meaning that the wine is sold before it has ever left the winery. The Wine Advocate and its 100 point scoring system ranks the wines in cold numbers before they are released, and the glowing praise of certain vintages have driven costs upward before the wine can even be properly evaluated. Others believe that it is the futures market that is to blame. Either way, Bordeaux has always been expensive, but prices as of late are enough to make even a millionaire squirm. The mediocre wines are over priced, the good wines available to only those with deep pockets and no qualms about spending more than $100 on a bottle of wine, and the best wines have put themselves in a market that only the wealthiest can enjoy.
The overall Bordeaux appellation is used for wines that lay outside of the smaller appellations but within the Gironde department, and can apply to red or white wines.