How to Find the Best Wines from Bordeaux

The priciest wines may get most of the attention, but Bordeaux is also, unexpectedly, home to some serious value.

Vineyards. Bordeaux, France
Photo: Anton Petrus

Utter the word "Bordeaux" and thoughts of massive, impossibly elegant châteaux and wildly expensive bottles of red probably fill the mind. Perhaps images of monocle-wearing men with posh accents and ascots are involved in the word association; Fireplaces and fine china are also likely to make appearances.

But in reality, that's not what Bordeaux is about at all. Or, rather, that's not all that Bordeaux is about. While for centuries it benefited from a reputation as the source of some of the most age-worthy and sought-out wine in the world, there is infinitely more to the region than car-payment bottles of trophy reds.

Bordeaux is the largest wine region in France, and driving from one end to the other can take hours. From the great First Growths of the Médoc to the unexpectedly affordable and often utterly charming reds and whites that don't have that legendary pedigree, Bordeaux is a region of variety, often unexpected value, and far more range than it typically gets credit for.

The Lay of the Land

Bordeaux is located in southwestern France, about a five-and-a-half hour drive from Paris or a little over two hours on the much quicker TGV train. It's a primarily maritime climate, and is seriously influenced by the Atlantic ocean to the west but also affected by continental factors. Its weather is variable; sun and clouds can alternate in rapid succession, while rain and (increasingly) hail are not uncommon.

As in the rest of the wine world, climate change has been affecting Bordeaux's weather in often dramatic and unpredictable ways, from fires and springtime frosts to hail, heatwaves, and more. Luckily, Bordeaux is a region of blending, a process that involves combining several key grape varieties, which seems to help mitigate some of the worst impacts since different varieties bud, flower, and ripen at different times.

There are five main red varieties that are permitted in Bordeaux, in addition to a handful of newly allowed ones for wines labeled as such, as opposed to more location-specific appellations. Three white varieties are important in the region, giving producers the option of leaning more or less heavily on better-performing varieties for both reds and whites, depending on the conditions during that particular growing season.

Bordeaux is divided into the Left Bank and the Right Bank, with the Gironde Estuary, which turns into the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers, bisecting them. The Left Bank is home to the most highly regarded Cabernet Sauvignon-based reds, whereas the Right Bank is where Cabernet Franc and Merlot thrive more famously. Between the two in the Entre-Deux-Mers, is where a large percentage of the region's white wines are grown and produced. Bordeaux Blanc, which typically blends Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and a bit of Muscadelle, is generally one of the great values in the world of French white wine.

In the south of the region beneath the Left Bank, the great sweet wines of Bordeaux are grown: Sauternes (home of the iconic Château d'Yquem), Barsac, Cadillac, and Monbazillac make for fantastic sipping wines and accompaniments to savory dishes like cheese and foie gras, as well as tropical fruit- and caramel-based desserts alike.

Of Classifications and Modifications

The classification of 1855 is one of the most famous in wine history, and was a response to Napoleon III's desire to showcase the superiority of French wines at the Exposition Universelle de Paris. Even today, the four First Growths that were identified back (the four top wines of the Médoc) then remain among the greatest in the region…and the world. The original ones–Châteaux Latour, Lafite-Rothschild, Margaux, and Haut-Brion–were joined by Mouton-Rothschild in 1973.

Beyond the five First Growths of the Médoc are wines classified as Second through Fifth Growth. Among the seconds, there are a number that are widely believed to be of similar quality as the Firsts. They are often referred to as Super Seconds, and include Château Léoville-Las Cases, Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, and more.

Though the top wines weren't classified in 1855, the Right Bank is home to some of the most legendary names of the region. In Pomerol, Merlot sings a particularly unforgettable tune, and producers like Pétrus, Le Pin, La Fleur-Pétrus, Vieux-Château-Certan and more are justifiably clamored for by collectors. In neighboring St.-Émilion, Cabernet Franc is (typically) king. There, Cheval-Blanc, Ausone, Angélus, and more are worthy additions to any dinner table or collection. Châteaux Pavie and Lassègue are also stellar.

Branching Out in Bordeaux

As a rule of thumb in the world of wine, the more specific the geographical location is on a bottle, the better and often more expensive it will be. Wines labeled with the name of a specific commune (St.-Julien and Pauillac, for example) will typically fetch more money than those labeled as Médoc, the areas where those particular communes are located. Yet that doesn't mean that delicious wines are only found in those particular and specific places.

Bottles labeled Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur are often available for less than $25 — sometimes much less — and, since they come from parts of Bordeaux where the land is less expensive (and less prestigious in the grand scheme of things), they offer a taste of what makes Bordeaux so special without requiring the same outlay of money. They don't generally age as well as the great classes growths, but they're not typically meant to. Other appellations in Bordeaux worth looking for include Bourg, Blaye, and Fronsac, among others.

How Does Wine From Bordeaux Taste?

The reds of Bordeaux generally tend to be a bit less fruit-focused than many of their so-called New World counterparts, with tasting notes often referencing pencil shavings, sage, cedar, violets, spices, and minerality alongside fruit notes like currants, plums, and cherries.

Whether red, white, dry, or sweet, wines from Bordeaux are worth learning about and tasting. At their best, they are delicious on their own, excellent pairing partners for a wide range of food, and run the gamut of pricing from less than $20 and into the thousands. No matter what you drink from Bordeaux, however, one thing is consistent across the board: No ascots, monocles, or posh accents are necessary. In fact, it's best to avoid them altogether and just enjoy the wine.

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