The Varietals and Sub Regions of Bordeaux

Sunlit Bordeaux Vineyard with a Light HazeBordeaux is perhaps the most famous and prodigious wine region in the world. The five varietals of Bordeaux are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. For a long time there was a sixth varietal, Carménère, and it is still grown in small amounts in Bordeaux, but the grape has fallen out of favor with most producers in Bordeaux.

Bordeaux is made from a blend of grapes, and each varietal is grown and used for a distinct quality that it brings to the final product — whether its color, tannin, or structure. Petit Verdot, for example, was introduced in small amounts to Bordeaux for its perfume while Malbec has traditionally been used for adding tannin.

The area has a complex appellation system — it is divided up into seven smaller appellations that are then divided again into even smaller site-specific appellations and further ranked as first growths, second growths, and so on. For a long time, each of the major sub regions of Bordeaux was thought of as producing wines with consistently distinct characteristics.

Now, however, winemakers are challenging the conventions of winemaking in the area and producing wines that defy expectation. In this way, it has become harder to classify each sub region according to a strict set of criteria.

In the spirit of tradition, however, we’ve gone back to the books to dig up the classic qualities ascribed to each major area of Bordeaux to help you find your way:

Médoc: The Médoc is a large area that covers most of the Left Bank of the Bay of Biscay that can further be divided into an area called Haut-Médoc to the south. The Médoc and Haut-Médoc make up about 50% of the wine sales of Bordeaux and some of the very best and famous wines of Bordeaux are grown and produced here including Château Lafit-Rothschild and Château Latour (both in Pauillac) and Château Margaux (Margaux).

The wines of the Médoc are usually more tannic and full bodied wines that are based on Cabernet Sauvignon, and tend to have a flavor profile of oak, spice, and vanilla.

Pomerol: Pomerol is the smallest wine producing area in the Bordeaux region and located within the larger area known as the Côtes region. Pomerol is unique within Bordeaux because the vineyards are often shared between multiple families rather than owned by one. The wines of Pomerol are full-bodied, especially aromatic, and uniquely velvety with flavors of licorice and dried fruits.

Saint Emilion: Located adjacent to Pomerol, St. Emilion is thought to be the birthplace of Bordeaux and produces wines that are dark in color and have a distinct earthy quality that evoke flavors of truffles and stewed fruit.

Entre-Deux Mers: Although the name translates to “between two seas”, this is an area that actually lies between the Dordogne and Garonne rivers. The area is known mostly for its dry, fresh, and fruity white wines.

Graves: Graves is a region in the south of Bordeaux named after its especially gravelly soil. Graves is best known for producing white wines and as the source of Sauternes. However, the area also produces some medium to-full bodied red wines that taste of dark fruits with a kick of spice.

For information on the episode featuring the wines of Bordeaux, click Episode Guide: Basking in Bordeaux from the Left Bank.

Photo courtesty of the Bordeaux Wine Council.