Bordeaux explained; Bordeaux grape varieties

Arguably the world’s most famous wine region, let’s take a look into the Bordeaux grape varieties that make this renowned wine…

Bordeaux seems to contain all the mythology and beauty that makes wine great. Bordeaux is known to be a place of history, to have special soils suited to grape growing. It’s seen as the height of sophistication and is home to some of the most famous and sought after wines ever produced. All of this, and there is so much more, can be daunting to someone starting out on their own wine journey.

Go for a tasting or tour at Château La Louvière

When I first became a wine merchant, Bordeaux seemed the obvious place to start my formal wine education. What struck me was the enormity of my undertaking. I had to remember region after region, producer after producer. I had to place and recall specific soils, micro climates, and vintage variation. It was too much. Whilst I had a thirst for knowledge, I wasn’t building an understanding. I had to change my approach. To be honest, that’s like most things I’ve ever attempted. One day I will actually LEARN to play the guitar but anyway…

I decided to reset and construct some kind of equation that might help me understand this vinous behemoth. Little did I realise, but this equation would become not only a fundamental part of my own learning, but also the foundation of how I would go on to teach and lecture in the world of wine. It’s strange as, despite being fascinated by science, especially physics, I don’t view the world through the prism of equations. I think life is more emotionally driven. However, that single second of cognitive dissonance aside, the equation seems to work.

The first part of my equation is grape varieties. If I can understand the characteristics and peculiarities of each variety, I can then transplant them around the world and start to understand how these facets alter given the climate and soil in which they grow. There are other ways of working this equation of course, but this is the way that has worked for me. Before continuing I will state that it’s important to not see this as reductionism. It’s a way in to piecing together a larger whole. If you break an Aston Martin down into all its separate components, and understand each one, you only have a starting point. It’s only once you put them all back together and take it for a test drive (if anyone wants to offer, I am willing) that you fully understand the vehicle itself. Wine is the same. In terms of the components, I like to start with the fruit of the vine.

Stay at Château Prieuré Marquet and enjoy their pool

In Bordeaux there are currently 13 permitted grape varieties. When I use the word permitted, I mean that these grapes can be used and the wine can still say ‘Bordeaux’ on the label. There are other grapes growing in the region, but these are not ‘permitted’. This, if a producer makes a wine from them, the bottle cannot say ‘Bordeaux’, it would simply say ‘Vin de France.’

There’s a reason for this. Over centuries of experimentation, exploration and production the French (and most other nations in Europe) have discovered the grapes that are best suited to each region and give what is considered to be the best expression of that region.

Of the 13 currently permitted Bordeaux grape varieties, there are 4 that are really the superstars of our vinous production. For red wines these are Merlot (66% of red plantings) and Cabernet Sauvignon (22.5%). For whites the key players are Sémillon (47% of white plantings) and Sauvignon Blanc (45%). 

But why are there so many Bordeaux grape varieties given that Burgundy can produce high quality and expensive wines using (essentially) only one red (Pinot Noir) and one white (Chardonnay)?

Bordeaux is a region with a marginal climate. Close to the Atlantic in south west France, it experiences a great deal of vintage variation. Some vintages (like 2003) are incredibly hot and dry. Other vintages (like 1956) are cold and riddled with frost. As a result, it’s important to grow a variety of grapes to ensure that at the end of any given vintage one still has a crop. Grape varieties don’t all ripen and develop at the same time. Many plantings of Malbec and Cabernet Franc were lost during the frost of 1956. It made sense then to reduce plantings and replace with more hardy, less frost susceptible varieties.

Chateau Lamothe de Haux in the Entre Deux Mers

Whilst Merlot is the most planted variety we tend to view Cabernet Sauvignon as the region’s greatest asset. Cabernet Sauvignon is a full bodied variety, it has high tannins, high acidity and higher, but not over the top levels of alcohol. Bordeaux wants to make wines that age well in bottle, and that can be drunk many years after the vintage. Cabernet Sauvignon is perfectly suited, as it has all the attributes necessary for this to happen. Acidity and tannin are the keys to ageability in red wine. Every variety has a ‘flavour fingerprint’. Cabernet Sauvignon’s primary flavour is that of blackcurrants. Thick and ripe it can often become similar to cassis. Cabernet is all about the black fruit; dark and brooding, rich and intense. However, it can sometimes lack what we refer to as the ‘mid palate.’

This brings us to another reason Bordeaux grows so many different varieties. It’s not just protection against nature’s ever changing moods, but also to increase complexity in the eventual wine. The solution to Cabernet Sauvignon’s ‘mid palate problem’ (which we’ve all experienced at some point in life, surely?) is Merlot. Merlot gives high alcohol but has less tannin and acidity than Cabernet Sauvignon. So, it can help to soften the Cabernet if necessary, perhaps to make a more immediate or earlier drinking wine. Merlot’s flavours are deep and plummy and it can range from red fruit notes to black. It has less intensity and power but it fills in the gap that Cabernet can sometimes leave.

I realise I have made it seem that Cabernet Sauvignon is the superstar and Merlot merely a supporting role, especially when it comes to the very best wines, but that is not the case. Here comes just a little bit of geography and geology. Bordeaux is broadly divided into 3 areas; the Gironde estuary splits into 2 rivers, the Dordogne and the Garonne and this split in the water way creates our 3 regions. We look at Bordeaux as being the left bank, which is, well, on the left when viewed from the eyes of a bird. The middle section is called entre deux mers meaning between two seas. Even though they’re not seas, they’re rivers. I must have a words with the CIVB (Bordeaux’s governing body about this) and the, yes, you guessed it, Right Bank. It’s tricky this wine thing isn’t it.

I’m about to paint very broad brushstrokes across Bordeaux in order to give a surface level understanding. But as I explained at the start of this piece, if you can remember that far back, this is designed as an entry to understanding Bordeaux, not an in depth exploration of the minutiae of the region.

Bordeaux grape varieties map

The Left Bank has gravelly soils and can be best suited to Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas the Right Bank of Bordeaux is more Merlot dominant.

The Left Bank of Bordeaux is composed primarily of gravelly soils. These soils, deposited during the last ice age, are heat retentive and free draining. This is important as it’s not the warmest part of the world here and it can be wet given the proximity to the sea. These soils keep the Cabernet Sauvignon vines warm enough, and dry enough, to give high quality grapes. The wines from the Left Bank, which include the super famous names of Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Latour, tend to be Cabernet Sauvignon dominant in the blend. These are the wines that have weight, power, and structure and require long periods of ageing.

Entre Deux Mers is primarily the source of more entry level wines and there is plenty of Merlot planted here. It produces some lovely wines but doesn’t have a presence of those superstar names. It tends to be a little overlooked and often doesn’t get much coverage in pieces that serve as an introduction to the Bordeaux grape varieties…

The Right Bank has less gravel than its lefty counterpart but is instead composed of more clay and limestone. Clay is a cool soil and more water retentive. It’s very much the opposite of gravel. Here on the Right Bank it tends to be warmer and drier than across the river. This soil is therefore perfectly suited to the growth and production of Merlot. Merlot is more thirsty than Cab Sauv and if allowed to get too hot will produce high alcohol wines but with lots of off flavours. It’s almost like the French concept of terroir has some validity. There are some very famous and expensive wines on the right bank, and they are composed primarily of Merlot. Names like Petrus, Le Pin and Angelus.


Take a tour at Château Sainte-Barbe and see their cellar

Of the 4 remaining reds, only 2 have any serious contribution to winemaking currently. These are Cabernet Franc (which happens to be a parent of Cabernet Sauvignon) and Petit Verdot. Traditionally these have been seen as ‘salt and pepper’ varieties. Adding colour and spice to a blend. Cabernet Franc adds a lovely savoury edge to wines, particularly on the Right Bank. Petit Verdot is used for its spicy character and deep colour. In the new world these wines are being produced as 100% wines and they are well worth exploring. In Bordeaux they sadly only play bit parts. The remaining 2 reds are much more famous in South America. Malbec and Carmenere both still survive here, and in fact in recent years Malbec plantings have increased a little. Between them they only account for 2% of red plantings however.

But what of the white Bordeaux grape varieties? White wine accounts for a very small percentage of Bordeaux’s overall production. In fact, when we do think of white wines, we think primarily of the luscious and intense sweet wines. The region of Sauternes, which sits at the southern end of the left bank, experiences fists and fogs that encourage the growth of a rot called Botrytis Cinerea. This rot concentrates the grapes sugars and flavours and allows for the production of these world famous dessert wines, the most well known of which is Chateau d’Yquem. Two varieties dominate this; Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc. Sémillon has a fatness and richness in the mouth that Sauvignon Blanc can lack. It is filled with appley, stoney fruits and a luscious texture. Sauvignon Blanc is the perfect counterpoint; high and refreshing acidity, much more linear in its delivery of green and grassy fruit. Put the two together and you have a magical combination of honeyed texture and mouth watering freshness.

Stay at Château Bouscaut and do a wine workshop

A grape called Muscadelle is the third variety here, but is used in very small quantities and is in fact almost gone. It adds a musky, orangey and fragrant element to wines in which it is used. But not all Bordeaux whites are sweet. Dry wines are also produced and again tend to be a blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc. Sometimes produced using oak, which adds smoky, vanilla characters, these wines are bright, fresh and enlivening. Dry Bordeaux whites are wines that deserve much more credit and attention.

But what of the 4 remaining Bordeaux grape varieties, that I have not mentioned out of the total of 13? To be honest, I have never encountered a producer who confessed to using them. Not that using them should feel like a crime one has to admit to. They simply are so little known in the region that they are rarely mentioned. When watching a film we’re only really interested in the lead and supporting roles. No one wants to know who played ‘Second Woman At Bus Stop.’ The varieties are Columbard, Merlot Blanc, Sauvignon Gris and Ugni Blanc. These are workhorse varieties that will help to bulk out an entry level blend.

So, Bordeaux can start to be understood through the grape varieties it grows. From here you can start to explore the many sub regions of Bordeaux (Bordeaux has 60 appellations). As you start to explore the soils and microclimate of these regions, and indeed what their producers wish to achieve, you will see that there are many different faces to each variety. That’s what can make Bordeaux so exciting, alluring and romantic.

Remember; it’s just grapes.

Learn more from Lee in his guide to The Uco Valley, Argentina

Share the story