What’s in a Bordeaux?

When we created our own blind tasting wine brackets during the initial shut-down of 2020, the winner from my old-world red wine bracket was a right-bank Bordeaux. I knew I had always really enjoyed these wines, but I didn’t think it would beat out an Italian wine.

As I kick-off another WSET Diploma level class this month, the first section we dive into is all about Bordeaux. And my mind has already been blown!

My first enlightened moment was learning that Bordeaux red blends can be comprised of six varietals, not five. Typically, we hear five grape varieties are allowed—Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec. But there is a sixth…Carménère.

Plantings of Carménère decreased in Bordeaux because it had a hard time ripening in their cool climate and it’s susceptible to disease. It then found fame in Chile. However, with temperatures rising, this grape may make a comeback in Bordeaux soon.

Bordeaux is typically thought of as being divided into two areas—the left bank and the right bank, but there is an area in the middle of these two called the Entre-Deux-Mers, which translates to “between two seas.” This region only produces white wines, as do the regions further south where Sauternes and Barsac are located. We’ll circle back to these white wine producing regions in another blog.

Let’s now dive a little deeper into the difference between the left bank and right bank. The left bank wines tend to have a higher percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend. They are complex, full body wines with noticeable tannin that is balanced by ripe fruit flavors and earthiness. These wines have long aging potential and are best consumed when they’ve aged a minimum of 5-7 years. The famous regions within the left bank known for their outstanding wines are Saint-Estephe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Margaux.

The wines of the right bank tend to have a higher percentage of Merlot in the blend. These wines are also complex and full body with pronounced fruit, but are sometimes said to be softer than the wines of the left bank. These also have aging potential and are better after aging a minimum of five years. There are two famous regions within the right bank known for superior quality—Saint-Émilion and Pomerol.

Old-world laws about labeling can be very confusing, but on most grocery store shelves and wine shops in the United States you’re likely to see wines simply labeled Bordeaux or Bordeaux Supérieur. These wines have any combo of the six grapes mentioned above that can be grown in any part of Bordeaux. They will of be acceptable to good quality and usually inexpensive. These wines are valuable starter wines when beginning to explore Bordeaux style wines.

The easiest way I feel like to explain the difference between a wine labeled Bordeaux versus Saint-Émilion, for instance, is like a wine labeled California versus Napa Valley. A wine that says it is from California means the grapes can come from anywhere in California, and to be labeled Napa Valley means the grapes must be grown in Napa (well, at least 85% of the grapes have to be grown in Napa, but in Bordeaux it requires that all grapes be grown from the region labeled on the bottle).

I hope this helps demystify Bordeaux red wines a bit and inspires you to uncork one of these bottles!