The 5-minute essential guide to Bordeaux wines

Bordeaux is France’s biggest wine appellation (AOC), which is all good and well, but where do you start? How do you know what’s what? What makes a Bordeaux wine a Bordeaux wine?
Got five minutes? We'll get you up to speed on Bordeaux wines.

The terroir is shaped by the river flowing through it.

Located on the Atlantic coast, along the left and right banks of the Gironde, Bordeaux’s vineyards are shaped by the water that tempers its climate and flows through its vintages.
But the unique and varied composition of the soil is also at play in these outstanding wines. Indeed, the 13 grape varieties authorized for use in the appellation are perfectly at home here. In Bordeaux, their wines are made from an assemblage of varities.

Bordeaux sees red

More than 90% of the appellation’s wines are red. Merlot elegantly tops the list, reigning supreme on the right bank (Pomerol, Saint-Emilion). Cabernet Sauvignon brings its robust strength to the left bank (Médoc, Graves), while Cabernet Franc brings up the rear with its intense bouquet and colourful hues. Red or white, the vineyards here have something to offer all oenophiles.

White grape varieties are also worthy of attention.

In Sauternes, the alchemy of noble rot renders the sémillon (External link) sublimely sweet. Between Dordogne and Garonne, Entre-Deux-Mers is the promised land for a fresh, expressive sauvignon blanc. In Pessac-Léognan, both of these grape varieties are matured in oak barrels to produce great white wines worth waiting for: they’ll only get better in your cellar.

Claret is the local favourite.

Claret (External link) is a unique wine with a long history, and the result of a special winemaking process. The predominant grape is a nicely ripened merlot, that is not macerated for a long period of time allowing the wine to retain its light, pinky-red color and its lively palate. A regional favorite, it stands out even among the jewels of the Bordeaux vineyards.

Bordeaux is about more than just the grands crus.

Haut-Brion, Latour, Margaux, Mouton-Rothschild, Pétrus, Yquem—names that everyone knows even though they account for less than 5% of production. You don’t need to be rich to drink a nice Bordeaux. Outside of the wines that boast high price tags, there are more affordable (and extremely tasty) varieties as well.

The Bordeaux vineyards like to look good.

In recent years, Bordeaux’s winemaking chateaux have enthusiastically defied convention in an effort to stand out and expand wine tourism. Renowned architects have designed avant-garde wine cellars that are a seamless addition to the landscape, and will be just as popular with wine lovers as with culture-vultures. Recently, artist Nathalie Rodach enlivened the vines of the Estate of Château Palmer with her crimson touch.

The Cité du Vin is not to be missed.

With its daring architecture, varied programming, entertaining presentation, and open outlook, the Cité du Vin will delight and amaze. It’s a next-gen museum and a living, breathing venue where visitors are free to discover wine cultures from around the world.

Bordeaux’s famous cannelés are matured in oak barrels.

This little cake with its soft centre adorned with a golden crust also has its roots in winemaking. During part of the winemaking process known as clarifying, egg whites were added to the barrels to stabilise the precious juices. The unused yolks were then recycled in the cannelé recipe.

Bordeaux wines are a hit thanks to their varied range. Sublime châteaux steeped in history—contemporary wine cellars—but also “small winemakers” who are more than happy to share their passion.

Learn more

  • Where to become a connoisseur: Bordeaux Wine School.
  • Where to find nice wine souvenirs: The Cité du Vin gift shop.
  • The pretty village to visit: Saint-Émilion.
  • The book to absorb: Élixirs, premiers grands crus classés 1855, Jane Anson, La Martinière.

Getting to Bordeaux