Baffling Bordeaux Wines

There’s no denying that Bordeaux is the biggest fine wine district on earth. Its produce has always been a status symbol, relished by the most regal palates in the history. With an interesting past, narrated by poets and scholars like Pliny the Elder, and Ausonius, the UNESCO World Heritage Cities of St Emilion and Bordeaux, and the renaissance, there’s a lot Bordeaux has to offer, but nothing moves the region the way its wines do. 


Bordeaux is a vast area, encompassing overlapping regions, areas, communes, and glamorous estates and chateaus on each side of the Gironde Estuary. Its waters split the region into the Right and the Left bank. It features Saint Emilion and Pomerol in the former, and the famed Medoc and Graves in the latter. What lies between its Garonne and Dordogne rivers is the exciting Entre-Deux-Mers . The romance of Bordeaux’s wine-style is in the pleathora of its variety. More than 7000 producers play with the two principle grapes – Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Chasing the most polished tannins, oak regimen, moderate alcohol, and longevity is the key. All that, without diverting from its typicity and flavours. How intricately interwoven is the play of climate, soil, location, and producer’s craft is the judge of a wine.


Climatically, Bordeaux’s south-western location provides a mix of Maritime and Mediterranean influences. The Atlantic Gulf stream, brings in cool ocean winds and carries out warm inland airs. Thus, maintaining hygiene, and moderating the temperatures in the area. Thanks to this, the region is rarely too hot. That helps in delivering consistent, polished wines. It also protects them from becoming rustic, gutsy, and boozy like some of the New World Merlots and Cabernet Sauvignons. Wines are almost always blended. They’re less fruit driven, less tannic, less intense oak than those on the same template from elsewhere. They’ve always been a winemaker’s wine. From the blend to the recipe thereafter, the oak influence and cellaring durations, and even the final brand value. But, the grandest factor in Bordeaux, above nature, weather, human intervention, and the varietals planted, is soil.


Bordeaux has what it calls hot soils of gravel and sand and the cooler ones of limestone and clay. Medoc and Graves, receiving its name from its gravelly soil, are predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon dominant. The cooler, low-lying plateaus of Saint Emilion and Pomerol in the Left lets Merlot take the centerstage. Their formulas of blending, recipes, and templates are completely different. Merlot dominant wines from Saint Emilion are lauded for their silky tannins, plush red fruits, high acidity, and rich mouthfeel.

While the warmer, Cabernet Sauvignon-heavy Left Bank wines, from gravelly soils, are more firmly structured. They’e significant tannins, comparatively bigger in their personality, and better for longer cellaring. Notes of tobacco, cedar, sweet herbs, and cassis are easily notable in these wines. Entre Deux Mers has a mix of all Bordeaux soils. Further, and a mix of topography enabling it to produce all sorts of blends and styles. Valleys, plateaus, plains, riverside sandy reaches, you name it.

The mix of a vineyard’s soil dictates the recipe of its blend. And, since the labels seldom read their cepage, it further presses upon the consumer the responsibility to educate themselves. That includes learning about the producer’s location, topography, mix of soils and varietals, the impact of vintage on it, the final recipe, their styles, and then finally deciding on the wine’s drinking window. Phew, that’s quite some work!! And we are not even talking about the price tag just yet.


All wines produced in Bordeaux can be classified into Bordeaux AOC or Bordeaux Superieur AOC. That’s more wines than all of South African reds in a vintage. Such vast is the area, and varied its wines, that labelling these huge quantities under a single term poses an unsettling problem. And even more for someone to decode and understand them, let alone enjoying them. It’s unfair. Though there have been efforts to ease this conundrum by classifying them differently, creating new categories (like Pays de l’Atlantique IGP), declassify them (as Vin de France, in 2006), they’ve all been in vain. ‘Bordeaux AOC’ has a stronger identity on the label. It fetches more money for the producers, making them reluctant to changing their wines from being called anything else. Bordeaux is also devoid of what Burgundy is a fine example of – a vineyard classification system.


There’s very little help the maps offer. There are numerous classifications for each region. None of them acts as a comprehensive guide. They only draw an indicative picture of the repute of the estates, chateaus, and brands. The starting point of this library of classifications was the ‘1855 Classification of Bordeaux’. Let the tittle not consume you. It was an unofficial rating of wines from the right bank – Medoc, Graves, and Sauternes. It was never intended to be a classification system. However, it was mere a working document, by the Union of Commercial Brokers. Its principal purpose was of ranking the wines primarily as a reference list. And to do that, they were based on their average trading prices in the past decade or so.

Influenced by over two dozen permutations, there’s very little logical certainty in this system. Therefore, it hasn’t been a true reflection of quality. However, it surely reflects a brand’s international value and repute, connections, social relevance of the families behind the labels, and the history of the vineyard itself.


Its nomenclature is misleading too. Wines from Entre-Deux-Mers and the Left Bank weren’t accounted for at the ‘1855 Classification of Bordeaux’. They created their own systems to add to the puzzlement.

An AOC can pertain to a region (Graves), or commune (St Estephe). This is where its importance comes in to consideration. Graves is a bigger region and within it falls the commune of Pessac-Léognan. Lauded for its premium reds, Pessac-Léognan has a smaller geographical expanse. And an even smaller commune of Sauternes, the famed sweet drops, features within Graves. At times, it can be confusing whether the appellation is regional or communal. However, understanding the wine in the glass is easier, once that’s deciphered. And, its appreciation grows manifolds as well.


Not all regions or communes have Grand Crus, and if they do, they have ‘Classe’ attached as a suffix. For instance, it is notable to not confuse Saint Emilion Grand Cru AOC with St Emilion Grand Cru Classe. One is an appellation, the other a ranking within the appellation. The Grand Crus wines from Medoc and Graves, are highly coveted labels. Decades of hard work earns it . Do know they’re unofficially rated and not governed by the AOC system. These wines can fetch easily over INR1,50,000 and upwards for a bottle in India! While Saint Emilion Grand Cru AOC is an official appellation demanding INR2500 and upwards at a restaurant. Don’t let the term ‘Grand Cru’ create false illusions of quality for you. Professionals don’t help either, often confusingly using Grand Crus and Grand Cru Classe interchangeably, raising further doubts for the consumers.


Amidst all this confusion and criticism, there are still important reason why the Bordeaux AOC work well. With the impact of climate change felt with growing intensity year on year, ripening patters and vineyard cycles are changing. In such times, it pays off having a template that allows a mix of varietals where the crops can be completely different that expected and planned for. In chance of weather and vintage swinging unfavourably, producers can always bank on at least one varietal. Else, they’re served the curse of a bad vintage toy with their balance sheets completely.


An estate producing various quality tiers, can always strive for a higher level wine. And, in a faint chance of failing to achieve the desired results, they can always use the safety net of declassifying their wines to the Bordeaux AOC category. Such is Bordeaux AOC’s repute, that it promises the producers a definite no-loss proposition. This is beneficial for the trade too. These declassified wines are qualitatively superior and offers both, the seller and the consumer, a higher value-for-money expression. And then there’s the consumer.

Unlike the vineyards-driven Burgundy wines, that even for their basic wines demand a comparatively fatter cheque, Bordeaux AOC offers a vast ground for experimentation and understanding without troubling the pocket much. It is impossible to not be able to find a wine/label for your palate’s liking. Such is the volume registered under this appellation. Also, those not wishing to delve deeper into the discipline, a Bordeaux AOC promises an expression of the area. That too without trying to impress, and with an ease of understanding. 


If distinguished French wines are iconic,then Bordeaux and Burgundy are its crown jewels. They are undeniably a status symbol. And with increasingly opening new trade routes, there’s a new market seeking this status each day. Catering to such gigantic demand sets Bordeaux apart. More than being merely wine, it has become a volatile commodity. And, much like art, it’s traded heavily with higher tags as more hands are exchanged, and years pass.

No wine has such financial implication as Bordeaux. And, nowhere on earth is the link between geography and finance so evident. At one hand is the complexity of nature and environment. And, on the other, the intellect of various winemakers, chateaus, and estates. Between this, unfortunately, Bordeaux has become more of a trading commodity than a consumable passionate liquid. That’s not to say the quality is lost in transition. Its wines still command the most discerning palates. They’ve been mystifying and alluring them from around the world with such sensuality, that calling any collection or a wine-list without a formidable gathering of Bordeauxs in the mix would be almost criminal. 


First published in Sommelier India Wine Magazine in June, 2019

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