Region Profile: Bordeaux

Bordeaux, in the southwest of France, needs little introduction as one of the world's most famous, prestigious and prolific wine regions. The majority of Bordeaux wines (nearly 90 percent of production volume) are the dry, medium- and full-bodied red Bordeaux Blends that established its reputation.

The finest (and most expensive) of these are the wines from the great châteaux of the Haut-Médoc and the Right Bank appellations Saint-Émilion and Pomerol. The former is focused (at the top level) on Cabernet Sauvignon, the latter pair on on Merlot.

A Bordeaux chateau and vineyards

The legendary reds are complemented by high-quality white wines based on Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc. These range from dry whites to challenge the best from the Burgundy region (Pessac-Léognan is particularly renowned) to the sweet, botrytized nectars of Sauternes.

While Bordeaux is well regarded for wines produced within specific districts or communes, many of its wines fall under other, broader appellations. These include AOC Bordeaux, Bordeaux Supérieur and the sparkling-specific Crémant de Bordeaux. The Bordeaux Rouge appellation accounts for more than one-third of all production.

The official Bordeaux viticultural region stretches for 130 kilometers (80 miles) inland from the Atlantic coast. 111,000 hectares (274,000 acres) of vineyards were recorded in 2018, a figure which had remained largely consistent over the previous decade.

The number of growers has consolidated, however; in 2018 there were about 6,000, against 9,000 a decade earlier. The ten-year average output 2007 to 2017 was 507 million liters, including small crops in 2013 and 2017.

This output ranges from inexpensive everyday wines through to some of the world's most expensive and prestigious labels. Bottles of dry red wine produced under the region's generic Bordeaux appellation can be bought for just a few dollars. Those from the top châteaux are regularly traded for several thousand dollars. Auction figures and retail prices do not always conform with Bordeaux's distinct and historically significant classification system, which has remained largely unchanged since the middle of the 19th Century.

Bordeaux Grape Varieties

The "big three" make up 98 percent of all red grape plantings, according to 2020 figures on the official Vins de Bordeaux website:

  • Merlot, which accounts for 66 percent of all red grape plantings
  • Cabernet Sauvignon (22.5 percent)
  • Cabernet Franc (9.5 percent)
  • Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenère (2 percent)

These last three are grapes which have been largely abandoned (the latter almonst entirely) since the 19th Century, as they failed to ripen reliably, though Malbec has a continued role in Saint-Émilion in single-digit percentages as a color enhancer. Climate change and success achieved elsewhere may yet lead to a partial comeback for one or more of them.

Bordeaux's white wines are generally blends of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and, less often, Muscadelle. Sauvignon Blanc has seen some uplift in recent years given the success of varietal wines from New Zealand and other regions. As of 2020 the figures for permitted white grapes were:

  • Sémillon (47 percent)
  • Sauvignon Blanc (45 percent)
  • Muscadelle (5 percent, dwindling)
  • Sauvignon Gris, Colombard, Ugni Blanc, Merlot Blanc (2 percent)

In 2019 seven new varieties were approved by the Union of Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supérieur winemakers. The intention is to give more viticultural options to address climate change. At the time of writing these seven varieties - of varying levels of familiarity - were awaiting a final green light by the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d'Origine).

  • Marselan
  • Touriga Nacional (best known in Portugal)
  • Castets (Southwest France; nearly extinct)
  • Arinarnoa (a little known cross of Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon)
  • Albarino (Alvarinho)
  • Petit Manseng 
  • Liliorila (a 1950s crossing of Baroque and Chardonnay)

Bordeaux Climate

Bordeaux's climate is moderated by its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the presence of the various rivers (the Dordogne, the Garonne and the Gironde Estuary into which they flow). The region takes its name (which translates roughly as "next to the waters") from the port city of Bordeaux, which serves as its logistical and administrative center.

The vast expanse of pine forest to the south (La Foret des Landes) protects Bordeaux from strong, salt-bearing winds coming off the Atlantic Ocean. There is, however, a risk of still winter air getting trapped and bringing frost to the Bordelais vineyards.

With a latitude (45°N) exactly halfway between the equator and the North Pole, summer daytime temperatures hover around 77F (25C), and rarely rise above 86F (30C), while winter temperatures only occasionally dip below freezing. The Médoc peninsula feels the maritime influence particularly strongly; local winemakers talk of the gentle breezes and light clouds that take the edge off even the hottest summer days.

The region's long, relatively warm summers are ideal for growing late-ripening grape varieties. That is not to say that cool, wet weather in spring and autumn is not a concern here. A fundamental reason that most Bordeaux reds are made from a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon is that these two varieties bud, flower and ripen at different times and rates, which spreads the risk posed by poor weather conditions at flowering or harvest.

In years when the autumn is wet, the Cabernet Sauvignon harvest suffers from rot and dilution, but the earlier-ripening Merlot provides a back-up. When the spring is wet, the Merlot flowers poorly, leaving the Cabernet Sauvignon to take up the responsibility of providing a good harvest.