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Bordeaux Wine Buying Guide

Chateau Latour and vineyard, Bordeaux
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Map showing regions of wine producers in Bordeaux

Bordeaux is regarded as the world capital of wine, famous for producing fine wines for many centuries. It’s renowned for deep, velvety reds (known by the British as claret); elegant, dry whites and deliciously sweet dessert wines. Over 120,000 hectares of vines are planted, more than in the whole of Australia.

"He who aspires to be a serious wine drinker, must drink Claret" Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784)

The region is full of diversity. Numerous microclimates and soil types provide variation from one area to the next; the influence of the weather can vary from year to year; and wines are classified in different ways depending on vineyard location and quality.

Most Bordeaux wines are a blend of more than one grape variety, with the composition of the blend depending on the area within Bordeaux and the preference of the producer. Over 80% of production is red wine.

With thousands of wines to choose from, selecting the perfect one with which to unlock the mysteries of the region one can be a minefield. Waitrose has made it easier, as our wine buyer for the Bordeaux region, Ken Mackay MW (Master of Wine), has used his extensive knowledge and experience to offer a selection from this region that provides exceptional quality, choice and value.

We’ve divided this magical region into areas, classifications, blends and grape varieties.

Bordeaux by Area

The region is dominated by the city of Bordeaux and two rivers, Garonne and Dordogne, which merge to form the Gironde, which then flows out into the Atlantic Ocean. The vineyards can be divided into key areas:

The Médoc is situated on the left bank of the Gironde and grows almost entirely red grapes. It’s generally very flat, with the architecture of the numerous châteaux adding a magical touch to the scenery. It’s around 80 kilometres long and runs north from the outskirts of the city towards the town of Lesparre-Médoc, where Calvet's Reserve Merlot is produced.

The soil in the Médoc is typically gravelly and well-drained, with layers of sand deeper down. Its proximity to the coast and the influence of the Gulf Stream provide long, warm summers and cool, wet winters. Longer hours of sunshine also help the grapes to ripen. The soil type and climate provide near-perfect conditions to grow Cabernet Sauvignon.

Across the river, the ‘right bank’ also produces predominantly red wine, and is the location of well-known communes like Pomerol and Saint-Émilion. It’s less affected by the maritime climate, experiencing warmer, drier summers and cooler winters than the Médoc. The soil has a greater amount of clay, and this suits Merlot perfectly, producing rich wines such as Dourthe's Montagne Saint-Émilion Barrel Select. There are gravelly outcrops where Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon are usually planted.

The areas of Graves and Pessac-Léognan are immediately south of the city of Bordeaux, where there is gravel in the soil, hence the name of Graves. Cabernet Sauvignon is planted on the gravelly soil, with more Merlot planted further south where the soil is sand, clay and limestone. The temperature is warmer than the Médoc and the grapes tend to ripen earlier.

Just over a quarter of Graves is planted with white grapes, mainly Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc. The soil suits these varieties, though it’s only in the last 20 years that modernisation and a will to improve has seen the full potential realised.

Further south, the vineyards of Sauternes have a microclimate all of their own. During the early autumn, the vineyards are cloaked in mist rising from the nearby River Garonne. The damp atmosphere and then the humidity, when the sun breaks through, combine to help the ripe Sémillon grapes develop ‘noble rot’ (botrytis), enabling the sugar in the grape to concentrate and produce luscious, sweet wines.

The Côtes de Castillon lies about 60 kilometres east of the city and only produces reds. ‘Côtes’ translates as ‘slopes’, reflecting the undulating landscape. Of particular note is the amount of investment being pumped into this area, so it’s certainly an area to watch. Château d’Aiguilhe is a typical example; it’s now owned by Stephan de Neipperg, owner of an esteemed estate in St-Emilion, and his multi-million pound investment is reaping rewards with the quality of his ‘second wine’, Seigneurs d'Aiguilhe Côtes de Castillon, which is a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

The Côtes de Blaye is just a few miles across the river from the best vineyards in the Médoc, yet the climate is markedly different. The higher ground is more exposed to wind and rain, and only 15% of the agricultural land is planted with vines. However, this area is underrated by many and there are hidden gems, including Château Segonzac Premières Côtes de Blaye, a blend of Merlot and Malbec, whose vines are located on one of the very best sites in the region.

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Bordeaux by Classification

French quality wine produced in a specified region is called Appellation Controlée (AC). Wine produced within the Bordeaux region will be labelled as ‘Bordeaux AC’. A similar wine but with a higher minimum level of alcohol may be designated ‘Bordeaux Supérieur AC’. Some more specific areas may have a specified district AC, such as Haut-Médoc. And individual villages or communes, like Sauternes, may have their own Appellation.

Over 150 years ago, the 1855 Classification identified the top red wines from the Médoc (as well as one from Graves and some sweet white wines from Sauternes and Barsac). They were classified into five divisions, from Premier Cru Classé (First Growth) to Cinquième Cru Classé (Fifth Growth). These Classed Growths are typically made to develop with age, though many châteaux produce a ‘second wine’ which can be enjoyed sooner - Réserve de la Comtesse is the second wine of Château Pichon Lalande, a Second Growth.

In the 1950s, Graves and Saint-Emilion classified their best wines, with the latter allowing for a review every ten years. Pomerol, one of Bordeaux's greatest assets, remains unclassified to this day. The Médoc and Haut-Médoc districts also have a Cru Bourgeois classification. This sits below the five Classed Growths and encompasses over 400 of the next best properties in their area, including the seriously good Château Monbrison 2005 Cru Bourgeois Supérior, Margaux , which is situated close to the famous Château Margaux.

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Bordeaux by Variety

Cabernet Sauvignon

A deep red colour and a strong tannic structure, thanks to its thicker skins and larger pips. Its flavours take longer to mature but develop into blackcurrant and black cherry, with hints of cedar wood, cigars and mint.

Merlot

Easier to grow and ripen, it produces higher yields and alcohol levels. It’s a softer grape with thinner skins, and makes succulent, juicy wines often referred to as ‘jammy’ and reminiscent of plums or damsons.

Cabernet Franc

Lighter bodied, with a perfumed nose and hints of red fruit, adding a little freshness and youth.

Malbec

A dark red grape which is richly flavoured, adding colour and body to the blend.

Petit Verdot

Notoriously tricky to grow but will ripen late, spreading the workload of the harvest over a longer period. It will add perfume, colour and tannin to a blend.

Sémillon

Identifiable by aromas of apricots and peaches, it produces soft, slightly oily or waxy wines, and is susceptible to noble rot, ideal for making dessert wines.

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Bordeaux by Blend

Red Bordeaux is typically made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Virtually all wines are a blend of two or three of these varieties, with a small percentage of Malbec or Petit Verdot also permitted. The composition of the blend will be governed to a large degree by the producer’s vineyard locations, as varieties grow better in some locations than others.

The bottle label will rarely state the varieties or the percentages of each in the blend. As a general rule, the ‘left bank’ blends are mainly Cabernet Sauvignon while the ‘right bank’ is mainly Merlot. The most important white grape variety is Sémillon. Varying percentages of Sauvignon Blanc may be added, depending on the blend required, and there may be a tiny amount of Muscadelle too.

A long-standing role is that of the négociant, who will source grapes from more than one location and achieve a consistent blend year in, year out. Maison Sichel have been making wine in this way since 1883, and their most popular label is Sirius, available as Blanc.

Claret is a traditional match for red meat dishes. If the blend is Cabernet-dominated, such as Calvet Reserve, it will be a perfect accompaniment to roast beef or English hard cheeses. Merlot-based blends like the Château Rival-Bellevue is great with grilled steaks or sausages. With or without food, claret should be served at 16°C-18°C.

For a wine to go with lighter food, look no further than white Bordeaux. Château Tour Léognan, Pessac-Léognan is a cracking wine for the price – its blend of 65% Sémillon and 35% Sauvignon Blanc is perfect to accompany fish. For a wine to enjoy with salads, try the excellent value, modern Château Vircoulon. For roast light meats and poultry try the Château Roquefort ‘Roquefortissime’. Serve them chilled, at 6°C-8°C.

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Bordeaux by Vintage

The majority of inexpensive red wine is intended to be drunk within two years (whites within 6-12 months). However, most fine wine will improve with age when stored correctly. There will be variations from vintage to vintage, largely depending on the weather during the course of that year. Even when the weather is less favourable, winemaking experience and technology has advanced to be able to continue making good wine.

Claret – year by year

1961 Regarded by many as the best vintage of the 20th Century.
1988
1989 Excellent years – the wine is drinking now but can be kept longer.
1990
2000 The best vintage in ten years – can be drunk now but will improve.
2001 A variable vintage that was generally better on the right bank.
2002 Often underrated, this year provides excellent value from the best wines.
2003 A very hot year provided riper fruit and earlier drinking clarets.
2004 A late growing season has led to youthful wines. Better on the left bank.
2005 An almost perfect year produced phenomenal wines. Best value from smaller producers.
2006 Extremes of heat and rain around harvest led to variable quality. Pomerol faired well.
2007 Cool, damp conditions lifted by a warm, dry late summer. Approachable but lighter wines.
2008 A dry, sunny growing season gave excellent, beautifully poised wines throughout.
2009 A superb vintage despite damage from early hailstorms. Powerful and concentrated wines.

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Selected Bordeaux Wine

Château Bois Pertuis 2008 Bordeaux

Château Bois Pertuis 2008 Bordeaux

This is a classically styled Bordeaux given a modern twist, boasting a delicious palate full of ripe berry fruits and a floral nose of cranberry and cedar. Situated on the right bank of the Gironde, Château Bois Pertuis benefits from an exceptional terroir of well-drained gravel, sand and clay.

Château Rival-Bellevue 2006/07 Bordeaux Supérieur

Château Rival-Bellevue 2006/07 Bordeaux Supérieur

A château in the east of the Bordeaux region producing great-value, Merlot-dominated wines with just the right amount of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc to produce a spicy, ripe full serious style claret. Match with beef or mature hard cheeses.

Calvet Reserve Merlot / Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 Bordeaux

Calvet Reserve Merlot / Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 Bordeaux

Calvet’s leading brand of claret, with sumptuous full fruit. As well as possessing rich and intense berry fruit flavours, this has silky tannins and fragrant new vanilla oak. It's expertly made by a young winemaker in a modern style with definite Bordeaux character. Enjoy with classic roast dishes.

Dourthe, Barrel Select 2007 Montagne Saint-Émilion

Dourthe, Barrel Select 2007 Montagne Saint-Émilion

An excellent-value, soft-textured claret from the Montagne Saint-Émilion region produced by the highly regarded négociant house of Dourthe. Flavours of ripe blueberry and blackberry fruit combine in this wine with savoury cedar notes to great effect. Red meats and stews are great accompaniments.

Réserve de la Comtesse 2005 Pauillac

Réserve de la Comtesse 2005 Pauillac

This elegant second classed Bordeaux growth Château Pichon-Lalande. Made from a classic blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc matured for 18 months in new oak barrels. Ready now, but will keep at least ten years. Excellent to partner game or roast beef.

Château La Croix Taillefer 2005 Pomerol

Château La Croix Taillefer 2005 Pomerol

This is a supremely well-made Pomerol from an up and coming producer on Bordeaux’s right bank. Made from 98% Merlot grapes with just a splash of Cabernet Franc, it is soft and rich with deep plummy fruit flavours and a touch of smoky oak. A very enjoyable red wine that goes well with roast lamb.

Château Larrivet Haut-Brion 2004 Pessac-Léognan

Château Larrivet Haut-Brion 2004 Pessac-Léognan

A polished claret from the Pessac-Léognan region south of the city of Bordeaux, this is a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Merlot put together by winemaker Monsieur Gervoson. A gem of a wine from a great-value producer that's drinking beautifully now.

Château Roquefort 'Roquefortissime' 2007/08 Bordeaux

Château Roquefort 'Roquefortissime' 2007/08 Bordeaux

This delicious, soft-textured, barrel-fermented white from Roquefort is Château's top cuvée. A blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes, the gentle oak is very well integrated and balanced by fresh fruit flavours of pear, lemon and lime. A wine to pair with richer fish and chicken dishes.