Your Definitive Guide to Bordeaux

Category: Drink

Brooke Matthias is Club W's Associate Wine Director and resident Bordeaux expert! She travelled to Bordeaux to represent UCLA's Anderson School of Management in the Left Bank Bordeaux Cup after placing first with her team in the North American qualifying round.

Ever heard the words "Bordeaux blend" or "Bordeaux wine" and wondered what all of it means? I'm here to tell you! Situated in France in the Aquitane district, Bordeaux is ranked among the best regions in the world for winemaking along with Burgundy, Tuscany, Napa Valley, and a handful more.

A line-up of bottles from some of the best châteaux in Bordeaux

Grape-growing in the region dates back to as early as the 1st century, and Bordeaux's wines began to take the world by storm when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry Plantagenet, after which the wines started being exported to England. Fun fact: the Médoc peninsula on the Left Bank of Bordeaux was originally marshland until Dutch traders drained the area in the 17th century.

French wine can be confusing, but learning a few key points can de-mystify these wines and turn you into a pro on Bordeaux!

Bordeaux map via Wine Folly

Bordeaux is split into three main areas: the Left Bank, the Right Bank, and the Entre-deux-Mers ("between two seas"). This last name is a bit of a misnomer, because the "seas" here are actually the two main rivers running through Bordeaux: the Garonne and the Dordogne. The two join to create the Gironde Estuary that then leads into the Atlantic Ocean.

These rivers define the different regions, and you'll hear people use the regions as synonyms for the styles of wine. Red wines from the Left Bank tend to contain more Cabernet Sauvignon than any other grape, with Merlot coming in second. This means that Left Bank wines are powerful and have higher tannins and acidity — making them a prime candidate for aging. Just remember that there are always exceptions to any rule, so it’s good to think of that as a general guideline.

The barrel room at Château Pape Clément on the Left Bank of Bordeaux

This is in contrast to red wines from the Right Bank, which tend to be more Merlot-driven. Having more Merlot makes these wines a little softer, and they tend to not require as much aging before they're at their prime.

*Here's a full list of grapes allowed in Bordeaux reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Carménère (although the latter is extremely rare).

Tons of sweet wines!

Although Bordeaux is best-known for its red wines, it also produces some excellent white wines — mainly in the lower part of the Left Bank and in the Entre-deux-Mers. Bordeaux whites are usually blends of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle (a few other grapes are permitted, but these three are the most important). These are the same grape varieties used in the making of the famous sweet white wines produced on the Left Bank (Sauternes is the most famous appellation for these).

The town of Saint-Émilion

Bordeaux has inspired red blends around the world, especially in California. These types of blends are called Meritage blends, Bordeaux blends, or just red blends. A typical Bordeaux-style blend is dominated by either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot and can also contain some Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, or Malbec. Although these grapes have very different expressions depending on where they're grown, you can still get a good general understanding of how the wine might taste if it’s made from the red grapes used in Bordeaux.

Bordeaux blends produced in California tend to be higher in alcohol and more fruit-forward, and they can also be much more diverse in style because the States don't have as many regulations from winemaking appellations as France does. The bottom line here? California's Bordeaux-style blends are steadily gaining ground on the real thing.

And we've got a prime example of that! The 2013 Dime Red Blend releases on October 20th, and it's a full-blown Bordeaux style blend containing all five red varieties: Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. We modelled it after Cheval Blanc in Saint-Émilion, one of Bordeaux's fanciest producers and the global standard for Cab Franc-based wines — but Dime comes from Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, the region the Huffington Post calls California's "happy place for Bordeaux varieties."

More from Brooke:

Cooking With Wine // 3 Easy Recipes to Try

Bordeaux vs. California

What You Need to Know About International Wine Travel