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Understanding Bordeaux Red Wine and How To Read the Labels

Chateau Gaudet

You say Left Bank, I say Right

Friday night we covered red Bordeaux. I talked a lot about the wine and the region, having spent a week in the region last July and having created my own itinerary through extensive research. I am sharing information below that I didn’t have time to cover in the live tasting, but is important in understanding Bordeaux. Read the quick facts if you aren’t in the mood to wine geek up, but if you are, this is a great guide below for understanding Bordeaux wines.

Bordeaux is the gold standard for wine. It’s where the rest of the world looks to for fine red blends.

The focus in this article is on the reds wines, 90% of Bordeaux wine production, not the whites – though they tend to be outstanding as well.

Quick facts:

What is a Bordeaux (Bx)? It’s a red blend from the Bordeaux region of France.

What is a Bordeaux Blanc? A white Bordeaux made typically from a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc

What do I need to know? The wines will always be blends made mostly of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and may have Cabernet Franc, Malbec and/or Petit Verdot

How much? Typically $20 for basic quality to $1,000’s

Why are they such high quality? The rigid standards of the French government strictly dictate how the wines are created and what can go into the winemaking.

How do I buy Bordeaux? The name on the bottle tells you what varietal, the quality based on Bx classification system (below) and year. The details are on the label if you know what to look for.

Best practice for buying? Look for the name or label up online. You can find the % of the blend and quality of the vintage, unless it is a 1er Cru wine, and if that is written on the bottle, it will have a consistent quality year after year

How do you know what level? For a winery to gain classification they have to meet rigid standards of quality and excellence – in growing, winemaking, etc. The levels are detailed below.

Quality / Classification Systems: The classification systems in Bordeaux are very confusing and many locals don’t even understand them. I have highlighted them below, as a basic understanding will help you in buying wine, but if you are stuck, look it up online. There are great resources. It was easiest separating the two banks in explanation, but there are many nuances.

Left Bank classification:

In Bordeaux in the 1850’s, France was hosting the World Exposition. There were 1000’s of vineyards and they needed some sort of categorization system to determine the quality wines were, to share with the visitors from all over the world. The 1855 Classification named the top 4 (later added 5th) based on the top wines.

  • 1855, 61 wineries were classified then as 1st growth (Premier Cru), 2nd growth, all the way to 5th growth (cru).
  • Classifications were meant to denote the quality of the wine, however, they left off many wineries
  • Only 2 modifications were made to the original 1855 list (adding 1 estate and moving one from 2nd to 1st)
  • The 1855 classifications only covered the Medoc and Graves regions
  • In 1953/59, classification of the appellation of Graves was added
  • In 1959 addition of new designation of quality – Cru Classe´
  • In 1987 added classification for Pessac-Leognan appellation
  • At this time, some estates were only classified for red, some for whites and some estates for both
  • In 1932 Cru Bourgeois designation added as a level below Cru Classe´ for vineyards left out of the 1855 classifcation that were high quality. It was dropped for a short time, but added again to be awarded each year to excellent wines, rather than châteaux
  • Bordeaux AOC are the general appellation of Bordeaux, basic level wines from the general area
  • Step up in quality from generally Bordeaux AOC wines are Bordeaux Superior. These are great wines from specific vineyard areas in Bx, meant to drink within 3-5 years of bottling – great price for quality
  • Some labels may have “Les Exceptionnels”. These are a few Medoc wineries who were Cru Bourgeois, but decided not to reapply and to be exceptional on their own terms

Right Bank:

  • In 1955 the wines of Saint-Émilion were classified
  • The list is updated every 10 years or so
  • Original list had 12 Premier Grand Crus estates and 63 Grand Crus Classe´
  • Most recent update was 2012, 18 Premier Grand Crus and 64 Grand Crus Classe´
  • They are further designated by Premier Grand Crus Classe´A, Premier Grand Crus Classe´B, Grand Crus Classe´, and Former Cru Classe´(for 3 that were left off of the list in 2012)
  • Over 200 other Saint-Émilion wines carry the description “Grand Cru”, but they are not considered as high quality as Grand Crus Classe´and above designations
  • To be Grand Cru, your vineyard must be in the area of Saint-Emilion classified as Grand Cru. There are over 200 vineyards and they must abide by rules and regulations for that area.
  • For Grand Crus Classe´ status, they must apply as well. They are supposed to be higher level wines than just Grand Cru, but they must have their own chateau and cellars for only their wines. This is costly so some Grand Cru wines may be better than Gran Crus Classe´ if they are really good but chose not to apply.
  • Ex. Chateau Petrus never applied for classification, but has sells some of the most expensive wines in the world  – avg $2630 a bottle – 100% merlot – only 28 acres

Why was Bordeaux one of the most successful wine regions in history? Location, favorable tax opportunities and luck

  • Romans brought vines to region for their soldiers (43-71AD)
  • Fall of Roman empire ended wine popularity
  • Marriage of Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine opened the Bordeaux region to the English market – made Bordeaux a Provence of English empire
  • In 1224 King Louis the VIII (France) tried to take over Bordeaux and the residents held off the French; England rewarded them with more favorable taxes to get their wine into England
  • Because of the rivers, Gironde Estuary and proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and England, the location was ideal – one of the busiest ports in Europe
  • French took it back in by 1453
  • In the 17th century Dutch traders dredged the Gironde, opening up former marsh land to grape growing
  • 1855 – World Exposition – thousands of wines – brought about the classification system – set them up for quality
  • Strict wine making rules of quality

How to buy Bx wine:

Look on the label:

  • higher alcohol level indicates higher quality – must be 12.5%+ for quality red Bordeaux
  • “Mis En Bouteille au Château” or “Mis En Bouteille a la Propriete” –  means bottled at the winery instead of shipped somewhere and bulk bottled
  • If it says 1er or Premiere – that indicates the highest quality
  • If label says Grand Cru, that means it’s from the region and still good, but not a 1st or 2nd growth
  • Cru means growth and not best
  • Grand cru classe´ – can be from $45- 1700
  • Grand Vin is the premium wine of the chateau, but many also offer 2nd labels. These can also be outstanding.
  • 2nd wines won’t have “château” in their name
  • If the label indicates any of the below varietals, it is a lower quality wine on the classification scale, as these are new varietals that were recently approved for trial in the area with climate change:
    • touriga nacional, arinarnoa, castets or marselon

Classifications Simplified

  • Medoc Classed Growths
    • First Growth Estates
    • Second Growth Estates
    • Third Growth Estates
    • Fourth Growth Estate
    • Fifth Growth Estate
  • Graves Classed Estates
    • Medoc Cru Bourgeois
  • Saint-Emilion Classified
    • Premier Grand Crus Classe´A
    • Premier Grand Crus Classe´B
    • Grand Crus Classe´                              
    • Grand Cru
  • Either region, specific areas
    • Bordeaux AOC
    • Bordeaux Superior
      • Garagiste

The Artisan Wine Group Bordeaux wines we tasted on Friday are below and are for sale on my website,

  • St. Jaques de Siran 2015
  • made across the street from Margaux Grand Cru Vineyards, 3rd label of Cht Siran
  • tastes like an iron fist in a velvet glove, red plum, earth, great QPR, hard to get in the US
  • 42% merlot, 29 % Cabernet Franc, 29% Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Bordeaux Supérieur 
  • Chateau Grand Corbin 2015:
  • Grand Cru Classe´
  • Merlot, Cab Franc and Cab Sauv
  • Vines average 40 years old, soils are primarily mostly sand from limestone clay and bits of iron
  • Food pairing: veal, pork, beef, lamb, duck, game, roast chicken, roasted, braised and grilled dishes, mushrooms, fish, pasta
  • The wine is aged in an average of 33% new, French oak barrels for 12 – 14 months until the final blend prior to bottling
  • Best vintages: 2009, 2010, 2015, 2016, 2018

About Author

After graduating from Brandeis University, Alison worked as a teacher at two op high schools in the country and spent her summers traveling the world. On one of her adventures, she visited Stellenbosch and Paarl in South Africa, which ignited a lifelong passion for learning about wine. In 2004, she worked as a Wine Consultant for the Traveling Vineyard and began to study wine more intensively. While working as a high tech recruiter, she completed her Advanced Certification from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust in the UK in 2018. Her wine travels have taken her to the wine growing regions of the US, Europe, Africa and Australia. Alison is a member of the Boston Sommelier Society, a member of the Guild of Master Sommeliers and is a Wine, Travel and Lifestyle Media Influencer. She recently created and released her successful wine tasting card game VINO!. Currently, Alison is running her business, Artisan Wine Group, offering private and corporate wine events and sharing VINO! across the globe.

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