As a wine novice, getting into French wine can seem tricky. They use a different classification system, name them according to place instead of grape – and it’s all in French. If you’re just starting your adventure with French wine, then a great place to start is Bordeaux.
Sure, you’ve heard of Bordeaux. But did you know that there are over 60 different wines in this region of France? I bet you’re wondering now how I narrowed those 60 down to the five best. The five Bordeaux reds I’ll cover here are the ones every newcomer to French wine should know about. They’re some of the most widely-known in France and around the world.
Before we dive into the 5 Bordeaux reds you should try, there are a few things you should know about the wine from this region.
Bordeaux Red Wines at a Glance
Much of the wine considered as “Bordeaux” comes from the Gironde region north of the city. This region is the largest wine-producing area in France, with 12,000 hectares of vineyards.
The French term terroir refers to both the soil and environmental conditions grapes are grown in. Terroir plays an important role in Bordeaux wine production. The soil in Bordeaux largely falls into one of two categories. The first is the gravel-based soil of the Left Bank of Bordeaux and the second is the clay and limestone soil of the Right Bank of Bordeaux. The oceanic climate and proximity to the Gironde river also influence Bordeaux’s terroir.
The most common grapes in Bordeaux are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. Growers also use Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Carménère.
Bordeaux can be broken down into several sub-regions, since so much wine is produced there. There are 60 appellations in total. Appellations are names which designate wine based on geographic area (the easiest to remember) as well as production standards. Appellations are comprised of individual châteaux. To keep all these appellations straight, the Wine Cellar Insider divided Bordeaux into eight major sub-regions:
- The Left Bank
- Graves and Pessac Leognan
- The Right Bank
- White Bordeaux wine
- Sweet Bordeaux wine from Sauternes and other regions
- Bordeaux from the Cotes
- Bordeaux Superieur Red
- Bordeaux Superieur Blanc
- Generic AOC Bordeaux wine
AOC stands for appellation d’origine controlée, French for “protected designation of origin”. AOC isn’t specific to Bordeaux, or wine, or even France. Countries throughout Europe use origin labels on food, wine, and other agricultural products. Producers can only put an AOC label on their goods if they were produced according to specific regulations. So French wine-producers can only put an AOC label on the bottle if it was made in that specific region. Each appellation also follows rules for growing and harvesting the grapes, as well as which grape varieties may be included.
Now that you know the basics of Bordeaux wine, you’re ready to start tasting! The five on this list are:
- Châteaux Latour
Read more about French wine-tasting!
Saint-Emilion belongs to the Right Bank sub-region of Bordeaux. The soil in Saint-Emilion varies, making its wine some of the most diverse in France. The châteaux in this sub-region typically use Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.
Saint-Emilion is a great Bordeaux red to start with because it easily pairs with most foods. You can find a blend that’s light and sweet, or something on the more robust side. Here are four châteaux to look for in Saint-Emilion:
- Château Cheval Blanc – Cheval Blanc is one of the most highly-ranked châteaux in the region, with a Premier Grand Cru Classé A blend
- Château Ausone – Ausone is also a notable Saint-Emilion; it too has a Premier Grand Cru Classé A
- Château Corbin – Corbin’s blends tend to be light and sweet
- Château Valandraud – Valandraud produces more robust blends
The appellation was named after the small town of Saint-Emilion, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The most popular grape in the Saint-Estèphe appellation, part of the Left Bank sub-region, is Cabernet Sauvignon. Others include Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Carménère, and Petit Verdot. The soil in the Saint-Estèphe vineyards contains a lot of clay, so the best vintages come from years that were exceptionally hot and dry.
The châteaux worth mentioning in Saint-Estèphe are:
- Château Cos d’Estournel – Cos d’Estournel was one of the first châteaux in Bordeaux to bottle, label, and sell their own wine. Their rich, concentrated wines are meant to age well
- Château Lilian Ladouys – With vines previously dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, Lilian Lodouys added Petit Verdot to have some variety
- Château Meyney – Their 2014 vintage is arguably one of the best in their history
A Saint-Estèphe wine is rich and full-bodied, and ages well. The name of the appellation Saint-Estèphe comes from the town of Saint-Estèphe, where most of its 1,377 hectares of vineyards are located.
Margaux is also a major appellation in the Left Bank of Bordeaux. Margaux is also the only appellation to share its name with its leading château. Since 2000, Margaux has been a favored wine from Bordeaux for its elegance, full-bodied fruity tastes, and floral notes.
The primary grapes in this appellation are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Since the Margaux vineyards are far southward, the grapes are typically the first harvested in the area.
Some of the best châteaux in the Margaux appellation are:
- Château Margaux – This château has been one of the most consistent producers of top wine in Bordeaux since the early 1990s
- Château Palmer – Palmer sits not far from Margaux, so their aromatic, spicy wine with hints of flowers and earthy scents can easily compete with the quality of Margaux
- Château Rauzan Segla – Thanks to updates in the last two decades, the modern vintages at Rauzan Segla are superior to their older wines
- Château Malescot St. Exupery – Malescot St. Exupery has produced notable wine more recently, with soft tannins and rich, aromatic tastes
Pomerol, like Saint-Emilion, is in the Right Bank. It’s the smallest wine-producing appellation in the whole Bordeaux region. But it produces some of the most expensive and internationally sought-after wine in Bordeaux. The most common grape in the Pomerol appellation is Merlot. Pomerol has its world-famous reputation for its distinctive aromas and textures.
Interestingly, Pomerol’s châteaux are not ranked. Other appellations will designate some blends as “Grand Cru Classé” or “Premier Grand Cru”, but not Pomerol. Nevertheless, there are still noteworthy Pomerol châteaux:
- Château Lafleur – Lafleur uses the highest concentration of Cabernet Franc in the Pomerol appellation. Its wine is meant to age 2-3 decades, and its distinctiveness has made it a very expensive
- Château La Conseillante – La Conseillante produces one of the most refined blends in Pomerol, with notes of black raspberry, chocolate, and plum dark cherry
- Château L’Evangile – L’Evangile doesn’t always produce top vintages, but its best will have hints of plum, chocolate, and flowers
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Château Latour is, obviously, a château and not an appellation. As one of the oldest estates in the Pauillac appellation, in the Left Bank, Latour has a reputation as a top wine-producer.
Latour mostly uses Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes to produce their tannic, powerful wine. The wine is well-known for its long aging process, lasting decades. Latour was also the first estate in Bordeaux to introduce a third wine; most châteaux today still only produce two.
Over the last several years, Latour has been decreasing production and increasing quality of their wine. This trend has only made their wine more desirable in global markets.
White Wine Bonus: Sauternes
This list is dedicated to Bordeaux reds, which any wine novice should familiarize themselves with. But Bordeaux produces exquisite white wine too. One of the most notable is Sauternes. Sauternes falls into the Sweet Bordeaux wine from Sauternes and other regions category.
Made from Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle grapes, Sauternes is incredibly sweet. As such, it pairs with salty foods – especially foie gras and oysters. The general rule with sweet Bordeaux wines is that they should be sweeter than whatever you’re eating them with. Consequently, they don’t go well with dessert.
The five Bordeaux reds (and one white) listed here offer you a wide variety. Some are more noteworthy than others. But each one should be on the beginner wine taster’s shortlist. No matter what your tastes are, none of these wines will disappoint you.
What are your thoughts?
Have you tried these wines? What did you think? Would the five on this list make it on your Bordeaux top-five list? Is Bordeaux even a good region to introduce people to French wine, or would you recommend another? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!