A few nights ago, I was talking with a very knowledgeable couple about wine when they asked me, “What is Bordeaux?” Their question caught me off guard. I took it for granted that if they could have a conversation about wine, they would have an understanding of Bordeaux. Then I realized this wasn't the first time I was having this conversation; there have been a lot of guests with the same question. So, if you've ever wondered the same thing, consider this a general overview.
What is Bordeaux?
Just off the Western coast of France, straddling the Gironde Estuary, is the wine region of Bordeaux, named for the nearby port city. Since the 4th century AD, and possibly as early as the 1st century AD, this area has been producing fine wine. In fact, Bordeaux produces more trophy wine than any other wine region in the world.
While it is possible to find a 100% grape varietal wine, most Bordeaux is made from a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, though Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec are also allowed. Historically, other grapes have been permitted, most notably Carménère.
The vast majority of Bordeaux's 250,000 acres under vine are devoted to red/black grapes, but about 10% are used for white grapes to produce both dry and sweet white wines. Like the red wines, most Bordeaux Blanc is a blend, primarily consisting of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, but also permitting Sauvignon Gris, Muscadelle, Ugni Blanc, Colombard, and Merlot Blanc.
Appellations within Appellations
Bordeaux AOC encompasses the entire region and any wine that meets its basic requirements can be labeled as a Bordeaux wine. However, within that appellation there are 60 additional appellations, each with their own rules. This is why looking at the French wine wall of your local wine shop can seem so intimidating; the labels essentially look the same, and there's nothing telling you what the difference between a Pomerol or a St. Émilion or a Haut Médoc is.
French Wine Map courtesy of Wikipedia Commons Public Domain
The 1855 Classification
To further complicate matters, some of the better Bordeaux wines may also be ranked as 1st - 5th Cru, or growth. This classification system was introduced in the mid 19th century to highlight the best of Bordeaux. The rankings were generated based on the château's reputation and the price of its wine. While it may seem strange to rank wines by something other than tasting notes, this system has endured quite well over the years.
Why does this matter?
A lot of the questions I hear people ask regarding wine are specifically aimed at avoiding awkward social situations. Maybe the person is trying to impress future in-laws or they're hosting a wine tasting event for clients who like wine, but they don't know which wine to choose to make an impression. There's a myriad of situations where having a nice bottle of wine is an asset, if you find yourself in one of those situations and you don't know what to buy, go with Bordeaux.
The reputation of the region alone should shield you from most criticism. From my personal experience, there have certainly been some bottles I've enjoyed more than others, but I've never had a bad Bordeaux. If you want to go the extra mile, run an internet search on the château so you can drop a couple of fun facts about the producer while you're serving.
Where to Buy Bordeaux
If you're in Chicago, you can pretty much go to any corner store that sells wine, and they'll probably have a dusty bottle of Bordeaux sitting on the shelf somewhere. In fact, if you walk into a shop and they don't stock Bordeaux, leave immediately and go find another shop. If you're outside city, just go to wherever they sell wine. I was able to find several bottles of Bordeaux in my small Missouri hometown at the local grocery store.
Of course, you could also just stop by The Chopping Block and try out one of our two Bordeaux options:
Château Barreyre Bordeaux Supérior is one of our go-to pairings for steak or grilling classes. “Supérior” in this context implies the wine has been produced from a small yield of high quality grapes. The château itself was constructed in 1774 and overlooks the Gironde River and the nearby port of Macau.
Château Lamothe de Haux Bordeaux Blanc is a great bottle of wine to pair with a summer afternoon. The original château dates back to the 16th century and the land has been producing wine since that time. At present, the estate has been run by the same family for 4 generations.
See, you don't even have to Google them, I looked up facts for you.
If you want to learn more about wine, check out our new series of wine classes.