In this guide to the wines of Bordeaux, its production areas and its history, we will give you useful tips to organize your wine tour.
You will also find a selection of our vineyard and tasting tours to get to know the best wineries together with our Bordeaux wine guide.
Bordeaux is probably the most important wine growing area in the world. Ancient, immense, complex and foundational for modern global oenology. Bordeaux is the birth place of the world’s most cultivated grape varieties: Cabernet and Merlot, and the most popular blends.
The daunting numbers of Bordeaux wine region
112,000 hectares (276,758 acres), 65 AOP (denomination of origin), a complex system of quality classification (classement), 6,000 wineries and 9,000 different labels, almost 2% of world wine production. You could spend years visiting the vineyards and wineries of Bordeaux and tasting its wines and you’d only be starting to scratch the surface.
Yet, if well organized, even a half-day tour can be a perfect introduction or an in-depth look at the production areas of Bordeaux to find wines and wineries that are authentic hidden gems.
And become an unforgettable experience.
Choosing your wine tour destination in Bordeaux
Bordeaux is at the centre of the department of Gironde, one of the regions of France. The whole area is a huge vineyard. The largest in the world.
It is home to the world-famous Grands Crus Classes: Lafite, Latour, Margaux. But there are also hundreds of small, lesser-known wineries where you will find exceptional wines.
Saint Emilion, historical medieval village and UNESCO site since 1999, is the cradle of Bordeaux wine production.
Concerning a wine tour, you’ll be spoilt for choice. You can decide your tour destination in the Bordeux region according to the grape variety you prefer, your favourite winery, or the type of experience you want to live, mixing great wines, landscapes, history, culture.
Here are a few tips that will help you choosing.
Bordeaux wine regions
90% of the total production is red still wines, 95% of which is the famous Bordeaux blend. There are 6 grape varieties allowed for cultivation: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, are the main ones. Together they represent 97% of the entire red berry production.
The remaining is divided among Carmenere, Malbec and Petit Verdot.
All six are originally from Bordeaux, although they all have great international fame. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the two most planted in the world.
Yet even the production of white wines (10% of the total) reaches very high levels. The most used grapes are Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle.
The vineyard is divided into three distinct main areas.
Following the course of the Garonne River we divide it into the Right Bank and the Left Bank.
Left Bank divides into further two areas, north and south of the city.
Bordeaux Left Bank
On the left bank of the river Garonne you will find a higher percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon. The soil here is made of sand and pebbles and is perfect for this vine, which loves arid soils. Within the left bank there are two main wine growing areas.
To the north of the city of Bordeaux is the Médoc peninsula, with its route des châteaux, and its 1855 Grands Crus Classés wines.
If you imagine Bordeaux as countless noble manor houses surrounded by meticulously trimmed vineyards, which produce hundreds of thousands of bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon red wine at dizzying prices, then this is the place to go!
Margaux, Lafite, Mouton Rothschild, Latour and many other of the mythical great Bordeaux châteaux are here.
To the south of the city of Bordeaux lies the territory of the Graves (gravels), so called because of the soil rich in sedimentary pebbles carried by the Garonne river. Without doubt the most complex and least known area. Famous for both red and white wines.
Just outside the city you will find the AOP Pessac – Léognan, one of the most recent appellations. Here too there is a classement, but Grands Crus Classés of Graves, as opposed to those of Médoc, are classified both for their red wines and dry whites, the latter mainly based on Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillion. The most famous local producers are château Haut-Brion, château Smith Haut Lafitte, château Pape Clément, and many others. Further south, you will find Sauternes and Barsac, home to sweet wines such as the legendary Château d’Yquem.
Entre Deux Mers
To the east, between the Garonne and the Dordogne rivers lies the Entre Deux Mers (literally “between the two rivers” in French). It is a large area of mass production for white and red wines and cremants (sparkling wine). If you are looking for legendary wines maybe this is a lesser interesting area for a tour of Bordeaux.
Further east, beyond the Dordogne river, we enter the mythical Libournais, the world kingdom of the Merlot grape. Here you will find appelations such as Pomerol and Saint Emilion, villages specializing in dry red wines based on Merlot. In contrast to the left bank, the vineyard properties here are rather small, on average 8-10 ha (20-24 acres), mostly family-owned, although recent years have seen a wave of international investors.
Pomerol is the smallest appellation in Bordeaux, just 800 ha (2000 acres). Famous producers Petrus, Le Pin, La Fleur are here, and are the purest expression of this unique terroir in the world. The Pomerol area is perfect for private and exclusive tours to special wineries, to book in advance.
A little further east you enter the area of Saint Emilion, the beautiful medieval village, the historical heart of the Bordeaux vineyard. Here the Romans planted the first vines and in the Middle Ages the village became a rich centre of wine production and trade.
Over 850 châteaux occupy the limestone plateau. Together with the village and its immediate vicinity they offer a unique panorama.
In the past, the plateau was an ancient limestone quarry. Underground it hides over 200 km of galleries exploited from middle age until XIX c. Nowadays a few châteaux use a small portion of these galleries to store their wines in perfect conditions. And it is possible to visit it!
Covered with vineyards and dotted with wineries, the area has been protected by UNESCO since 1999. Its superb wines are a clever blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The Classement of Saint Emilion wines is not as static as the others in the region, but is renewed every 10 years. The most famous châteaux are the 4 Premiers Grands Crus Classés A: Ausone, Cheval Blanc, Angelus and Pavie.
Sant Emilion offers the most complete experience where you can combine a visit to fascinating wineries, the tasting of great wines, with the most typical landscapes of Bordeaux vineyards and a visit to the historic village.
How to Read a Bordeaux wine label
If you want to plan your wine tasting visit to Bordeaux on the bottles you know and like, you can choose your destination with the information you find on their label.
A matter of Terroir
Reading a French label is a nightmare and someone will even tell you that you need a degree. Don’t worry! Fortunately, Bordeaux wine labels are relatively simpler than other areas in France. They refer to the three key elements of terroir, namely the human factor, soil and vintage, since here we only harvest once a year and each vintage is bottled separately (unlike in Champagne!). All these three elements can be found on the label of your Bordeaux bottle.
1. The human factor (the name of the Château)
The human factor is represented by the name of the château that produces the wine. It is always beautifully written with large and visible fonts. The word château in French, as you probably know, means “castle” but not here in Bordeaux, where it more commonly takes on the meaning of a winery.
2. Vintage (the year of harvest)
The vintage, or year if you prefer, indicates the year of harvest. Each vintage has its own identity depending on the annual weather.
3. Soil (the AOP/AOC location)
Finally soil, and style of the related wine are indicated by the AOP, the Appellations of Protected Origin that certifies where the wine has been made within the Bordeaux greater region.
Appellations of Origin
Bordeaux has 65 AOPs, the Appellations d’Origine Protegées (AOP). A real record. This is a convenient way to isolate and identify the origin of wines, protect production and guarantee quality in front of the consumer.
In Bordeaux the AOPs is a concentric system, or a Russian doll, if you like. It starts from the generic AOP Bordeaux, which encloses the whole Bordeaux vineyard, and then goes deeper, with more specific AOPs like for example, the Médoc. Inside the latter, even further down, there are the AOPs of single villages that had the privilege of being able to indicate their name on the wines produced there. Among the best known of the Médoc are Margaux, Pauillac, Saint Julien and Saint-Estèphe. Normally the individual villages enjoy the best soils and have stricter production rules.
This “geographic” indication it is useful to locate the area your favourite wine comes from and you might want to visit.
Quality classification (Grand Cru)
Next is the quality classification of the best wines: the classements.
It is a sort of vertical quality ranking of the most representative wines of the geographic appellation. The INAO, the governmental control body, can authorise a village, or a group of villages, to create their own ranking. That’s where the Grand Cru came from. In the rest of France, Cru is a generic word, like saying “a place where great wine is made”. You find this word everywhere. In Bordeaux, where the châteaux rule, it is a bit different and Grand Cru is the title referring to the most representative wine produced by a single château. Each classement is independent of the other: the ranking of Saint Emilion’s wines, for example, has no connection with that of Médoc even though they both use the word “Grand Cru” for their champions. In the end it makes sense: they produce different kind of wine and they cannot fit the same ranking.
Bordeaux (the city)
The city of Bordeaux is the best choice where to stay overnight and then venture into the wine production area.
First of all because Bordeaux is a beautiful city. France’s second most visited city, sixth biggest by population. Bordeaux is famous for its magnificent old town, its renewed cultural life, markets for local products and, of course, for the production and marketing of wine.
The city is located to the west, near the Atlantic coast, just 200 km from the border with Spain and the Basque Country. The historic center is one of the most beautiful in France, a UNESCO site since 2007, full of activities, museums, shopping centers and restaurants among the most famous in the country.
The more than 6000 wine-growing châteaux that produce the famous wines of Bordeaux, are the element that determines, and has determined over time, the image and fortune of the city.
In addition to wine, the region is famous for some of the flagship products of French cuisine: foie gras, magret de canard and everything related to duck, truffles, porcini mushrooms, as well as oysters from the nearby bay of Arcachon.
Its coast is among other things the paradise of European surfers and is located only 50 km from the city centre.
Whether you decide to enjoy the city or visit its vineyards, exploring the surrounding area, the forests to the south and the countryside inland, there is always something to do in Bordeaux.
Bordeaux (the history)
Roman age, the foundations of success
The ancient Burdigala was a village that stood on a small island protected from the annual Garonne floods. Here, already in Celtic times, there was an emporium mainly dedicated to the tin metal trade. Caesar’s Romans arrived in 56 B.C.. They called the region Aquitaine, a name that it still bears today and which, at the time, designated the local Roman province. The root of the name comes from the Latin “acqua” (Aqua – ae), and would mean the place of the waters.
Entry into the Roman world guaranteed peace and prosperity for the city, which became one of the most important in ancient Gaul and a key road junction on the Atlantic coast. The Romans also began the production of wine on a large scale. They soon realised how much the local people loved this drink, so much so that they neglected cereal production in favour of the more profitable wine. For this reason, measures were put in place throughout Gaul to limit production.
Medieval era, Bordeaux jewel of the English monarchy
The end of the Western Roman Empire caused a very serious political and economic crisis throughout Europe, with the consequent depopulation of Bordeaux and the region. Yet the best was yet to come. In the Middle Ages the city lived one of its moments of greatest splendour and great changes.
As always, in history and in life, these moments are linked to a woman.
Eleanor of Aquitaine
In 1137, only 15, Eleanor became heir to the duchy of Aquitaine, a third the size of France. Beautiful and intelligent, with a strong and independent character, she married King Louis VII of France. They celebrated the wedding in the Saint André Cathedral in Bordeaux.
And yet, soon things deteriorated. Eleanor wouldn’t give up the independence of Aquitaine and the couple divorced. Less than a month after her divorce, in May 1152, Eleanor married Henry of England, ten years younger and to whom she would give five children, including the famous Richard the Lionheart. Eleanor thus became duchess of Aquitaine and queen of England. This was certainly the key moment in the entire history of Bordeaux.
The English taste for Bordeaux wines
Since 1066, at the time of William the Conqueror, the Norman, i.e. a French elite, dominated England. They loved wine and led the island towards a slow but unstoppable political and economic rise. Yet, today as then, producing large quantities of wine in the British Isles isn’t easy. Henry then, in order to strengthen the links between his French and British possessions, decided to grant tax privileges and a monopoly on wine imports from the region. A huge success. From this moment on, for three hundred years, Bordeaux would enjoy a royal monopoly in exporting wine to the British Isles.
The Claret of Bordeaux, as the English called it, was a pale red wine, halfway between a red and a rosé, produced with different methods. Even today there are still manufacturers who propose claret made following the same principles of the time!
This was the beginning of the great production and international wine trade that still characterizes Bordeaux and its region today.
At the time of Eleanor and Henry the most important production area was on the right bank of the Dordogne river: the famous town of Saint Emilion.
Modern Era and the merchants of Northern Europe
n 1453, at the end of the Hundred Years’ War, Bordeaux returned definitively into the hands of the kings of France. The end of privileged trade with England was a hard time for the local economy which entered into stagnation.
And yet, already in the 16th century, the wind was blowing in a favourable direction and this for two reasons: the crisis of central power triggered by the French Wars of Religion and, above all, the appearance on the international scene of skilled merchants from the north. They were mainly Dutch and Germans, coming from countries in rapid economic and demographic growth, but forced to import almost all wine and spirits. For the latter, Bordeaux was both a convenient commercial port on the Atlantic coast and an area of vast production.
Thanks to the impulse of these skilled merchants, in the 16th century Sauternes began the production its famous sweet wines. In the 17th century, the Médoc marshes were drained and suddenly became a new production area.
In the same period we have the first attestations of a new grape variety: Cabernet Sauvignon, born from the cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.
From the second half of the 17th century and throughout the 18th century, Bordeaux experienced a period of great splendour. All the nobles of France and Europe came here to invest in vineyards in the Médoc. Thus were born the great châteaux of the left bank, the ones that will make the most recent greatness of Bordeaux. The wines became the most famous in the world and personalities like Thomas Jefferson visited these mythical places, filling their travel books with personal notes and rankings on the properties visited. Wine tourism is much older than we can imagine!
In the middle of the 18th century there was also the almost total renovation of the town centre, which took on the definitive characteristics still visible today with its neoclassical style buildings. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars marked a serious setback and economic crisis. A slow recovery would only take place from the 1830s onwards, thanks to the new British and German investors.
The first Classment
In 1855, during the Universal Exhibition in Paris, Napoleon III promoted the first official world classification for wines. This classification is consigned to history as Classement 1855. The Grands Crus Médoc, of Sauternes and Barsac, still adhere to it today. It is a sort of exclusive club, which offers its members international prestige and recognition.
Bordeaux today, the wine capital of the world
Bordeaux and wine: a history of tradition, but also of great innovations. Over the centuries, the presence of merchants and adventurers from England, Ireland, Germany, America, Japan and the more recent wave from China have been saying a lot about the attractiveness of the area. Because what matters here is getting the best, absolute excellence. This is why the city is open to investors and experts from all over the world who have gathered here for centuries to push the bar of the wine world a little higher.
The image of a legendary red wine, preserved for years in a certain type of bottle (called “bordolese”), produced in an ancient ‘viticultural castles’, a magnificent noble residences surrounded by endless vineyards. All this is the ideal cultivated by Bordeaux, a model replicated all over the world. An ideal inextricably linked to the world of wine as excellence, nobility and tradition. Bordeaux produces excellent wines for all budgets. In fact production area is so large that you can even find hidden gems with great value for money. Certainly one of the most exciting things for a wine lover is to explore, visit, taste.