The Bordeaux wine region circles the city, enjoying near-perfect climatic conditions and soils ranging from limestone to sand and pebbles. It’s the largest quality wine district in the world, producing around 500 million bottles a year – over half of France’s quality wine output and ten percent, by value, of the world’s wine trade.
The Gironde estuary, fed by the Garonne and the Dordogne rivers, determines the lie of the land. The Médoc lies northwest of Bordeaux, between the Atlantic coast and the River Gironde. Its vines are deeply rooted in poor, gravelly soil, producing good, full-bodied red wines; the region’s eight appellations are Médoc, Haut Médoc, St-Estèphe, Pauillac, St-Julien, Moulis en Médoc, Listrac-Médoc and Margaux. Southwest of Bordeaux are the vast vineyards of Graves, producing the best of the region’s dry white wines, along with punchy reds, from some of the most prestigious communes in France, like Pessac, Talence, Martillac and Villenave d’Ornon. They spread down to Langon and envelop the areas of Sauternes and Barsac. The sweet white dessert wines produced there are considered among the best in the world. East of the Gironde estuary and the Dordogne, the Côtes de Blaye produce some good-quality white table wines, mostly dry, and a smaller quantity of reds. The Côtes de Bourg, an area that spreads down to the renowned St Émilion region specialize in solid whites and reds. Here, there are a dozen producers who have earned the Premiers Grands Crus Classés classification. Their wines are full, rich reds that don’t have to mature as long as the Médoc wines. Lesser-known neighbouring areas include the vineyards of Pomerol, Lalande and Côtes de Francs, all producing reds similar to St-Émilion but at more affordable prices.
Between the Garonne and the Dordogne is Entre-Deux-Mers, which yields large quantities of inexpensive, drinkable table whites, mainly from the Sauvignon grape. Stretching along the north bank of the Garonne, the vineyards of the Côtes de Bordeaux feature fruity reds and a smaller number of dry, sweet whites.
The classification of Bordeaux wines is a complex business. Apart from the usual appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC ) labelling, the wines of the Médoc châteaux are graded into five crus, or growths. These were established as early as 1855, based on the prices the wines had fetched over the last few hundred years. Four were voted the best or Premier Grand Cru Classé: Margaux, Lafitte, Latour and Haut-Brion. With the exception of Château Mouton-Rothschild, which moved up a class in 1973 to become the fifth Premier Grand Cru Classé, there have been no official changes, so divisions between the crus should not be taken too seriously.
If you’re interested in buying wine, head for the châteaux, where you’ll get the best price and the opportunity to sample and receive expert advice before purchasing. To visit the châteaux, ask at the Maison du Vin in each wine-producing village. In Bordeaux, the best place to sample wines is La Vinothèque (wla-vinotheque.com) on 8 Cours du 30 Juillet. The tourist office runs guided tours, covering all the main wine areas (from €28 per person). The guide translates the wine-maker’s commentary into English and answers any questions. Tastings are generous, and expert tuition is included.