Introduction to the Communes of Bordeaux
Bordeaux is one of the world’s most important wine regions, and especially so in yachting.
Virtually every yacht carries some of the top wines from communes like Margaux, Pauillac, Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, among others. It’s important to note, however, that these Grand Cru Classé wines only represent a tiny proportion of the total production of Bordeaux. Most of the region’s output is made up of moderately-priced wines sold under the names Bordeaux AOC or Bordeaux Supérieur AOC. Such appellations do not make it onto the prestigious wine lists in yachting, so only the top communes will be presented below.
Saint-Estèphe is the northernmost of the six communal appellations in the Médoc. As in most of the Médoc area, the soil is a mix of sand, gravel and clay, though the clay proportion here is higher than in the other communes and therefore the Cabernet Sauvignon can struggle to ripen in some spots. This has resulted in greater plantings of Merlot, which ripens a bit earlier. There are five classified growths from the 1855 classification located within the appellation, with Châteaux Cos d´Estournel and Montrose being the two most prestigious. The wines tend to show a certain austerity with slightly higher acid than the other communes.
This famous commune is situated on the left bank of the Gironde river, around the small town of Pauillac. The top wines from this appellation are often considered the quintessence of Bordeaux, and the esteemed wine writer Hugh Johnson agrees, saying "If one had to single out one commune of Bordeaux to head the list, there would be no argument. It would be Pauillac." Furthermore, this appellation also includes three of the five first growths from the 1855 classification, giving additional notoriety to the area. The hallmarks of Pauillac wines are power, firm structure, broad palate and depth. Cabernet Sauvignon is the predominant grape, but as with all red Bordeaux, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec are also used – though the last two considerably less extensively. Châteaux Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild and Latour are the first growths in this commune, but estates like Châteaux Pontet-Canet, Pichon Baron, and Lynch-Bages are also of outstanding quality and reputation.
Saint Julien lies between the Margaux and Pauillac appellations on the Left Bank of the Gironde. Stylistically, the growers talk about two different styles: In southern Saint Julien, the wines tend to be more Margaux-like, smooth and feminine, while wines from the northern vineyards are more robust and sturdy. Regarding grape varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon is king here, with Merlot and the other classic Bordeaux varieties blended in for smoothness and complexity. Châteaux Léoville Las Cases and Léoville Poyferré are two of the top producers, along with Châteaux Ducru-Beaucaillou, Léoville Barton and Lagrange.
Margaux is the second largest appellation in the Haut-Médoc, after Saint-Estèphe. The commune is also located on the left bank of the Gironde with very thin gravel soils. The wines are famous for their fragrance and perfume and are considered more feminine and slender than, for example, those of Pauillac. The most famous estate in this commune is Château Margaux, and other big names include Châteaux Palmer, Malescot Saint-Exupéry, Giscours and Brane-Cantenac, to mention just a few. Cabernet Sauvignon is the predominant grape.
Médoc and Haut-Médoc
These two appellations are also located on the left bank of Gironde, and the zone spans nearly 60 kilometres along the length of the river. Its southern edge borders the city of Bordeaux, encompassing fifteen communes exclusive to the appellation. The soils in Haut-Médoc and Médoc do not have the quality of drainage as the communes above, and thus the wines are not as deep, long-lived or concentrated. However, there are excellent estates here producing very complex and fine wines, and the most celebrated examples are Châteaux La Lagune and Camensac. In total, there are five estates from the 1855 classification within these two AOCs, and a great many of the top producers of the Cru Bourgeois classification can also be found here.
Pessac-Léognan is located in the northern part of the Graves region, south of the city of Bordeaux. Unlike most Bordeaux appellations, Pessac-Léognan is equally famous for both red and white wines. The red wines are made primarily from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and the whites from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Furthermore, one of the finest first growths of 1855 is found here, Château Haut-Brion. To complicate matters, Pessac-Léognan has its own classification system of Grand Cru Classé, created in 1959. Typical tasting terms for Pessac red wines are blackcurrant and cedar, in a restrained and earthy style. The white wines are often barrel-fermented and show aromas of apricot and nectarine when young and more toast and honey with age. Other top wineries include Châteaux La Mission Haut-Brion, Smith Haut Lafitte and Pape Clément.
Pomerol is Bordeaux’s smallest fine wine appellation, located in the Libournais region of the Right Bank. The wines produced here are based primarily on Merlot, with Cabernet Franc playing a supporting role. The soils have a higher content of clay than on the Left Bank, which is very well suited to the Merlot variety. Though it is now one of the most prestigious appellations in Bordeaux, this has only been the case since the second half of the 20th century. Its recent success is down to exceptional quality, coming relatively late as no Right Bank châteaux were included in the 1855 classification. There is no internal classification within Pomerol, though the uncrowned king is Château Pétrus. Other top producers include Châteaux Le Pin, Lafleur, La Conseillante and L’Eglise Clinet.
Saint-Émilion is the other prestigious appellation on the Right Bank, bordering Pomerol to the west. The wines are mostly from Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The climate here is slightly cooler and damper and the soils are less well drained than on the Left Bank, so Cabernet Sauvignon often struggles to achieve full ripeness. The quality of the wines within Saint-Émilion varies quite substantially, and there is an internal classification to give an indication of the best wines. The top wines are divided into two groups, Premiers Grands Crus Classés A and B. There are currently four wines with the highest classification, Châteaux Ausone, Angélus, Cheval Blanc and Pavie.
Sauternes is arguably the most famous region in the world for dessert wines. The wines are made from Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grapes that have been affected by Botrytis cinerea, also known as “noble rot”. This causes the grapes to become partially dried and raisinlike, and covered with a particular mould, resulting in concentrated and distinctively flavoured wines. Only the grapes affected by rot are used, so during every harvest it is necessary to make several passages in the vineyard to select only the nobly-rotted bunches. The wines are then fermented in oak and aged for 12-24 months. Château d´Yquem is the most famous wine from this region, though others, including Châteaux Rieussec and Suduiraut, also produce stunning wines.