What makes Bordeaux unique in the world of wine?

First published in the Gilbert & Gaillard International Magazine


Ask any wine consumer the name of a wine region and chances are they will say Bordeaux. Why this is so is not clear but has something perhaps to do with its size, the early recognition of its natural factors giving it a long history of winemaking, its port making export easy and its unique château concept where wines produced within a single estate are bottled.

Bordeaux is the largest wine region in France covering 11,7500 hectares with 60 appellations producing a range of styles with a predominance of red wines. Although it has 10,000 different châteaux, it is the 250 or so top wines, the Grand Crus that are renowned throughout the world and fetch high prices.

If pressed to define an overall style, Bordeaux wines are known for their elegance and finesse. What gives them their notoriety and make it such a big player today?

Bordeaux Location

Bordeaux lies on the 45th parallel, mid-way between the North Pole and the equator in the Northern Hemisphere. As it lies to the north of many other wine producing regions, ripeness can be achieved earlier than vineyards to its south. Grapes can be harvested earlier with lower sugar levels producing wines with lower alcohol levels.

The climate in Bordeaux is temperate due to the close proximity of the Atlantic Ocean which brings the warm Gulf Stream direct from the Caribbean to its golden sandy shores and inland via its rivers.

The wide majestic Gironde River slices the vast region in two making what are called the “Right” (St Emilion, Fronsac, Pomerol) and “Left Banks” (Medoc , Graves & Sauternes) splitting above Bordeaux into the Dordogne and the Garonne via the large port of Bordeaux  and before that, the Pyrennees.

A broad band of pine trees were planted at the beginning of the 19th century instructed by Napolean III which act as a protective screen against oceanic winds and storms and helps to regulate temperatures.  

Winters are mild and wet, normally providing water to fill water tables, for use by the vines during the dry long summers  that stretch into Autumnal “Indian Summers”. The oceanic climate does remain fickle though and risk of rains in the autumn can badly affect the quality of the harvest.

It is this temperate oceanic climate that enables a degree of acidity to be maintained within the grapes, even at perfect ripeness, that gives Bordeaux wines their signature the freshness and finesse.


It was not until the Middle Ages that Bordeaux became the commercial reference for wines that we know today, with the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152 to Henri Plantagenet, the future king of England. Thousands of tonneaux of the fine, light wines (which w,as known as claret, clairet being ‘light’ in French) were exported to England for over 300 years.

It was within the second golden era for Bordeaux , at the end of the 18th century, with the colonization of the islands of America,  that the concept of château was developed and the wine from a single domain was bottled and marketed. It started a fashion for the fine wines of Bordeaux. It was not until the mid-seventeenth century that the marshes of the Médoc were drained by the Dutch and the estates of the Médoc were planted.

Throughout the history of the vine and winemaking, Bordeaux has played a significant role.  It has helped to find solutions for various crisis that struck the vineyards in Europe such as the fungal disease, Mildew. It was Ulysse Ribéreau-Gayon at the University of Bordeaux, the former assistant to Louis Pasteur, who found the solution in the “Bouille Bordelaise” a mixture of copper sulphate and lime.

In fact Bordeaux is the birthplace of the science of winemaking, oenology. It was Ribéreau-Gayon’s grandson Jean who created the first Institute of Oenology in the world at Bordeaux University in 1949 and who discovered, with Emile Peynaud, malolactic fermentation. They developed the techniques of modern winemaking. This work continues at the Faculty of Oenology of Bordeaux, today based at the ultra-modern “Institute of the Science of the Vine and Wine” (ISVV).

 Classification of the Vineyards

Napoleon III wanted the great wines of Bordeaux to be part of the showcase of  the best France had to offer and organized in 1855 the Exposition Universelle de Paris. He asked brokers based in Bordeaux to draw up a list of the top estates. They sensibly used price as their basis and selected sixty or so of the most expensive red wines from the Médoc (and Château Haut Brion from the Graves) and categorized them into a five tier classification of growths. They also included twenty or so of the sweet white wines of Sauternes which were divided into a two tier classification. The lesser known regions at the time were not included such as Fronsac, St Emilion and Pomerol (and the rest of the Graves).

It was not the first classification of the wines of the Medoc (even Thomas Jefferson, American Ambassador to France attempted to class them 68 years previously in 1787) but it is the 1855 classification that has stuck and still dominates today.

Other classifications followed from other wine regions of Bordeaux though many regions exist happily without a system such as Pomerol;  the static one tier classification of the Graves Classification in 1959 and the two tier classification (the Premier Grand Cru Classé and Grand Cru Classé) of the St Emilion Classification in 1955, which is, somewhat controversially, reviewed every ten years.

The Terroirs

The vineyards of Bordeaux are planted on relatively flat land in a number of different soil types such as clay, sand, gravel and limestone.

The mother rock of the region was laid down in the Tertiary period (over 2 million years ago) which became overlaid by clay, sands from the Les Landes to the south and by deposits of gravel in elevated areas brought by the Garonne River, mostly from the Pyrenees and in some areas from the Massif Central.

The most ideally suited soils for vine growing are those that are well-drained and infertile allowing an arrêt de croissance (the moment when the vine switches nourishing its foliage to its grapes – essential in the development of quality grapes).

Very generally the cooler clayey soils (predominantly found on the right bank but also found elsewhere) suits the Merlot and the warmer free-draining gravels (predominantly on the left bank but also found in pockets on the left bank) suits Cabernet Sauvignon.

There are two main types of “super” soil in Bordeaux that produce the finest wines.

The oldest type of soil is the the compacted hard asteries limestone which dates back to the Tertiary period some 50 million years ago. It is this stone that underlies the plateau of St Emilion. This beautiful honey-coloured stone, the Pierre de Bordeaux, was heavily quarried to make many of the facades in the city and which today leaves kilometers of tunnels under the medieval town. The shallow roots grow in a sandy loam soil which sits on the top of this stone and are unable to penetrate this compacted stone but do not suffer as they receive a steady supply of water sucked upwards from the water table through the porous stone via capillary action.

The second major type of soil is the alluvial gravel that was laid down more recently in the Quartenaire (less than 2 million years ago) and is made up of deep coarsely textured gravels. They make up the famous gravel croups found on elevations in the Haut Médoc, Graves, Sauternes, Pomerol and Western St Emilion. They are well-drained, aerated and enable deep penetration of the vine’s roots.  

The Grape Varieties

Bordeaux’s grape varieties are well-known and have been exported all over the world.

The red and white wines of Bordeaux are made up of a blend of a number of different varieties. This is partly explained by the changeable climate. Having a number of different varieties acts as a safeguard against the loss of an entire crop of a certain grape variety, as each variety flowers and is harvested at different times.

As a rule of thumb, in the warmer drier soils of the Right Bank the later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon grape predominates whereas in the wetter, cooler, more clayey soils of the Left bank Merlot excels. Of course there are exceptions on both banks.

In the blend of red wines the Cabernet Sauvignon gives the backbone and tannic structure, the Merlot the flesh and juiciness and the Cabernet Franc aromatics. For the white wines the acidity and freshness comes from the Sauvignon and the Semillon gives the richness on the palate to the blends.


89% of surface of all planted vineyards

Merlot: 63%

Cabernet Sauvignon: 25%

Cabernet Franc: 11%

Malbec, Petit Verdot and others : 1%


11% of surface of all planted vineyards

Semillon: 53%

Sauvignon: 38%

Muscadelle: 6%

Colombard, Chenin, Ugni Blanc and others:  3%

Despite competition from new world countries, Bordeaux  continues to be a key player in the wine world of today. In 2009 it produced a total of 661 million bottles which equates to 3.37 billion euro. Sixty-eight percent of volume is sold in France. The rest (in terms of volume) is exported to Germany, China, Belgium, UK and Japan. In terms of value, Hong Kong is top of the league with the UK, China and Belgium following.

The quality of the wines produced in Bordeaux continues to improve. Over the last two decades it was technological advances in winemaking that made the difference. Today it is in the vineyard that the big changes are taking place as producers undertake research to study their terroirs, analyse their soils regularly and use sustainable practices to enhance soil quality.



Terroir is one of the main factors of why one wine tastes different from another. It is the blueprint, the start point. Terroir is what gives the uniqueness to the raw materials, the grapes which in turn defines the wine’s style. It is not just the soil but the whole vine environment, including its micro-climate and its setting.

“How do you define your terroir?”

Comte Eric d’Aramon, Château Figeac, Prémier Cru Classée St Emilion

Surface : 40 hectares

Production : 100 000 bottles

Geology : 3 mounds of Gravels

Varieties : 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Cabernet Franc, 30% Merlot

At the very western end of the appellation on the borders of Pomerol we find the Graves of St-Emilion where gravel soils predominate. The Gunzian graves de feu, was brought here by the Dordogne River and after its tributaries, the Isle and Dronne rivers. The gravel originates from the Quaternary period and comes not from the Pyrenees but from the older Massif Central.

It is these warm gravels that are well-suited to the late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon which is rare in the rest of St Emilion.

lt is deposited in five mounds (two in the vineyards of Cheval Blanc) the remaining three are found at Figeac. They have an altitude typically of 36 to 38 metres above sea level, and the gravelly soils are generally 7 to a 12 metres deep. As owner Eric d’Aramon says, “When we excavated the soil to build our cellars in the 1970s we saw that the vine roots had dug down several metres to reach down to the water table.”

At Figeac, unlike its neighbours Cheval Blanc, clay combines with the gravels which is particularly well-suited to the Cabernet Franc grape. This unique terroir makes Figeac what it is “a wine of finesse and elegance”, d’Aramon concludes.

 Henri Lurton, Château Brane-Cantenac, 2eme Cru Classé, Maugaux

Surface : 75 hectares

Production : 150 000 bottles

Geology : Deep-lying gravels from the Quaternary period

Varieties : 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 4.5% Cabernet Franc, 0.5% Carmenère

Continuing the research done by into the soils of the property by Professor Seguin at the University of Bordeaux by his father Lucien, Henri Lurton commissioned his own geological map of the vineyards of Brane-Cantenac in 2003 by Pierre Viaud. It identified the 75 hectare vineyard to be divided into four main soil types producing very different wines. As owner, Henri Lurton says “ Brane-Cantenac  is a vin d’assemblage and there is much work to marry these different wines from different terroirs. But it is this that gives the wine its complexity.” Henri Lurton started working on the estate in 1986 and over the years has become to know his different terroirs intimately. “During harvest in 2006, we had a down-pour and I knew that due to the excellent drainage on the gravel plateau in front of the Château, I could leave picking the grapes for a couple of days and tend to more urgent plots!”

The four main types of terroir include;

The Plateau of Brane: 30 hectares of a high mound of Graves Garonnaises, 22m at its summit. It has a high percentage of clay which ensures that vines have access to water during dry periods “drop by drop”.  The water table is very low at 5 to 6m.

Behind the Château: 15 hectares of more recent gravels and sands

Notton: 13 hectares of deep gravels of the Quaternary period of 6m depth

La Verdotte : 10 hectares of sand and gravels with some iron subsoils

Philibert Perrin, Château Carbonnieux, Grand Cru Classé de Graves


Geology:  Deep gravel on slopes

Red Vineyard Surface : 50 hectares

Production : 200 000 bottles

Red Varieties :

60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot and Carmenère

White Vineyard Surface : 42 hectares

Production : 180 000 bottles

White Varieties : 65% Sémillon, 35% Sauvignon

Founded by Benedictine Monks in the 13th century, vines have been grown on this terroir for over seven centuries. The extraordinary variety of its terroir means that it is well suited to both the red and white varieties of Bordeaux and was amongst only six out of the 16 estates classified in 1959.

The property is located on a gravel outcrop deposited by the Garonne River brought from the Pyrenees during the Quaternary era. It overlies the older substratum of limestone (from the Tertiary era) which shows through at the base of the mound having been eroded over thousands of years. It is well-drained and ripens the grapes early.

“We work continually to refine the choice of grape variety, its clone and rootstock, to the soil and the micro-climate” stresses Philibert Perrin , Carbonnieux owner with his brother Eric. “It is not just about soil, we have found that the whites benefit from the coolness brought by their proximity to the woods on the estate.”

Cabernet Sauvignon is well-suited to the large gravel, Merlot to the fine gravel and clay and the clayey limestone soils suit the white varieties of Sémillon and Sauvignon.

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