Bordeaux seems to be a wine region that we all perceive as being a haven of bluechip wines that mortals are denied access to. The £8-£20 price range for regular drinking wines is perhaps not as popular as it should be. Why is that? Does the region need more decoding. There are rewards for journeying into one of the world's most famous wine regions.

Tasting with Vins de Bordeaux team, Fiona Juby and Lydia Harrison

Opposite affliction to Rioja

On the flip-side, we see that retailers wine shelves regularly have an extensive range of Rioja from £5 - £10 and yet, despite knowing how great wine from this region can be, the wines we pick up are frequently underwhelming. The great wines of Rioja are lost in a sea of mediocrity where lesser quality bulk wine is dressed up on the shelves to cope with public demand. 

What’s on offer and what’s to know?

Bordeaux is made up of nearly 6500 wine estates, 300 merchants and 84 brokers spread across 65 appellations and makes delicious red, white, rosé and sweet wines.

The real secret of Bordeaux is the control exercised over the growing and blending of grapes to deliver consistent styles that have set the standard across the wine producing world for centuries.

blending bordeaux850
Blending Bordeaux with the Vins De Bordeaux tutors from the L'Ecole du Vin based in Bordeaux - courses in wine are growing in popularity

What’s in a blend?

Many regions blend their wines to add complexity and character but Bordeaux is the most famous trend setting region of them all. The Gironde estuary runs through the heart of the region and divides Bordeaux into two overarching styles of red wine: the left bank dominated by cabernet sauvignon grapes and the right bank dominated by merlot grapes.

Wines from both sides of the Gironde usually contain three varieties of grapes that are blended by the winemaker to achieve the best expression of their location that they can achieve. Climate, soil and ageing are all major parts of the process that shape wine and the contribute to what we get in our glass.

It’s an oft asked question: “Do you prefer left bank or right bank Bordeaux?” and I’ve heard people who spend more than the average on a bottle look a little confused. It’s not just a good thing to know at dinner parties but also an early marker in discovering a region that can give a wine lover a lifetime of explorable pleasure.

Map of Bordeaux850

Left bank red wine style: 

The left bank blend is dominated by cabernet sauvignon. The vinayrds lie on this stretch of land between the Atlantic ocean and the Gironde estuary (see the dark purple area on the map above). The weather fronts that sweep in need a hardier grape to endure their excesses and cabernet offers this toughness. 

A tough grape, as you might expect, is going to yield a more austere and intense fruit with dark berry flavours and complex character. On its own, cabernet would prove too tough for us genteel drinkers to cope with, so it is blended with the softer, more round and supple merlot grapes. It is also highly likely that the winemaker would add up to 20% of petit verdot to give structure and the perfume of violets among other aromas.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the grapes on the left bank are grown in ancient gravelly soils, the remnants of glacial activities millions of years ago. These gravel characteristics are a major feature in the taste and aromatic profile of wines from the left bank and play a big part in their enduring allure.

Lydia Harrison from the Vins De Bordeaux takes us on a tasting tour of one of the world's most famous wine regions

Right bank red wine style

The right bank of the Gironde stretches inland, more protected from the Atlantic influence. Wines from right bank can vary enormously. They have a minimum amount of 70% merlot making them much rounder, accessible and easier to drink from a young age (although many age beautifully too). 

When tasting these wines you can expect more cherry and red fruits with liquorice flavours, even chocolate, and hints of truffle with age.

The actual specific soil constitution varies from place to place but there is more limestone (especially around Saint Emilion), clay, sand and iron deposits (around Pomerol), with mixtures and variations, contributing to the diverse mixture of wines that this colossal region produces.

White wines of Bordeaux

01bordeaux whites 850

The two main grape varieties we’ll encounter in this region are sauvignon blanc and semillon. They are nearly always blended together to enhance the character of the resultant wine and allow them greater ageing potential. Sauvignon blanc is also widely known in the Loire Valley and in New Zealand but is really popular now across the world. In a recent tasting I attended in Oxford, the gentle elegance of fruit balance with soft vanilla oak and acidity made the Bordeaux the favourite in the room. 

These are great seafood wines. I remember languishing in restaurant in Biarritz after a death defying surfing experience during a late November storm and tucking into a couple of bottles of white Bordeaux wine with a huge spread of oysters. As the rain thrashed against the shores and the windows, we submerged ourselves in the soft silks of gastric pleasures.

The Sweet Wines

In some ways we could argue that I am saving the best for last. Underrated by the masses and readily available in most wine retailers, sweet wines from Bordeaux can deliver so much pleasure when paired with cheeses or perhaps a smooth rich pate. It’s a crime that these rituals are not a fixed part of the British national diet.

The most famous (and often expensive) sweet wine from Bordeaux are from a small area in the south of the Bordeaux region called Barsac and Sauternes. However, theree are plenty of very well made delicious sweet wines made in the area known as Premiéres Cotes de Bordeaux. You can see in the clip below how mch we're enjoying a glass. I even manage to obtain a goats cheese toasty afterwards to savour with a sweet wine pairing. Great fun!

Tasting ice cold sweet Premiéres Cotes de Bordeaux with Lydia Harrison from the Vins de Bordeaux at Jamie Oliver's Big Feastival

In summary; In blending we become…

It has been an excellent expedition in the last few weeks reacquainting with the wines of this fabulous wine region, that is not only just on our doorstep but also was annexed as part of Great Britain from 1152 until 1453. Bordeaux needs to be explored and enjoyed and there is enough good choice at the entry level price range to start any of us on the road. Once initiated, there is no turning back.


Add your name to our confidential database to receive more tips from Secret sommelier: