bordeaux wine styles explained

Six styles of Bordeaux wine explained in simple steps

Bordeaux wine might be a bit daunting; ooooh all those different tastes, styles, let alone names we can’t pronounce properly.

I went along to a Bordeaux tasting run by Dan Harwood at Vinea, Liverpool, on behalf of the Bordeaux Wine Council. ( Dan has some wise words to share and some simple little word clouds too, which help take the mystique out of this region in the south west of France.

Bordeaux’s latitude is north, but the Gulf Stream warms the region and creates a mild climate; and together with being near to the sea, the region enjoys mild winters and mild summers which means a longer growing season. So grape varieties that wouldn’t normally ripen at that latitude can do, particularly cabernet sauvignon. 

Dry fresh whites

Bordeaux white wines
Bordeaux white wines

Grapes: Sauvignon blanc (49 per cent) semillon (43 per cent) muscadelle (six per cent) Other (two per cent)

Signature: Think fresh … get that? You all like sauvignon blanc, right? Fresh easy drinking styles are now being embraced by modern Bordeaux winemakers.  Seek out Entre-deux-Mers.
Graves and Pessac-Léognan white wines are more traditional, with more oak, ageing, and are full-bodied. They’re not as fresh a style; not so much about easy drinking, but more intense (and they come with a much higher price tag).

Factoids: Only eight per cent of all wine produced in Bordeaux is white; and about half of it is exported.

Basic Bordeaux red

Bordeaux wines

Grapes: They are likely to be a higher proportion of merlot as it is the most planted black grape in Bordeaux.  Merlot is 65 per cent of the total planted area, with cabernet sauvignon at 23 per cent.

Signature: Aromas are red fruits, cherries, strawberries, raspberries. Tastes fruity too, and the acidity is generally lower than in whites though its still quite fresh, mouth-cleansing.   There’s soft spice too.

Factoids:  The vast majority of red wine produced in Bordeaux is the basic style. They (and a small amount of rosé) represent about 49 per cent production; so about half of the red Bordeaux wine is made in this easy drinking light style.

There’s a step up with Bordeaux Supérieur. If you see that on a bottle the wine will have slightly higher minimum alcohol and it will be aged slightly longer. It will be more intense and full-bodied.

Côtes de Bordeaux


Grapes: Merlot dominates.

Signature: Fruity aromas start to lean towards dried fruit such as  raisins and dried cranberries; oak brings in soft spice such as cinnamon and cloves. Then there’s mature characters like leather, bacon, smoke and meat. They have more body, are rounder, warmer, and more mouth-filling than basic Bordeaux.

Factoids: Côtes means slope, not coast. These wines aren’t from the the big names. They’re much better quality than basic Bordeaux, but they don’t have the prestige of more famous areas to allow them to sell their wines at a higher price. And so the Union of Côtes de Bordeaux was created by a group of wine regions to try and increase their presence and profile on the domestic and international markets. They represent 10% of the total production of Bordeaux wines.

Right Bank: Saint Émilion, Pomerol, Fronsac


Grapes:  Mainly merlot because of the clay soil on the Right Bank. Clay feels wet and cold because it retains heat, it doesn’t radiate heat, so it keeps the heat in. Merlot likes this, so it does well in this kind of soil – and by the Gironde estuary, and the Dordogne and Garonne rivers, there’s plenty of it.

Signature:  Inky, deep, rich. Boom! Black cherries, plums, car tyres, rubber, damsons; there’s more tannin, with a grippy sensation. An  intense, *sit by a fire* kind of wine.

Factoids: The merlot that is grown here produces much more powerful wines than basic Bordeaux. There’s smaller production, and better wines because of the quality of the vineyards, the use of oak (particularly new oak) and knowledge and skills of winemakers.

Saint Émilion and St Émillon Grand Cru are different appellations; the rules applying to Grand Cru are stricter and determine higher quality wines. They have lower yields, higher alcohol and longer ageing. This is reflected in the price and the power of the wine.

In the 1950s the wine producers decided to grade their wines. and so was born the Classification. They look at the wine; prestige of the vineyard and chateau then taste previous years of vintages. Some will then get top classification; some second best; some third. This was reviewed in 1969; then 1986; 1996; 2006 – but there were too many powerful complaining losers (money is King when it comes to the grades) so the classification was thrown out. The 2012 classification is now also being legally challenged.

The Left Bank: Médoc

medoc graves_opt

Grapes: On this side of the river, the left side, the blend is dominated by cabernet sauvignon. The Left Bank is a peninsula and up to the 17th century it was a marsh … then along came the Dutch who drained the Médoc and reclaimed it.

They found great quality gravel soil where cabernet sauvignon does best. Gravel is loose, warmer and drier which absorbs heat quickly and radiates it quickly too. This helps cab sav to ripen well. Cabernet sauvignon has more tannin and acidity and needs a little longer to soften, and is much improved as it ages.

Signature Aromas are more savoury characteristics, smoky, tobacco. More garnet colour. As a Left Bank wine develops the tannins softens, the wine becomes slightly smoother. Dried fruits; animal; cigar box. The fresh fruit character begins to disappear.  A garnet colour indicates ageing.

Factoid  Bordeaux was the wine region in the world when in 1855 Napoleon the Third held the World Expo. He asked the Bordeaux brokers to give him a list of the top chateau in the Médoc and rank them. They did; and ranked them 1st, 2nd to 5th etc. The key difference between the Left Bank’s ranking and the  the Right Bank classification is that the Right is based on taste, the Left on market price.

First growth chateau command all the money and so on down the chain. The First Growth chateau are: Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Haut Brion and Chateau Mouton Rothschild.

Sweet White Wines


Grapes: These are the same grapes as the fresh white wines: Sauvignon blanc, semillon and muscadelle

Signature: Aromas of honey, marmalade, floral, orange blossom.  Toasty tastes of orange rind, honey and marmalade.

Factoids The sweet wines of Bordeaux are made via a naturally-occurring rot known as Noble Rot (botrytis) which splits the skins of the grapes. The moisture in the grapes evaporates concentrating the sugars and changing the flavour profile to honey and marmalade.

The rot needs specific conditions which can be found in certain areas in Bordeaux; notably Sauterne where perfect warm misty mornings … followed by heat in the afternoon, which dries out the grapes. On the Garonne River there are tributaries and one called the Ciron goes through the pine forest; known as the coldest river in France.  When that cold river emerges out of the forest and hits the big broad slow moving Garonne, thats when you get the misty mornings.

To get the grapes at the optimum ripeness they are picked by hand berry by berry then the pickers go out again, day in and day out, until the harvest is finished.  It can take several days. Hand picking, new barrels; intensive labour … these wines aren’t necessarily cheap. But my, they’re worth it.

 Final words from Dan:

“We often have the impression of Bordeaux wine being a full bodied, expensive red with harsh tannins that always need years of ageing to be worthy of drinking.

“A wine region considered either too complicated and daunting or, even worse, over simplified to one word – Claret.

Dan Harwood Bordeaux wine tasting
Dan Harwood (Thanks to Dan for the Word Clouds

“In fact the wines of Bordeaux offer a fantastic diversity in styles and range of price points to choose from.

“True there are premium, even world class, reds from the cabernet sauvignon grape that are aged in oak and best after a few years ageing but there are also light, easy drinking merlots at affordable prices.

“The whites too, such as crisp, refreshing sauvignon blanc will provide you with a wine that feels familiar yet somehow with a little something extra.”

“The complexity of the region is something to be treasured, one that is not found in other, heavily commercial wine regions. Bordeaux as a wine region has a rich history shaped by Kings and Queens, wars and treaties, trade and commerce. Building on this history, wine makers are looking to the future, embracing cutting edge technology whilst still respecting the soil making wines that are the best the region has ever produced.”

“There’s never been a better time to pour a glass of Bordeaux.”

Dan can be contacted at
or via Twitter @danharwoodwine Also find 

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