Bordeaux has close to 7,000 winemakers and 65 appellations. Getting to know it defies easy answers, but these five wines can get you started:
Classic Cabernet Sauvignon: Château Poujeaux, AOC Moulis-en-Médoc
The key dividing line for Bordeaux wine is the Garonne river. It’s the one that runs right through the city center and heads right up to the Atlantic ocean. The city’s main old town center is on the Left Bank of the river, and so are many of its most famous vineyards, whether in the Médoc to the north of the city or in Pessac Léognan and Graves to the south. There are plenty of exceptions, but overall the Left Bank is the land of Cabernet Sauvignon, a grape that gives blackcurrant, blackberry, and graphite notes in the resulting wine. They are powerful but elegant, perfect with food (the classic match is entrecôte à la Bordelaise). You can pretty much scale the price ceilings when it comes to a good Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux, so feel free to go crazy if you can afford it with the most prestigious appellations of Pauillac, Saint Julien, or Margaux. This is a quality alternative from a slightly less celebrated appellation, but one that has a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend (along with some Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot grapes) from the talented winemaking team of Mathieu Cuvelier and Christophe Labenne. If you can get hold of a 2008 vintage, it’s great value.
This quaint B&B with charming garden makes for a quiet refuge from the city; its rooms are named after famous painters from Bordeaux.
Classic Merlot: Château Les Trois Croix, AOC Fronsac
As a counterbalance to the Cabernet Sauvignon on the Left Bank, you will find most wines over on the Right Bank of the river are made up primarily of the Merlot grape (almost all Bordeaux wines are a blend of anything from two to six varieties, but Merlot and Cab are the two dominant ones). You’re going to find majority Merlot in almost every under 20-euro Bordeaux that you drink, because it tends to be a little easier to ripen than Cabernet, and gives beautifully rich summery red fruit flavours of raspberry and strawberry. If you buy wines from the appellations of Saint Emilion and Pomerol, the Merlot grape can be taken to an intensity and complexity that gives Cabernet Sauvignon a run for its money, but the best wines will be pricey. My suggestion would be to check out some of the best names of Fronsac, a lovely appellation just close to these two big names where you also get wonderful Merlot that tend to be more affordable. I love both Châteaux la Dauphine and Château La Vieille Cure, but I think my favorite might be Château Les Trois Croix, owned by Patrick Léon, who has made wine with some of the starriest names of Bordeaux, most notably Château Mouton Rothschild, and now lavishes his expertise on his home turf along with his son, Bertrand. This is 80 percent Merlot and 20 percent Cabernet Franc, and utterly delicious. The 2015 vintage is wonderful, but look out also for the 2009 or 2010.
White Bordeaux: Clos Floridène, AOC Graves
If you had visited Bordeaux in the 1970s, you would have found over half the bottles were white wine. Today only one in ten are white, as red wine has become the signature of the region. But there has been a quiet revolution in white-winemaking over the past decade. Bordeaux is the home of the Sauvignon Blanc grape that is today so well-known in New Zealand, but most here are mixed with another grape called Sémillon, giving rich citrus notes to round out Sauvignon’s zingy, fresh flavors. If you want to find the most structured examples, head to AOC Pessac Léognan, but it’s hard to beat Clos Floridène in AOC Graves, owned by the Dubourdieu family (and created by Professor Denis Dubourdieu, who was known as the pope of white wine until his death in 2016). The Bordelais like to pair their white wine with oysters, and this would be a pretty perfect choice, in any recent vintage.
Around 600 estates in Bordeaux are now farming organically or biodynamically, either certified or in the process of getting official recognition. Some appellations, like Saint Emilion, are even putting rules in place to make sure the whole place is farming more sustainably if chateaux want the right to put the name on their label. This estate, Champs de Treilles in St Foy, was one of the first to get the conversation going. Its owners, Corinne and Jean-Michel Comme, are biodynamic evangelists, serious experts who have influenced some of the top estates in Bordeaux: Jean-Michel is technical director at Château Pontet Canet in Pauillac, while Corinne consults widely across the region, including at iconic names like Château Climens in Barsac. You can try out their work without spending a fortune by getting hold of this great wine. Merlot-based, supple, vibrant, succulent, particularly in both 2015 and 2016 vintages.
Next generation: Clos de Boüard, AOC Montagne Saint Emilion
Any region with 2,000 years of history is big on handing over from one generation to the next; it’s where new ideas come from. Right now, some of the best ideas are coming from Damien Barton (grandson of Anthony Barton at Château Léoville Barton in Saint Julien) who is looking to simplify French wines with his range, Initio. This has two wines from Bordeaux—a rosé from the Médoc and a Sauvignon Blanc from Entre deux Mers, both accessible and easy-drinking. Another ‘next generation’ wine to look out for comes from Coralie de Boüard, daughter of Hubert de Boüard at Château Angélus, who created the Clos de Boüard from vines she bought in Montagne-Saint-Emilion, just a few miles from her family’s famous Premier Grand Cru Classé property. It’s full of rich fleshy fruits, but with a lick of minerality on the finish that tells you these vines are planted on excellent-quality limestone soils.