In our last post, we talked a bit about the grapes that make up Bordeaux’s red and white wines. This week, we’re going to dive deeper into the ways in which Bordeaux’s unique geography influences its wine.

Choose a Side

The Bordeaux region is bisected by the massive Gironde Estuary which splits at its base into the Garonne and Dordogne rivers. The estuary serves as the dividing line between what wine drinkers have come to call Bordeaux’s Left Bank and Right Bank.

Though the banks themselves are only separated by a few hundred meters, the soil composition of each side is quite different and can have a dramatic effect on which kind of grapes grow best and, in turn, can drastically affect the way wines from each bank taste.

Wines from Bordeaux’s Left Bank (much of which is actually south of the city of Bordeaux), are predominantly made up of cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Here, the soil is quite gravelly with a layer of limestone bedrock far below. The gravel forces the vines to stretch their roots deep into the soil in search of nutrients. The results in wines that exceptionally long-lived and incredibly valuable.

Across the river on the Right Bank, cabernet franc replaces cabernet sauvignon as the most planted grape behind merlot. The Right Bank’s soil is much less gravely than the Left Bank, and the limestone bedrock is buried just under the surface. Wines from the Right Bank are often said to be more aromatic with smoother tannins than their Left Bank cousins.

White Wines

Of course, not all wines from Bordeaux are red. Bordeaux’s white wines are blends of sauvignon blanc, semillon, and sometimes muscadelle. White Bordeaux can come two forms: dry and sweet.

Bordeaux’s best white wines come from the Left Bank region called Pessac-Leognan, just south of Bordeaux city. These are delicious blends that, depending upon the winemaking technique, can be either light or crisp or lush and full bodied.

Perhaps the most famous white wine made in Bordeaux is Sauternes, a semillon-heavy blend that, in some cases, can age in a cellar for decades. Sauternes is made near the small village that shares its name on the banks of the Garrone River. The unique topography of the area causes the ground to be frequently covered with fog. The moisture in the morning fog, combined with the heat of the afternoon sun often results in a special kind of fungus called botrytis (also known as the noble rot) to grow on the grapes. The botrytis concentrates the sugars in the grapes and makes an incredibly sweet wine with complex notes honey, beeswax, and candied citrus peel.

Entre Deux Mers

Between the Left and Right Banks, at the bottom of Gironde Estuary is an area known as Entre Deux Mers or, literally translated as “Between Two Seas.” This is Bordeaux’s least famous region, and most of the wine grown here is made into what is known as Vin de Pays, or a inexpensive, bulk wine that is very rarely imported out of France.

It seems almost too appropriate for us to start our exploration of French wine with Bordeaux. The name is synonymous with rolling green vineyards, majestic chateaux, and high quality, ageable wines.


As Bordeaux lies on France’s Atlantic coast, it naturally became a bustling port city, with ships regularly stopping on their way to and from other European ports. This ease of trade is one of the major reasons why Bordeaux wines are known the world over. In the earliest days of the wine trade, barrels labeled Bordeaux were already being singled out as being of above average quality.

The Bordeaux region was first loved for its sweet white wines from the area Sauternes. In the 1700’s, Thomas Jefferson was a huge fan of these wines, and as a whole, sweet wine was more popular than dry wines. Bordeaux’s red wines didn’t begin to become the superstars they are today until this 1800’s. Their popularity was bolstered by a set of laws and decrees that codified the best producers of the region, by ranking them into groups of 1 through 5.

This is now called the “1855 Classification,” and it’s still extremely important today. We’ll talk a little more about this in next week’s “Part 2” post.

The Major Grapes


Cabernet Sauvignon – This intensely flavored and complex grape is the second most widely planted in Bordeaux. It provides structures to wines, especially those of Bordeaux’s Left Bank.

Merlot – The most widely planted grape in Bordeaux, merlot features prominently in all red Bordeaux wines where it adds depth and roundness to the blend.

Cabernet Franc – A wonderful grapes that can add aromas of spice and flowers to blends. It plays an important part in the wines from Bordeaux’s Right Bank.

Malbec – Sometimes called côt, this grape is often added in tiny amounts to blends to add depth and nuance.

Petit Verdot – Very little petit verdot is planted and used in the wines of Bordeaux, but even a small amount can add a rich color and intensity to the blend.


Sauvignon Blanc – A light and crisp wine with notes of green herbs and citrus. This is almost always blended with semillon.

Semillon – Sometimes known for its strong notes of lanolin, this is blended with sauvignon blanc to add structure to long aging white blends. It’s also the main grape in the sweet wine called Sauternes.