Understanding AOC: Bordeaux

We’re going to go out on a limb here and assume you have heard of Bordeaux before and skip the whole “one of the most recognizable wine regions in the world” speil and get down to the real reason we are talking about it – what is in the bottle!?

It might seem so counterintuitive to sell a product and not know what is in the packaging, right?  You’d never go into any electronics store and buy the Bose or Sony, you’d buy the Bose soundbar or the Sony home entertainment system.  We all need to know what we are buying: brand, product, capabilities, connectivity.  Similarly, you wouldn’t buy a Nike or Adidas box without knowing what shoe style, color, or size is in the box.

For the average consumer, purchasing this blind is highly unnerving.  While it could be argued that every bottle of wine, even with the variety or blend listed, is a blind purchase (bottle variance, storage conditions, vintage differentials, etc…), there is an extra unnerving curveball with AOC wines (excepting the Alsace).  No listed varietal or blend percentages.  Lots of French words, beautiful art, but no grape(s).

The AOC highly regulates what can and can’t be done as we previously explained in this series, so as a consumer, you are expected to know what can/can’t be done in the region.  There will never be a Chardonnay or Syrah labeled from the Bordeaux at your wine shop (well, as always, there are exceptions to the rules, more on that later…), those grapes are only permitted in other French regions we will discuss later in this series.  So what then are the permitted grapes?

The Reds, known as the Noble Grapes of Bordeaux are as follows:

  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Merlot
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Petit Verdot
  • Malbec (Côt)

In a time long past (and only currently allowed to a very small number of houses) Carménère was also a part of the lineup.  Generally speaking Bordeaux wines are a blend, whether white or red wines.  There are very, very few 100% offerings.

The dominant Whites are as follows:

  • Sémillon
  • Sauvignon Blanc

Although there are some lesser known whites permitted for growth:

  • Sauvignon Gris
  • Muscadelle
  • Ugni Blanc
  • Colombard
  • Merlot Blanc
  • Ondenc
  • Mauzac

Generally speaking, a dry White Bordeaux is 80% Sémillon and 20% Sauvignon Blanc, where a sweet White Bordeaux (like Sauternes) consists of a blend of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle.  Safe to say, if you are purchasing White Bordeaux, it is Semillon dominated, followed by Sauvignon Blanc, then a possible smattering of the remaining available whites.

Now, back to the red wine program: left bank vs. right bank.  The banks are delineated by the Gironde estuary and Garonne river.  It is as simple as if you are geographically on the left or right side of the estuary.  If you are on the left, the wine blends are dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon generally followed by Merlot.  Happen to be on the right?  Now your blend must be Merlot dominated, generally followed by Cabernet Sauvignon.

No two vintages are the same.  Late rains can plague a harvest, or late bud breaks can hinder ripening.  There are all sorts of factors that can make or break an entire crop durring the growing season.  But the wine must get made, and the show must go on.  Enter the secret weapon of the Bordeaux region: Cabernet Franc.  Cab Franc is essentially the entire region (irregardless of left or right bank locations) insurance policy.  When the later ripening Cabernet Sauvignon starts acting up or being fussy, or gets beaten by extreme weather, the earlier ripening and hardy Cabernet Franc can, and will, swoop in to save the day (or vintage).  How so?  generally Cab Franc breaks a week or so before Cab Sauv, so if there are weather conditions to be fearful of for Cab Sauv, the Cab Franc is already ahead in growing and can be harvested as opposed to hoping and praying that the harvest season storms don’t decimate the Cab Sauv.

Generally speaking, the Petit Verdot, Malbec, and sometimes Carménère, are used for color depth, tannic structure, and mild flavoring components, but it is much more common to find these grapes produced in 100% expressions in the new world – which is great if you are ever wondering what they have to offer to the Bordeaux blends.

There are 2 main ways you will find your Bordeaux wines labelled: generic Bordeaux labeling, generally done by négociants and/or co-ops and specific regional appellate labels.  Generic labeling from the wider Bordeaux AOC makes up over half of the entire Bordeaux production and are as follows:

  • Bordeaux: A red blend wine made largely of Cab Sauv and Malbec with Cab Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carménère making up the remainder of the blend.
  • Bordeaux Sec: A white wine blend made largely of Sémillon and Sauv Blanc with the other permitted whites possibly making up the rest of the blend and cannot exceed 4g/L of sugar.  Sec = Dry.
  • Bordeaux Molleux: If the above white blend exceeds 4g/L of sugars, this labeling is used to designate as such.  Chances are slim you will ever see this labeling as so little is made in this style.
  • Bordeaux Supérieur: While whites and reds can be produced under this labeling, reds are the dominant wines you will see labeled as such in the market.  Lower yields are required, minimum alcohol requirements are higher, and longer ageing is required.
  • Bordeaux Rosé: Rosés under this labeling must be made from Cab Sauv, Merlot and Cab Franc with brief skin contact before removing them from the must and subsequently fermenting the results .
  • Bordeaux Clairet: An obscure wine between Rosé and traditional Bordeaux where longer skin contact occurs with the must – generally a day or two as opposed to a few hours.
  • Crémant-de-Bordeaux (prior to 1990 labeled as Bordeaux Mousseux): A sparkling wine made in the traditional Champagne methods using the permitted whites for sparkling white and permitted reds for sparkling Rosé stylings.
  • Vin de Pays de l’Atlantique: Earlier we mentioned you won’t find Chardonnay or Syrahs labeled as Bordeaux, but there are exceptions.  Truth be told, this isn’t a “Bordeaux” label in namesake, but it is a labeling that is used in the Bordeaux region, so things could be a bit confusing there.  In 2006 this labeling was created for wines produced in the Bordeaux that were not the aforementioned permitted grapes.  Whites under this label are generally Chardonnay and reds are generally Syrah, with reds making up the bulk of the production under this labeling.

While specific regional appellate labeling is a list far too long for this post (we will circle back around for that at a later date), some of the more/most notable regions you will see proudly printed on a wine label are as follows:

Left Bank:
  • Médoc
  • Haut-Médoc: Which holds the notable sub-appellations of Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien, and Margaux.
  • Graves: Which has the sub-appellation of Sauternes, and its sub-appellation of Barsac.  The most famous red wine sub-appellation in Graves is Pessac-Léognan
Right Bank:
  • The Libournais: Most notable sub-appellations are Saint-Émilion and Pomerol
  • Côtes-de-Bourg
  • Blaye
  • Entre-Deux-Mers

Fun Facts: If an English Person speaks about “Claret” they are speaking exclusively to Red Bordeaux – not a specific grape.

Cabernet Franc is one of two parent grapes for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carménère.  So barring Petit Verdot and Malbec, the main growths are all from the same direct lineage, or more basically, Cabernet Franc and variations of itself.

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