Bordeaux, in south-western France, is arguably the most famous wine region in the world. It is rivaled only by the likes of Burgundy, Champagne, Rioja, Chianti and the Napa Valley. The region takes its name (which translates roughly as 'next to the waters') from the port city of Bordeaux, which serves as its logistical and administrative center.
The Bordeaux viticultural region stretches for 80 miles (130km) inland from the Atlantic coast. It is home to more than 10,000 producers, who turn out a vast quantity of wine every vintage. These range from inexpensive everyday wines through to some of the world’s most expensive and prestigious labels. Bottles of dry red wine produced under the region's generic Bordeaux appellation can be bought for just a few dollars. Those from the top chateaux are regularly traded for several thousand dollars.
The majority of Bordeaux's wines are the dry, medium-bodied reds for which the region is known. The finest and most prestigious of these come from the great chateaux of the Haut-Medoc, Pessac-Leognan, Saint-Emilion and Pomerol on the 'right bank' of the Dordogne River. Far from a one-trick region, however, Bordeaux also produces white wines (both dry and sweet) of very high quality. The most notable of these come from the Graves district, at the southern end of which are the botrytis-blessed vineyards of Sauternes.
The success of Bordeaux as a wine-growing region is closely related to its particular climate and geography. Its climate here perfectly provides ideal climatic conditions for viticulture.
Bordeaux's climate is well moderated by its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the presence of the various rivers (the Dordogne, the Garonne and the Gironde Estuary into which they flow). Summer daytime temperatures hover around 77F (25C), and rarely rise above 86F (30°C), while winter brings sub-zero temperatures only occasionally. Even the latitude here is moderate: 45°N and therefore halfway between the equator and the North Pole. The Medoc peninsula feels the maritime influence particularly strongly; local winemakers talk of the gentle breezes and light clouds which take the edge off even the hottest summer days.
The region's long, relatively warm summers are ideal for growing late-ripening grape varieties. That is not to say that cool, wet weather in spring and autumn is not a concern here. A fundamental reason that most Bordeaux reds are made from a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon is that these two varieties bud, flower and ripen at different times and rates, which spreads the risk posed by poor weather conditions at flowering or harvest. In years when the autumn is wet, the Cabernet Sauvignon harvest suffers from rot and water-logging, but the earlier-ripening Merlot provides a back-up. When the spring is wet, the Merlot flowers poorly, leaving the Cabernet Sauvignon to take up the responsibility of providing a good harvest.
Warm summers and relatively mild (if wet) winters mean the climate is particularly well suited to growing late-ripening varieties. The vast expanse of pine forest to the south (La Foret des Landes) protects Bordeaux from strong, salt-bearing winds coming off the Atlantic Ocean, although there is a risk of still winter air getting trapped and bringing frost to the Bordelais vineyards. The region's proximity to large masses of water, such as the Atlantic Ocean, the Gironde Estuary and the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, helps to moderate climatic extremes.
Merlot dominates the red-grape plantings throughout Bordeaux, closely followed by Cabernet Sauvignon and then Cabernet Franc. Petit Verdot, Malbec and the rarely seen Carmenere are also permitted. When used in combination, these varieties are variously referred to as a Bordeaux Blend, Claret or Meritage (used mainly in the United States). Bordeaux's white wines are generally blends of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle, although Ondenc, Mauzac, Merlot Blanc, Ugni Blanc and Colombard are also sanctioned within this region.
While Bordeaux is well-regarded for wines produced within specific areas, such as Margaux and Saint-Emilion, many of its wines fall under other, far less ambitious appellations. These include Bordeaux (rouge, blanc, rose and sec), Bordeaux Superieur and limited production of Crémant de Bordeaux sparkling wines. Bordeaux also has a distinct and historically significant classification system, which has remained largely unchanged since the middle of the 19th century.