The Medoc region of Bordeaux is home to pine forests, sand dunes and many thousands of acres of vineyard. Wedged between the Atlantic coastline and the broad Gironde estuary, the Medoc is effectively a peninsula (presqu'île in French). It extends 50 miles (80km) north-westwards from Bordeaux city to the Pointe de Grave headland, whose sandy, gravelly terrain hints at what lies beneath the Medoc vineyards, and makes the area quite so well suited to viticulture.
Over the millennia, the Garonne and Dordogne rivers (which merge into the Gironde estuary) have carried large quantities of mineral-rich silt and gravel down from their respective sources in the Pyrenees and the Massif Central. These deposits have accumulated on the western side of the Gironde estuary (into which the two rivers converge), forming the foundations of what is now the Medoc peninsula. The well-drained, light-reflective soils which resulted are ideal for growing slow-ripening red wine grapes, which explains the popularity here Cabernet Sauvignon and (to a much lesser extent) Petit Verdot. The gravels are particularly prevalent along the Medoc's south-eastern edge (the Haut-Medoc). Further north in the gravels give way to heavier, less free-draining soils, in which earlier-ripening Merlot and Cabernet Franc have proven the better choice.
The Medoc peninsula is divided into three sections: the Landes du Medoc, the Bas-Medoc and the all-important Haut-Medoc.
The Landes du Medoc covers the peninsula's entire western half, and constitutes the northern tip of the vast Landes forest. Virtually no grapevines grow here – the land is instead occupied by seaside resorts and dense plantations of pinus pinaster (maritime pine). But the area is nonetheless vital to Medoc wine production; its pine trees protect the vineyards further inland from the cold, salty winds which bowl in from the Atlantic Ocean.
The Bas-Medoc runs northwards from Lesparre-Medoc to the Pointe de Grave, on the sheltered, estuarine side of the Medoc peninsula. Vineyards here are interspersed with pine trees, cereal crops, and pastureland grazed by the area's famous sheep (the lamb they give even has its own AOC Agneau de Pauillac appellation)
Most wines made here are sold under the generic Medoc appellation, and have traditionally been slightly less ambitious and cellar-worthy than their cousins from the grand chateaux of the Haut-Medoc. In spite of this, significant changes have taken place over the last few decades, the appropriation of viticultural and winemaking techniques used by the more successful Haut-Medoc producers. This has allowed a number of producers here to produce wines which are not only of very high quality, but are also relatively affordable.
The Bas-Medoc was once known as Petite-Hollande ('Little Holland') not only due to its low-lying topography (most land here sits just 1 or 2 meters above sea-level), but also because the land here was developed intensively by Dutch settlers in the 17th century. By excavating numerous ditches, these enterprising migrants effectively drained the once-marshy Medoc, unveiling thousands of acres of prime viticultural real estate. The free-draining gravels this activity revealed quite literally underpin the Medoc, its vineyards and the high quality of its wines; water drainage is paramount in high-quality viticulture.
Of the three sections, the Haut-Medoc is unquestionably of most interest in the context of wine, and is home to the famous appellations of Saint-Estephe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Margaux. Since the 17th century this has become arguably the most famous wine district in France; more fine wine is produced per acre in the Haut-Medoc than anywhere else in the world. For more information, see Haut-Medoc.