Understanding the Wine Styles and Regions of Bordeaux

Bordeaux is a classic yet modern region that enjoys the distinction of being the largest AOC vineyard of France with a great diversity of high-quality terroirs. The major reason for the success of winemaking in the region is an excellent environment for growing vines. The geological foundation of the area is limestone, leading to a soil structure that is heavy in calcium. Bordeaux produced 650 million bottles in 2020 with over 80% red and the remainder made up of dry whites, rosé and sweet white.

The 60 Bordeaux appellations and the wine styles they represent are usually categorised into six main families:

Red Bordeaux and Red Bordeaux Supérieur

Bordeaux winemakers may use the two regional appellations throughout the entire wine region, with the majority of châteaux located on the Right Bank in the Entre-Deux-Mers area. Wines are typically Merlot-dominant, often blended with the other classic Bordeaux varieties. The Bordeaux AOC wines tend to be fruity, with minimal influence of oak and are produced in a style meant to be drunk young.

Côtes de Bordeaux

Eight appellations are in the hilly outskirts of the region and produce wines where the blend usually is dominated by Merlot. These wines tend to be intermediate between basic red Bordeaux and the more famous appellations of the left and right bank in both style and quality.

Dry White Wines

Dry white wines are made throughout the region, using the regional appellation Bordeaux Blanc, often from 100% Sauvignon blanc or a blend dominated by Sauvignon blanc and Sémillon. Dry whites from Graves are the most well-known and it is the only subregion with a classification for dry white wines.

“Left Bank” Wines

North and south of the city of Bordeaux, which are the classic areas, produce wines dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, but often with a significant portion of Merlot. These wines are concentrated, tannic, and long-lived and most of them are meant to be cellared before drinking. The five First Growths are situated here.

“Right Bank” Wines

Around the city of Libourne, 10 appellations produce wines dominated by Merlot with very little Cabernet Sauvignon, the two most famous being Saint-Émilion and Pomerol. These wines often have great fruit concentration, and softer tannins and are long-lived. Saint-Émilion has an official classification.

Sweet White Wines

In several locations and appellations throughout the region, sweet white wine is made from Sémillon, Sauvignon blanc and Muscadelle grapes affected by noble rot. The best-known of these appellations is Sauternes, which also has an official classification, and where some of the world’s most famous sweet wines are produced. There are also appellations neighbouring Sauternes, on both sides of the Garonne river, where similar wines are made. These include Loupiac, Cadillac, and Sainte Croix du Mont.


The principle of crus classés (classified growths) serves to illustrate the typical characteristics of an exceptional terroir and winemakers’ savoir-faire.

Bordeaux introduced the concept of classification in 1855 under Napoleon III, and it now serves as an expression of quality and prestige worldwide. The principle of the crus classés (“classified growths”) perfectly illustrates the synthesis of a terroir’s typical characteristics and dedicated human intervention over many generations to ensure quality. It should be emphasised that a wine or appellation can still be outstanding even if it is not a part of these classifications!

The 1855 classification

This is the finest classification and includes only red wines from the Médoc, the Sauternes and Barsac sweet white wines, and one Graves red cru and is split into 5 categories. The highest category (First Growth) is made up of 5 of the greatest Bordeaux estates including Château Lafite-Rothschild & Château Margaux.

The Graves classification

Established in 1953 and made up of 16 ‘Cru’s’ (Chateau) including Domaine de Chevalier, Château Haut-Bailly and Château Haut-Brion, which is the only Bordeaux wine to be classified twice – It appears in both the Graves classification and the 1855 classification.

The Saint-Émilion classification

Established in 1954 and reviewed every 10 years, this classification is made up of 82 estates: 64 Grands Crus classés and 18 Premiers Grands Crus classés and includes stellar names such as Château Angélus, Château Ausone & Château Valandraud.

The Crus Bourgeois du Médoc classification

Established in 1932, the Cru Bourgeois rating is one of the most exciting and offers exceptional value. All wines must come from eight Médoc appellations: Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Listrac, Moulis, Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac, and Saint-Estèphe and each year the 240-260 properties, the majority of which are family-owned, are reviewed to ensure quality is exceptional. Well-respected estates such as Château Chasse-Spleen, Château Phélan-Ségur, Château Potensac & Château Beaumont all fall into this category.

The Crus Artisans classification

The term “Crus Artisans” has officially existed for over 150 years: these small wineries often belonged to craftsmen, such as coopers, wheelwrights, and blacksmiths. The category was officially recognised in 1989 and now covers 36 properties in the Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Listrac, Moulis, Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac, and Saint-Estèphe regions made up of autonomous, small- and medium-sized estates at which the manager is actively involved in the operations. There is some great value to be found particularly from Château Les Barraillots in Margaux.

Grape Varieties

Six main varieties, three red and three white are used for winemaking in Bordeaux.  In-depth knowledge of the soils has made it possible to alter the choice of varieties to make the most of the aromatic dimension of the wines. Complementary varieties, called “auxiliary,” are present in lesser quantities and can help bring out a wine’s specific personality during assemblage, or blending. The specific aromas of each grape variety blend together in assemblage to create a unique wine. One of the things that make Bordeaux wines so unique is that they are created by a blend of several grape varieties. Each grape variety has its characteristics, soil, and microclimate: it is the mastery of these combinations that makes Bordeaux wines so unique.

The main red varieties are:
  • Merlot
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Cabernet Franc
And the for the whites:
  • Sauvignon
  • Semillon
  • Muscadelle