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Bordeaux Appellations for Beginners

Bordeaux Appellations for Beginners

Bordeaux wine is any wine produced in the Bordeaux region of southwest France. Bordeaux is centered on the city of, on the Garonne River. To the north of Bordeaux is the Dordogne River, which joins the Garonne broad estuary called the Gironde. The Gironde has a total vineyard area of over 120,000 hectares making it the largest wine-growing area in France.

Average vintages produce over 700 million bottles of Bordeaux wine, ranging from large quantities of everyday table wine to some of the most expensive and prestigious wines in the world.

The vast majority of wine produced in Bordeaux is red (sometimes called “claret” in Britain), with sweet white wines (most notably Sauternes), dry whites, and (in much smaller quantities) rosé and sparkling wines (Crémant de Bordeaux) collectively making up the remainder.

Bordeaux appellations

As of the year, 2015, there are 60 Bordeaux appellations in the region that are recognized by the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controllée) giving Bordeaux more appellations than any other wine region in France as well as in all of Europe. Bordeaux wine is made by more than 7,500 producers or châteaux.

What exactly is an appellation?

AOC means Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (Protected Designation of Origin). It is the French certification granted to certain French geographical indications for wines, cheeses, butter, and other agricultural products.

AOC designates a product whose main stages of production are carried out according to recognized expertise in the same geographical area. The principle is simple: everything is based on the concept of terroir

What is terroir exactly?

The aim of an AOC is to characterize the wine by its terroir, to give it an identity or a “type” for simplification purposes. Terroir is a defined geographical area where various natural features that are instrumental to the production of great wine are found: soil (and its subsoil), the climate, and grape variety native to the area.

Furthermore, human factors like history and expertise referred to as “production uses”, also play a significant role in the process. In summary, the terroir is what creates the product’s originality. This, of course, paired with the fact that no one will ever be able to reproduce an AOC wine outside its production area.


Each French AOC has its own set of specifications that each local producer must comply with in order to benefit from the use of the AOC certification. These rules mainly concern the type of grape variety allowed. For example, MerlotCabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc must use red grape varieties from Bordeaux vines.

Furthermore, SauvignonSémillon, and Muscadelle are required for white Bordeaux. They also define the type of vine, the size of the vine (as well as the grape), the density of vines per hectare, the maximum yield, the harvesting methods, and even the length of the maturation for the wine.

There are 362 AOC wines in France and Bordeaux’s wine-growing region alone has 65. One of the main benefits of the AOC system is the guarantee that each wine has a unique personality.

bordeaux harvest

The Bordeaux wine region is naturally divided by the Gironde Estuary into a Left Bank area, which includes the Médoc and Graves, as well as a Right Bank area which includes the Libournais, Bourg, and Blaye.

The Médoc is itself divided into Haut-Médoc (the upstream or southern portion) and Bas-Médoc (the downstream or northern portion, more often referred to as “Médoc”). There are various sub-regions within the Haut-Médoc, including St.EstèphePauillacSt.-Julien, and Margaux, as well as the less well-known areas of AOC-Listrac-Médoc and Moulis.

The Graves include the sub-regions of Pessac-Léognan and Sauternes (among others), and Sauternes in turn includes the sub-region of Barsac.

The Libournais includes sub-regions of Saint-Émilion and Pomerol. There is an additional wine region of Entre-Deux-Mers, which gets its name because it lies between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers that combine to form the Gironde. The Entre-Deux-Mers region also contains several less well-known sweet wine areas including Cadillac and Saint Croix de Mont.

left bank - right bank

All of these regions (except the Libournais) have their own appellation and are governed by Appellation d’origine contrôlée laws which dictate permissible grape varieties, alcohol levels, methods of pruning/picking, the density of planting and appropriate yields, in addition to various winemaking techniques.

Bordeaux Classifications

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 crus classés (classified growths) perfectly illustrates the synthesis of a terroir’s typical characteristics: dedicated human intervention over many generations to ensure quality.

It should be emphasized that wine or appellation can still be outstanding even if it is not a part of these classifications.

There are several classifications in Gironde, listed in order of seniority:

The 1855 classification

The Graves classification

The Saint-Émilion classification

The Crus Bourgeois du Médoc classification

The Crus Artisans classification

Bordeaux wine labels will usually display the region if all the grapes have been harvested in a specific region and the wine otherwise complies with the AOC requirements.

Bordeaux Wine Label explained


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