An essential guide to the grapes, the blends and the communes that produce the world’s finest wines — and the perfect foods to go with them
Red Bordeaux is a blend of different varieties of grape, namely Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with a bit of Cabernet Franc (especially on the Right Bank), Petit Verdot and sometimes a dash of Malbec. The blend used by each château will vary from year to year depending on the vintage. Left Bank wines are generally dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas wines from the Right Bank tend to feature more Merlot.
Cabernet Sauvignon: Grown in nearly every major wine-producing country across the globe, Cabernet Sauvignon adds tannins and structure, acidity, deep colour, blackcurrant and cassis fruit flavours, and significant ability to age.
Merlot: The most widely planted grape in Bordeaux develops faster with age than Cabernet Sauvignon, and adds softness and fleshiness. It offers moderate tannins and less acidity, with plummy, blueberry and blackberry flavours. It dominates wines in the northern parts of the Médoc.
Cabernet Franc: Similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc ripens more easily — about a week earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon — and so is planted in the cooler clay soils of St-Emilion and Pomerol. Cabernet Franc adds perfume, opulence and smooth texture (and acidity to compensate for the domination of Merlot on the Right Bank).
Petit Verdot: The small, thick-skinned Petit Verdot ripens late and provides dark colour, structure and tannin, spice and violet perfume. It grows best in the gravel-based soils of the Left Bank, and its tannins make it a good fit with rich meat dishes and lightly spicy food.
Saint-Estèphe is famed for an austere minerality and high acidity, and wines that have a very long ageing potential. The Second Growths Cos d’Estournel and Montrose are located here. Cabernet Sauvignon dominates, but some Merlot is added to soften the wines. Try: Château Cos d’Estournel. Serve with: hard and soft cheeses
Pauillac is renowned for powerful wines dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. Taste characteristics include lead pencil, green bell pepper, cedar (with age) and cassis. These wines are famed for their richness and for being muscular and tannic and spicy, and very long-lived wines. Try these: Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Latour, Château Mouton Rothschild, Château Pichon-Longueville, Lalande. Serve with: rare, grilled beef or twice-fried meatballs
Food pairing tip: ‘A classic dish in Shandong cuisine, twice-fried meatballs are regularly featured in family meals, as the ingredients are easily available and the cooking process is relatively straightforward. The king of the Bordeaux Left Bank, Château Lafite Rothschild, matches excellently with pork dishes. The pronounced structure of Cabernet Sauvignon and the rich body of Merlot make the wine a great choice to pair with the meatballs.’ Austin Zhang
St. Julien is also dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, with some Merlot. Similar in style to Pauillac with cedar and cigar-box perfumes. These tend to be middle-weight, elegant, slightly less concentrated and tannic than Pauillac, but with less austerity than St-Estèphe while combining some of the finesse of Margaux. Try these: Château Léoville-Las-Cases, Château Gruaud Larose, Château Ducru-Beaucaillou. Serve with: duck
Margaux is celebrated for wines that are opulent, elegant, delicate, silky-textured and intensely aromatic with violet fragrant perfumes and raspberry, cherry and redcurrant fruits. Cabernet Sauvignon dominates, with some use of Petit Verdot. Try these: Château Margaux, Chateau Brane-Cantenac. Serve with: roast leg of lamb
Pessac–Léognan & Graves wines are also dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon but have higher proportions of Merlot. Wines are minerally, smoky and earthy with hints of ‘red bricks’. The famed Château Haut-Brion and Château La Mission Haut-Brion are located here. Try these: Château Haut-Brion, Château La Mission Haut-Brion, Château Olivier. Serve with: beef fillet with porcini mushrooms
Pomerol and St-Emilion wines are dominated by Merlot (especially in Pomerol) with Cabernet Franc. Pomerol wines tend to be more opulent, richer and warmer, fleshier and velvety-textured wines compared to St-Emilion. They may have deeper colour, more intense and rich plummy black fruit flavours and develop exotic spice and truffle with age. Try these: Château Petrus, Château L’Eglise Clinet. Serve with: roast chicken or lamb chops
Food pairing tip: ‘Roast lamb chops sounds like an easy dish, but one must constantly rotate the spit onto which the meat is skewered to ensure even cooking. The finished lamb is lightly charred on the outside and juicy on the inside, offering an explosion of flavours on the palate. A deep and powerful Merlot with fruity aromas is great with this dish. Pétrus, made with 100 per cent Merlot, is an excellent choice.’ Austin Zhang
St Emilion wines tend to be more tannic than Pomerol and more similar in structure to the Left Bank. They mature and evolve more quickly, however, and are dominated by red fruits over black fruits. Try these: Château Cheval Blanc, Château Pavie, Chateau Angélus, Château La Mondotte. Serve with: roast beef
There are a number of ways to buy Classed Growth Bordeaux. The first is buying en primeur, which means securing and paying for the wines before they are bottled on the basis of tastings of the young wines when they are still in barrel. You have to wait another 12 to 18 months until the wines are bottled and then a further period (potentially many years) until the wines are mature and ready to drink.
Alternatively you are able to buy the bottled wines from auctions around the globe. The advantage of buying at auction is that the wines have been matured and are ready to enjoy now or in the near future. Christie’s wine specialists will have assessed the storage conditions and the provenance is guaranteed. The wines also have a track record from tastings and you have the ratings and critic scores to influence and inform how much you should be paying for them. The speculative element of en primeur is thus far reduced.