A guide to the flavours of Bordeaux

A guide to the flavours of Bordeaux

An essential guide to the grapes, the blends and the communes that produce some of the the world’s finest wines — and the perfect foods to go with them — with Christie’s Charles Foley

  • 1
  • The grapes

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes growing in Saint Emilion
Cabernet Sauvignon grapes growing in Saint Emilion

Red Bordeaux is a blend of different varieties of grape, namely Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with a touch 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.

  • 2
  • The Left Bank communes

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

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-CasesChâteau 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, Château Brane-Cantenac, Château Palmer. 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 OlivierServe with: beef fillet with porcini mushrooms

  • 3
  • Right Bank communes

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

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, Château Angélus, Château La Mondotte. Serve with: roast beef

  • 4
  • How to buy: En Primeur vs. Auction?

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.

Cases of Château Duhart-Milon, Pauillac

Cases of Château Duhart-Milon, Pauillac

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.