A wine buyer’s guide to the flavours of Bordeaux

The lowdown on the grapes, the blends and the communes that produce some of the the world’s finest reds with Christie’s specialist Charles Foley

Bordeaux guide

The grapes

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 grapes growing in Saint Emilion

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes growing in Saint-Emilion

Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in nearly every major wine-producing country. It adds tannins and structure, acidity, deep colour, blackcurrant flavours, and significant ability to age.

Merlot is the most widely planted grape in Bordeaux. Developing faster with age than Cabernet Sauvignon, it offers softness and fleshiness, moderate tannins and less acidity, with plum, blueberry and blackberry flavours. It dominates wines in the northern parts of the Médoc.

Cabernet Franc is similar to Cabernet Sauvignon but ripens more easily — about a week earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon — and so is planted in the cooler clay soils of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol. It adds perfume, opulence and smooth texture (and acidity to compensate for the dominance of Merlot on the Right Bank).

Petit Verdot is a small, thick-skinned grape that ripens late and provides dark colour, structure and tannins, 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 spiced food.

Left Bank communes

Château Latour, 1982. 12 bottles per lot. Estimate: $18,000-30,000. Offered in Fine and Rare Wines Online: Featuring Exceptional Madeira Collections on 27 March- 9 April 2024 at Christie’s in Los Angeles

Saint-Estèphe is famed for an austere minerality and high acidity, and for wines that have a very long ageing potential. The Second Growth (or Deuxième Cru) estates 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 pencil lead, green bell pepper, cedar (with age) and cassis. These wines are famed for their richness, and for being muscular, tannic, spicy and very long-lived.
Try these: Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour, Château Mouton Rothschild, Château Pichon-Longueville Lalande. Serve with: rare grilled beef or twice-fried meatballs

Château Lafite Rothschild, 1982. 12 bottles per lot. Estimate: $17,000-25,000. Offered in Fine and Rare Wines Online: Featuring Exceptional Madeira Collections on 27 March- 9 April 2024 at Christie’s in Los Angeles

Saint-Julien is also dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, with some Merlot. Similar in style to Pauillac, with cedar and cigar-box perfumes, the wines tend to be middle-weight, elegant and slightly less concentrated and tannic than Pauillac, but with less austerity than Saint-Estèphe, while showing some of the finesse of Margaux.

Try these: Château Léoville-Las-CasesChâteau Gruaud Larose, Château Ducru-Beaucaillou. Serve with: duck

Château Gruaud Larose, 1982. 1 magnum per lot. Estimate: $600-1,000. Offered in Fine and Rare Wines Online: Featuring Exceptional Madeira Collections on 27 March- 9 April 2024 at Christie’s in Los Angeles

Margaux is celebrated for wines that are opulent, elegant, delicate, silky-textured and intensely aromatic, with fragrant violet 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

Château Margaux, 1990. 12 bottles (75cl) per lot. Estimate: $8,000-12,000. Offered in Fine and Rare Wines Online: Featuring Exceptional Madeira Collections on 27 March- 9 April 2024 at Christie’s in Los Angeles

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 brick. 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 and porcini mushrooms

Right Bank communes

Petrus, 1990. 6 bottles per lot. Estimate: $18,000-24,000. Offered in Fine and Rare Wines Online: Featuring Exceptional Madeira Collections on 27 March- 9 April 2024 at Christie’s in Los Angeles

Pomerol wines are dominated by Merlot with Cabernet Franc. They tend to be more opulent, richer and warmer, fleshier and more velvety-textured than Saint-Emilion wines. They may also have a deeper colour and richer, more intense black-fruit flavours, and may develop exotic spice and truffle with age.
Try these: Château Petrus, Château L’Eglise-Clinet. Serve with: roast chicken or lamb chops

Saint-Emilion wines are also rich in Merlot and Cabernet Franc, but they tend to be more tannic than Pomerol, and more similar in structure to those from the Left Bank. They mature and evolve more quickly, however, and are dominated by red rather than black fruits.
Try these: Château Cheval Blanc, Château Pavie, Château Angélus, Château La Mondotte. Serve with: roast beef

Château Cheval Blanc, 1985. 12 bottles per lot. Estimate: $5,000-8,000. Offered in Fine and Rare Wines Online: Featuring Exceptional Madeira Collections on 27 March- 9 April 2024 at Christie’s in Los Angeles

How to buy Bordeaux: en primeur or at 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 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.

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Alternatively, you can 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 & Spirits specialists will have assessed the wines’ storage conditions, and their provenance is guaranteed. The wines also have a track record from tastings, so various ratings and critics’ scores are available to help inform you as to how much you should be paying. The speculative element of en primeur  is thus greatly reduced.

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