Bordeaux is a massive wine region. About 12% of France’s vineyards are in the Gironde department. It produces more wine than most countries, about the same as Germany. It produces a substantial amount of dry and sweet white wine, but Claret is the name given to the red wine of the region. It helps to know a bit of the geography.

The region is defined by two great rivers, the Dordogne (flowing from the East) meets the Garonne (flowing from the south) to form the Gironde Estuary just above the city of Bordeaux itself. To the West of this whole river system, on the same side as the city, is the so-called Left Bank. In between the two main rivers is a wide flat plain called Entre Deux Mers. This, apart from a few outstanding estates, produces plonk. To the North of the Dordogne is the Right Bank – dominated by Merlot.

The Left Bank of the Bordeaux wine region is basically the area around the City of Bordeaux itself, on the West bank of the Garonne and Gironde [see the map]. The area is typified by gravel soils and the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, which forms 70% of the red blends, backed up with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, a little Malbec and a small amount – virtually a “seasoning” – of Petit Verdot.

The area North of the City of Bordeaux is generally referred to as the Medoc, although there are more specific places within it. South of the City is Graves, and further South – towards Langon – are the great Sweet Wine appellations Barsac and Sauternes. The Medoc is entirely red wine. Graves has only a 1/3 of the production of Medoc, and just under 20% of that is dry white and 4% sweet white.

The Southern 2/3 of the Medoc is referred to as the Haut-Medoc and wines can bear this name on the label. The Haut-Medoc is generally superior and there are even more prestigious communes in the central area. These, very famous, names: St. Estèphe, Puillac, St. Julien and Margaux are the homes of the best Châteaux and are renowned throughout the world; one also sees the commune names of Listrac and Moulis. The northern 1/3 of the area is called simply Medoc. The northern part of the general Graves area, nearest Bordeaux itself, is the best area of Pessac-Leognan.

The Left Bank as a whole is about 20% of all Bordeaux. Ten years ago the production was about the same as New Zealand. Now NZ is 50% bigger!

Bordeaux's Left Bank

Bordeaux’s Left Bank

The red wines of the left bank are perhaps the most iconic in the world. They have higher Cabernet Sauvignon content and are typically tougher when young and take longer to mature than right bank wines. The style shows a black fruit nose with some tartness – often described as “blackcurrant”. I think this description is just an association of this fruit with high levels of acid – and the fruit flavours aren’t usually that specific. In addition a cedar wood note is sometimes present, and herby or perfumed sweetness. Aged examples can show mushroom, woodland notes. The palate can have a sour-fruit start, with a richer pruney middle and long finish, with tannins that soften with the age of the wine. Very complex and subtle flavours can be combined with power, refreshment and food friendly qualities.

It is from the Medoc that the world’s best known wine hierarchy comes. The famous 1855 Classification divides the (allegedly) best 60 Châteaux (including one from Graves) into 5 Crus Classés, almost like league divisions, 1 to 5.

Inclusion anywhere in this list puts most of the wines out of affordability, with 1ere and 2eme wines often reaching 3 figures. You’re lucky to find any Cru Classé – even poor vintages – below the £30 mark.

The next tier down, usually in the £12 – £25 range, is the Cru Bourgeois (CB) – no doubt so called because of their relatively unexciting dependability. There were about 160 of these until a 2003 attempt to reclassify them led to disarray, and is now annulled. Instead, since 2008, there has been an annual competition to designate Cru Bourgeois with over 200 being chosen, it is now (even) less of a guide.

There are two annoying and intriguing issues with LBC: that of vintage variation, and that of aging. The area is on the edge of viability for ripening the grapes and much depends on the particular weather patterns each year, one of the reasons the risk is reduced by planting a mixture of grapes that ripen at different rates. Each vintage will be markedly different in both the immediate and eventual style of the wine. “Good” vintages often see prices increased. Also good wines might take 10 or 20 years to be at their best during which time the prices will probably double.

So how does one afford good aged wines? Cru Bourgeois: less popular but good vintages: second wines from the top Châteaux; and a cellar coupled with a good buying strategy – are possible answers.

We’ll be trying a couple of wines from recent vintages, some from good but less-celebrated vintages 10-13 years ago, and a wine from the fabulous 1990 too. We’ll centre on Cru Bourgeois level wines, but also try a Graves, a 2nd wine and a Cru Classé too… I hope we’ll shed some light on this most beguiling and captivating subject.