Feb 15, 2021

Iconic Bordeaux

Bordeaux enjoys a reputation for its iconic Cabernet Sauvignon wines, but let's take look behind this reputation. Bordeaux produces blended wines, often cited as Cabernet driven blends, but Cabernet Sauvignon only makes up about 22% of red vine plantings, the majority (66%) being Merlot with red vines 89% of planting. A class act. So why […]

Bordeaux enjoys a reputation for its iconic Cabernet Sauvignon wines, but let's take look behind this reputation.

Bordeaux produces blended wines, often cited as Cabernet driven blends, but Cabernet Sauvignon only makes up about 22% of red vine plantings, the majority (66%) being Merlot with red vines 89% of planting. A class act.

So why this reputation for Cabernet? Let's take a step back in time to understand.

1855 is an iconic date in Bordeaux, the date of the famous first official classification, a classification that has defined Bordeaux ever since.
This classification was limited in it's geographical reach, only included the left bank, Mainly the Medoc for the reds, with one red Graves exception, Château Haut Brion, but also the Sauternes and Barsac properties of the southern Graves.

The Medoc was planted principally in Cabernet, why? Because, unlike the right bank, where the terroir is principally clay and limestone, the Medoc (and most of the left bank) has more gravel in the soil. In the damp temperate Atlantic climate of Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon thrives on these well-drained warmer soils where the lighter coloured pebbles reflect the warm of the summer sun.

This land came 'late to the party' of vine growing in the 17th century, that's well after the Middle Ages when the Graves established its reputation. The rich 'bourgeois' merchant class of Bordeaux were behind this development.  Once the marshy land had been drained by the Dutch to reveal the precious pebbles, they planted the vines, made the wine and exported it across the world, creating and growing its renown.

When the wines of Bordeaux were classified in 1855, on the demand of Napoleon III,  for the Exposition Universelle in Paris, these left bank wines were selling at the highest prices and as the classification, undertaken by the brokers, was based on a market hierarchy were classified as being the top growths.
At the very pinnacle of the 61 classified reds were the first growths. Originally four; Margaux, Lafite, Latour and Haut Brion, Mouton followed in the 1970s. The classification has never been altered since the upgrading of Mouton so these top properties have retained their iconic status.

Cabernet Sauvignon dominates all these vineyards; they run along the Gironde Estuary and the Garonne River where the gravel terraces offer the most favourable conditions for Cabernet.

Three of the 1st growths are in Pauillac, conferring an iconic status on the appellation.
Sauternes and Barsac, the sweet wines of the Southern Graves were classified the same year. Here was the only Premier Grand Cru Classée Supérieur in the whole of the Bordeaux region, Château d'Yquem, the highest accolade in the whole of the region.

We have to wait almost another 100 years before other classifications create new icons. The Graves classification in 1953 (reclassified in 1959), added 16 names to our list, however with no hierarchy it is difficult to deem icons amongst them, except Haut Brion of course.

The A list.

A year later, in 1954, Saint Emilion announced its first classification. This did have a hierarchy, with Premier Grand Cru Classée A at its pinnacle, there were only two, Cheval Blanc and Ausone. The classification was to be reassessed every ten years (or so). The last classification in 2012 took the daring move of adding two new names to the A list, Angelus and Pavie. These 1st growth Chateaux were known as the club of nine until 2012.

Join the Club

Nine? Six from 1855 with Yquem, the two original 'As'  from Saint Emilion. Who is the ninth member of the Club?

Pomerol may not have a classification, but it is certainly iconic, thanks to its small size, unique terroir and Château Petrus at its heart. Château Petrus, has no need of a classification to be iconic, nor Cabernet Sauvignon. This ninth club member of the club is 100% Merlot.

You don’t need Carnet Sauvignon or a classification to make an icon.

By Wendy Narby

[cover photo : Instagram – Best Of Bordeaux]