by VineSleuth California Correspondent, Cortney Roudebush
During the summer before my senior year of college, I traveled throughout France and immersed myself in the language, the food, and the wine. As I strolled the cobblestone streets of Bordeaux, Aix-en-Provence, Beaune, and more, I perused the various restaurant menus. I wanted to experience the local cuisine of each township—and in true French fashion—with the local wine.
On many occasions, a restaurant’s prix-fixe menu included wine. It was usually red, and it was always delicious. But most of the time I had no idea what kind of wine I was drinking!
Wine labeling laws are very straightforward in the US. Wineries here must disclose what grape(s) each wine is made from. As an American wine drinker, we are taught to recognize and order a wine by its grape variety (for example, most people ask for a Chardonnay, as opposed to a white wine from a particular area; in France it’s the opposite).
On a French bottle of wine, the label will tell you from what region or AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controllé) the wine is produced. But you won’t find the grape variety listed.
For this reason, French wines for a novice wine drinker can be quite intimidating. But due to strict regulation for wine production in France, only certain grape varieties are grown in each region. So it helps if you are familiar with which grapes grow where.
Bordeaux is France’s most well-known wine growing region.
In Bordeaux (sounds like bor-doh), only the following grape varieties are permitted: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. Each of these Bordeaux varieties has its own unique flavors and characteristics.
Bordeaux producers believe the sum of these five grapes is greater than the grapes individually speaking. In fact, few French winemakers—in any region—produce a wine that is 100% of a single grape variety.
Cabernet Sauvignon (Americans pronounce it cab-err-nay saw-vinn-yawn) grapes are small and thick-skinned with a very high ratio of seed to pulp. This variety provides structure, weight, color, and tannin as well as flavors of blackberry, black currant, and black pepper. It thrives in gravelly soil like that of the Médoc region on the Left Bank of the Gironde River in Bordeaux (as well as the Napa Valley).
Merlot (the second syllable rhymes with show) performs much better in clay or limestone soils on the Right Bank. This grape ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon and adds body and softness to a blend. Varietal flavors include black plum, black cherry, tobacco, and chocolate. If you’re looking for a Bordeaux wine that is less tannic and more fruit-forward, opt for a bottle from Pomerol or Saint-Emilion (sub-regions of Bordeaux) that can be as much as 80% Merlot.
Cabernet Franc (pronounced frahh-nk, not like Frank) produces a light, pale red wine with very little tannin, which makes it a great addition to Cabernet Sauvignon. It adds perfume and fruity finesse to blends. Franc is also grown in the Loire Valley of France (the Chinon AOC).
Malbec accounts for a small percentage in Bordeaux wines. It contributes intense purple-red color and red fruit flavors to a blend.
Petite Verdot (don’t pronounce the ‘t’ at the end of Verdot, it sounds like verr-doh) ripens extremely late in the season, which is one of the reasons why it is used in small quantities. It is also a very tannic variety (a little goes a long way).
Now you know what’s in a bottle of wine from Bordeaux.
Wines made outside of the Bordeaux region that are blends of the five Bordeaux grapes may be called “meritage” (rhymes with heritage), claret, or simply “red wine.” Many wines from Napa are referred to as Bordeaux-style blends. A few of my favorites include the Cabernet-based Bridesmaid and Swanson Alexis red wines, as well as the Merlot-based Blackbird Contrarian.
Join us in two weeks when Steve Gross will share his Bordeaux tasting notes as the Tasting Tour of French Wine continues.
Cortney Roudebush is a writer, wine lover, and social media specialist. She is the creator of the website, Sip Swirl Savor, and she enjoys wine of all varieties, cooking and gardening, travel (especially to wine country destinations), and tennis.