The Bordeaux Blends
Dive into the key grape varieties and their styles of wine
Bordeaux wines are traditionally made from several different grape varieties. There are just six red and six white grape varieties considered suitable for a Bordeaux blend. Producers must stick with this limited number to be allowed to label their wine Bordeaux.
Merlot represents 66% of current red Bordeaux planting and only 22% is under Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet Franc accounts for 9% and the remaining 3% is Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carmenère.
The Bordeaux blend is a global term for a blend of principally Cabernet and Merlot varieties. Blending is not an obligation in all Bordeaux appellations, but it is a signature of Bordeaux. Why blend? Certain grapes varieties grow better in certain soils. Some grapes ripen better in given climatic conditions and, with the variable climate that Bordeaux ‘enjoys’, having a range of varieties helps mitigate climate challenges.
Merlot is an early maturing grape, giving high sugar levels, supple tannins and red fruit aromas. These vines shoot and flower early (making them more susceptible to frost damage). Their thinner skins (compared to Cabernet) allow the grapes to ripen well in the temperate summers here. They thrive on the cooler clay soils that give a power and luscious fruitiness to wines made from these grapes when yields are kept low.
Bordeaux is famous for Cabernet Sauvignon because it dominates the blend of some of the most famous names of Bordeaux: Lafite, Latour, Mouton, Margaux to name a few.
Cabernet Sauvignon grapes ripen more slowly, thanks to the later budding and flowering but also their thicker grape skins. These thick skins on smaller berries give more powerful tannins and higher acidity bringing freshness and elegance to the wine. However, to get these thick skins to ripen requires a warm soil sprinkled with gravel, a well-drained light coloured soil that reflects the light and warmth back to the grapes. In Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon is really at the northern limit of where it will ripen in Bordeaux, hence the importance of the choice of terroir. The wines from Cabernet Sauvignon are usually recognised by aromatic dark fruits and blackcurrant aromas.
Cabernet Franc thrives on limestone and clay soils. It is characterised by elegant tannins and aromas, often bringing a spicy or floral note to the wines.
The three remaining red varietals in Bordeaux are Malbec, Carmenère and Petit Verdot. Although historically important, Malbec and Carmenère are now negligible,
Petit Verdot is found mainly in the Medoc, almost trickier to mature than Cabernet; it can make up to eight to ten per cent in some more recent blends. The Petit Verdot grapes give great colour, good acidity and bright fruit aromas to the wines.
New varieties and climate change
In June 2019, Bordeaux was the first French vineyard to include new grape varieties specifically to adapt to climate change. Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur AOC winegrowers can use six ‘new’ grape varieties, four red grape varieties: Arinarnoa, Castets, Marselan and Touriga Nacional and two white grape varieties: Alvarinho and Liliorila. It’s a working experiment, growers are limited to planting just 5% of their vineyards with these grape varieties and they can make up no more than 10% of the final blend. Read more about Bordeaux reds.
As with the reds, most Bordeaux whites are blends. The planting is balanced between Semillon 45%, Sauvignon Blanc (and Sauvignon Gris) 47% and 5% of Muscadelle and, 3% of a few lesser-known varietals: Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Merlot Blanc.
Sémillon is often associated with the sweet white wines of Bordeaux, more of which below, but it is also used in the blend of most dry whites. Its golden colour, richness and delicate aromas make the perfect complement to the fresh acidity and vibrant aromas of Sauvignon Blanc.
Sauvignon Blanc is known throughout the world for its herbaceous freshness but in the Bordeaux climate it is often characterised by floral and white blossom and citrusy grapefruit aromas.
Sauvignon Gris adds peachy aromas and a lighter acidity.
Muscadelle has powerful floral aromas and a lighter acidity but it is only used in smaller percentages of white blends as it is particularly sensitive to mould in the Bordeaux climate. Read more about sweet and dry white Bordeaux.
Bordeaux rosés are a niche production so you’re forgiven for not being familiar with them. The grapes used are the classic Bordeaux red grapes, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc and occasionally Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenère. Bordeaux Rosé can be a blend or a single varietal wine. Read our deep dive on rosé.
Sweet and Sparkling
The sweet white wines of Bordeaux are made with the same grape varieties as the dry whites. What changes is where they are grown and when they are picked. Terroir and microclimate make the difference. This determines whether the grapes will be affected by noble rot, a rot that concentrates sugars and changes their aromatic profile, creating wines that are quite unique.
Sparkling Bordeaux or Crémant, is also made from the same grape varieties but here, just as in Champagne, you'll find 'Blanc de Blancs', i.e. white sparkling wines made only from white grapes, 'Blanc de Noirs', white sparkling wines made from black grapes, or perhaps you'll find a blend of both. Winemaker's choice.