Guide to Labels: Bordeaux

Fine wine’s tour de force Bordeaux spans 120,000 hectares of vines, more than 8,500 growers & 60 appellations. Throw in a prevalence for all sorts of classification (blame Napoleon), it’s no wonder that there is rather a lot of information to absorb from its labels. And that’s before the content even comes into consideration.


Predominantly what came to be known as claret, reds dominate in the Bordeaux region, but one shouldn’t forget the wonderful sweet wines of Sauternes & Barsac; neither the small percentage of dry whites, rosé & cremant.   Sporting a heady mix of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec, petit verdot, sauvignon blanc, semillon & muscadelle, Bordeaux has something rather special when it comes to producing what are arguably the best wines in the world. And it lies in both their climate & soil. Being next to the Atlantic, & with not one, but two source rivers dividing things up makes for a very changeable both. And goes some way into explaining how so many different grapes & styles of wine flourish in this area.


With such variety, labels do not, of course, follow a steadfast set of rules, but we hope that the below will help give some pointers. Or maybe a dinner party conversation or two, at least.




Bordeaux flies the flag for French wine classification. And in doing so created it’s very own asset class. It all stems back to the ‘Grand Exposition” of Paris in 1855. And Napoleon. Who wanted to create some a quality-based grading system to showcase the finest French wines to the rest of the world. Bordelais brokers opted for a price, production & location approach which favoured vineyards on the Left Bank of the river: 59 of them to be precise & 1 from the Right. Not wanting to be completely leftist, they also picked out 26 of the sweet white wines from Sauternes & Barsac with Chateau d’Yquem defining its very own class, ‘Premier Cru Supérieur’ (a little liquid gold never goes amiss, especially in Gaie Paris).  Over 100 years later, in 1959 the Right introduced it’s own ‘Graves Classification’ & popped a humble 23 chateaus on its books. If you can’t beat’em, join’em.


All this classy classing has left us with what we have today, with 5 growths: Premier right through to Cinquieme, collectively known as the ‘Grand Crus Classés’.




The Bordelais are proud of rather grand homes, & justly so. Generally an image of the chateau takes pride of place on its bottled fare. If not the castle, then the family crest; the more aristocratically authoritative the better.




Not the trickiest to grasp given we all abide by the Gregorian calendar.   A given vintage is often sold en Primeur (in the Spring after it was harvested) & kept in barrel for up to 2 years. Good things come to those who wait. And Bordeaux’s maritime environment makes sure there’s plenty of variation year to year, so eventual release is not without suspense.


Château / Domaine


Bordeaux is all about the brand & the name of the château or domaine is just that.. Big family names like Rothshild & Lurton are often included in the domaine name; no space for shy or retiring in this particular world!




Bordeaux is far larger & more diverse than it’s singular city name suggests. With 57 different appellations, or areas, that are easiest to place into 6 main categories: Red Bordeaux & Red Bordeaux superieur (generally Right Bank & Entre Deux Mers & not classified); Red Cotes de Bordeaux (hilly outskirts & again not classified); Red Libourne (Right Bank); Red Graves (Left Bank); Dry White and, last but by no means least, Sweet White.


Like Burgundian terroirs, appellations are dictated by their soil & the climate. Bordeaux, being by the sea, has all sorts of interesting subterranean differences going on: Left Bank is closer to the Atlantic, its nutritious & gravely top layer is particularly adept at the late ripening of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes; Right Bank’s Saint-Emillion is further from the sea & predominantly limestone which is great for balancing water whereas Pomerol’s clay retains liquid & stops its merlot from over-ripening.  Sauternes sits between the Garonne river & its tributary, the Ciron; the difference in water temperature (Ciron is from a spring source) makes for the all-important morning mist that allows botrytis to work it’s noble magic.


The most famous appellations have become household names & are synonous with the quality of wine produced there: Margaux, Pessac Leognan/Graves (the name changed in 1987), Sauternes, Pauillac, Saint Julien, Saint-Estephe, Pomerol & Saint-Emilion. Quite the stellar line up!


Bottling Info


Most Bordeaux is ‘Mis En Bouteille au Chateau”; unless it’s cooperatively grown fare (therefore not classified) & bottled by a Négociant, who will bottle from an array of sources & generally under their own brand, as per their Burgundian counterparts.


Alcohol Content


The Bordelais have come under fire for increased alcohol over the years; currently averages gradually creeping up to 14% which edges towards fortified territory & quite rightly helps deter from over-zealous swigging. Bordeaux definitely deserves its due respect!


So there we have it – reassuringly complex & steeped in all sorts of grandesses. Napoleon would be proud indeed.



The Author

Helen Richards

Helen Richards

Hely's love of wine was born from a young age, spending summers exploring the vineyards of France. After studying Modern Languages at Oxford, she worked in publishing and branding before joining the JF Tobias team to help build our blog / written content. She loves wine, writing, yoga and adventure in equal measure and strives to balance all four, although not necessarily all at the same time!