When it comes to wine, people can have some pretty definite opinions. The tip-off comes when the arms get folded across the chest. Or the relaxed smile becomes tightly pursed lips. “Red wine gives me headaches.” “I only drink whites.” “I stick to Italian wines… California wines… sweet wines…”

I have a friend who staunchly insists she will drink only one type of wine, Chardonnay, and only one brand, Rombauer, at a hefty $40 plus per bottle. I wish I were exaggerating.

At a recent Wine Tasting event, a man came up to our table and pleasantly asked what we were offering. When I explained we were from Crossing Vineyards and Winery right here in his own backyard, the formerly friendly guy sort of snarled “I only drink Bordeaux wines.” Hands planted on hips. No more Mr. Nice Guy. Pennsylvania Cabernet Sauvignon? Cabernet Franc? Merlot? No way.

I tried to get a conversation going. If he was such a big Bordeaux fan, he would of course know the wines we were serving included some of the main grape varieties used in the typical Bordeaux blend. Granted our fruit is grown near the Delaware River, not the Garonne, but the varietals are exactly the same.

The experience inspired me to put together this primer with some basic facts about Bordeaux. Like any other wine region in the world, Bordeaux has its plusses and minuses, its good vintages and bad. My goal? To help people open up just a little… try something different…maybe even find a new favorite…


Bordeaux is situated near the Atlantic coast in the southwest part of France. It is the second largest winegrowing area in the world, with more than 287,000 acres under vine. Bordeaux has more vineyard acres planted than in all of Germany, and ten times the number grown in the entire country of New Zealand.

Wine Grapes

Bordeaux’s five main red varieties are: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Merlot is the most planted grape, covering about 50% of the region.

White wines are produced mostly from Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. Muscadelle is a lesser known white varietal also grown in Bordeaux.

Left vs Right Bank

When we talk about “banks,” we mean river banks, that is land masses on either side of the Gironde Estuary. On the southwest side of the Gironde is the Left Bank, on the northeast side, the Right Bank.

A few key facts about the Left Bank:

* The predominant grape here is Cabernet Sauvignon. Some Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec are also grown.

* Some of the most famous appellations in this region are: Margaux, St. Estephe, Paulliac, St. Julien, Medoc, Graves, Sauternes

* Some of the best- known Chateaux are: Margaux, Lafite and Mouton Rothschild

A few key facts about the Right Bank:

* This area is planted largely to Merlot. Cabernet Franc, is also grown, as well as some Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec.

* Some of the most famous appellations in this region are: St. Emilion, Pomerol and Fronsac

* Some of the best-known Chateaux are: Petrus and Cheval Blanc

Wine Classification

The uniqueness of Bordeaux wines comes from the complicated ranking and classification of its many estates known as “Châteaux.” Bordeaux has about 7,000 Châteaux. Wines in Bordeaux and throughout France and the rest of the world are often referred to by their “appellations.”

The word appellation means the geographical area in which a particular wine has been grown. Every country has its own set of rules governing the use of these appellations, including the U.S.

One more important thing to know:

The 1855 Bordeaux Wine Classification

In 1855 France hosted an International Exposition in Paris. For the benefit of the visitors, Emperor Napoleon III requested a classification system for France’s best Bordeaux wines.

The wines were ranked according to a Chateau’s reputation and trading price, which at the time directly related to quality.

Only 5 Chateaux were designated as “First Growths” or “Premiers Crus”: Château Lafite, now Château Lafite Rothschild, Pauillac; Château Latour, Pauillac; Château Margaux, Margaux; Haut-Brion, now Château Haut-Brion, Pessac, Graves; and Mouton, now Château Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac.

Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Growths or Crus were also designated, and separate classifications were established for the areas of Sauternes and Barsac.

The system established in 1855 has undergone some change but is used on Bordeaux wine labels to this day.

So, there you have it...a small taste of the wines of Bordeaux. To learn more, visit Crossing Vineyards in Washington Crossing. The winery offers a wide variety of tastings and workshops on topics from Wine Tasting for Dummies to Pairing Wine Cheese and Charcuterie. Treat yourself to a class and start experiencing the unfamiliar in the world of wine. You might just find those arms unfolding and those lips turning up in a big fat smile!

Christine Carroll is a Certified Specialist of Wine. She is also a columnist for Wines and Vines Magazine in San Rafael, California, and one of the principals of Crossing Vineyards and Winery. You can contact her at: info@crossingvineyards.com

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