The Médoc, St-Émilion and Graves
The highest concentration of renowned wines can be found in the area north of Bordeaux known as the Médoc. The blend here is dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, a late-ripening variety well adapted to the warm gravel soils of the Left Bank of the Garonne. The best-known appellations are Margaux, St-Julien, Pauillac and St-Estèphe. The premier crus, which are the head of the class, are the Châteaux Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux and the Mouton-Rothschild. The wines of the Médoc are traditionally red, but a few rare whites do exist.
On the Right Bank of the Dordogne River are the town and appellation of St-Émilion. This area has been producing wines for over 2,000 years—much longer than the Médoc. Fame and high prices didn’t come until relatively recently, however, owing in part to their discovery by certain influential American wine critics… but also to the immense promotional efforts of Bordeaux merchants such as the Moueix family, now owners of Château Pétrus.
St-Émilion received its own classification in 1955, which, unlike the classification system of 1855, set up a board for periodic review. The two A-class Grand Cru wines of St-Émilion are Château Cheval Blanc and Château Ausone. In neighbouring Pomerol, the undisputed (but unclassified) king is Pétrus.
South of the city of Bordeaux is Graves, named after the high content of gravel in the soil. The only Premier Cru outside the Médoc is Château Haut-Brion, which lies in Pessac, now a suburb of Bordeaux. Further south lie Sauternes and Barsac. Sauternes is home to Château d’Yquem, the most famous and the most expensive sweet wine in the world. A handful of neighbouring châteaux produce wines in the same nectar-like style.
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Not-so Bordeaux wine: Bergerac and Cahors
Just east of Bordeaux lie two wine appellations in the Dordogne, Bergerac and Cahors. Bergerac produces both red and white wines. The best reds are the Pécharmants, which are full-bodied, dense wines from vineyards to the northeast, while the white Bergerac secs are simple but pleasant, especially as apéritifs. Just south of Bergerac you’ll find Monbazillac, whose vintners produce a fine, sweet white wine that pairs excellently with foie gras or dessert. All are relatively inexpensive.
Cahors, about 70 kilometres south of Sarlat, received its appellation status in 1971. The principal grape is malbec, or cot, which produces a rather inky, often rustic red wine. Merlot is blended to soften the wine, as is done in Bordeaux with Cabernet. A few very fine wines do exist in Cahors, and the potential exists for more, but in the world’s wine markets, Cahors and Bergerac remain overshadowed by the reputation and volume of Bordeaux.
About the Author
Born and bred among the vines of Burgundy, veteran B&R Guide, Trip Planner and oenophile Olivier Maillard distills his passions—for France, for wine, for Morocco, for life—into columns for The Slow Road.